Wednesday, January 25, 2017

when to speak up

Last summer I had the privilege of participating in a class called Journey to Mosaic. The idea of the class was to develop a deeper appreciation for diversity, to learn to draw from the riches offered by intercultural relationships.

The class was memorable because we visited three sites each day, each one selected because of its distinctiveness. On day two we visited the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL). Our hosts were Bill Yoshira and Chiyoko Omachi.

The JACL defends the civil liberties of minorities, and especially Japanese Americans. They also work to ensure immigrants are given fair treatment by the political and legal system. 

During our visit, Mr. Yoshira briefly related the history of the internment of Japanese Americans during World War 2. The internment was the result of Executive Order 9066 signed by President Roosevelt on February 19, 1942.

Mr. Yoshira cited three reasons that led to the internment: 1) racial prejudice, 2) wartime hysteria, and 3) a failure of political leadership.   Here’s a summary of what we heard from Mr. Yoshira on each of these three points.

First, racial prejudice. Japanese persons began migrating to the United States in significant numbers in the 1890’s. Many ended up working as farmers and became quite successful.  In fact, by the early 1900’s about fifty percent of the farming in California was done by Japanese people.
Still, Japanese Americans were marginalized. They lived in isolated settings and lacked equal opportunity in housing and education. In fact, at one time Japanese Americans could not practice law in the United States. Conditions for internment were ripe by the time the war hit.

Second, wartime hysteria. Prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, fear-mongering prevailed. Generally, the mindset was: “We must do something to control the ‘Japanese problem.’” Japanese people were viewed as both a security risk and an economic burden. It is telling that the first arrests of Japanese Americans were leaders: 2,000 in a short period of time.

Third, there was a failure of political leadership. Mr. Yoshira said that only one group stood up to voice dissent over the internment: the Quakers. Everyone else just let it happen, yet at least two-thirds of Japanese people in America were full-fledged citizens.

Ms. Omachi shared her story after this. She was born in the 1920’s in the United States. Her father had a successful business as a ship builder. They were Baptist, ardent Christians. Yet, when the time came to be relocated to the camp, they were told they had just 48 hours to vacate; she was fifteen at the time.

“We lost everything,” said Ms. Omachi.

She lived in the camp about a year and a half, then moved to the east where she finished high school and attended college. She ended up in Chicago where she worked for a textbook publisher most of her career.

A couple things struck me about what we heard on this visit.

First, we learned that the rhetoric used to justify the internment was that it was a matter of national security. In fact, Japanese Americans were told it was in their best interest so they could be “kept safe.”

Ms. Omachi said she hears the same rhetoric today. “It is fearful; dreadful,” she said. “We need to speak up about it.”

That’s the second thing that struck me—the “speaking up about it” part. It struck me that the Quakers were the only group to say something. It strikes me because the Quakers are known…for their practice of silence.

Maybe that is why they spoke up—because they knew how to listen. When they listened, they knew what to say. Quaker silence is full silence.

I think today we need to learn to practice that kind of full, listening silence.

To be honest, today there are many voices speaking up about violations to civil liberties and human rights, by comparison. And yet, I wonder how many of these voices are stopping to listen first? I mean, to really listen. 

And, I wonder, how many people are listening to those who are "speaking up"? Something tells me the intended audience is not listening because they, too, are preoccupied with "speaking up".

The result is: no one is really listening to anyone but themselves. 

I happened to be downtown the day of the protest march last weekend. I have to confess that I didn’t intend to be there for the march. It just so happened that we had friends visiting from out of town and I wanted to take them downtown to see Chicago. To be sure, we knew the march was going on and I thought, “Well, this could be an experience to remember.” So, we went.

In either case, I was eager to be present with the huge crowd because I wanted to see and hear what everyone had to say.

In some instances, I was glad to see what many were saying. In other instances, I was confused and troubled. Reflecting on the experience that evening, it struck me that almost everyone had something different to say. To be sure, many of the signs shared a common theme or proclaimed a similar message…but not all of them. There was a wide array of messages—and some were not necessarily compatible.

Now, I believe that diversity is good and much-needed, but sometimes I observe that in the midst of speaking out for what we believe in, we speak so loudly and so often we are unable to stop and listen to what others are saying. The consequence of it is: we want diversity, but we don’t really want to do the listening that is required to really embrace diversity.

We speak without listening first and, if listening enables us to be full and filled, to speak without listening is to speak from emptiness.

Imagine filling a pitcher with water and then expecting the pitcher to just keep pouring out water without filling it back up again. That is what it is like when we just speak, speak, speak, without practicing full listening silence. Somehow, our words keep pouring forth, in the form of naught but empty air. There is nothing refreshing about it and we will eventually die of thirst, our minds and souls parched, deprived of the fullness of meaning.

The Quakers have something to teach us all, but we won’t really learn it unless we learn to practice what they have to say; namely, that the best words we can speak spring from silence and return to silence in order to be filled again.

We have no shortage of words to share. These days there is no shortage of news articles and blog posts and videos to share with each other in our attempts to convince others of our political rightness. Heck, we could share continuously till the tips of our fingers turn bloody from all the clicking and till our sight became blurry from all the screen-gazing.

But what if we turned off our incessant “sharing” and “speaking up”…to just listen. To be fully silent.

Not forever, mind you. Just for a good stretch, like the Quakers do.

I think it’s worth a shot.

So, I’m going to shut up now. I invite you to join me. We’ll be better for it, I do believe. 


M Erwin said...

Thank you for this post. I need to work on my listening skills.

It's hard when we are so lacking in basic education and diversity education. I don't recall district 623 teaching us about internment camps or the mass murder of 100s of blacks by whites in Greenwood, OK a century ago.

We have so much to learn. And it would help to learn from the very diverse people in our society.

Thank you.

M Erwin said...

Thank you for this post. I need to work on my listening skills.

It's hard when we are so lacking in basic education and diversity education. I don't recall district 623 teaching us about internment camps or the mass murder of 100s of blacks by whites in Greenwood, OK a century ago.

We have so much to learn. And it would help to learn from the very diverse people in our society.

Thank you.

Troy said...

Thanks for sharing, Michele. I'm glad you appreciated the post.

I, too, feel I need to be a better listener. Many times when I write a post, it's really to remind myself...Writing is my way of trying to work out the kinks in my own heart, mind and soul.

I also do not remember ever being taught about the internment when I was a child or a teenager. It was interesting hearing Ms. Omachi's story, because she ended up being a textbook writer/editor and one of the things she told us was how she was always having to fight tooth-and-nail with publishers over how they would try to make it seem like it was less demeaning than it really was. She was always editing copy to address the bias that tended to make little of it.

It is sad that many people do not know about what happened and I think there are many teenagers today, even, who have not been exposed to what happened through their schooling.

It goes to show that families need to be aware what children are learning and what is being neglected.

All the same, I appreciate your comment.

Peace to you,