Densho Digital Archive
Densho Visual History Collection
Title: Peter Irons Interview II
Narrator: Peter Irons
Interviewers: Alice Ito (primary), Lorraine Bannai (secondary)
Location: Seattle, Washington
Date: October 27, 2000
Densho ID: denshovh-ipeter-02-0022

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LB: I think that's something that strikes me about so much of what you've talked about in these interviews. When you were working with Smith and working on race issues in the South and then working on the internment issues, you had very much been a white person working on race issues with members of those racial communities. Were there some unique aspects to working with an all-Asian American -- not an all-Asian American team, mostly Asian American, mostly Japanese American team -- for you?

PI: Well, there were in many of the same ways that when I was working in the Civil Rights movement and working with SNCC, being an outsider or at least different, and initially being very unsure. Would they like me? Would they welcome me in? Can we work together? Do they feel that I'm intruding in a way? And I'd felt this several times in the Civil Rights movement, particularly at the point when the black power movement started to become, take over and whites were excluded from SNCC. In fact SNCC expelled all its white members and staff at one point. And feeling well, maybe they, maybe the Japanese Americans or the Asian Americans just want to work with us but not include us in. And there were other Caucasians in the group, Bob Rusky being one of them. And I realized pretty soon that this wasn't going to happen. But for me, I've always felt that, not that I had to overcome my race because it's something, I mean, you can't overcome it. You just have to deal with it. But that it gave me much more of a sense of where I, where I came from. The fact that, not that I was trying to atone for anything or my ancestors' responsibilities, anything like that, but simply that I had to realize that I came out of a much different background culturally and in other ways.

One of the things, incidentally, about the whole coram nobis effort was all of the cultural things that I had to learn. You know, speech patterns and jokes, and in-jokes and things like that. I'd learned this earlier with black people, particularly when I was in prison. And you know how they talk to each other, and there's sort of a, in a way sort of a code when it's all just them or when they're letting somebody else in, things are a little different. And one thing I realized was that a lot of the stereotypes, as much as I prided myself on not having stereotypes, a lot of the stereotypes I had about Asian Americans, Asians in general -- not having known any really before I started working with the legal team -- that everybody would be sort of quiet and a little reserved and formal, were totally untrue. In fact, even if this was true to some extent in public settings, it was definitely not true in private. That people were just like anybody else, that people could be more uninhibited and raucous and laid back than, than anybody would ever suspect. And to me, as a fairly uptight person in general, this was very liberating, the idea that I didn't always have to be formal with people. So that was one aspect of it. It just personally that made an impact on me.

<End Segment 22> - Copyright © 2000 Densho. All Rights Reserved.