Beyond the Black-White Binary

This reflection is part of a collection of responses to the theme: “The View from Here” 

By Camille Obata

As are many of my peers, I have been turning inward to discern my role in upholding a society that perpetually lynches Black people. I’ve been trying to unpack the ingrained white privilege I have as a Yonsei (fourth-generation Japanese American). I know that my past complacency and habitual ignorance of the severity of the violence done to black communities needs to end. But am I doing enough to consider myself anti-racist?

Me to me: Who is it that you think determines YOUR anti-racism?

My first answer would be Black and Brown folx, the people who are systemically disadvantaged in America.

Then today, I watched a video of a Japanese American artist share how she realized her muse in her own personal history: the wrongful mass incarceration of Japanese and Japanese Americans in AMERICA during World War II. I was reminded that I have not escaped the generational trauma that I carry as a descendant of people who survived the Camps. At this time, I pause and signal to you, my reader, that this is not a post where I will be explaining Japanese American Internment. Basic knowledge of the Camps, however, is necessary in order to understand this post. Please take some time to, at the very least, Google what happened, but preferably educate yourself thoroughly because it is important to understand why Camp was traumatic, painful, dehumanizing, degrading, and is just one example of what happens when white men in power make decisions based on fear while ignoring facts.

This video clip was a reminder to me that I cannot separate myself from my Japanese heritage, history, and generational trauma. If I am to answer if I am “doing enough,” then I need to account for this part of my being that I had been missing in my initial assessment of myself. I am not the target audience of this movement. I am not off the hook for taking responsibility for my role, but I am not white. I have my own culture to consider when I think of what it means to push myself in uncomfortable ways to respond to racism.

Gaman. “Enduring the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity.” This is a Japanese term and orientation towards hardship that helped my great-grandparents and grandparents live through Camp. I will take my grandma as an example. Haruye is a modest, fierce, traditional woman. She does not talk about her experience at Camp, but I do not expect that she made a fuss about the forced relocation. She is respectful to the leaders of the country she lives, and if they were forcing Japanese Americans into lousy barracks barricaded behind barbed wire in the middle of the desert, she was not going to disobey.

They had to survive. They had to survive. Survival did not allow for disobedience or protest. It is not in the nature of a Japanese person to believe a government should be run any other way than it is being run.

There were Japanese Americans that resisted internment but that is not my family’s story. My family was loyal to America in the most Japanese way they knew how to do that. They were grateful for the opportunities that America claimed to offer. They were respectful of their home.

My dad shared with me about marching in San Francisco for an Anti-Vietnam War March, which he explains as a peaceful march. When he sees news reports on looting and small businesses that have been destroyed, he does not understand why there is violence that breaks out at Black Lives Matter protests. Maybe he does not understand because he has never experienced what it’s like to not have your pain and oppression heard. He believes there are good people in government who are fighting for what’s right and whose efforts, as they stand, are going to help. He does not feel restless discomfort from the consistent violation of human respect and decency that I now feel with my Black friends every day. He watches old cowboy movies and movies from the 40s and 50s. I look away and hold back my comments about his choice of feel-good classics. I’m unsettled by the racism, sexism, gender normativity, and Yellow and Brown face that is present in these films. Media intake has powerful effects on our subconscious, and it disturbs me that these movies are consistently playing in the house I live in. I do not criticize them because times were different in the film industry back then … but I am uncomfortable with how problematic they are now. What frustrates me most is how easily it becomes to forget about the present moment of racial injustice when watching films with all White casts telling White people stories.

I have not been taught to respond radically to injustice. Partially because my grandparents worked hard to ensure that my family was assimilated into American culture. They latched onto the privileges that came with being labeled as the “model minority.” They took pride in their Americanization. My parents did not grow up discussing how they had ingrained white privilege that gave them an advantage over other people of color, nor did they discuss it with me as I grew up. This is part of my family’s behavior and culture that I am working within myself to change. (And slowly taking steps to talk with my family members about as well … )

The other part of what makes it so difficult for me to respond to the call is because of the parts of my culture like gaman. When I decide to be anti-racist, it might not look like I am doing enough, but what isn’t seen is that I am first resisting my culture and my family in order to be anti-racist.

I am pushing against my ancestors who are trying to pull me back because of their fear of being alienated, labeled as the enemy, forced out of their homes, and sent to live in the desert with no clue how long they would be there. I am going against my ancestors who lived in imperial Japan, who were loyal to the nation before themselves and never (to my knowledge) challenged authority. I am resisting the strength and power that is tied to SILENCE in Japanese culture.

I want so desperately to make them proud and live a life that makes their suffering and sacrifice worth it. At the same time, and maybe even more intensely, I am trying to free my anger. My painful rage that is steeped in pain for the racial injustice of my Black, Brown, and Indigenous friends and fellow earth-inhabiters. As I am trying to free the intensity of my fire, I feel like I am abandoning my family, which feels shameful and lonely. I am hurting inside as I reject this part of me that is not serving the Christ around me.

So, now, I am left to discern how much I can abandon from my family and culture in order to live into the Christ-modeled life that I seek. I am on a journey to let go of their constraints and make them proud in the same life.

Camille Obata is a California grown Yonsei, fourth generation Japanese American, and an MDiv student at the School of Theology. She explores the intersections of her faith, theology, and multiplicity of her identities in her writing. She is also influenced by her BA in media and cultural studies and minor in sociology. Camille enjoys conversations about her favorite TV Shows, BTS, and the Golden State Warriors.

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