Home History JCCCW Omoide I Matter: A Personal Reflection

I Matter: A Personal Reflection

By Carolee Okamoto, for The North American Post

On the news the other day, an interviewer was asking people on the street this question: “When did your race matter?”

The interviewer asked people of all races.

To those of color asked this question, the answers were instantaneous: “August 9, 1967,” or “When I was eight,” “July 3, 1956…”

To white interviewees, the answers were quite different. They all sat there for several minutes… thinking about this question.

One white interviewee said, “I guess I’ve never thought about this before…”

Another said, “I guess my “whiteness” has allowed me to never have to consider this question…”

The last white interviewee was a man with two young children (probably between ten and 12). His was the most compelling response.

Dead silence… for minutes… then, lots of “Ummms.”

The two children just stood there, hanging their heads… silent.

Finally, after what seemed like an agonizing eternity, the interviewer attempted to help the man.

“Is this a hard question for you to answer?”

“Yeess,” he stammered.

Reflecting on these interviews, I asked myself the same question, “When did race matter to me?” And, to my surprise, it came to me instantaneously, just like the other interviewees of color.

“When I was six years old and in the first grade at Roosevelt Primary School in Texas City, Texas, on the playground… a white kid my age came up to me and pulled his fingers to the sides of his two eyes so that they would be tiny and slanted… like mine.”

I remember coming home from school that day, crying inconsolably. My mother knelt down beside me, obviously feeling the same sting of emotional pain that her young child was feeling on that day.

She said to me, “The next time that happens, you just tell them that YOU ARE AN AMERICAN!!”

Now armed with what I thought was going to be keep the bullies at bay, the next time it happened, I shouted out, “I AM AN AMERICAN!”

The bully looked at me with surprise, then confusion as he ran away laughing. Afterwards, I asked my young self why this statement my mother had given me had had absolutely zero impact on this mean kid, though it had been equally confusing to me.

I know my mother’s intentions were good and kind as she tried to help her only daughter learn how to cope with the sting of racism at an early age. The war had been over for more than 13 years before I was born in 1958. Yet the rage and hatred of Americans towards Japanese and Japanese Americans were still a clear and present state of mind almost 20 years later in 1964.

And, it would have been far too complex to try to explain to a six year old all that both of my parents had endured during the war years. Like other good and obedient Japanese-American Nisei, they stayed mostly silent. And so, too, did their young daughter as I continued my existence—my survival—in a deeply racist South.

Since moving to Seattle and growing older and, hopefully, a little wiser, I have learned the importance of discovering and standing up for my truth.  It is empowering.  It is important.  It is life-altering.  Most of all, I have learned that “I matter.”

So today, I ask my friends, “When did your race matter?”

Carolee Okamoto is a Sansei who began writing and creating art in 2017, after retiring from teaching health informatics and information management at the UW in 2015. Carolee’s late emergence into writing and art was spurred by a need to tell her parents’ story. Patty and Keith Okamoto were incarcerated by the War Relocation Authority at Jerome, AR, and Poston, AZ, respectively. Carolee grew up in south Texas, in the only Nikkei family in a town of 10,000. She graduated from the University of Texas and holds an MBA from Houston Baptist University. She later obtained a Residential Design diploma and a Fashion Marketing degree from the Seattle Art Institute. Today, Carolee owns a health informatics consulting company and an interior design company.