This piece was written after attending the White Privilege Conference with FGC in 2013. It has also been published in the Haddonfield Quarter Newsletter.
by Kitty Taylor Mizuno
I think the most important recurring theme for me at the White Privilege Conference (WPC) in Seattle which I have just attended is that in order to make our world a more just and equitable place, it is important for individuals, institutions and governments alike to make carefully discerned choices at the crossroads at which we find ourselves.
First I would like to give some background information on the WPC. It was created fourteen years ago at Cornell College, Iowa, involving a few dozen participants, by its leader Eddie Moore, who is now Director of Diversity at Brooklyn Friends School. The WPC conference is held annually in a different city across the country, with several thousand in attendance in recent years. For the past few years Friends General Conference (FGC) has been fostering Quaker attendance at the conference by urging Friends from all over the USA to attend, providing scholarships when they can, facilitating hospitality in Quaker homes near the conference site, and by creating a space at the conference for Friends to gather, talk and share. There is a strong possibility that FGC may become a co-sponsor of a WPCconference in the near future in Philadelphia.
The most important lesson I bring home from the conference is a renewed conviction of the obligation that all people, but especially White people like myself, have to take actions, large and small, to create the kind of economically and racially just world that we say that we want. I remember clearly when my husband, Takashi, told me that it was time for me to not just go to trainings and workshops, but to DO something. Over the years I have indeed gone to many of these.
The theme at WPC this year was “The Color of Money”, which challenged me, since economics is definitely not my strong suit. I think my profile in Quaker circles may be that I am involved in racial justice work. I am grateful to Friends who have encouraged me to look also at economic justice issues. WPC14 did a lot to enhance my consciousness and learning in this area.
Following is a quick “slide show” of important learnings for me at WPC14 about the importance of action at the crossroads.
- Among the lost opportunities at critical crossroads in U.S. history when an important change could have been made to foster a more just society, but was not, include the post-Civil War Reconstruction, which was followed so quickly by the institutionalization of Jim Crow; the labor movement when all-White labor unions were created; and the New Deal, when our Social Security system was created, excluding agricultural and domestic workers.
- No one is “bad” for having privilege. The important thing is how we use our privilege.
- In the 1600’s in Maryland and Virginia colonies Black Africans and White indentured servants shared work and living conditions and worked well together. Marriage between the two was not uncommon, and was accepted. Laws passed in the late 1600’s by the English tobacco farm owners after Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676, including miscegenation laws forbidding such marriages, divided the Black and White workers by giving privileges to the White. This was the first time that the concept of White became a part of the laws and practices that shape our society to this day. (I note here that my own marriage to a man of Japanese ancestry was not legal in this country when I was a child.)
- The extreme wealth disparity in the continuum between the 1% owning class down through the professional middle class, to the working class and the poor did not exist a generation ago, and does not exist in other countries to the degree it does here.
- Most social justice work is split along class lines. If we made the effort to work together across class lines we would be so much more powerful.
- The initial reaction to people of Japanese ancestry after the bombing of Pearl Harbor was not strongly negative. My understanding is that the negativity was created by the U.S. military, particularly on the West coast, the government and on down through society.
- In December, 1941, 70% of the hotels in downtown hotels in Seattle were owned and operated by Japanese Americans. By June of the following year none of them were, because all the Japanese Americans had been incarcerated.
- The same thing that happened to the Japanese in WW II could happen again today--to Arab Americans, Sikhs, or anyone -- if we don’t do something to stop it.
- The Supreme Court Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954 helped desegregate our schools for only a short time. They are now de facto more segregated than they ever were.
My learnings at WPC14 have a common theme. Things do not have to be as they are. If we consciously make informed, discerned choices, as individuals and as institutions we can make a difference in creating a more just world.
One moving example of how choices made by White people made a huge difference, is the story shared by Mary Matsuda Gruenewald at the conference.
She has written three books about her experiences being taken at the age of 17 with her family from their strawberry farm in Vashon Island, WA a to detention camps for people of Japanese ancestry in the United States during World War II. What she chose to share at this conference, though, was the story about how the actions of four White people provided the key to her recovery from the shame and depression caused by her experience, to reclaim her dignity and humanity after the war.
She remembered two tall White FBI agents who came to her family’s home in February 1942 to investigate them before they were taken away from that farm to the detention camps. She said that these two men were respectful. They touched nothing in the home, but just went from room to room and stood and looked. The only things they confiscated were the rifle that her brother used to keep the crows out of the strawberry fields and the console radio that her parents had. (It seems that the U.S. government feared that it would be used to listen to broadcasts from Japan. Mary said that the static was always so bad that this was impossible.)
She also remembered the impact on her of two White women who were her supervisors in charge of the nurse training program in Iowa to which she was released from the detention center to attend. “Edith Rinehart and Emma Schlapper had a strong effect on me,” Mary told us. “They treated the nisei [second generation Japanese Americans] women respectfully.” “Ten years later I met Chuck Gruenewald, and we were married in 1951,” she continued, and concluded that she was able to recover her dignity because “four White people showed respect.”
After this session I spoke with M, a local White Seattle Quaker woman who shared what a huge impact this story had on her. She said she didn’t learn until after her mother’s death that in 1942 her mother had, as part of part of a group of young Quakers who strongly opposed the incarceration of Japanese, resistered detainees of Japanese origin for evacuation. M said it had always haunted her since that her mother had been part of the U.S. government’s incarceration program. M told me that after the session at which she heard Mary Matsuda Gruenewald’s story, she went up to her and thanked her for sharing this story which gave her closure and inner peace, because she knew her mother would have treated people with respect. M has since corresponded with me to share excerpts from her mother’s diary in 1942, in which she wrote about the local Seattle Quaker response to the impending relocation of Japanese Americans. M concludes, “ Without Mary's testimony, I was not able to believe or take at face value my mother's statement that ‘we'll be needed to lend a hand in easing the pain of [the evacuation of Japanese Americans]’”. “As we struggle with all the injustices that undergird our privilege, I honor those of our White ancestors who saw injustice and did what they were able to counter it. I am very glad to give my mother's papers to an institution that will preserve them and make them available for future study.”
One example of an area where I have been working with a group of people to choose the right path at a crossroads is the project to honor those who died while escaping from slavery on the Underground Railroad and were secretly buried in unmarked graves in the Upper Dublin PA Friends Meeting graveyard. Two powerfully moving memorial services were held at the Upper Dublin Friends Meeting House in February to honor the people who are buried there. “We are giving them dignity,” said Avis Wanda McClinton, the only Black member of Upper Dublin Meeting, whose vision inspired this project, “because they never had it. Nobody ever cared about them.” An interracial, interdenomininational, intergenerational group of people from the wider community gathered for these memorial services. “We made a place for everyone to feel comfortable to say what they really feel,” said Avis. It was a profoundly moving occasion. People spoke from the heart. “It has resonated with people afterward,” said Avis. One Black woman who attended the service was so moved by it that she went back and talked about it to her White employer at a gravestone company, who immediately offered to donate and install a memorial marker on the site. The principal of the public middle school near the Meeting House is planning to invite Avis to come to speak to the students in assembly to tell them about the history that is in their back yard. In addition to the donated grave marker that is to be put on the burial site, the State of Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission has just approved the placement of an historical marker on the site honoring Hannah and Thomas Atkinson, abolitionist members of Upper Dublin Meeting around the time of the Civil War.
This project has resonated with the deep desire of the Black community to reclaim their heritage. It is an example of how the passion and leading of one Friend has been the stone dropped in the pond that is generating big ripples. It has created a special opportunity for cooperation across race and class lines to create a space to honor the multi-racial history of this country. It points to a special crossroads opportunity for Philadelphia Yearly Meeting Quakers to choose to honor this, by finding ways to work together with local people of all backgrounds in our own local communities to contribute to the healing from the legacy of slavery. We are faced with a choice.
Supporters of this project in Upper Dublin are now in the process of creating a video of the memorial service that was held at the Meeting House in February. We hope this video will be used in Meetings and community groups everywhere to inspire people to carry on similar work in their own communities, and plan to have it put in the Quaker archives at Haverford College. For more information please contact: [email protected].
I’ve been to WPC14. Now I ask to be held accountable for not just being a conference goer, but to take action working together with people across race and class lines to make choices that can help make our world more just and equitable.
Following are some resources that I recommend:
Books: By Mary Matuda Gruenewald: Looking Like the Enemy: My Story of Imprisonment in Japanese-American Internment Camps, and Becoming Mama-San: 80 Years of Wisdom