INTERVIEW WITH REPRESENTATIVE SHARON TOMIKO SANTOS
Katrina Hajagos: What was your first political act?
Representative Sharon Tomiko Santos: Broadly speaking, my first political activities aimed to build community . . . I just didn’t know it at the time. As the daughter of a Christian clergyman who ministered to Issei immigrants and of a classroom teacher who served children with severe developmental disabilities, I learned from an early age the value of bridging divides of age, language, culture, as well as physical and cognitive abilities.
I remember my dad pioneering efforts to establish meaningful relationships between the linguistically isolated elderly Japanese immigrants and their equally monolingual American-born grandchildren through the Issei-Sansei project in San Francisco. These types of efforts evolved into his fierce advocacy for the creation of Issei Concerns(today, Nikkei Concerns) to build the first culturally competent, linguistically appropriate skilled nursing facility in Seattle so that the Issei could thrive in community with others who understood them and their traditions. This upbringing instilled in me a deep concern for immigrants and our aged, which continues to inform my political priorities.
My mother engaged me with her classes where I served as a “teacher’s helper” with students who attended on gurneys, in wheelchairs, and with leg braces. She worked at a public elementary school that “mainstreamed” special education students with general education students at a time when it was uncommon to integrate “regular” students and students with significant need for physical, occupational, and developmental support in the same schools. I watched and learned as the mutual exposure of both student populations helped to “normalize” the presence of children with special needs in the school community, eliminating the need to segregate and, thus, stigmatize people based on different abilities. As the Chair of the House Education Committee, these children remain my greatest inspiration for believing that every child can succeed in school when our educational systems recognize and support the differences in their aspirations, in their abilities, and in their assets.
Katrina Hajagos: What recent news article, book, piece of art, play, movie, song or other cultural artifact pertaining to women’s issues are you currently mulling around in your head? In particular, is there something that made you question, re-examine, or clarify your position and beliefs? This could also be something that just plain inspired you.
Representative Sharon Tomiko Santos: I don’t often have the opportunity to enjoy a movie, so I’m glad I was able to see Hidden Figures when it was in the theaters. I appreciate that this film touches upon the challenges associated with the intersections of race and gender. As a woman of color, I am not a woman first and an Asian American second; nor am I an Asian American first and a woman second. I am always and at all times an Asian American woman. Yet, I am frequently required to subsume my racial identity and concerns to global gender issues.
For example, Washington state legislators and lobbyists quickly and rightly denounced local sexual harassment and gender discrimination that came to light in the aftermath of recent public reporting about these despicably widespread actions and attitudes. Our legislative leadership immediately announced plans for rigorous review, reflection, and revision of institutional policies and practices “to bring an end to sexual harassment in our legislative workplace.”
But, when an overt act of racism shut down the floor speech of a legislator – who happens to be a woman of a color – my legislative colleagues and leadership were complicit in enabling this to occur. To add insult to injury, the conditions that allow individual and institutional racism to persist have yet to be addressed eight months later. This is in contrast to the unequivocal pronouncements against gender-based harassment and discrimination that were issued within days of sexual harassment disclosures in the Washington State Legislature:
“We want to be clear that harassment of any kind will not be tolerated. The Legislature must be a safe environment . . . . ” “We need to ensure that we have a safe space for people to speak out. We need to ensure that problems are dealt with swiftly and appropriately.”
This seems only to apply in select situations.
As I shared with a few of my female colleagues, I resent the persistent and pervasive expectation placed on me by the feminist majority to prioritize gender-based issues and concerns over my issues and concerns as a person of color. This type of marginalization continues to perpetuate the political and cultural subjugation of people and communities of color. My identity and issues as a woman of color are integrated and, I believe, our society’s efforts to eradicate racial and gender discrimination and harassment must be equally integrated.\
Katrina Hajagos: If there was one web link you could share with us that would continue this conversation or elaborate on your work or interests, what would it be?
Representative Sharon Tomiko Santos: For understanding the history of the Japanese American community and their World War II experiences, I highly recommend Densho: The Japanese American Legacy Project (www.densho.org).
While many websites focus on gender issues and others on race and ethnicity, I am sadly unaware of any website dedicated to the intersections of race and gender. However, an increasing number of scholarly papers and conferences are devoted to studying this subject.