Family History

About a decade ago, I was visiting California for a conference, and heard a speaker there talk about his family history of being incarcerated during WWII because they were Japanese American. As I sat there and listened to the story, it hit me: my family was there for this piece of American history. My paternal great grandparents and their children were Dust Bowl migrants to California, and in 1942, my grandparents were children in California.

After the conference, I had time to visit my grandparents. I asked my Grandpa what he remembered. There were Japanese families taken from his neighborhood in Long Beach. I told him the stories our conference speaker had told. And I asked him what my family thought about this at the time, hoping to learn that they had done something to help their neighbors. “You have to understand,” he said, “It was after Pearl Harbor. People were scared.” With hindsight, he knew this was wrong. But at the time, people were scared. My family didn’t do anything.

My ancestors, on both maternal and paternal sides, came to the US from the Netherlands between the late 1800s and early 1900s. They settled in Michigan and Kansas; no one fought in the Civil War; no one owned slaves. (Back in the Netherlands, they were farming families, not sailors, so I don’t think there’s a direct family history of being involved in the slave trade, either.) Intellectually, I know that this doesn’t absolve me, but I recognize that, on an emotional level, I give myself a pass on a family history of racism. Again, I’m working on recognizing how, in fact, even without ancestors directly involved in slavery, I still benefit from that history as a white person.

This week marks the 75th anniversary of the executive order that forced Japanese Americans into camps. I live in northern California now, and the reminders of this in the news are very close to home. I live in the place where this happened; I’ve taken my kids to movies at the mall that sits on the site of an internment camp. And as I listen to the news, I can’t forget that my family was on the scene as this executive order was implemented.

But here’s where things gets tricky. I am a progressive Democrat in no small part because of the paternal side of my family. I am proud of my Grandpa (and his father, my Great Grandpa, whom I knew well: he lived until I was a college student). They were Roosevelt New Deal Democrats; they were union people who worked in shipyards and aerospace manufacturing; they were people who, at other times in their life, took a stand for tolerance and diversity. I love the stories about the times they were progressive: Great Grandma was a Rosie the Riveter; my Great Grandpa refused to buy table grapes during the farm worker strikes; my Grandpa used to tell stories about the people on his team of workers with joy and love and appreciation for diversity among them. I remain proud of them for these things.

I suspect, these days, many of us are assessing the state of our country, looking back at history, asking this question of ourselves, “What would I have done had I been there?” For some of us, with deep connections to family stories, we’re also asking what they would have done, or did, as a way to calibrate our own courage to act.
But it’s always complicated. Human beings are capable of great good, and great evil, and of great action, and great passivity.

I sit this week with my family history, and with my nation’s history, remembering that we have so often fallen short of being the people we could be, and hoping we can do better. And, honestly, sitting with the discomfort of knowing that racism is rooted so deeply in our social system that we don’t even realize how deeply it’s soaked into us.