Dr. Kathryn Takara Shares Her Views On Racial Inequality
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Dr. Kathryn Takara is a longtime educator, poet and community leader in Hawai‘i. In 1996 she received the University of Hawai‘i Regents’ Medal for Excellence in Teaching in recognition of her work as faculty in the Department of Ethnic Studies. She is the owner, editor and publisher of Pacific Raven Press which she founded in 2008 (pacificravenpress.co).
Q: Where were you born?
A: I was born in Tuskegee, Alabama, which was considered an affluent African American university town in the Black Belt of the Deep South. At the university we had students from Africa, Asian Americans and Native Americans so there was a familiarity with otherness but not a familiarity with whiteness.
Because of the history of African Americans in our country, we were exposed to all kinds of different colors even within our race. In other words, some of my relatives had blue eyes and brown hair, while others were darker skinned. So that range of familiarity with colorism was taken for granted.
Q: Tell me about your parents.
A: My mother was a French professor at the university, and my father was a veterinarian. My mother grew up in Tuskegee and came from a background of Northern European and African descent.
My father was Cherokee, Senegalese and white and grew up very poor in Richmond, Virginia. He was one of the last surviving Buffalo Soldiers [of the Civil War], and he knew and had worked with George Washington Carver.
Q: What was it like growing up in Tuskegee at that time?
A: Well, I went to a lab school at the university which was co-founded by my mother’s relatives. We had good books and well-trained teachers, so education was instilled in me from a very early age by my parents as a way to escape racism.
There was a class and color gradient in Tuskegee and in the surrounding county of Macon that kept everyone in their place. The local area was 70-80% black; there were lots of cotton fields, tenant farmers and sharecroppers; and just about everyone was poor. Some of those children also attended the lab school with me, but most went to schools that were limited to hand-me-down books, poor facilities and poor lighting. But people were resourceful, so they adapted. This was all after the Brown vs. Board of Education decision [in 1954 which established racial integration in public schools], but nothing had changed in Tuskegee. It was all the same.
Q: What do you think is the difference between the African American experience and the Japanese American experience in our country?
A: I think Japanese Americans have succeeded because their culture is based on a close family-centered foundation, whereas African American families were so broken apart from the beginning of slavery. When I was born, there were so many black men that had to go off to find a job whether it was as a Pullman porter or a musician to provide for their families.
So Japanese Americans have had that legacy of being proud of their traditions, supporting one another and working together. African Americans have not had that. Instead we’ve been indoctrinated into the American idea of individualism where I’m going to get mine and do my thing and heck with anybody else.
Q: So how did you end up in Hawai‘i?
A: My parents wanted something better for me so they enrolled me in a Quaker high school in Bucks County, Pennsylvania; that was a huge contrast to my all-black community in Alabama.
The Quaker philosophy was wonderful, and I began to realize that the more abstract principles of humanism were already embedded in me. I went on to travel the world and earn French degrees from Tufts University and [the University of California,] Berkeley, but the closer I got to Hawai‘i, the more my true essence emerged.
Eventually I earned my Ph.D. at the University of Hawai‘i, and that’s why I am here in Ka‘a‘awa living as a country girl because this beautiful place resonates with me.
Q: What do you think is happening to our country today?
A: There is a great fear of losing that is causing people to gravitate to the present administration in hopes that their status and privilege will be maintained. Because of ignorance, people are fearful of the truth — We are all human beings, and we are all in this together.
Q: Do you see an end to this soon?
A: Despite my sheltered childhood in Tuskegee, and my privileged life at mostly white academic institutions, I am still familiar with violence. My cousin, who was a civil rights worker in the South, was murdered on the streets of Tuskegee by a white man.
There is no way out of this until fairness is more evenly distributed in the justice system, in education, in housing and in healthcare. I do see some adjustments; I am more optimistic today than I was in the past, but I despair and rage at the leadership of our country.
I am an educator and I shiver at the lack of inclusiveness in our schools that don’t teach about Americans of color and their contributions to our nation. Instead it’s been all about the majority and everyone accepts it. Well, what is happening today is people are finally beginning to wake up and question history.
Q: Why should the Japanese American community care about the protests that are occurring today?
A: Well, look at the policy of the internment camps in World War II and the rising number of anti-Asian incidents erupting on the mainland. The fight for equality is not someone else’s fight. This is all part of a bigger struggle for justice and equality that we must all play a part in, if democracy is to succeed.
Q: If you could give some advice to the broader community what would it be?
A: We have to look and listen more wisely — when there are stereotypes we have to have the courage to go beyond them. We have to get beyond the instinctive notion of “what is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours.”
I encourage people to get out and meet people outside of their normal experience. And don’t think just because you meet one nice person or one nice family of a group that they are the exception. Listening, seeing, mixing and getting around — all those things contribute to a more balanced human being, and that is what we have to aim for as individuals, as groups and as a nation.
Fear is so destructive and yet so prevalent, because people think they need it to survive. And they don’t. There’s got to be something better, because what we are talking about is our democratic future.
Alan Suemori teaches Asian American history at ‘Iolani School. He is a former Hawai’i Herald staff writer.