The election of Donald J. Trump on November 8, 2016 sent shockwaves throughout the world. In the wake of the election, open violence and hate speech towards already marginalized people has intensified in Canada and the United States. For those attentive to histories of racism and settler state violence, there are unsettling echoes of the 1940s rendered in today’s headlines. Amidst the cacophony of ‘expert’ media panels, mainstream media coverage, and rapidly proliferating thinkpieces, many of us—students, activists, and scholars alike—are still trying to work through what happened and what we can do moving forward. What is the value of the academy beyond the insularity of its own walls? How can our understandings of difficult pasts inform organization and coalition building in the present? How might we imagine the relationship between academic work and activism in ever more turbulent times?
As members of the Landscapes of Injustice research collective, the authors in this forum post share a common frame—a deepening understanding of the violences imbued in the history of Japanese Canadian incarceration and dispossession. We have a diversity in lived experiences, in methodology, in positionality. Drawing upon his work at the junctures between scholarship and activism, Trevor Wideman reflects on crafting a politics of hope that challenges the embedded inequalities in academic institutions and community outreach. Nicole Yakashiro reminds us that we share a commitment and responsibility towards dismantling the conditions of possibility for discrimination and oppression, particularly from the “privilege of perspective” we have in our distance from the epicentre of Trump’s fallout. Kaitlin Findlay delves into the powerful history of post-war Japanese Canadian activism, finding inspiration and a call to action in the writings and art of a community rebuilding in the face of historical and ongoing state-sanctioned violence.
In the face of fear, there is power to be found in hope, in responsibility, in community. In this conversation, we spurn defeat and reject the very idea of detachment. Instead, we equip ourselves with knowledge of the past and fashion solidarities in the present. We steady ourselves to dream, forge, and fight for the futures we believe in.
These are our voices. – Will Archibald
A politics of hope
I write this entry in a difficult time. Many academics are finding themselves having to defend their positions around issues like climate change and human rights (questions often thought to be settled) in the face of a media onslaught willing to give uninformed counter-positions the time of day. Most frightening for me, white supremacy, the ongoing process of white racial domination, is becoming increasingly visible. Xenophobic and racist discourses, until recently at least partially veiled by (neo)liberal ideologies that frame racism as an individual rather than a structural problem, are becoming normalized worldwide in the aftermath of the US election. As Canadians, we might feel we have reason to be self-righteous – after all, we didn’t elect a leader whose platform was premised on building literal walls to keep migrants out, and who inspired a legion of Neo-Nazis to come out of the woodwork. Yet such thinking ignores the structural violence that has been, and continues to be perpetrated against people of colour in this country.
I am a scholar-activist living and working on unceded Coast Salish territory (Vancouver, Canada), and I am also a research assistant for the Landcsapes of Injustice (LoI) project. My work with LoI looks at the state-led uprooting of Japanese Canadians and the dispossession of their property during World War II. Thinking back to the thousands of archival pages that I have reviewed so far, I can say confidently that the racist positions of many white Canadians in the 1940s are remarkably similar to the exclusionary discourses that are being deployed transnationally against people of colour in 2016. Perhaps most obviously, right-wing pundits in the United States have used the example of the Japanese American internment as precedent for a potential “Muslim registry,” even though the internment has been long-denounced as an unconstitutional violation of people’s rights.
In my archival work with LoI, I also discovered that my alma mater, Queen’s University, shamefully denied entry to dispossessed Japanese Canadian students who were unable to finish their degrees at the University of British Columbia after 1942. More recently, Queen’s made an unceremonious appearance in the news as undergraduate students held a racist party where white students dressed up as Arab Sheikhs, Viet Cong Guerrillas, and Buddhist Monks, mockingly appropriating race and culture as “fun” and entertainment. The university rightfully denounced the students’ actions as inappropriate and contrary to their commitments to “diversity” and “inclusion.” Yet such reactions do not go far enough—rather they atomize the problem, isolating it to a few misguided and uninformed individuals who need to be retrained and re-educated, instead of calling it out as part of the institution’s (and North American society’s) ongoing legacy of racism and exclusion.
It is not my intent to indict Queen’s as a “racist” institution, since similar issues exist on campuses across North America, even worldwide. Rather, it is to use it as an example of the ways in which academic institutions can perpetuate and even normalize white supremacy and racialized exclusion. The rapidly neoliberalizing “western” university is, after all, an imperialist and colonial project that in Canada and the US (and elsewhere) has been implicated in the dispossession of Indigenous peoples and the marginalization of people of color, and thus (as Ananya Roy has recently stated) there is no true position of innocence from which academics can organize knowledge to challenge oppression. My own white, male-dominated discipline of geography is also connected to the perpetuation of such logics. As Audrey Kobayashi and Linda Peake wrote sixteen (!) years ago:
Geography’s agenda is directly or complicitly racist in a number of ways, beginning with a thoroughly racialized disciplinary past. From its origins in exploration and scientific classifications, the discipline played a founding role in establishing the systems of imperialist expansion and colonial power through which the Western world became a dominant center and its white inhabitants became normative, authoritative, and privileged (Kobayashi and Peake, 2000; p.399).
So where does that leave the scholar-activist? I still have to believe that a politics of hope can be built within and from such institutional settings, but it needs to start with the deployment of a truly anti-racist praxis that acknowledges and challenges the role of the university in maintaining and normalizing systems of oppression. That means, for instance, hiring and supporting faculty of colour, women faculty, and queer faculty (among many others), instead of handing out tokenistic appointments in the name of “diversity.” It also means unlearning many of the oppressive practices that we may have unwittingly taken on in our academic training.
Further for myself, it also means making connections across time and through space around racialized exclusion and displacement, recognizing that alliances can be built between disparate groups that have experienced, and are experiencing such processes. In my master’s work with the Revitalizing Japantown? research project in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, the research team saw important alliances emerge between Japanese Canadian and Downtown Eastside activists as their common experiences of dispossession became visible. LoI, as a research project, is likewise empirically exposing the politics of exclusion and dispossession that operated in 1940s Canada, and its researchers are well-positioned to intervene in contemporary debates. For me, working in the academy is (and has been) an ongoing process of learning and unlearning, and in that spirit I hope to be able to build alliances within and beyond the university and actively refuse the ongoing normalization of racism and xenophobia. – Trevor Wideman
Acknowledgements: This writing has been informed and inspired by countless people. In particular – my master’s supervisors Jeff Masuda and Audrey Kobayashi, the Downtown Eastside artists and activists that we have worked in partnership with, the LoI research collective, and a recent collaboration that emerged out of the event “Urban Color-Lines: Inaugurating the Institute on Inequality and Democracy” at the University of California, Los Angeles in February 2016. Responsibility for any errors is of course my own.
“Privilege of perspective”
When the U.S. election map lit up in a brazen red on November 8, I wasn’t as shocked as many of my neighbours. I wish I could say I was. Yet, I distinctly remember sitting in a history class on North America’s early borderlands two days later feeling the sticky weight of an impending Trump presidency so thick that even a knife would struggle to cut through it. For many, the divisive and bordered history we were contemplating seemed too relevant—too present—for us to proceed with lecture comfortably. (But maybe that’s the point – to be uncomfortable.)
That day, we looked at Richard Caton Woodville’s War News from Mexico (1848), one of the most well-known American genre paintings and a work that astutely commented on the crisis of national identity brought on by the controversial U.S.-Mexican War. Woodville was a Brit – an “outsider” to a certain extent – who carried what I’ll call the “privilege of perspective,” as demonstrated in his artful analyses of the American political landscape. I suppose in the wake of the election to the south, you could say Canadians also carry this privilege. Now, how to use it.
Woodville’s image is an expression of the ardent divisiveness prompted by the U.S.-Mexican War, but it also potently resembles the past year’s U.S. election. Most effectively, the painting shows us a nation’s politics of (incredibly varied) emotion (see the amazing Sara Ahmed’s The Cultural Politics of Emotion). For myself, the elegance of this piece stems from Woodville’s ability to articulate the complexity and human-ness of politics, war, class, age, race, gender, settler colonialism – of society as we know it in the “West” – within a frame. These complexities and nuances, revealed in the diverse and affective responses to the news and the placement of the painting’s marginalized figures (both societally and aesthetically), define America in 2016 as much as they did 1848.
So, why do I bother mention this? What can an American artwork from 150 years ago tell us today – as Canadian students, as historians, and as activists?
It is certainly my “privilege of perspective” to write on this image and the American election from a warm bedroom, and to, later, fall asleep beside the person I love (whoever said the personal wasn’t political?). It is also a privilege to be a student and research assistant for Landscapes of Injustice, contributing to a project with folks I am privileged to know and learn from. As Canadians and as students, many of us find ourselves at a relative distance from the instability across the border. Perhaps for now, we rest well knowing our commentary on the U.S. election is just that: a commentary. We rest well knowing that our health care remains largely unthreatened, that our citizenship is (at least superficially) unquestioned, and that we live in a “multicultural” Canada. We feel fear for a moment, only to shut ourselves off from things we have the privilege of turning our attention away from. We use the border as an invisible shield, as Canada postures “innocence” by using a line drawn on a map (#notallNorthAmerica). But if history has taught us anything, it has shown us that borders are just as artificial and vulnerable as they are meaningful.
Hiding behind a border is a luxury we can’t afford. In distancing the U.S. as “other” and “worse than us,” we replicate the divisiveness we denounce. Surely, holding our neighbours accountable is important, but what of ourselves? What work needs to be addressed here? Is the border we’re drawing between “us” and “them” that definite or real? This is the danger of creating binaries on an international and individual scale. It is the danger of the “single story” that defines a right and a wrong, a good and a bad, without recognizing we are all in (and can eventually be in) a process of unlearning (see the wonderful Chimamanda Adichie’s Ted Talk on the single story).
Trump’s presidency reminds me that with the privilege of being a student north of a both real and artificial border, comes great responsibility. It is my privilege to be able to recognize and call out xenophobia, racism, and all forms of oppression in scholarship and in the everyday; but, it is also my responsibility to call in those who do not yet acknowledge these experiences (on “calling in”). It is our responsibility to create work that transcends boundaries, rather than erect them. It is our responsibility to destabilize, not enforce divisions. It is my responsibility to recognize that I too, am in a constant process of unlearning. For me, this is where scholarship might just become “activism.”
Woodville’s piece has remained vivid in my mind since November. Its strong relevance today symbolizes and exposes the holes in our supposed socio-political “progress,” and hauntingly reminds us that the most turbulent parts of history are indeed here, in the present. But I also think there’s something to be said for the unsettledness we feel. In these moments of discomfort and perspective, there is possibility. Stepping back from Woodville’s painting, we see a quiet woman in the shadows. We see people of colour—“slaves” in 1848—modelling a dignified composure that no one bothers to recognize. Perhaps, this time around we might learn to really “see” each other.
But maybe this is giving the contemporary political climate too much credit. After all, I was just recently called an idealist by a classmate. Yet, even though I thought that to be an insult at the time, I try and remind myself of a powerful and always relevant quote by Amiri Baraka cited in bell hooks’ Reel to Real: “Cynicism is not revolutionary.” – Nicole Yakashiro
Thanks of course to the amazing Landscapes of Injustice research collective. Especially Kaitlin Findlay and Will Archibald for being ridiculously understanding and giving me advice and the opportunity to write on this. I take full responsibility for any and all faults in my piece. Much love to all.
Inalienable Rice revisited
By now political analysts, media pundits, and my next-door neighbor have all dissected the factors that led to the Trump election. Their collective experience and perspective may very well outweigh my political savvy but this hasn’t stopped me from being gripped by the recent news headlines. Part of studying the state-led violence against Japanese Canadians in the 1940s is beginning to understand its complex legacies: the devastation wrought on thousands of lives, the eradication of communities, and the difficult adjustment to life in the post-war years. These severe consequences render any echo of this era shrill. Having worked for hours in documents rife with parallel nativism, populism, and xenophobia, should I not have some tools to grapple with these unfolding events? What can the “lessons of history” do for me in this moment?
Trump’s win was a groundswell. His campaign drew upon the pre-existing and historically rooted antagonisms of an unequal society to bolster its popularity as a wave draws from the undertow beneath seemingly placid waters. The events made clear the strength of white supremacy—as constituted by the intersecting oppressions of racism, xenophobia, misogyny, capitalism, and imperialism—to legitimize voting against the interests of America’s most vulnerable. The implications of his election will seep throughout society, re-shaping structures and programs as it already has our discourse.
I watched his election and following coverage wavering somewhere between shock and paralysis. It’s familiar territory: faced with an overwhelming sense of injustice, I’m uncertain about how to engage. In the first case—shock—I am separate from the event, distanced from an act or belief I find difficult to understand. I tease myself at this reaction because it admits a naiveté, a hopeful denial of the structures of power that buttress our society. (“Someone fetch the chaise lounge, she’s going to faint!”) In the second—paralysis—I am acutely aware of my position in relation to the systemic roots of inequality and feel that any action on my part could only further entrench oppression. (I call this “critiquing myself into oblivion”.) Both reactions stem from a sense of perceived injustice and deep concern but neither, if valid, is particularly useful.
The history of the internment-era holds lessons of state violence, failures in leadership that destroyed thousands of lives and livelihoods in both Canada and the United States. I’ve spent months in the federal archives with Landscapes of Injustice, learning to discern both the subtle, insidious racism of the 1940s—built of euphemisms, rumour, and opportunism—and that which is overt. The correspondence of the bureaucrats who developed the deportation Orders-in-Council of 1944, for example, is a wrenching reminder of how clear the rationale was for certain officials. The nativism that engendered support for Trump is not so foreign to Canada.
But what has been most steadying in the past few weeks are those lessons found in Japanese Canadian history of organization, fortitude, and persistence. Rather than lessons of warning, these are lessons of hope.
Recently I’ve been fascinated with a copy of the 1979 Inalienable Rice: A Chinese & Japanese Canadian Anthology. Published in collaboration between the Powell Street Revue and The Chinese Canadian Writers Workshop, the editors aimed to develop their own Asian Canadian literature, “both creative and analytical.” Largely third and fourth generation Canadian-born, the authors found themselves separated from “all things Asian Canadian” (viii) and wrote to develop a literary voice to “tell a story in a way most Canadians have near heard or understood, to share with other Asian Canadians the richness of [their] own style.” (ix) The contributors grappled with the legacy of racism, asserted personal experience, and wrote against dominant narratives. It was resistance against ongoing oppression.
Flipping through its pages, it is not the readership of Inalienable Rice that interests me the most (though the library stamps from the 1980s mark its frequent circulation.) Instead, it is the practice of organizing and publishing that compels me, the act of coming together to articulate a silenced past. This seems attainable. Later, the contributors would become celebrated activist-scholars, writers, and community leaders. They would help shape the call for Redress and reframe Canada’s understanding of the internment-era: a history essay from Audrey Kobayashi, an interview by Roy Miki, poetry from Terry Watada, and an excerpt from Joy Kagawa’s then forth-coming first novel. (83)
Inalienable Rice is part of the history of state violence against Japanese Canadians in the 1940s. It connects a younger generation to a longer history of resilience and campaign for Redress. If only a small thread in this history, it grounds me. Though my tasks as an Ontario Anglo in 2017 are quite different from those set forth in Inalienable Rice, the anthology holds lessons that are pertinent to the Trump era. The importance of organizing and alliances: coming together across community and disciplinary divides, the contributors gained skills that prepared them for their next, greater projects. The value of different and complementary contributions: to bring the publication into being likely required tremendous work beyond what is credited in the index. The opportunity for growth: that our first attempts might seem modest but, with persistence and care, our activism will mature.
If the election has shocked us with the stakes of countering racism, xenophobic, misogyny, and bigotry, let this be a powerful moment of re-commitment. To counter paralysis, let us look again to the strategies of organizing and solidarity of the past to find what roles we might play in the next four years. The potential is vast: be your best scholar, writer, artist, and teacher. Let us acknowledge our privilege, unlearn and learn and, from this, let us build. – Kaitlin Findlay
Acknowledgements: How nice is it to use the S+A Forum as an excuse to discuss and work through these topics with peers and instructors? My thanks go to the LoI Project Office for encouraging it along, to our fantastic contributors, and particularly to those individuals whose conversations may not be reflected directly on the website but who have informed and fueled its pages. Responsibility for any errors are, of course, my own.