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Teach-in outside school board meeting will protest exclusion of book on Japanese-American internment

Ron Kuramoto and Kabby Hong will both speak at the teach-in Monday.

Parents and community members of the Muskego-Norway school district in Waukesha County will hold a “teach in” and give away 100 copies of the novel “When the Emperor Was Divine” by Julie Otsuka outside Monday’s school board meeting.

The event will take place at 6:30 pm Monday outside the Educational Services Center Building, W18763 Woods Road in Muskego.

The event comes in response to the board’s Curriculum Planning Committee’s refusal to approve the novel for the high school’s advanced English classes. The committee members have not spoken publicly about the decision, but parent Anne Zielke’s detailed notes of the June 13 meeting indicate the committee did not give clear reasons for the book’s not being approved, other than one member not liking it and another saying it had been chosen because it was “diverse.”

Zielke told other media outlets that in subsequent conversations, board members said the book didn’t provide “balance” or “the American perspective.”

That argument doesn’t hold much water for 2022 Wisconsin Teacher of the Year Kabby Hong, an English teacher at Verona Area High School.

In an interview with Madison365, Hong noted that the novel tells the story of a family of Japanese Americans, born in California and rounded up into internment camps during the second World War.

“That’s an American story. That is the American perspective,” Hong said. “If you’re an Asian American, your American identity is constantly questioned. You know, we’re always asked, ‘Where are you really from? Because you couldn’t be from Missouri or California. Because someone that looks like you isn’t really an American.’ And so when I read that comment (regarding the American perspective), I was really upset. In the context of the explosion of hate crimes against Asian Americans, and the new research that shows that 33% of Americans believe that Asian Americans are more loyal to their home country than to the US, it’s disturbing that in 2022, this is where we are right now. And what’s the antidote to all this? Well, it should be education. We should be talking about this more, not less. … Nobody is debating this issue as having ‘both sides.’ You can’t find a single reputable historian or a politician that is trying to debate both sides. And yet, the board members decided to make this about showing both sides. I don’t understand why they would do that.”

The “American perspective” is not in dispute, said Ron Kuramoto, president of the Japanese American Citizens League Wisconsin Chapter and member of the executive committee of the Asian American Pacific Islander Coalition of Wisconsin. 

“The American government perspective is the status quo,” Kuramoto said, noting that Republican president Ronald Reagan formally acknowledged and apologized for the internment back in 1988. “That 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent of which 68,000 were US citizens were rounded up without any form of due process, just because of their ancestry. And so I find that as an American, I find that appalling. But I mean, it also is quite telling in that it has kind of repeated itself in the calls, for instance, for the whole rounding up of Muslims after 9/11 and the camps that we have down on the border with immigrants right now.”

Kuramoto said he knows the history all too well, as much of his family – parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins – were incarcerated in the camps.

“Asian American history is American history. It’s all of our history,” he said. “And when parts are taught, and others are kept hidden, nobody benefits.”

Kuramoto stressed that he and Hong were invited to speak at the event, which is being hosted by local, mostly white parents.

“Muskego is a very, very conservative community, but there are a lot of allies who love their public education,” Hong said.

“It’s not like outsiders coming in and then leaving,” Kuramoto said. “These are people that live there, have kids in the school, and are concerned about the quality of the education that kids get, inviting us to come in, to comment on our experience.”

Nearly 300 of those community members have signed a petition calling for the book to be added to the English curriculum.

“We believe that this book should be accepted for the classroom based solely on its academic value, and we are infuriated that it has been met with an ideology that forcefully shuts down any mention of historically disenfranchised people,” the petition reads in part. “We do not believe the Muskego-Norway School Board has provided adequate reasoning for When the Emperor Was Divine to be denied a place in the Accelerated English 10 curriculum, and we demand that our district puts our trust in the judgment of our teachers. We earnestly support the teaching of this book in the classroom, and we believe that rejecting this book will mark a severe decline in the quality of education and curriculum discussion in this district.”

Kuramoto said he’d rather speak directly to the school board in a public setting, but that’s not being allowed.

“There is no public comment allowed at their school board meeting on this unless the issue is on the agenda, and they refuse to put it on the agenda. So there is not much other choice, other than to do something outside of the school board meeting,” he said.

Both Hong and Kuramoto said it’s important for diverse perspectives to be represented even in almost-all-white school districts like Muskego-Norway.

“We don’t talk about diverse voices for just the kids of color. It’s just as important for someone who doesn’t connect with that race,” Hong said. “I mean, I would argue that it’s even more important for someone who isn’t Japanese American, to hear these stories. Because if you are Asian American, you understand these issues, if you are a person of color, you know, these are not foreign issues to you. I think sometimes, you know, it’s actually more important that it’s happening in communities where there aren’t many Asian American kids.”

Hong said he’s optimistic that the teach-in and subsequent efforts will be successful.

“You have to be an optimist to be a teacher,” he said. “I think that’s one quality that you have to have. You’re basically hoping for the future, (that) your work today is going to pay off down the road. And I am optimistic because I think that whenever you talk to anyone about this issue, the more the facts come out, I think the better it is for us.”

He said he hopes people paying attention to the teach-in will learn not only about Asian American history but also the importance of engagement in the political process.

“I’m hoping that people just take an interest in their local elections and hold their elected officials accountable if they say something just really outrageous like this,” he said.