Commentary June 23, 2020

The Sting of Indifference

sting of indifference
Educators from the Navajo Nation, Encina Hall, Stanford University, June 12, 2013

The Stanford Program on International and Cross-Cultural Education (SPICE) unequivocally condemns the systemic racism that permeates U.S. society and fully supports the recent calls for social justice and equity. I have been so moved and inspired by the protests across the United States that have brought world-wide attention to the systemic racism in the United States. Because of my age and the stay-at-home orders, I regret that I have not been able to participate in the protests. It is not due to my indifference. My family—in particular in late 1941 and 1942—also suffered from what would be called “racial profiling” today.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, my grandparents, who were immigrants from Japan, and my U.S.-born parents were forcibly removed by Executive Order 9066 from their homes in Salinas, California, in 1942 and detained initially in the Salinas Assembly Center, one of 15 temporary detention facilities along the West Coast for Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans. They were later transported to Poston War Relocation Center, which was built on the Colorado River Indian Reservation in the Arizona desert, and was one of ten more permanent detention camps that the U.S. government had initially referred to as concentration camps. They remained there until the end of World War II.

My father, as a high school student in Poston, became fully aware of not only the painful sting of scorpions but more importantly of the sting of indifference from Americans concerning their plight; and my mother, as an elementary school student, simply assumed that they had done something wrong because her family was surrounded by barbed wire and guard towers manned by U.S. soldiers with guns. During World War II, very few people spoke out as the constitutional rights of 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry—more than two-thirds of whom were U.S. citizens—were violated.

As I listened to President Donald Trump’s June 13th remarks at the 2020 United States Military Academy at West Point graduation ceremony, I was hoping that he would—especially given the times—specifically mention Henry Ossian Flipper, a former slave, who in 1877 became the first African American to graduate from the United States Military Academy at West Point; as well as others like the African American Tuskegee Airmen who served valiantly in World War II. One of my uncles, who was drafted into the U.S. Army from Poston, trained with other Japanese American soldiers in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team in Camp Shelby, Mississippi. Around town, he saw the segregated entrances—“Whites Only” and “Colored Only”—and didn’t know which one to enter. He went to Europe to fight bigotry.

As a young student in the late 1950s and 1960s, I had never learned about these stories in my elementary and secondary school classes. I learned about them informally through my family and formally for the first time as a freshman in fall 1972 at U.C. Berkeley. Here I was taught that what I had learned in elementary and secondary school was the U.S. master narrative of history, in which the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, Henry Ossian Flipper, and Tuskegee Airmen were not included, at least at the time.

SPICE fully supports FSI Director Michael McFaul’s call “to reassess our work and how we can move our local community, nation, and the world to achieve racial justice” in light of the horrific killing of George Floyd and the long, tragic history of racial injustice and police violence targeted at the Black community. SPICE—with roots that date back to 1973—is an educational outreach program of FSI. The goal of making Stanford scholarship accessible to K–12 students (and more recently community college students) has remained as SPICE’s mission since its establishment. Now—perhaps more than ever—I feel the need to do more to help open up the still strictly confined master narrative of U.S. history to include the Black Lives Matter movement and more broadly the contributions of minorities to U.S. society.

Long before terms like culturally relevant (or sensitive) curriculum were being used, SPICE has underscored the importance of helping to raise international and cultural awareness—through curriculum development—geared to students at a young age, when critical attitudes are being formed. SPICE is about to launch a website that is called “What does it mean to be an American?” The website’s lessons focus on topics like immigration, civil liberties & equity, civic engagement, justice & reconciliation, and leadership. It is meant as a starting point for critical discussions, including courageous conversations about race and discrimination. We hope that this is a modest starting point for teachers to encourage youth around the country to discuss topics like the Black Lives Matter movement, being Muslim in America, and LGBTQ issues.

Among SPICE’s offerings are a series of short lectures (Scholars Corner and Multimedia Library) by Stanford scholars with accompanying teacher guides. One focuses on “The Use of Lethal Force by the Police in Rio de Janeiro and the Pacification Process” by Professor Beatriz Magaloni in which she explores the connections between poverty, crime, and police violence—topics just as relevant in the contemporary United States as they are in Brazil. For many years, I have hoped to expand these further with scholars affiliated with the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, which is directed by Professor Clayborne Carson. Several years ago, SPICE recorded a lecture by Professor Carson titled “Civil and Human Rights: The Martin Luther King, Jr. Legacy,” and I recommend its use in schools as his message is very timely. In addition, SPICE has worked with educators of the Navajo Nation for many years; someday we hope to collaborate on a long-term project. One of the Navajo educators was a Stanford student in the 1960s and he shared his efforts to persuade Stanford to drop the Indian symbol as a mascot in 1972 despite resistance or indifference on the part of many in the Stanford community.

I agree with Professor Michael McFaul that “We must do better.” I definitely need to do better. SPICE needs to do more to highlight BIPOC’s invaluable contributions to U.S. history and society and help to empower youth with a greater voice and platform today to address the systemic racism in the United States that is directly affecting their lives.

My mother, now 87, still vividly recalls the barbed wire that surrounded her as a 9-year-old American girl at the “assembly center” in Salinas in 1942. Reflecting upon the recent protests, she recently shared with me, “I imagine that Blacks feel like they have a fence around them all the time.” She also still nervously remembers the paranoia that her mother felt during World War II, and even after the war when her mother used to sometimes go outside in the middle of the night with a packed suitcase. After being escorted home by neighbors, she would tell her children that “She was going to Poston.” I know how much these stories still hurt me despite the passage of time. I believe that they help me to empathize as best I can with the plight of Black families in the United States today. But empathizing is not enough. We must ask ourselves, what more can we do to help take down the racial fences that still exist?

In SPICE’s curriculum work, we always preface each lesson with organizing questions (essential or overarching questions) that we would like students to consider. I would like to pose three for us to consider during this time: What can we at Stanford University do to move our local community, the United States, and the world to achieve greater racial justice? What can SPICE do to further make FSI/Stanford scholarship accessible to K–12 schools and community colleges ? What are the risks of remaining indifferent especially during times of crisis? These questions will be the driving force of our work in the weeks, months, and years ahead.