Courtesy Keiko Elizabeth. Inset: Michael Tullberg/Getty
Keiko Elizabeth, 38, currently stars on Showtime's City on a Hill, where she portrays U.S. Attorney Karen Shimizu, a woman whose childhood in a World War II Japanese internment camp shaped her life. It's a topic that parallels her own family history, as Elizabeth's Japanese father was born in the Tule Lake internment camp in California. Growing up, the actress' background sparked many conversations about race, identity and what her father's childhood journey symbolized. Elizabeth was raised in a primarily white town in North California where being born to a Japanese father and half white, half Chilean mother made her often misunderstood by her classmates and teachers. She's currently making a documentary about her family's experience in the Japanese internment camps and is passionate about raising awareness about the discrimination Asians face. Below, she shares her background with racism and her thoughts on anti-Asian hate, as told to PEOPLE:
My dad and his younger sister were born in one of the 10 internment camps in World War II His camp, Tule Lake, was actually renamed as a "segregation center," because it was the most sort of militarized of all the camps during that time.
After the war, when he was 2, his entire family decided to repatriate to Japan. His family was of mixed citizenship. My grandfather was a Japanese citizen, but my grandmother and the three children (my dad was the middle child and the only son) were American citizens.
He returned to the U.S. at age 16, in part because as a US citizen, he was required to register for the draft in the U.S., and in part because as an American citizen it would have been hard for him to build a life in Japan at that time – to get a job, go to college, etc. would have been hard as an American citizen of Japanese descent living in Japan.
courtesy Keiko Elizabeth Jean Yoshiko Suda, Sumire Suda, Izumi Suda (the actress' father) in Tokyo, 1950
He came here on his own, expecting his family to come. His mother was an American citizen too and she always wanted to come back, but she died in Japan shortly after his arrival in the U.S., so he lived here alone with a white family that didn't treat him very well. Growing up, I remember my dad saying things like, "You know, the worst thing about racism is that it makes you run, even though nobody's chasing you anymore."
In December 2018, I took my dad and his sister back to the camp, which was in California, close to the Oregon border. My dad was born in December, so we went in December because I wanted the full of effects of what it was like for my grandma when she was with them. It was so freezing, and completely in the middle of nowhere, totally desolate.
My dad was like, "I want to go step on the piece of land where my family lived." I had a letter that my grandma sent with the barrack number on the return address, and we had a blueprint and there was like the post, which represented the hospital. It was like something out of a movie.
When we got out there, my dad pulled some of the grass out with his hands, and he fashioned this little cross. We had brought pictures of my grandparents with us and created an impromptu memorial for them when we were out there. It was really beautiful. My dad and my aunt both found it to be very meaningful. The land was very powerful.
I remember when I was in high school, we were studying World War II in history class. I told my teacher, "My dad was born in an internment camp and he had this experience during the war if you want him to come in." And my teacher was so offended, that I had brought up this part of history that he didn't think was that important ... I was like, "Okay, I'm sorry that I asked." It was this really interesting moment because I grew up talking about it all the time, and he was like, "I don't teach about that."
I grew up in a pretty non-diverse town outside of Sacramento, really white. When people were becoming more conscious of these [racial] dynamics recently, it really brought up a lot of stuff that I'd experienced growing up just in terms of being otherized and what it means to grow up in a place where there's not a lot of diversity, that the people there are not really interested or curious about expanding their horizons in that way.
The first time I remember being conscious of racism was second grade when there were a lot of Vietnamese students who moved to my school and they didn't speak English. And I just remember there was just so much racist language amongst the staff at the school: "Watch out for your dogs. They're gonna eat your dogs. They smell bad." I knew that had something to do with me, but I was like, "Why would they say that if I was standing right there?"
There was a boy who told me to go back where I came from. And I was so confused. I was like, "I'm from here!" But without the tools at the time to really formulate a good response, I didn't. And I think that is a lot of the shame that people are carrying around right now, this shame about not speaking up or not knowing what to say. It's just the inability to really have the language and the tools to process and respond in a way that makes you feel powerful.
One of the first auditions I had in L.A., I was reading for the part of a mom of a little girl. The casting director, after I read, was like "Wow, that was really good. The girl that we're casting for the daughter, her name is" and she looked at her paper and was like "Magooyen or Nagooyen." It was a little Vietnamese girl whose last name was Nguyen. The casting director was like, "Do you think that you could be her mom?" What she was really getting at was: Do I look Asian enough to play this girl's mom? These subtle questions that have to do with representation and perception.
Tom Fontana, the showrunner on City on a Hill, told me that he based my character Karen's story off of one of his good friends who was born in Manzanar. He talks about the way in which it wasn't so much this big trauma in his friend's life that impacted him every day, but it was just always in the background, in the way that he viewed the world.
For Karen, that fact of her life was something that was always in the background for her. Especially being the US attorney and working within the federal justice system, it's something that really informed her work and was at the core of her purpose. I really resonated with that.
I don't have personal trauma from being imprisoned in some kind of camp based on my ethnicity, but it is something that is in my family history. And the fact of it informs the way that I see the world and the way that I show up for other people. The beliefs that I have about what's right and what's wrong, and what people should do or what people shouldn't do, weren't exactly the same, but I definitely brought that perspective to the part.
courtesy Keiko Elizabeth
The thing that I leaned into the most was really what it is to be a woman in a position of power that is somebody from the non-dominant culture. So what does it mean in the '90s for Karen Shimizu, a Japanese American woman, to be in this position of power over all these white dudes? Getting to experience what that space was really fun.
I have a lot of a lot of different feelings about it the rise in anti-Asian crime, contradictory feelings. It's just it's very hard to wrap my mind around it. It's really horrifying and sad that it's not just the fact of the racism, but it's also just the trend that it's the elderly the people who are the most non-threatening, but are somehow threatenign to someone.
There is a part of me that's grateful there's visibility around it. Previously, when this discrimination was happening and it felt sort of invisible, nobody could really talk about it. Or you would talk about it and people would be like, "What are you talking about? Asians are so successful."
So now, it's gratifying to be able to have the conversations, and to be able to acknowledge that this has been going on for people for many years, obviously at different levels of violence. The violence now is just really horrifying to watch. But I'm just a really optimistic person. And I think that conversations always lead to a place of expanded truth. And so it just has to get better. It has to!
I worry more for my dad and my elderly relatives. And my dad has this very sort of fatalistic attitude about it, which, I don't know if it makes me feel better or worse. But I have a circle of friends and we're always checking in on each other. And right after the shooting in Atlanta, I did this random Zoom healing circle with total strangers. There were like, 150 people on the line, and it was really cathartic to be in a space with people who were just feeling seen.
For those who want to learn more, I recommend reading Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong: It's a really profound voice in terms of speaking to what the Asian American experience has been like. I felt a lot of like, "Oh my God!" when I read it.
And obviously, it's great to support the organizations like Stop AAPI Hate. And also to support Asian artists, Asian stories.I just like feel like there's like the power of telling real stories that open up people's eyes and hearts and creates more empathy. That's the way to go. There is no other way. Facts, figures, data — that doesn't move people, and that doesn't create change, in my opinion.
We were supposed to go to Japan in November to shoot my documentary, but obviously COVID shot down that whole plan. It will look at the legacy of the incarceration over three generations of my family, just through the different way that things have played out and different dynamics, and how the past is always present in a way.
I want people to watch it and realize it's never too late to find a healing space. It's never too late to have conversations. It's never too late to ask questions. It's never too late for forgiveness, that there's no timeline on those things. If I could go back and talk to that high school teacher, I would show him my film and say, "This is important. This happened and this matters."
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