Reflecting on Racism: Why race still matters in 2016
by Elena, Erica Isomura, Kayla Isomura, Kendall Yamagishi, Lucas Wright, and Ren Ito
In 2015, a group of participants at the Japanese Canadian Young Leaders Conference (JCYLC) in Winnipeg started a conversation about race and identity—a conversation that has continued beyond the conference. This year, we’ll be sharing some of those discussions through a series of articles on race, written from our perspectives as young people of Japanese ancestry.
To kick off the series, we’ve each responded to this opening question: why is it important for Japanese Canadians to talk about race?
1 It will help us fight racism
Kendall Yamagishi Sansei/Yonsei
Lethbridge, AB (Blackfoot Territory) and Toronto, ON (Traditional Territory of the Mississauga
Race and racism weren’t topics that people liked to talk about in my family. People would say that the problem was too big to do anything about it. But if we talk about racism, we will get better at spotting, understanding and breaking it down. Even if we just challenge our own racist views, we can make a difference!
2 The effects of racism and racist attitudes continue to affect younger generations
Kayla Isomer Yonsei and Chinese Canadian
New Westminster, BC (Unceded Musqueam Territory)
As conversations around Japanese internment disappear with the nisei so does our identity as sansei, yonsei and gosei. Until the 2014 JCYL Conference, internment camps were new to me. My grandparents rarely spoke a word about life in Greenwood and New Denver to my family growing up and if they did, the conversation ended there. Facing history is no easy task but if we want our generation to embrace our Japanese heritage and understand why we’re missing a language or why access to our culture is so limited, then it’s time to have the talk.
3 We need to support others who face racism today
Lucas Wright Yonsei
Steveston, BC (Unceded Musqueam Territory)
Japanese Canadians were the first racialized group in Canada to receive redress, or compensation, for the discrimination committed against us by the Canadian government. During our campaign, we as a community received support from other racialized groups hoping to one day achieve a redress movement of their own. Throughout our history, we have experienced many acts of hatred, shaming and violence committed against us. We have a responsibility to support others who are experiencing similar forms of racism today.
4 It’s important to understand who we are and where we come from
Erica Isomura Yonsei and Chinese Canadian
Vancouver and Victoria, BC (Coast and Straits Salish Territories)
In some ways, I exist because of racist histories in Canada. I recognize that I do not share the same experience of displacement and discrimination that my ancestors did, yet I have faced it in different ways. For example, because of the pressure to assimilate, I don’t speak Japanese or Cantonese and don’t know very many cultural practices. I grew up not understanding what it meant to be Asian-Canadian, especially amidst stereotypes. By learning about the role racism has played in shaping my identity, I have a better grasp on understanding challenges and traumas that are part of my family, community, and history. I hope discussions on topics such as racism can be a part of a process of healing and envisioning a better future for all of us.
5 We’ve been told a lie that we’ve overcome racism
Ren Ito Japanese
Hokkaido, Japan (colonised Ainu land) and Toronto, ON (Mississauga and Dish with One Spoon wampum territory)
I grew up being told that race was a thing of the past: that multiculturalism had turned the page on the “dark chapter” of Canadian racism. Gradually, I realised that this chapter was still being written, and that eating sushi and wearing kimonos hadn’t helped overcome racism at all. Instead, multiculturalism had turned my race into “culture,” a code word that described how I didn’t fit the norm. And who set this norm? White people, the “default” Canadians, the only ones who truly “belonged.” Talking about race will help us expose these lies and resist the racism they perpetuate today.
6 It’s about more than culture
Terrace, BC (Tsimshian territory)
How do Japanese Canadians relate to culture? Who are the observers and who are the participants?
On the first day of the JCYL conference, delegates wrote wishes on coloured paper for a tanabata tree. Tanabata is a summer festival celebrated by folks of Japanese heritage. This was another cultural practice that, as a Japanese Canadian, I had never known. And I wasn’t alone.
Meeting other like-minded delegates at the Japanese Canadian Young Leaders Conference inspired me to change my wish. My tanabata tree wish is that Japanese Canadians continue to question the idea of culture. Organizations and artists across Canada have already shown how culture can be bold, unique, unembellished, undefinable, deeply personal and unapologetically communal. Culture can also be anti-racist work. Our group is using this forum to express our thoughts on internalized racism, inclusivity, and intersectionality. We hope you will join us as we create our future.