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This is going to be one of those heavy topic blogs on subjects that you may find triggering, so if you’re having a rotten day or you need to focus on something, maybe come back to this article later.
In the class I help in for my job, we’ve been teaching the kids about rights and advocacy. We’ve discussed various historical figures. The most recent individual was Ralph Carr. He is one of the reasons I’m proud to be a Coloradoan.
Soon after Pearl Harbor in 1942, the U.S. government evacuated everyone of Japanese ancestry out of the West Coast. It was a hysterical response to the attack, born out of fear that these American citizens would become spies for the Japanese. With an executive order, the President ordered over 110,000 people to leave the West Coast. They were told to pack two suit cases and leave their homes within six days. Families were shipped off to interment camps across the nation, where they spent the next three years surrounded by armed guards and barbed wire.
Ralph Carr was the Governor of Colorado at that time, and the only politician that welcomed people of Japanese ancestry into his state. He refused to evacuate any of the Japanese-Americans in Colorado, against popular demand, insisting that it was a violation of their rights as American citizens. He made a point to employ people of Japanese ancestry to demonstrate his faith in their loyalty to their country. Against his protests, the government established a permanent interment camp, Amache, in Colorado. It was used to house citizens evacuated from California. Suffering from a shortage of man-power due to the war, many of these individuals were asked to help in the fields, and Ralph Carr made sure they were paid a fair wage. He had to deal with angry Colorado citizens who thought that their Japanese neighbors should be shipped out or killed. In a speech defending the rights of Japanese-Americans, he said “If you harm them, you must harm me. I was brought up in a small town where I knew the shame and dishonor of race hatred. I grew to despise it because it threatened the happiness of you and you and you.”
He later ran for Senator, and his loss in that race is thought by many to be due to his unpopular position on defending Japanese-Americans against this racially driven hysteria.
There’s a pretty moving documentary on the subject here, if you’d like to know more. And another one (smaller video) that covers some additional information.
This is not something many people learn about. When the Germans were rounding up people of Jewish ancestry for their camps, Americans were doing the same to citizens of Japanese decent. We didn’t go the extra step and commit genocide, but this act had a huge impact on the families and communities of these citizens. I didn’t know anything about this until I saw the statue of Ralph Carr in Sakura Square during a festival a few years ago. I was shocked when I found out, and continue to be deeply troubled by it.
When the class was watching the documentary, something occurred to me. I thought about the places I have felt unsafe in my life. I felt unsafe at home. As a woman, I feel unsafe walking alone anywhere. However, in the eyes of the law I have always felt safe. While there might be instances of injustice due to human error and bias, never in the history of this country has there been a systematic, intentional, mass-injustice committed against people of my ethnicity. As a result, I have always had faith in the immutable strength and justice of the law. As I watched that documentary, I wondered if I would feel that way if I was an American of Japanese ancestry, or African, or Native American. I wondered if I would feel unsafe in the eyes of the law.
I haven’t had a chance to ask anyone of these ethnicity how they feel on the subject. The question, “Hey, do you want to talk about the impact of institutionalized racism?” is a little bit difficult to work into conversation. I’d like to, at some point. I can imagine answers, if I put myself into someone else’s shoes, but that doesn’t mean my assumptions will be accurate.
Still, I think the question is worth thinking about. I think the issue of safety is an important one. I know that humans in general don’t do well when they’re operating from a place of fear. We tend to make poor choices. We tend to do things we regret. We tend to take actions that propagate fear, spread it to other people, echo it back to us. I wonder how much of our current cultural dialog is shaped by a lack of safety, perceived or otherwise. And I wonder how we can create safety for everyone, and what we might look like as a culture if we did.
People throw the term “privilege” around a lot these days. And in a lot of cases, I don’t think it’s applied in a way that’s useful. It’s often a short-hand for “You’re bad and you should feel bad,” but I don’t think that helps much. I don’t believe you can create safety for yourself by making someone else feel unsafe. Because, as I said above, humans don’t do well when operating from a place of fear. And they’re not much better when they’re working from guilt, either.
Maybe it’s just that I have issues with the concept of guilt and apologies. I find it one of the most useless emotions in the world. I find apologies even worse. For me growing up, if someone said “sorry” to me it was just so they felt they had permission to cause pain in the same way another time. And if I said sorry, it was an invitation for others to hurt me, because I believed that I deserved it, and that everything was my fault. I just don’t see the point of apologies if nobody learns anything. If nothing changes. If it’s just an endless cycle of victims becoming abusers becoming victims. I don’t understand the value of guilt.
Everyone is privileged in some way. Everyone. There is no country on this planet that, somewhere in their history, did not oppress or harm or even destroy another group of people. If you dig far enough into history, everyone has dirt. In the present, each person has a unique combination of advantages and disadvantages relative to some other person on this planet. So I don’t see the point of anyone hating themselves for the actions of their ancestors, or for being better off than someone else. It just seems a waste of energy and time, particularly when fear and guilt and hate just breed more fear and guilt and hate in application.
To me, it seems better to apply that energy towards learning about our own culture, our own privilege, our own history. Because injustice happens every single day. It’s everywhere. If we don’t think on the examples of the past, we will repeat them. If we don’t define our principals prior to testing them, they will be weak when we need them most. If we have not thought about how we might act in times of fear and guilt and hatred, we will be our worst when we need to be our best.
Ralph Carr came from a poor background. He worked with the Hispanic community as a lawyer before he ever entered politics. He studied history and admired in particular Abraham Lincoln. His experience and his education gave him the perspective needed to see American citizens where the rest of his nation saw dangerous aliens.
I think that everyone needs to look at themselves and understand their own background. Understand their own differences, their advantages and disadvantages, and their common humanity. Because injustice is everywhere. And one day we may be in the position to do a small deed, or express a small voice, and in that tiny effort change a life for the better.
Because I think that’s where most change really happens. I think it’s a collection of many small deeds and many small voices. We don’t have to be crusaders to make a difference. We just have to have the awareness to know our principles, and the courage to stand by them and for them when the opportunity is there.
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