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I Matter: A Personal Reflection

On the news the other day, an interviewer was asking people on the street this question: “When did your race matter?”

The interviewer asked people of all races.

To those of color asked this question, the answers were instantaneous: “August 9, 1967,” or “When I was eight,” “July 3, 1956…”

To white interviewees, the answers were quite different. They all sat there for several minutes… thinking about this question.

One white interviewee said, “I guess I’ve never thought about this before…”

Another said, “I guess my “whiteness” has allowed me to never have to consider this question…”

The last white interviewee was a man with two young children (probably between ten and 12). His was the most compelling response.

Dead silence… for minutes… then, lots of “Ummms.”

The two children just stood there, hanging their heads… silent.

Finally, after what seemed like an agonizing eternity, the interviewer attempted to help the man.

“Is this a hard question for you to answer?”

“Yeess,” he stammered.

Carolee's parents, Keith and Patty Okamoto (about 1991).

 Reflecting on these interviews, I asked myself the same question, “When did race matter to me?” And, to my surprise, it came to me instantaneously, just like the other interviewees of color.

“When I was six years old and in the first grade at Roosevelt Wilson Primary School in Texas City, Texas, on the playground… a white kid my age came up to me and pulled his fingers to the sides of his two eyes so that they would be tiny and slanted… like mine.”

I remember coming home from school that day, crying inconsolably. My mother knelt down beside me, obviously feeling the same sting of emotional pain that her young child was feeling on that day.

She said to me, “The next time that happens, you just tell them that YOU ARE AN AMERICAN!!”

Now armed with what I thought was going to be keep the bullies at bay, the next time it happened, I shouted out, “I AM AN AMERICAN!”

The bully looked at me with surprise, then confusion as he ran away laughing. Afterwards, I asked my young self why this statement my mother had given me had had absolutely zero impact on this mean kid, though it had been equally confusing to me.

I know my mother’s intentions were good and kind as she tried to help her only daughter learn how to cope with the sting of racism at an early age. The war had been over for more than 13 years before I was born in 1958. Yet the rage and hatred of Americans towards Japanese and Japanese Americans were still a clear and present state of mind almost 20 years later in 1964.

Carolee and her brother, Andrew (about 1966)

And, it would have been far too complex to try to explain to a six year old all that both of my parents had endured during the war years. Like other good and obedient Japanese-American Nisei, they stayed mostly silent. And so, too, did their young daughter as I continued my existence—my survival—in a deeply racist South.

Since moving to Seattle and growing older and, hopefully, a little wiser, I have learned the importance of discovering and standing up for my truth.  It is empowering.  It is important.  It is life-altering.  Most of all, I have learned that “I matter.”

So today, I ask my friends, “When did your race matter?”

 

*This article was originally published in the North American Post on November 29, 2020. 

 

© 2020 Carolee Okamoto

identity japanese american race sansei