“Do you want to get shot?”
I’ve never been shot. But then, neither had Vincent Chin, as far as I know. This didn’t save him.
This is a Vincent Chin essay
“Do you want to get shot?”
I’d just announced to a classmate my post-graduation plans. I was moving to Michigan. He was sitting backward in his chair — legs splayed, arms draped over the backrest — casually translating Michigan to Detroit, and Detroit to Murder City.
It was supposed to be a joke. He wasn’t actually concerned for my safety; the idea of being unsafe wasn’t real enough to him. We were students in La Jolla, which is a city on a hill that stares imperiously down at the rest of San Diego, California. From this vantage point, Detroit existed in a state of unreality. It is easy to cackle about places that are 2,400 miles away. (It is easy to cackle about places that are 40 miles away. To this White, college-educated boy, the U.S.-Mexico border was probably no more real.)
This is not an essay about a boy, though I am indebted to him. I am indebted because I graduated from the same city on a hill as he did; because Ann Arbor, Michigan produces its own, similar university halo; because Ann Arbor is 40 miles from Detroit, and sometimes 40 may as well be 2,400, may as well be San Diego. I am indebted to this boy because back then I couldn’t tell him his joke was rooted in anti-blackness. I didn’t know. (And I know I didn’t know, because I remember telling him, “I’m moving to Ann Arbor, not Detroit.” As though this solved everything.)
I couldn’t have told him that in 2014, Aura Rosser would be shot, whether she’d wanted it or not. She’d be shot by police in Ann Arbor, and this would be rooted in anti-blackness, too. I couldn’t have told him that this shooting would compel me to join the Japanese American Citizens League Detroit Chapter, which would bring me into the history of Japanese Americans in metro Detroit, and then into the role of telling the history of Japanese Americans in metro Detroit, which is a history that is sometimes about San Diego and often about Detroit — about the racially restrictive covenants that cut the city into Black and White (and sometimes Asian), the overlapping influx of Japanese Americans out of the incarceration camps and Black Americans coming from the South, the repeated forced removals that built highways over Black neighborhoods and excised money and resources in favor of the suburbs White flight built, the rise and fall and rise and fall of an auto industry both holding the city together and threatening to break it apart, and —
I am indebted to this boy because back then I was more like him than I was like anyone who could have taught him differently. I am indebted to this boy because now I am a teacher, and I know what I need to teach.
“Do you want to get shot?”
I teach college now, but I was a teacher first with “Exiled to Motown,” a project of the Japanese American Citizens League Detroit Chapter. “Exiled to Motown” began as a collection of oral histories of the Japanese American community in Detroit, and evolved into a series of grassroots museum exhibits and virtual programs that seeks to share this history with the broader public. It shares the history of Japanese Americans with those who do not know it, of course. That’s one way to understand the project of sharing history. But “Exiled” is also invested in alternative definitions of what it means to share history. That is, the ways this history has always been shared. Japanese American history is shared history. It contributes to and is itself made up of Detroit’s history, from time immemorial. It is history that continues beyond the life spans of those whose voices make “Exiled,” and will continue beyond ours.
Part of this history I’ve presented above, in the form of deluge, breathless cacophony. I’ve aimed for cacophony because it seems the opposite of the simple version of history, where Michigan becomes Detroit becomes a shooting.
This is a Vincent Chin essay. What do Japanese Americans and college boys in San Diego have to do with Vincent Chin?
If you walked into the Community Gallery of the Detroit Historical Museum in the summer of 2021, you would have found “Exiled to Motown,” a grassroots exhibit of Japanese American community in Detroit. You would have heard a five-minute preview of Christine Choy and Renee Tajima-Peña’s 1987 documentary “Who Killed Vincent Chin?” looping ad infinitum, its visuals splashed against the far wall, adjacent to a photographic montage of cars on cars on cars.
Maybe you know why, at least as far as who Chin’s killers were. (Ronald Ebens, Michael Nitz. Autoworkers, to keep a long story short.) Maybe you know what witnesses heard those killers shout. (”It’s because of you — “) Maybe you remember the oil crisis of 1973, the grim tenor of the American automotive industry at that time, and the phoenix rise of the Japanese econobox, out of the ashes of World War II. Maybe you remember the Japan bashing.
Or maybe, like me, you weren’t born yet, or you weren’t looking yet. You weren’t there, and so you know it from Getty Images. You know the racist fury immortalized in photographs of Toyotas burning in effigy. You know Vincent Chin from documentaries, museum exhibits, and essays. In these, Vincent Chin is a historical figure.
Vincent Chin still has family in Detroit.
Vincent Chin is a person.
Vincent Chin is not Japanese American. But then, he also wasn’t an automotive industry or an economic depression. That did not save him.
In the wake of Chin’s killing, I think it is impossible to ignore the fact that whoever you imagine yourself to be, or whatever community to see yourself a part of — there may come a time when none of that matters, because those who seek to do violence against you will not care about the details. They will spring from the cacophony of history — the parts of it they want to hear, in only the ways they want to hear it — and that will be that. It was impossible to ignore before him, and we have been confronted with this impossibility again and again in the years after.
How do you fight that?
For the Asian American community, particularly in Detroit (Murder City, Michigan, the Midwest, not-San Diego), Vincent Chin is a rallying cry. His death was a flashpoint for pan-Asian, pan-ethnic organizing, rallying, rebellion. He is a reminder that no one is safe unless we all are. He is a spark that tells us that we fight by springing from the cacophony, too — by embracing a history that is so many things, all at once. American Citizens for Justice, marching for Vincent Chin, put their bodies on the line to make this feeling real.
We, Asian Americans, were not the first. You’ll remember I mentioned anti-blackness, and the way it wraps around a joke that starts “Do you want to get shot?” and ends in Detroit.
Maybe you don’t think it’s about race. But remember, it was a joke. In this joke, Detroit is an unreal city. The speaker cannot imagine what it is to be unsafe. It’s all make-believe. So remember this, too: Detroit lives on the backs of a long history of people willing to fight for their lives. (Black people, to be clear; this is no place to be postracial.)
To fight in Vincent Chin’s name is to join them, too.
Mika Kennedy is the granddaughter of a Hawaiian-Filipino longshoreman and a Japanese dental hygienist from a family of farmers on the Big Island of Hawaii. Alongside Celeste Shimoura Goedert, she co-curates “Exiled to Motown,” the Japanese American Citizen League Detroit Chapter’s grassroots exhibit of the Japanese American community in metro Detroit.