A picture of my grandmother, Chizuru Nakaji Boyea, and her family hangs in the Japanese American National Museum next to a replica of the barracks where she and so many others were forced to stay during World War II. Although US citizens, Grandma Boyea and her family were unjustly incarcerated at Manzanar, a concentration camp located in the desolate California desert. This injustice was mandated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt through Executive Order 9066. One of the most insidious features of this decree is that it mandated an explicit lack of rights for an implicit population. Executive Order 9066 authorized “the evacuation of all persons deemed a threat to national security from the West Coast to relocation centers further inland.” Implicitly, this meant Japanese Americans.
It is AAPI Heritage month and our country has benefited so much from Americans like my Grandma Boyea. I’m grateful that several decades later the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians issued its Personal Justice Denied report, which concluded that Executive Order 9066 “was not justified by military necessity, and the decisions which followed from it — detention, ending detention and ending exclusion — were not driven by analysis of military conditions.” Instead, these federally mandated decisions were driven by “race prejudice, war hysteria, and failure of political leadership.”
There has been an increase in Asian hate crimes post COVID that were driven by many of the same issues: prejudice, hysteria, and failure of political leadership. Additionally the “woke backlash” has led to many of our fellow citizens blacklisting concepts and language associated with advancing racial equity. For example, when my family lived in Texas, we were inundated with fliers that claimed critical race theory was “canceling” Dr. Seuss and disparaged “Black Lives Matter” candidates as anti-police.
If you are someone who identifies as progressive reading this article, you may be tempted to shake your head and cluck your tongue at the “backwards, right-wing vigilantes” who are leading this backlash. Yet, progressives also contribute to creating an environment that allows these “vigilantes” to ride the discrimination wave in reaction to assumed progressive intellectual and moral superiority. This statement may be unpopular, but all too often, people who consider themselves allies of those historically and currently marginalized because of race and/or ethnicity, are actually competing in an exclusive “woke Olympics” to prove to their (white) peers that they are “the good ones”.
So many of these discussions around race and exclusion are seen in black and white, “zero-sum” thinking. This devolves into oversimplification of the issues, further alienating people and leaving us worse off than when we started. In honor of Grandma Boyea, who passed away a few weeks before her 102nd birthday last year, my goal is to replace the either/or with a both/and. She always leaned into the ideals and promise of our country by advocating for the rights of people like her while simultaneously understanding that “America never was America to me,” to quote Langston Hughes.
This approach is not to water down our pursuit of justice, but to create a context where we can collectively feel our shared experiences. Instead of arguing about definitions, we need to better navigate the experiences that the definitions attempt to explain. I’m tackling three common concepts here to try and illustrate what happens when we dig deeper under the surface.
- Intersectionality: I am Black. Asian. Woman. Wife. Entrepreneur. Mom. All of these identities interact with each other and create my perspectives. The underlying principles of intersectionality both recognize and appreciate that each individual’s identity is shaped by complex and interconnected experiences. More importantly, intersectionality is a response to the thorny issue of distilling unique and diverse experiences to convenient stereotypes. Ironically, so much of the “woke backlash” is a result of white people expressing the pain of losing their real and/or perceived identity. What is lost in translation during these turbulent times is that fighting for identity is both a shared human experience and a harrowing, specific attack. Living my racial and gender intersectionality feels like being forced to carry rocks of different sizes and being told to stand and smile. The boulders of the murders in the shooting spree in Asian salons is as hard for me to carry as the murders in the Buffalo supermarket. For me, my lived intersectionality is a barrage of weights I carry reminding me that many consider my identity an unwelcome threat to be exterminated.
- Structural Racism: Structural racism is often the hardest concept for people to wrap their heads around because the intentional bias is not always expressed in a way that seems explicitly racist. Executive Order 9066 was mandated by the federal government as a law, but ultimately was a simple statement that a certain group of people did not deserve the same rights, enforced by the full power of the federal government. The ripple effects of those statements fueled rapid inequity. For example, Grandma Boyea and other families had their property seized from their homes and sold to their neighbors at deep discounts. Many Japanese-Americans in Grandma’s community were entrepreneurs whose businesses were closed. This not only affected their own income, but removed competition from businesses run by their white peers. These and many other federal mandates resulted in economic opportunity for white people at the expense of their fellow citizens. Federal laws often set the tone for other policies and processes adopted by businesses and other institutions. Structural racism cements bias in place through policies and processes that embed unfair practices in our culture, values and belief systems.
- Individual Racism and Individual Bias: Structural racism plays out and interacts with our own individual feelings and thoughts. We have inherited the “sins of our fathers’’ — whether that’s our actual fathers or family members, or from Uncle Sam himself. These perceptions–which could be as explicit as “Chinese people do not deserve safe working conditions and equal pay while building our railroads’’ or as implicit as “people who are poor are poor because of their own decisions and nothing else” — filter everything that we do. These biases reinforce our structural behaviors, creating a cycle that persists from generation to generation. If you compare the assets of Japanese Americans interned to those of their white neighbors, in most instances, there is both an income and wealth gap. The grandchildren of those families who were never directly affected by Executive Order 9066 may grow up believing that their families are superior or vice versa. And they carry that belief set which is reinforced by their stories and environment.
I do the work I do every day because despite the challenges we still face, I know these individual biases can be interrupted and changed just like the structural concepts that inform the systems we live and breathe each day. Grandma Boyea lived for over 100 years and saw a lot of change in her life. She remained a steadfast presence for her children and grandchildren, my cousins and me. Her strength and tenacity encourages me when the rocks I carry feel too heavy and the vision for the America I believe in feels divergent from the America I see. Grandma’s life and example demonstrates that we can move away from “either/or” thinking and embrace the “both/and” that defines us all.