On Learning My Grandma Signed Up Japanese-American People For Internment Camps

My grandmother was wrong. I love her, I admire her and she was wrong.
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DACA is ending and Sessions has claimed that to deport the 800,000 recipients, is the compassionate thing to do. And I can’t stop thinking about the ways we distort narratives to make atrocities sound palatable and even moral. Milton Eisenhower, head of the War Relocation Authority, “claimed that the Japanese “cheerfully” participated in the relocation process.”

This summer I learned that my grandmother, who was a social worker and known to my family and her community as a compassionate woman who fought for peace and the dignity of her neighbors, took a job signing Japanese people up for internment camps during WWII.

It’s speculation as to why she would have done this. It could have been economic pressure, it could have been a feeling that she could do good by being an empathetic person along this horrifying journey.

I have always admired my grandmother. She was warm and welcoming to whomever crossed her path. And from what I knew of her she fought for the rights and dignity of those around her across racial lines. She earned a social work degree at a time women were not getting degrees. She was a dedicated pacifist organizing for peace even when it was the most unpopular. But..

My grandmother was wrong. I love her, I admire her and she was wrong.

I talk a lot about personalizing racial justice. Allowing ourselves (white people) to own the roles we and our ancestors have taken in perpetuating white supremacy. But, what does that mean? What does it look like? What do you do after?

It means I understand she made the best decision she could at the time, but it wasn’t enough. Taking responsibility for what our ancestors have done is not just about descendants of slave holders or of KKK members. Sure, they’re included and with about 6 million registered KKK members between 1915–1940 chances are high you’re connected to one of them.

It also means looking at ALL the jobs your family (or you) have taken. That a social worker can cause a lot of harm to communities of color in how they dole out resources, who they determine to be fit parents, or in my case registering people for detention.

There was a narrative at the time that internment camps were a way to keep Japanese people and “Americans” safe. That is was compassionate to register and detain folks simply because of their perceived connection to Japan, a country we were at war with.

“We are not keeping anyone safer by 'deporting' immigrants.”

The immigration practices since DJT’s inauguration are the same. We are not keeping anyone safer by “deporting” immigrants. The majority of those detained by ICE are actually funneled into detention centers/jails that put folks health and life on the line waiting months if not years for decisions to be made. And the removal of the DACA program is one more step in this path. These are internment camps, with a new name. (see this amazing Cartoon ICE Explainer)

By fully witnessing the actions of those who came before us we can see how it is being reenacted now. And perhaps, find new ways to resist. We are witnessing the failure of “changing the system from within”. In a culture (a white culture) that tries to convince us that our intentions are more important than the results, we must unlearn those lessons.

Good intentions DO NOT MATTER when peoples lives are on the line.

What matters is doing everything in your power to fight for others humanity, because it keeps us human. My job is to be the person that speaks out on all forms of enslavement, from our national origins of indigenous genocide, enslavement of Africans, Japanese internment camps, to the present day prison industrial complex which imprisons more people than any other country in the world.

I allow myself the empathy to understand the circumstances that made my grandmother choose this role, yet refuse to let myself or others around me get away with this type of reasoning. I wish I could have a conversation with her about it. But I can have a conversation with the part of me that still instinctively wants to trust law enforcement, or make concessions for feeding into oppressive systems, companies, organization, or tries to float by on good intentions without doing the work.

This is the culture of white supremacy coming out from within me.

I can only aid in saving others if I find ways to get us all out of this system.


· What jobs have your relatives had?

· In what ways have those jobs exerted control over the lives of people of color? (access to services — retail or social programs, whose employed in your company, hiring/firing)

· How does your job current or former positions affected communities of color?

· What are new ways we can keep from repeating oppressive patterns? Discuss with at least 2 other white people.

This post was originally published on Medium.

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