Ethnic Studies: A Poem by Troy Osaki 

Troy Osaki  UW AES newsletter
Troy Osaki, ASE '13

Troy Osaki (AES ’13) began writing this poem while an undergraduate, as a way to describe the most important things he learned as an AES major. Over two or three years the poem germinated, lengthened, and transformed into a story format. “When a poem is a story you have lived through, it can take time to figure out its meaning,” Osaki says.“

Osaki is a spoken word poet and teaching artist who has led workshops for high school and college groups and for youth in transitional housing. He also is a second-year law student at Seattle University. Osaki won the 2013 UW Poetry Grand Slam and the 2015 Rain City Poetry Slam and represented Seattle at the National Poetry Slam for the second year in a row. Learn more about Osaki and his work at:

“I am thankful for the AES program because it was the first educational space where I had the opportunity to learn about my family’s history and my cultural identity,” he says. “I write to honor my family's legacy and to share my experiences in hopes of creating authentic relationships with others, and to work in solidarity with all groups of marginalized people.”

Osaki finished this poem just a few months ago. It asks hard questions and offers searing answers. Scroll down to read it, or print the page as a pdf file.


When talking
about school
I’m often
about my major

Ethnic Studies

“What is it?
What do you study?
Did you say ‘ethic’
or ‘ethnic’?

What do you plan
to do after college?

What kind of job
can you get
with that sort of degree?”

When they ask me
about my major
I will not attempt
to make it sound pretty
for them to care

Ethnic Studies
is dissecting
the vault
of deadbolts
my ancestors
have been locked behind

In 1941
the Empire of Japan
bombed an American
naval base
known as Pearl Harbor

Shockwaves crashed
into the west coast
as the United States
exploded into war hysteria

families of Japanese decent
were imprisoned
as if they never belonged
to this country
in the first place

Boys over the age of 17
were forced
to fill out
loyalty questionnaires

Are you willing
to serve
in the armed forces
of the United States of America
on combat duty
wherever ordered?

Will you swear
unqualified allegiance
to the United States of America?

To defend
the United States
from any foreign
or domestic force?

Including the Japanese Emperor?

In public school
I pronounced
the pledge of allegiance
like a homing missile
aiming for assimilation
with the rest
of my peers

I did not know
that boys
who looked like me
were once used
as targets

Their bodies
hollowed out
as bunkers
sent directly
into suicide charges

Our nation
saw yellow skin
before uniform
Jap before citizen
always foreign
and enemy

My family
was never American
unless they said so

Pretending to fit in
was taken
as serious
as a punch line

I am still
the inside joke
America will never
let me in on

My culture
is a museum
teachers talk about
like tour guides

but they never
want to excavate
their own past

In 1968
student activists
demanded accurate representation
of my history
taught from the bottom up

Police responded
with excessive violence

Venom tossed from their mouths
like tear gas
refusing to let my history
breathe in class

The National Guard
attempted to riot club
the gallop
out of every students’ legs

is still trying
to tame us

Ethnic Studies
is clearing the smoke
of every flash bang
that has disoriented us
for centuries

it is a gas mask

cutting ourselves loose
from the zip ties
of western education

it is a safe house
for every time
I feel invaded

I am reclaiming myself
whenever I walk
into class

Ethnic Studies
is not having to explain myself
to anyone who asks


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