The Everyday Brave: James Yamakawa

(Everyday Bravery, Day 9)

When the idea for this Everyday Bravery project first occurred to me, one of the most prominent things in my mind was the collection of brave people I have known in my own life. And one of the first of them I thought of was my friend James Yamakawa.

These Walls - The Everyday Brave - pic of James Yamakawa

James and I went to high school together. It’s been years since I’ve seen him in person, but I’ve enjoyed keeping tabs on him and his beautiful family via Facebook. He is a husband, a stay-at-home father of three, a martial arts instructor, a member of Faith Lutheran Church in Salisbury, Maryland, and the head organizer for the group Showing Up for Racial Justice Delmarva. (More on that later.)

One of the things that has stood out to me in these years of following James online is that he is a person who tries. He doesn’t seem content to sit back and let the world pass him by. Rather, in his enthusiasm for his family, his church, his work, and his community, James comes across as someone who just about dives into life.

James and I come from different religious and political backgrounds. We disagree on the substance of some important issues and, I’m sure, on aspects of any number of smaller issues too. But I love watching James go about his trying. Because in doing what he does, James seems to be engaged in a dialog with the world. He’s not somebody who will shout a slogan at you and then walk away. He’s somebody who will hold up a big, controversial poster and then pour you a cup of coffee to talk about it. (Figuratively speaking. Though I wouldn’t be surprised to know that James also does that literally.)

James is a person of good will. And I think he’s awfully brave. Below you’ll find a little interview I did with him about bravery and about his work organizing the group Showing Up for Racial Justice Delmarva.

(1) What is Showing Up for Racial Justice Delmarva and what prompted you to organize it?

The group is part of the larger, national SURJ movement, whose goal is to inspire white Americans to stand up and speak out to their communities about racism. A friend and I started the group shortly after attending a Martin Luther King Day rally in Annapolis this past winter. However, the process, internally speaking, probably began much earlier, as I started reading more on social media from voices of color, from a perspective that I had not really ever thought about before. I am half-Japanese, from my father’s side, but for all intents and purposes I present as “white,” and I benefit from appearing like that.

(2) What in your upbringing – in your family and/or your faith – encouraged you to be brave?

If I had to say the one thing that informs how I approach all of this, it’s my belief in a God that loves me for who I am, and that there is nothing I can do to make him love me any more or any less. For some that may be a reason for indifference, but for me it means having the freedom to take action. To decide to do what you think is right, because no matter what happens, God is there for you. It’s a freedom I have been looking for throughout a troubled childhood and a tumultuous growing up; becoming a husband, a father, and learning what it means to be a true member of a community. Not only am I free to make mistakes, but also free to be content that I’ve done at least some good. The latter is definitely the more difficult for me to grasp. And when dealing with an issue like talking about race, you have to be willing to make mistakes, because that’s the only way you can learn to do better than you are now.

(3) What does bravery feel like to you?

First off, I would like to say that I don’t think I can call myself “brave”. I think bravery is something that is ascribed to you, whether you want it or not. There’s a southern African concept of “Ubuntu” – “I am because we are.” If I am brave it’s because I’ve done something that others consider brave. Perhaps that’s just the Lutheran in me, but I never feel “brave” myself.

If I had to distill it down into a feeling though, I’d say it’s like a weird combination of calmness and dread. You know what you are about to do is going to make you different afterwards, somehow, from who you were before. And a part of you doesn’t want to do it, but you go ahead and do it anyway. But consider that what little discomfort I get out of doing this is nothing compared to that which many black Americans experience every day, without fanfare.

(4) What most threatens your bravery?

Definitely fear. There’s probably a reason that “Fear Not” is used so often in scripture!  Fear of making a choice, and getting off the fence. Putting myself out there as saying “I believe this is the right thing to do,” and then having to do that and defend that. I’m not saying I always choose the braver course of action, but I like to think I do more now than I did before. And trying to talk to my friends, my neighbors, sometimes complete strangers about tackling a culture of white supremacy from the inside, it can get scary, because you don’t know what’s going to happen. You may lose a friend. There may be anger directed at you, especially online, where the worst angels of our nature tend to get the most airtime. It gets uncomfortable, at the best of times, but I don’t think God would want us to be comfortable at all with racism.

(5) Is there anything else you’d like to offer on the subject?

I’m a quote guy. I like to read and try to emulate wisdom from sources older, smarter, and definitely more eloquent than myself. One of my favorites is the poet, farmer, and theologian Wendell Berry. In his essay The Hidden Wound, he writes:

It is not, I think, a question of when and how the white people will “free” the black and the red people. It is a condescension to believe that we have the power to do that. Until we have recognized in them the full strength and grace of their distinctive humanity we will be able to set no one free, for we will not be free ourselves. When we realize that they possess a knowledge for the lack of which we are incomplete and in pain, then the wound in our history will be healed. Then they will simply be free, among us–and so will we, among ourselves for the first time, and among them.

That speaks to me, because one of the pitfalls of doing this kind of activism is a well-meaning white guy trying to “save” black people. They don’t need saving. We, “white people,” need to worry about saving ourselves. We are not the primary victims of white supremacy, not by a longshot. But in a way, it hurts us, just in different ways, because it forces us into separation from our neighbor, from that which would make us whole. It fractures community. So working towards racial justice is really an act of Atonement, “at-one-ment,” that is meant to bring us together, not to divide as so many seem to be convinced it is doing. It’s an act of love. Love of our neighbor as ourselves, and love of that from which they were created.

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One note before we end: As my readers will know, last week I published some of my own thoughts on racism and racial justice. Though I am following that post with James’ story, I want to be clear that I am not trying, in this one interview, to be exhaustive in showing what bravery on that big, complex, divisive issue looks like. Most especially, I’m not trying to make one white man’s experience representative of the countless African Americans who work toward racial justice every day.

I just started with someone I knew. I started with a friend.

If you have an example of bravery on this issue or another – an idea of someone I might want to interview, please let me know. I’m enamored with this The Everyday Brave idea and I hope to continue it beyond my Write 31 Days project.

Thanks in advance for your ideas – and thanks especially to James for allowing me to interview him.

these-walls-the-everyday-brave-james-yamakawa

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This post is the ninth in a series called Everyday Bravery: A Write 31 Days Challenge. Every day this month I’m publishing a blog post on Everyday bravery – not the heroic kind, not the kind that involves running into a burning building or overcoming some incredible hardship. Rather, the kinds of bravery that you and I can undertake in our real, regular lives. To see the full list of posts in the series, please check out its introduction.

These Walls - Everyday Bravery

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Interested in coming along with me as I share stories about my family and chew on the topics of motherhood, politics, and society? Like These Walls on Facebook or follow the blog via email. (Click the link on the sidebar to the right.) You can also follow me on Twitter and Instagram and you can find me at my politics blog at the Catholic Review, called The Space Between.

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