Kids need to learn the ugly parts of America’s history

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I made my 11-year old daughter cry yesterday.

We were driving to the beach, and we passed the Portland Expo Center. It’s not the usual way we go, but the traffic was bad and this would let us avoid downtown.

I asked her if she knew anything about World War 2, and she knew a little… she remembered, for instance, that in that war the US was fighting against Germany and Japan.

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So I pointed out the Expo building to her, and I told her, “During the war, the US government was afraid that Americans with Japanese heritage might be spies or might side with Japan, so they gathered them all up in that building. It was a livestock building. They moved all the cattle out and moved all the people in, and they kept them there for almost a year.”

“Did they kill them?” she asked.

“No,” I said. “But they all lost their jobs. Many of them lost their businesses, their houses, and most of their possessions.”

She didn’t say anything after that, but she’s a sensitive kid and I looked over to see that she was softly crying, wiping the tears from her eyes with the sleeve of her sweatshirt.

Why would I do that to my kid?

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Well it’s not because of “CRT” or because I hate white people, or because I want her to. It’s not because I’m cruel or overly fixated on race. It’s not because of political correctness or politics.

It’s because things like this still happen today and they’ll happen again in the future and when that day comes I don’t want her to stick her head in the sand and say, “Well that could never happen in the Land of the Free,” but instead be one of the people standing up to say, “Not this again, this is wrong, how dare you.”


It’s because she has Asian-American friends, and when they are in danger or the victims of Anti-Asian racism or violence I don’t want her to be confused or surprised, I want her to be able to stand in the gap to protect, support, and comfort her friends.

It’s because she has Latina friends who have been deported. It’s because she has Asian-American friends who have family members who have been spit on or harassed. And just because she’s 11 and white doesn’t mean she should be shielded from that… her friends of color aren’t. She’s old enough to know that the world her friends live in is the same world she’s in.

And yes, she needs to know that these things happened in living memory. That right now there’s a kind older woman who volunteers at the Japanese American Museum of Oregon who will tell you the story of when her family packed their bags and met at the Expo Center. She’ll tell you about how they stayed in a cattle stall with a sheet for a door, and how the flypaper hung over her, heavy with flies, while her family tried to figure out what was going to happen to them all, what their own government was going to do to them (the answer being, send them to a camp in California and then transfer them to a camp in Idaho where they would live one family to a room, sleeping on cots, the guards outside the camp with their rifles, barbed wire on the fences. The answer being that some of their fathers and brothers got out early if they volunteered to fight, but the families remained in the camps, imprisoned by their own government, not “innocent until proven guilty” but “presumed guilty because of their ethnicity.”).

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She needs to know that if every story she ever hears about the USA is “we are the good guys” that she’s listening to liars. We have done some incredible, beautiful things in the world (and still are), and we have done some horrific, evil things in the world (and still are).

Because we’re not raising her to be a good American, we’re raising her to be a good person.

And because when we’re driving through the streets of our cities, the history matters. We should be able to point out, “This church belonged to Black people until the city decided it was time to revitalize downtown and they forced all the African Americans north, out of downtown.” We should be able to say, “This is Fort Vancouver” and also know that the coming of that fort meant that in a span of barely thirty years entire cultures of Native people were nearly wiped out by smallpox and other diseases… and many of the remaining peoples were forced onto the worst pieces of land at the threat of death so that the great American empire could continue to expand.

I tell my daughter all of this not because of some political agenda. I tell her because it’s true.

I tell her this because if she’s going to be a good citizen she needs to know what to fight against. She needs to know who we’ve been to recognize who we are.

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I tell her this because I love America and I want us to be better.

I tell her this because I love her and I don’t want her to grow up closing her eyes to injustice.

I tell her this because she needs to know that when we talk about camps built for racist reasons in World War 2 we call them “concentration camps” in Germany and we call them “internment camps” in California or Idaho. She needs to know that we try to hide it, to soften it, to make it somehow something understandable rather than something evil.

I tell her this because once upon a time on May 2nd, 1942, three thousand six hundred and seventy-six Japanese Americans showed up at the Expo center carrying their bags – they could only bring what they could carry — or carrying their infants and toddlers, and were moved into cattle stalls. They lived there, in our city, for five months until we could get our camps built, get the barbed wire installed, get the guard posts filled, get the trains ready to pack with our own citizens.

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I tell her because their story – OUR story – matters. She needs to know.

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I tell her all this because if she’s never cried about something America has done, she doesn’t know America.

This post was first published on the author’s Facebook page. Find more writing from Matt Mikolatos on his website.

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