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  • R. Scott Okamoto

It’s Everyone’s Problem (but it’s mostly white peoples’ responsibility)

When I was in college, a white friend and I were talking about our families, telling stories and sharing insights into the things that made us who we were. I think it was part of a leadership retreat or something. I talked about my great-uncles who joined the US Army to fight Hitler in WW2 and others who fought in the Korean War, remembering them as funny, despite their war experiences. My friend talked about a funny uncle of his own and finished by saying, “I just wish he wasn’t so racist.”

Wait. What?

“Yeah, he really hates black and Mexican people. It’s really unfortunate because he’s such a great guy.”

For this friend, the overt racism of a beloved uncle was “unfortunate.” He could still love the old guy. He could still sit down to Thanksgiving dinner and enjoy the warm glow of love and generosity his uncle bestowed upon the family. Oh sure, it bothered most of the family that he was a raging racist who often spewed racist vitriol about Black and Mexican people, but they could choose to overlook his faults. After all, no one is perfect, right? I didn’t ask what the uncle felt about Asians, but the fact that this white guy was even admitting all this to me was a kind of fucked up mid-level privilege. I was being let into the horrifying fact that pretty much every white family has horribly racist people peppering their family tree.

I used to ask my students at APU every year if they had racist relatives. Naturally, the overtly racist students did not often raise their hands (funny how racist people know it’s not something to admit to). But a majority of the white kids, and even some of the POC students admitted to at least one close relative, if not an entire branch of the family tree.

I fully recognize the reality that if racism doesn’t affect you, personally, it can be hard to confront the racism inside your own family and social circles.

My own grandparents lived in an era where their bigotry towards entire people groups didn’t necessarily mean they couldn’t have personal relationships with individuals of those groups. So they could say something about those “kurombos” (Japanese slang for Black people) or those Mexicans, but go and talk to their next door neighbors who were Black or their neighbors across the street who were Mexican American. But when, as a teenager, I heard my grandma refer to the Cosby Show as “that kurombo show,” I laughed nervously with my cousins who heard her, but I said nothing to her. We were kids, but we knew what we were hearing.

If we can split racist familial hairs here, I will say my grandparents would never condone any violence or legislation against Black or Hispanic people, having been through the camps and the aftermath of WW2. But they were comfortable making generalizations about entire people groups due to the nature of their generation and the insular nature of their community. Still, if they were alive today, I would be respectfully and firmly pushing back at their racism. Our family has been through so much in America. Racism got them incarcerated. I would draw for them a direct line between racist views towards groups of people and the very camps my family got their asses thrown into.

With white people and their racism, there is rarely a life-changing experience to force any kind of empathy or inward look at the biases and assumptions they have. In the spaces where they live and work, they are safe to speak their minds, no matter how grotesquely racist. And although they are free to imagine affecting pain and suffering on those “below” them, they don’t have to and most do not. Privilege is a hell of a drug. What they can and often do is enact legislation to hurt or hinder the lives of others they see as below them. Or at least they can say and do nothing when such legislation arises. It doesn’t affect them, after all.

I had white students every semester at APU who would declare that there was no more racism in America, and every one of them was overtly racist. These students bristled any time someone brought up social justice or systemic racism. Their rationale? They didn’t see it. And boy did they resent the fact that someone would dare go “looking for racism,” thereby dividing the church community unnecessarily. Especially since it didn’t even exist. Shame on me for even bringing it up, right? But, those horrible kids at least had me to push back and force them to consider a closer look at the world and at themselves. They hated me for it, but they got a reality check. Fortunately, those kids were not the majority. They were a toxic, vocal fringe, but the more moderate conservatives outnumbered them.

The thing is, those moderates almost never pushed back at their racist classmates. I can think of a handful cases where this happened in my 15 years at APU, and it was almost always the students of color speaking up. Shout out to the white student who shouted down her racist classmates that one time. The only time.

And according to 15 years of students of color I knew, almost no white professors pushed back when racist words were spoken. Most even took the words as valid thoughts adding to the conversation. Some even said racist shit in class.

And here we are, a decade later, deciding, not IF the president and the entire GOP is racist, but to what degree. The only thing that has changed from then until now is that the fringe racism I saw every day at APU is now mainstream, having won the White House in 2016. To be clear, it wasn't the fringe that got Trump elected. It was the moderate majority that sided with them.

I bring all this up to pose a simple request. I know not all white people, especially most of the ones I know, are not racist. At least not any more than all of us who have blind spots or poor assumptions about people. But please talk to your racist relatives. Speak up. Say something.

My own white brother in-law posted racist shit on Facebook in the lead up to the 2016 elections. He ranted about “illegals” taking American jobs and the country being overrun by “illegals.” Geri, my wife, texted him immediately, telling him to think about what he was saying and whom he was supporting. She brought up the fact that the Trump team had recently brought up the incarceration of Japanese Americans as a precedent for putting Muslim Americans into camps. How could he, who had known me and my family for decades support this? His response was predicable. Whatever. Geri immediately canceled our trip to Arizona for Thanksgiving. Even though that meant we wouldn't see her mom, her dad, and our nephews, she would not have me or her hapa kids sit at a table with someone who would support such racism and hatred. She made the choice. And she chose love over hate. It meant everything to know Geri has my back. I mean I already knew, but to see it in action, so swiftly…still brings tears to my eyes. It’s our fight, but she took the initiative to act.

Please. Say something. Do something. We POC’s fight for our existence every day, but we can’t do it alone. We don't need you to try to fix everything by yourselves, mind you. But you can start by pushing back at your own families and communities.

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