My Reality: Racism in Academia, Then and Now

by | May 2, 2013
filed under My Reality

Emily and her Great-Uncle Roy

Emily and her Great-Uncle Roy

by Emily Yakashiro

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.

The first things I noticed were little – racist graffiti about Asian students at UBC scrawled on study carrels and noticing that when invited to speak by a professor, the students who were usually the first to make a remark were not students of colour – just small things about who maybe felt more entitled to take up space in an academic environment…

The second thing that happened was more major: a certain article published by that miserable waste of trees known as Macleans. Many felt that this particular article was not only overtly racist, but that it suggested that having students of Asian descent (whether they were Canadian or not) in Canadian universities wasn’t such a good idea. Not a far cry from what universities were thinking during 1942, no?

My family has heard lots from my Uncle Roy since he has returned to Japan where he is now a retired Baptist minister. I know that even months after he crossed that stage he was still elated, saying he was “on cloud nine.”

Given the significance of my great-uncle and I graduating together with a similar background but vastly different experiences, my family thought about letting the press know about our connection. I agreed that I would love to speak to the press, but that I would have nothing positive to say about UBC itself in terms of its decision to grant the degrees at long last. So, my Uncle Roy, and several other graduates appeared in the papers alone.

Now of course my heart was overjoyed for Uncle Roy, and grateful for the efforts of Mary Kitagawa. But I was also very furious. My uncle was ninety a year ago, and flew all the way from Japan to attend. Wouldn’t it have been nicer if he could have made that trip in better health, say, when he was thirty years old? Why did he have to wait for seventy years?

My family told me that I should just focus on the positive side of things, and be happy for my great-uncle. I was too angry though. I became even angrier when I reflected critically upon my experiences with UBC. I realized that while the racism I have experienced was more subtle and covert, it was racism nonetheless. Seventy years later, there was still evidence that this university didn’t much care for students of Japanese descent, though at least I actually got to stay in school.

So let’s fast forward. Now it’s May of 2013, I have been graduated for a year. To keep my mind sharp (I admit, while I don’t miss the university, I miss the learning), I have joined a very informal philosophy reading group organized by some friends. The core group of attendees are current UBC students or alumni, a few SFU students, etc.

Right now we’re reading Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, which, as a feminist, has me particularly happy. I really, really like this group. The people in it are fun and smart, we have great discussions, and I’ve made some new friends. I have noticed though, that even as people come and go (the group has been as many as 12 people in one sitting, with lots of people just coming for one session here and there, etc. I have been the only person of colour to ever attend a meeting of this academic reading group. I should note, though, that the organizers of this group broadly advertised these meetings through several large networks starting in September 2012, and frequently remind people on the mailing list that they can come by whenever.

Maybe it’s just a coincidence that I’m the only person of colour there? I certainly and genuinely wouldn’t accuse the organizers of this group of any racist undertones. Maybe I’m the only one who felt the space we’ve created as a reading group is accessible and welcoming. Maybe the assumption that it wouldn’t be so from an “outsider’s” perspective comes from participating in an academic environment where subtle cues are given about who is valuable and who is worth listening to. Whatever the reasons, I’m sticking with the reading group. I’m there, I’m taking up space, I’m speaking my mind, and I’m not sorry.

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