Emily and her Great-Uncle Roy
by Emily Yakashiro. Emily is a 23 year old third-generation, mixed-race Canadian strongly committed to feminism and anti-oppression. She has a background in anti-violence work, and is the founder and editor of The Closet Feminist, a Canadian website focusing on fashion, personal style, and of course feminism which launched in December 2012.
One year ago I had the privilege of graduating from the University of British Columbia with my Bachelor of Arts. More importantly, I had the honor of graduating with my great-uncle, Roy Oshiro. I was 22, he was 90. My family picked me up and we drove to the Chan Centre; Uncle Roy jumped a plane from Okinawa. The journey we both experienced graduating from this particular institution was certainly a momentous one for my family, and has had me reflect a lot over the past year about what our graduations and education have meant to me.
I spent my entire undergrad degree at UBC. I was accepted easily, I got into all the courses I wanted to, I met a bunch of cool people and got my degree. My Uncle Roy, on the other hand, was kicked out in 1942 after his first year, and sent to work on a sugar beet farm in Lethbridge with the rest of my grandpa’s family. No UBC degree for him, on account of him being of Japanese descent in World War Two.
He eventually did return to post-secondary education, but not UBC. Seventy years later, my great-uncle did receive a degree from UBC, in an honorary ceremony recognizing the many Japanese-Canadian students the university dismissed during World War Two. Mind you, it is important to note that he received this honorary degree not because of initiative on behalf on the university to right this historical wrong, but because of the persistence of an amazing local woman named Mary Kitagawa.
What is especially remarkable about Kitigawa, is that prior to her campaign to grant the degrees, she had had no connection to UBC; her efforts were those of a conscientious activist from the community-at-large. I personally had no idea that my Uncle Roy had experienced this particular encounter with my alma mater, nor anything about Kitigawa’s lobbying until I was informed by my family that we would be in the same graduating class.
It really is amazing that both Uncle Roy and I could share this experience. Nevertheless, this experience has really had me thinking a lot about access, inclusivity, and institutionalized racism.
A quick view of the special honorary degree ceremony itself was certainly revealing. I attended the whole thing along with much of my family, and it was indeed a beautiful ceremony. I was surprised, therefore, that it wasn’t entirely sold out. From what I could see, the Chan Centre actually had quite a few seats available to an interested public. I also noticed that there weren’t as many people who appeared to be faculty members present as I would have thought. Note, of course, that during the time when the Japanese-Canadian students were banned from attending school at UBC, only a handful of professors spoke out against this injustice. In fact, from what I could see before, during, and after the ceremony, the majority of attendees (aside from the graduates themselves) appeared to be of Asian descent. Interesting.
My graduation ceremony was pretty standard, and thankfully reflected the diversity of students and faculty that UBC is known for. I did remind the Dean of Arts and Chancellor, however, as I crossed the stage and shook their hands that, “education is a right, and to please protect that right.” Though surprised, the Dean of Arts agreed with me heartily, which was a relief, and so did the Chancellor, though she had lost her voice from all the speaking she had had to do during all the ceremonies.
During the actual process of getting my degree (Major in Religion, Literature, and the Arts, and a minor in Political Science), a few things happened that made me think that maybe, just maybe, I wasn’t quite as welcome as I thought I was, being a third-generation, mixed-race Canadian. Read more