A BRIEF BACKGROUND
When attempting to catalogue and understand the oral history of a particular person, it is crucial to understand that a particular human experience is unique. This particular aspect of human experience was probably best put by Patricia Hill Collins in “The Matrix of Domination”, where she explains “Each individual has a unique personal biography made up of concrete experiences, values, motivations, and emotions”. Carole Kawamura works as a multi-subject second grade teacher at the Caroldale Learning Community in Carson. She is also a member of the School Safety Committee and helps to train teachers in teaching literacy. Carole is a mother of three children, two girls and one boy, whom are all in high school. Carole is also a 4th generation Japanese-American who grew up in the Los Angeles area. She received her Associate of the Arts in Liberal Studies from El Camino College. I have personally known Carole for a good portion of my life, having first met her through scouting while I was very young. She was active in her Girl Scout troop, while my mother was the Service Unit Manager for the North Torrance area. While the exact details of that relationship are not particularly relevant, I did not know her particularly well. I learned more about her once we started a co-ed Venture Crew, which is a subsection of the Boy Scouts of America which allowed for co-ed activities. Her daughter and I were both members of the Venture Crew, which was when we actually met in earnest. I still didn’t know very much about her, however, since there was not a huge amount of interaction between us even at that time. I did have time, however, to realize that she was one of the most interesting people I knew, so when I had to think of someone to interview, she was my first thought.
GROWING UP IN TORRANCE:
Carole was born in 1962 and grew up in the largely mixed ethnicity North Torrance to a family of third generation Japanese-Americans, making her the fourth generation in America.
Well I grew up in North Torrance, and there were a lot of Japanese Americans in North Torrance. Um my mother was born in Los Angeles and her mother as well So I um really came from a place where there was an established Japanese-American community. I grew up across the street from the JCI [Japanese Cultural Institute] so I think that I always had a very large support system… um I attended Lincoln and then Casimir and then North, and at that time I really didn’t notice too much about ethnicity since something like half the people were Japanese the other half were white so um growing up I knew that I had other foods to share with other people and I knew about my culture um and I think that it was a big part of my life, being part of the gardena area…
Carole explains how she grew up in North Torrance in an already well-established Japanese-American community around the Japanese Cultural Institute. Carole goes on to describe how she believes that this helped to shelter her from a lot of racial discrimination, growing up in a primarily Japanese-American suburb. She mentions that she feels that she did not notice ethnicity having much of an effect growing up, as the area in which she grew up was around ½ Japanese-American. This area was also across the street from the Japanese Cultural Institute, an organization specifically intended to provide information about Japanese Culture to anyone who visits. The Gardena Valley JCI is a major Japanese and Japanese-American cultural center, built specifically to act as a safe place for the Japanese-American community in the area.
The relative safety of the Gardena Valley JCI didn’t necessarily extend to the surrounding areas, however. The surrounding area was generally not explicitly hostile towards Japanese-Americans, but the racial and sexual discrimination present in media and culture still showed even in the actions of these children.
Sometimes I did, because the boys on the block, we played in the old fashioned, you know, everyone just goes outside and starts hanging out, so the boys on the block were older… and they were very bossy, So they let my brother Kenny play in their group and, uh, Lisa and I had to be the nurses so the boys, always got to have the fun, So I remember growing up the boys on the block always had the girls be the nurses or… not, doing the fun things and the… I remember that maybe because the boys on the block were the white boys, and they were in control, and I don’t remember that when we were playing like at Japanese school… I think that um, that was one time that I felt being female wasn’t always as good… But when it came to um, my gender with other people, in fact my teachers, I don’t think it had quite as much of an effect um the adults in my life, again my mom and dad, and most of my relatives always went for the whole equality thing, for gender, um, and yeah I don’t think that I noticed too much more other than… playing on the block
Recounting playing on the street as a young girl, Carole describes how both her and her brother would play on the street. Because, as she had mentioned in her previous answer, her neighborhood was about ½ white there were white boys on the street who they would play with on the street. She brings up that the boys, specifically the white boys, would only let the girls be the nurses while they played. Mentioning the specific intersectionalities of the boys is reminiscent of Patricia Hill Collins’ “Toward a New Vision: Race, Class, and Gender as Categories of Analysis and Connection”, in which Collins explains “Central to this process [of oppression] is the use of stereotypical or controlling images of diverse race, class and gender groups”, wherein the boys are clearly leveraging the hegemonic narrative of women in general, and asian women in particular, as docile and submissive.
EXPERIENCES WITH DISCRIMINATION
Discrimination is present in many different forms, most of them covert and unintentional. Generally when asked however, most people can only recall overt racism, intentional or unintentional. Carole mentions her first memory of racial discrimination as happening when she is already an adult, despite the aforementioned time playing on the street.
“…my first real memory of racial discrimination actually happened when I was kind of an adult I think, I was working, but I looked very young for my age, and I remember walking through the mall and a white woman looked at me and said ‘you should go back to your country’ or something like that, and I looked at her and I said ‘This is my country’ she said ‘wow your english is pretty good.’”
Carole described the time she was in Del Amo mall, a large mall in North Torrance, and a white woman told her that she should go back to her country. When Carole responded that this was her country, the white woman was surprised that her english was pretty good. Carole recounted her surprise at a white woman confronting her in such a way, and that she thinks that having grown up in a safe environment had protected her from this discrimination. While there is the event listed above with the white boys on her street growing up, according to Carole this was her first encounter with such blatant racism. This event seems to be closely related to the concept of status-quo stories, which are best explained by AnaLouise Keating in “Beyond Intersectionality” as “worldviews that normalize and naturalize the existing social system, values, and standards so entirely that they prevent us from imagining the possibility of change.” This woman clearly believed, based on her actions, that Japanese-American people were inherently not Americans, or not true Americans. This status quo story is horrifying, not necessarily because it is frequently expressed in such drastic terms, but because it indicates an underlying belief within the culture of the United States.
Being a straight, white, cisgender male I have never had any experiences which were anything like this. It was genuinely shocking to hear that anyone would just approach someone and tell them to “go back to her country”. Somewhat unsurprisingly given United States culture this has never been asked of me, or people around me, and I had never realized just how prevalent these conceptions are, even in the U.S.
My brother was younger, and all my life, I always heard um… okay all my life I always said ‘That’s not Fair” (Carole laughs), so my mom always made it a point to be very equal, try to be as fair as she could and because of that, I think that I was told to… have the same types of um…hmm strategies in my life that my brother was, you know ‘girls can do anything boys can do’, so it wasn’t like some families I see where the boys are, you know, the leaders of the family, it was not like that in my family… So maybe um it might have been the opposite, gender-wise that girls could do anything… that my brother could do… so it wasn’t as if… he were. Like my husband, Mr. Kawamura, he grew up in a home where he was the firstborn… son, of a firstborn son, going back to caveman days and I see it in latin culture, the boys are always the favored sons, um and I know in Japanese culture that’s often the case, but in our family, maybe because we were more anglicized, being that I was the 4th generation Los Angelean, things were different. Maybe if we had been first or second generation we would have had more of the boy being um… You know the one in charge so no I didn’t find that my parents had differences
Carole recounts how her parent treated her and her younger brother fairly similarly. Additionally, she mentions that her husband was a firstborn son of a firstborn son, dating back for quite some time. In Japanese culture, being the firstborn son entitles you to all of the possessions of your family. This is true regardless of the number of elder sisters which you have. Carole relates this to latin culture, describing how the boys in latin culture are always favored, and how that is shared with Japanese culture. Preventing women from inheriting property perpetuates a cycle of oppression wherein women are denied access to the materials required to advance themselves or express themselves. Additionally Carole suspects that her family’s long history in the United States, and subsequent anglicization, plays a large role in the egalitarian way her parents treated her and her brother.
The way that she discusses her brother is very reminiscent of the relationship that I had with my younger sister, both of us willing to cry foul at any perceived favoritism. Luckily we were also treated in a very egalitarian manner, again fairly similarly to what Carole describes.
…being Japanese, whenever we went to a funeral, it was a buddhist funeral. Now, I wasn’t Buddhist, so I didn’t know what to do when you walk up, and you have to take a pinch of the incense, and bow, and put it into the little incense burner thing, and bow again, and… whatever. The Buddhist nicet-niceties at funerals. My cousin Aki was always there, teaching me and my brother what we need to do. Um, another time, her-one of my aunties was very sick, I went to visit her, gave her a plant, I barely remembered it, and then my auntie passed away, it was Aki that taught me about how… happy that made my aunt, for me to go and visit, and she talked about, you know, the cycle of life and how what I did was, very very, um nice thing to do, and I remember those little things that Aki had always taught, uhhh, usually I think its family type things; Weddings and Funerals, etiquette, but I think a lot of it was the Japanese kind of traditions, for instance in using the incense for buddhist ceremonies, or wedding ceremon-ceremonies.
Perhaps because of this anglicization, however, Carole’s family were not Buddhist. Because Buddhism is such a prevalent religion in Japanese culture, Japanese-American culture is similarly entrenched firmly in a Buddhist philosophical and religious background. Having not been exposed to nearly as much of that, when Carole attended ceremonies like funerals or weddings for other members of the community, Carole needed someone to help guide her. For Carole, that person ended up being her cousin Aki. Carole mentions the profound effect her cousin Aki had on her while she was growing up, teaching her a lot of the Buddhist rituals she otherwise would not have known. She explains the strength of the bond that her and her cousin shared, and the way that she thinks of her as she teaches her children.
Hmm… this is interesting in your gender part of the questioning, when I was… 14-15 I had a boyfriend who was already in college, and… um when I was around 18 figuring out what kind of a job I’d want, I thought ‘hmmm… I’m probably gonna marry this guy… and I know I’m not gonna have to work for a living” well, at first my mom told me ‘Make sure you get a college degree, even if you get married, you never know, your husband might have a heart attack… or something might come up and you’d have to work’… So, my mom really encouraged me to get a degree. When I got my AA from El Camino, I realized I needed to go ahead and major in something, but I loved studying everything, so I thought liberal studies might be a great way to go, because that’s kind of what I had been doing since even high school, with everything, based on literature and cultural type uh… activities, that’s what drove my education and when it came time I decided because I really didn’t think I’d ever have to work for a living…
Carole describes the factors that played into her decision to become a teacher. She decided, because she had a boyfriend, she would never have to work. At her mother’s urging, she attended El Camino College, and decided to study liberal studies, because she enjoyed the subjects. Upon graduation, she decided to become a teacher because she thought that, even if she only got that job at least it would help her with being a mother. In the end she now works for a living, and is glad that she became a teacher.
Since Carole had been a working mother for the entire time that I have known her, it was surprising for me to hear that she had expected to be completely reliant on a man after college. Again, having the background that I have this was something that I had always heard happened, but had never seen firsthand.
Once Carole had decided to become a teacher, she incorporated her personal experiences into her teaching style. Using her experiences from growing up in an elementary classroom with a massively diverse student roster, she teaches the students how to use standard english instead of code switching.
…I think that just based on being the person I am, experiencing the things I have, being of the non-major ethnicity, it definitely has driven the way that I am a teacher. I work here in Carson, where we really have a very even mix of the Filipinos, the Samoans, uh African-Americans, and Hispanic from many different places, um and also we’re getting our fair share of Nigerian people, because of all of that we do something called code switching when it comes to standard english language. Mr. Kawamura speaks Pidgin from Hawai’i he really needs to be taught , and all these other children, and adults, they need to be taught standard english in an explicit and systematic way… because I come from this type of a… um, world, I understand that someone might say ‘go brush your teet’, and really they mean ‘brush your teeth’, I’m sensitive to that, I know that in my house Mr. Kawamura says ‘teet’ but in African-American homes they say ‘go brush your teef’ and Filipinos… uh, they might ‘brush your teev’ because those are the same mistakes. Being a teacher, knowing that, yeah that really is very helpful to be able to explain it to the parents in a very um, I think, supportive way that their children need to learn to code switch. It’s fine to say teet or teef, whatever, wherever, but if they really want to compete for jobs they need to know how to switch these things and be able to speak standard english…
After she settled on teaching as a profession, Carole incorporated aspects of her experience as a woman of colour into her teaching methods. She explains how she teaches code switching, which is a way to replace particular sounds with a different one in normal speech. Code switching allows these children to learn to speak standard english outside the house. This essentially teaches the children how to make their speech fit into the standard pronunciation of phonemes within the english language, which Carole is saying gives them a better chance to succeed. This idea that speaking standard english can give you an advantage in life is all too often proven correct, with people being denied access to job opportunities for seeming to be members of nondominant groups.
…I think that I um, I try to… teach, inform other people about what Japanese-Americans have done, like during the war, the 442nd, and how, even though, you know, we were torn away from our homes, and we really, uh, had to get rid of all of our belongings, unless there was a nice family to look after some of these things, and these are things that came from Japan, these are, you know, the things that we willed down, generation after generation, but so many of them were taken during the war, that the Japanese that survived, really did not, um… lash out negatively. I think that they knew it was a negative situation and yet they made the best out of it, and they tried to have good come out of it, and I think in many ways they have, and that’s what I think that my personal life, that’s how my ethnicity has been in relationship to our community. My children are growing up in the same community that I grew up in, so I think that they don’t really… I really think that they are having the same type of relationships with their ethnicity that I did. So no I think in personal life everything’s on the same type of even keel [calm].
Carole explains that while she does not think that her personal life is affected by her ethnicity, she does try to teach her children about their ancestry. She goes on to explain how people don’t know very much about Japanese-American history, like the 442nd infantry, a highly decorated group of largely Japanese-American infantrymen fighting for the U.S. during World War 2. Carole also explains a little about how Japanese-American people generally responded to the forced migration to concentration camps during World War 2, specifically focussing on the generally nonviolent and the way that they were able to recover and rebuild from this Horrifying, systematic displacement.
Because of the connections to Japanese culture, a culture with very strict traditional gender roles, there are sometimes similarly strict gender roles in Japanese-American culture. This is largely dependant, as might be expected, on the individual household and far from a universal rule.
…Now, in our lives, our day to day lives, even though it’s been how many generations, the men oftentimes, ugh in some families that I’ve seen, most all, they sit back and they let the women do everything when it comes to, you know, family get togethers or parties. Sunday dinner at our house, always involves, the eldest woman cooking, we all gather at their home, and then it’s the children or the females that clean up. The men always go and gather and watch TV. It’s always the women that are doing everything when it comes to these family gatherings. In our home, it’s not quite like that, but i think it’s that whole Japanese-American… uh kind of Southern Californian kind of a relationship, and that’s how it’s always been; the women take care of everything. Everything.But in our family, Mr. Kawamura does a lot. He’s actually the cook, he’s probably already fed the kids, cleaned up because I’m still here at work, so in my home it’s not always that kind of a negative stigma, even though he definitely is that kind of a person.
Carole describes the hegemonic treatment of women in Japanese-American culture. Forcing domestic work entirely onto women and children, with the men doing little to nothing in these situations, creates a dynamic of domination within this particular culture. To further understand the power dynamics which result in this particular situation, understanding the inequalities in labor distribution in the home as discussed by bell hooks in feminism is for everybody, specifically mentioning “…Middle- and lower-middle-class women who were suddenly compelled by the ethos of feminism to enter the workforce did not feel liberated once they faced the hard truth that working outside the home did not mean work in the home would be equally shared with male partners”, discussing the way that domestic labor is almost exclusively viewed as feminine. In this case, we can see that the men have power over all of the women by relegating all domestic tasks to them, and then among those women Carole mentions that the eldest is the one who cooks the meals.
- Collins, P. H. (1989). Toward a new vision: race, class and gender as categories of analysis and connection. Memphis, TN: Center for Research on Women, Dept. of Sociology and Social Work, Memphis State University. p.78
- Keating, A. (2017). Beyond Intersectionality. University of Illinois Press. doi:10.5406/illinois/9780252037849.003.0001 p.35
- Collins, P. H. (2015). Black feminist thought: knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment. New York: Routledge. p.274
- hooks, b. (2015). feminism is for everybody: passionate politics. New York: Routledge. P. 42