The Japanese American community taught an invaluable lesson to the administrators of Bellevue College, considered one of wealthiest colleges in the Washington state college system. Asian American and Pacific Islander faculty, staff, and students brought Erin Shigaki’s art installation “Never Again is Now”, an 11-foot high mural of two children standing in a concentration camp to commemorate the Day of Remembrance. It was the only Day of Remembrance commemoration in Bellevue. A member of the Bellevue College administration defaced the artist description by covering the following sentence with white out:
“After decades of anti-Japanese agitation, led by Eastside businessman Miller Freeman and others, the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans included the 60 families (300 individuals) who farmed Bellevue.”
The white supremacist campaigns of Miller Freeman are well documented, as are the efforts to downplay or cover up his role in driving Japanese Americans out of Bellevue. At a Remembrance Ceremony held March 3, 2020 at Bellevue College next to the art installation, Stan Shikuma, President of the Japanese American Citizens League, stated the first R is to remember. We remember, not for recrimination, but because we don’t want to repeat history. We remember for our children. This erasure of history was so successful that even many of the social justice activists at the college did not know. That this part of history continues to be literally whitewashed shows the legacy of white supremacy.
The college has now had six presidents in the last eight years and incidents of disrespect and outright harassment have occurred during the tenure of every single one. With regards to Stan Shikuma’s second R, restoration of spirit, unity, the value of people and trust in leadership, after the defacement the AAPI faculty, staff and students called in the greater community because the administration made several attempts at restoration which seemed to amount to asking the AAPI faculty and staff to fix the mess. Administrations maintain the status quo, sometimes without seeing how much it is steeped in white supremacy.
But our students learned. They learned to speak out at college forums, made eloquent statements in television interviews while the administration was unavailable for comment; documented the process and took photographs which were credited and used in national articles; and created art that spoke to how the defacement impacted them personally. Faculty took classes to the defacement to give a lesson on censorship. Students learned the power of writing clearly and concisely to get a message across so that it resonates with the country. The students get it. They were the first to speak out. If there is trust engendered by this defacement, it is in the leadership of the future.
Bellevue College has a graduation rate of 29% for first time students, which is a standardized measure. But, that may not be the dismal part of the picture. Are we teaching our students the skills for the coming millennium where artificial intelligence is projected to take more and more jobs? Isn’t what they learned from the defacement—the impactfulness of art to motivate action; critically analyzing history to differentiate between revisionism and truth; communicating to mobilize; and holding institutions accountable–the skills that we need to deal with misogynist and privacy-invading technology companies and the culture around the 737 Max that tragically took lives and may cost Boeing over $18B in expenses and $92 billion in market value?
Stan Shikuma’s last R was rededication. If we think this is the end, we are sadly mistaken. This is only the beginning. The blowback has already started. The college has lost two of its leaders. There is anxiety abound. Some forums are even making this a partisan issue. This is when we begin the hard work of rededication to what it means to be an American citizen, permanent resident, undocumented, and marginalized. This is when we test and retest whether we are upholding a society where all people are created equal.