How Should Japanese American Parents Talk to Their Kids About Race and Racism?
By Paul Matsushima | Published on August 22, 2021
Explore some of the conversations Japanese Americans have had with their kids about racism, what they wish they’d talked about earlier, and how the dialogue may have evolved over time.
This article was originally written for Yo! Magazine.
“Oh, kids are great! You can teach them to hate what you hate!” — Homer Simpson
“Get that rope off of your neck!” came the cries of a concerned mother towards her son at a Cub Scouts knot tying activity my son and I attended. “I don’t like the history it represents.” This mother’s son, who is Black, and some of the other scouts, were horsing around and had innocently looped the ropes around each other’s hands, heads, and necks. “That rope around your neck has an ugly legacy, and I’ll explain more when you’re older.”
Intrigued, and looking for a chance to relate, I approached this mother and told her I agree how important it is to have conversations about race with our kids. Because this was the first interaction I had with her, I was unsure how my comment landed. Thankfully, she agreed: “Right!?” she said in affirmation. “I want my children to know these things, like how a rope can be a symbol of lynchings and hate.” Internally, I lit up. While she didn’t explicitly state it, this mother spoke to my desire as a parent to help my kids learn to navigate American society as persons of color. Teaching my kids about how they may be treated differently because of their race is a way of protecting them, just as I suspect this Cub Scouts mother was doing.
Intrigued, and looking for a chance to relate, I approached this mother and told her I agree how important it is to have conversations about race with our kids.
After leaving this interaction, I began to explore the ways my parents addressed issues of race with me as a child, and what I found was sparse. Sure, my parents gave me the basics in Japanese American history: they told me about the trauma of the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII, like how my grandma lost her family celery farm in Oregon, or how my grandpa had to abandon his childhood home and sleep in horse stables at the Santa Anita racetrack before being forcibly removed to Amache, Colorado. They raised me to be proud of my heritage and to respect all peoples. But other than that, my parents probably didn’t see a big need to talk about race because I grew up in a Japanese American bubble. I had a plethora of family members, friends, and role models who looked like me. So teaching me how to respond to racially stressful encounters–like what to do if someone on the playground made the “chinky” eyes at me, or mocked my hard-to-pronounce last name, or mistook me for another Asian kid–went largely unattended.
I began to explore the ways my parents addressed issues of race with me as a child, and what I found was sparse.
And while this is just my own childhood, I suspect many Japanese Americans who grew up in situations akin to mine had a similar shortage of conversations when it came to race. Stats are hard to come by for Japanese Americans, as most reporting focuses on how Asian Americans as a whole talk and think about race in comparison to other racial groups. For instance, a 2019 Pew Research Center report found that only 13 percent of Asian adults said race came up “often” in conversations with friends and family, compared with 27 percent of Black and 11 percent of White adults. Another 2019 study by the Sesame Workshop found similar results, with 11 percent of Asian parents reporting they “often” discussed race with their kids, compared to 22 percent of Black and 6 percent of White parents. These studies demonstrate that when it came to talking about race, Asians did only slightly better than Whites, who were the most reluctant.
Yet 2020 and 2021 brought conversations about racial justice to the forefront of many people’s minds. The murder of George Floyd in 2020 sparked a resurgence of Black Lives Matter protests, and the 2021 Georgia shootings of six Asian women put a spotlight on the surge of pandemic-related anti-Asian hate incidents. According to a 2021 Pew survey–conducted shortly after the Georgia massacre–81% of Asian adults said violence against them is rising, while one-third feared someone might threaten or physically attack them. These catastrophic events have prompted calls for Asian Americans to talk more directly about racism with their friends and family, with Vox even arguing that some Asian Americans who were previously apprehensive are now “reconsidering whether avoiding conservations about racism is still the right approach.”
A 2019 Pew Research Center report found that only 13 percent of Asian adults said race came up “often” in conversations with friends and family.
Given the Asian American–and by extension, Japanese American–community’s checkered past when it comes to talking to our kids about race, I set out to explore:
How have, and perhaps more importantly, how should, Japanese American parents talk to their kids about race and racism?
For that, I turned to multiple parents–of different ages and generations, and who either themselves are or have kids who are Japanese American–about the conversations they’ve had with their kids about racism, what they wish they’d talked about earlier, and how the dialogue may have evolved over time. And while their stories do not represent the entirety of Japanese America, they do provide an interesting glimpse into how modern-day parents and those of yesteryear navigate(d) race with their kids. Their stories, which have been condensed and edited, are below.
Voices from the Young(ish) Folks
We try as much as possible to inform our kids about hard issues like police brutality against Black and Brown people. We talk to them in the context that lighter skinned Asian American people have certain privileges in this society while holding this in tension with the racism and discrimination Asian people currently and historically have faced. We try to explain to the kids that the reason our family participates in protests and rallies, and actively supports the movement for Black Lives is that we are not okay that people and communities are hurting or treated badly because of unjust racism.
—A’misa and Alex, yonsei, late-thirties, have 2 young kids (ages 3 and 6)
When our son was three, we were taking selfies making funny faces, and he innocently stretched his eyes back into slits. My husband and I felt triggered by him unknowingly doing the “chinky eyes,” so we told him not to do that, how it’s bad and offensive towards us as Asian Americans. Our son then went on to teach his younger cousin (who was two at the time) not to do that. (See video above. Subtitles: “That’s bad…no no no…that’s rude.”)
—Monica, yonsei, mid-thirties, has a 3 and 6 year old
My parents are first generation Japanese and my dad was very picky on who I would hang out with even though we grew up in a predominantly African American area. I think by growing up in a race diverse area it helped me explain to my kids how fortunate they were to live in Irvine yet remind them the struggles or hardship my family had endured growing up in Los Angeles. I was not always accepted by the Japanese American community because I was a Nisei and at that time most Nisei were my parents age. My elementary school friends thought I was strange because I didn’t dress the same and my parents spoke very little English. Because of these experiences I would explain to my kids how lucky they were not having to deal with that growing up.
—Grace, Nisei, fifty, has 3 kids
Voices from the Older Folks
I think it’s been less about actual conversations about race, but more about what we did and who we hung around. For example, when he was 13, we campaigned for Obama in Nevada (precinct walking) with a group of Sikh activists. Most of the men wore turbans and beards, and some of the women were dressed in traditional clothing. As we walked through a nice suburb, a white man came out and said in a loud voice (not quite yelling), that while he supported Obama, that we shouldn’t be publicly campaigning for him because our group “looked like terrorists.” That evening, during the debrief in the Gurdwara, the turban wearing gentleman who the white man mostly directly his comment at, shared that while it was hurtful to hear yet again, that Sikhs are terrorists (which they are not), he realized that perhaps Sikh men and women should get out of their Sikh bubble and into “mainstream” America so that seeing men and women in traditional clothing would be considered more “normal.” So, my son and I talked about what does it mean to be “normal” in America. We identified that for the most part, proximity to whiteness was and is often viewed as being more American.
—Diane, a parent “back in the day,” who has one son
I can’t recall we ever had a discussion with my daughter about race and racism. I do recall an instance when I was driving her and some of her friends home after a high school session of the Academic Decathalon practice and noticed that one of her friends lived out of the school district. After dropping him (a white kid) off at his home, I asked her why he was going to her high school and she said because as a white person he was an “under-represented minority” and he wanted to go to the school because he wanted to be a lawyer and they had some special classes. I was stunned to learn a white kid could be a “minority” but then when I thought about the diversity of students at her school, I understood – they were all minorities. I went on to talk about my own experience growing up and going to mostly-white schools and always feeling “different”, occasionally “left out,” knowing I wasn’t “one of them,” and that our race of being Asian Americans made us “different” and sometimes others have prejudice against us.
—Bill, Sansei, who has one daughter and one grandchild
When my children were in middle school, I shared with them something that happened to me in high school. My African American friend from high school was visiting me at my house while my Mom was at work. When my Mom came home from work just a short time after my friend came over, she greeted him politely and left the living room and went into the kitchen. After my friend left the house, my Mom said to me, “Don’t you have any Japanese friends at school that can come over and visit you?” I was pretty upset with my mother, who was a staunch liberal and always talked about racial equality and justice and discrimination and how bad it was for her family during WW2. Her words that day definitely did not match her behavior, in my eyes. So, it was rather shocking to hear her ask that question. This is one of the few instances I talked to them about racism…Looking back, I wish I had discussed institutional racism with my kids when they were younger, so that they would have been more aware of it earlier in life.
—Teresa, Sansei, has two adult kids and four grandchildren
In the mid-1990’s, our two sons played basketball and baseball in the JA leagues. Back then there was an unspoken rule that the teams should be made up of all Japanese kids or at least *Hapa*. At that time there was never a problem in either league but when we would enter tournaments the issue would come up. We’d challenge the system by acknowledging the original reasons the JA sports leagues were established in the first place but also insist those reasons no longer existed. The result was that we’d just not play because it was you take the whole team or none of the boys would play or the tournament organizers would acquiesce because we were a mediocre team and not a competitive threat.
My point is there is an important place for JA community activities but we need to make sure we integrate our children into multi-ethnic activities as well. We also need to welcome other ethnic groups into JA activities. Then issues of race, good and bad, will naturally come up and they can be multicultural and reciprocal teaching moments where we can learn from each other.
—Warren, a parent “back in the day” who has two sons and now a grand daughter
Generally speaking, we’ve always portrayed our JA heritage as something to be proud of…as a strength. We have taken our kids to JANM, Little Tokyo, a Manzanar pilgrimage, and even to Japan. They have never shared any incidents of racism that they’ve experienced, but we have always talked openly about racist incidents in the news (or just about anything in the news, and our progressive beliefs) with them.
—Marian, Sansei, who has kids who are 30, 27, and 21
When my son was 9 years old I picked him up from school just before the Thanksgiving break. The teacher, an efficient and matter of fact white woman in her fifties asked me over to the corner of the room and said, “Sir, I have something of concern to share with you. I gave the children an assignment to draw what Thanksgiving means to them and your son drew a disturbing scene with pilgrims shooting Indians and the other children who observed his drawing appeared confused as well.” When my son and I got into the car to drive home, I gave him a high five and said “Good job! You drew those pilgrims and Indians the right way. Remember, what our family believes is not what many others believe yet about a lot of stuff.”
—David, a parent “back in the day”, who has 3 adult children