An activist, educator, and transnational feminist, Dr. Margo Okazawa-Rey has dedicated her life to challenging systems of oppression.
August 27, 2020
“Love is about service and transformation of our communities and institutions. It is about transforming ourselves so that in the new places we are creating, we will be able to be in them in such a way that we don’t end up reproducing what we just finished changing.”
— Dr. Margo Okazawa-Rey
Dr. Margo Okazawa-Rey is a powerful example of a transnational feminist dedicated to dismantling, challenging, and transforming systems of oppression in the profound belief that another world is possible. An activist and educator, Okazawa-Rey’s work interrogates issues of militarism, armed conflict, economic globalization, and violence against women. She was a founding member of the historic Combahee River Collective, a Boston-based radical, Black lesbian feminist, anti-imperialist, and socialist organization, widely known for the “Combahee River Collective Statement;” a revolutionary political text that served as a theoretical blueprint to what we now know today as “intersectionality.”
Among the first generation of mixed-race children born to a Japanese mother and an African-American father, Okazawa-Rey has stood at the vanguard for advancing cross-racial solidarities. She is a founding member of the Afro-Asian Relations Council, East Asia-U.S. Women’s Network Against Militarism, the Institute for Multiracial Justice, and the International Network of Women Against Militarism. Her social justice work in South Korea; with the Women’s Centre for Legal Aid and Counseling in Palestine; and as board member of PeaceWomen Across the Globe, showcase how Okazawa-Rey’s political commitment to liberation cannot be contained by borders, boundaries, or binaries.
With an Ed.D. in education from Harvard University, she is a professor in the School of Human and Organizational Development at the Fielding Graduate University and professor emerita at San Francisco State University. Okazawa-Rey is the author of countless texts including “Amerasian Children of GI Town: A Legacy of US Militarism in South Korea,” and was co-editor with Gwyn Kirk of Women’s Lives: Multicultural Perspectives. She co-edited Activist Scholarship: Antiracism, Feminism, and Social Change and Beyond Heroes and Holidays: A Practical Guide to Anti-Racist, Multicultural Curriculum and Staff Development.
While it is critically important to acknowledge Okazawa-Rey’s long list of accomplishments and her significant contributions to Black and women of color feminist thought and behavior, it is her compassionate spirit; her commitment to learning and working across differences; and her desire to lead in love that are shining representations of what we should aspire to be as activists, as human beings, and as a community.
Okazawa-Rey is an example of the radical possibilities of what leading in love can look like for our world.
I spoke with Okazawa-Rey in December 2019 about what led her into activism; how she learned to belong to herself and accept her Black and Asian identities; why solidarities between Black and Asian communities are important; advice and wisdom she would offer to activists; and more.
Jaimee Swift (JS): You have laid a formidable foundation for current and future generations of feminists. Do you feel that way? Do you think about your work as groundwork for others?
Dr. Margo Okazawa-Rey (MOR): I actually don’t. What I think about is: why am I on this planet? What has been my purpose over the course of my life? Usually what I think about most is: how can I be of service? How can I love life and love people around me in the deepest ways possible? That last piece is significant, the love part. When I first started doing activist work—and this was before Combahee River Collective—I was thinking there was no place for a person like me to fit in, for all the various reasons that I’ve written and spoken about. I wanted to be a part of creating spaces for people like me who have no clearly defined space. I am not 100 percent African American; I am mixed. Back in the 1960s, that was not a small thing.
My first years of life I didn’t grow up in the States. There were all these ways I thought I really didn’t have a place that existed for me. My whole kind of entry into activism was to create spaces for people like me. Over the decades, especially in my sixties, I started to think about the critical importance of love. Now, I am really committed to doing the work and will do it as long as I can because I love life. I love being alive. To me, life means not just human beings but the whole planet and the physical environment. To me, that is a really different way to approach activism. That shift and what it has done has made it possible for me to be in a million different places. Because I am not stuck on particular outcomes or results, I am deeply committed to the process of loving folks; trying to understand them; putting myself in situations where I can be vulnerable; and where I can be seen and admit that I want to be seen. I start from there rather than saying this is my political agenda and the classic organizing landscape.
JS: How did you even get into activism?
MOR: I have this interesting kind of mixed-up background. I am African American and I am Japanese. My mom is from Japan and I was born in Japan. This became sharper when I came to the United States in 1960 at ten years-old. There was segregation and we lived in the Black community. There was all this stuff about my hair—and these were kids in the fourth grade. Black kids. There weren’t that many of us because we were in a predominantly white situation. There were all these statements of, “Let me look at your kitchen!,” and I didn’t even understand these kinds of cultural things. I didn’t understand the significance of “good hair.” I mean the hair on my head was what it was.
Being mixed-race, being bi-national, and being an immigrant of some sorts, I always really tried to find a place where I could fit into some neat category. I tried desperately to be ‘normal’ and act like a nice middle-class, Black girl. Then when I started exploring my sexuality in my twenties, I realized there is never going to be a place where I fit it now. That was the last frontier, so to speak. That was the last place I had a chance to fit in. That is when I said, there is not a place, and I wanted to start creating places for people like me. That is how I got started. It was in a sense, of a radical self-interest; taking care of myself and figuring things out. At the same time, I was not recognizing that I was not the only one who didn’t fit in. So, it also became a collective project.
JS: How did you become a member of the Combahee River Collective?
MOR: I was living in Boston at the time. The Women’s Movement was happening and it was amazing. All of us, before we became the Combahee, were involved in some form of activism. I was involved in school desegregation and the violence that was happening around that. Barbara Smith was doing work on forced sterilization. All of us were involved in something. Somebody actually told me—and I can’t remember who told me—but they said there was this little group of Black women who started to meet. I asked to see if I could come and this was before they had become any kind of formation. We were meeting in someone’s living room and we were just talking about what it meant to be Black (and Black back then meant African American); what it meant to be lesbians; how do we think about our communities; and how do we reckon with capitalism and imperialism.
We were thinking really big—we weren’t just thinking about our identities as individuals. The identity politics we talked about was this idea that with our identities come power but we are not going to stop with just liberating ourselves. In the Combahee River Collective Statement, we say “if Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.” We said this not because we were the most oppressed and clearly that was not the case. We understood that we have to deal with the structures of oppression and the institutionalized discrimination before we can be free. If we dealt with those things, then it would take care of other peoples because all those ‘isms’ are embedded in those institutions. It was in that sense, we talked about identity politics.
JS: You talk about finding yourself as an Black and Asian lesbian woman. At what point did you learn to belong to yourself?
MOR: It was a development that took a long time. Starting from when I was in high school and all the way until I turned 28; that famous Saturn return period where it is all about identity and purpose, right? [Laughs] I went through really hard stuff about identity and relationships. However, I realized that part of my difficulty was the belief that you could only be one thing—that I had to be either Black or Japanese. I felt there was no way I could be Japanese and there was no way I could be Black. What was really helpful for me earlier on in life was when I first came to the States, I said to my mom, ‘People are calling me Black and I am Japanese.’ She said to me, “You are Black. You are a Black girl in the world and that is how people are going to see you. But you can be Japanese at home.” In that moment, she affirmed I can be both things. It didn’t stick with me then, but it is something I referred back to later. When I was 28, I asked her, “Do you think my grandfather (her father) would mind if I named myself Okazawa as well as Rey?” That hyphenation of my name was a real affirmation. She said, “Yes, he would be proud because you are doing good things” or something like that. That was the beginning of understanding that life isn’t these dualities. Life isn’t split in that way. When I got clearer about being bi-racial and multicultural, I learned to become an African-American woman in some ways. That was the first initial clarity and that clarity became even more clarified throughout the decades.
I would say that right now I would not identify as any kind of sexuality or any of those categories. How I would describe myself now is that I am a transnational feminist, U.S.-based African-American and Japanese woman. I wouldn’t have any shortcuts. I would have to say all of those things. I would be open to any kind of deep connections with people. My entry into activism was very personal and political. I understood that. My entry was a part of the Women’s Movement during that time and that was an important mantra: “the personal is political.” We took that very seriously. In my late forties and early fifties, I did a Fulbright and I went to South Korea. This was during a time when there was racial tension in Los Angeles and in New York between Korean immigrant store owners and Black folks. I wanted to understand what Korean people learned about African Americans before they came to the U.S., because I couldn’t believe they had these stereotypes once they got here. I thought they had to have learned those stereotypes somewhere. When I went to South Korea, that is when I had this deep awakening that it can’t just be race, class, gender, and sexuality. We have to take this category of nation seriously. What that meant for me, even as a co-marginalized woman in the U.S., was it meant to be connected to the U.S. state and U.S. corporations, regardless of whether I embrace them or not. I am still connected. That is what it means to be privileged: that you don’t have to think about it. We can just get our little passport and go wherever we want.
When I was in Korea, because I am also connected to Japan, I could speak Japanese to the older Korean people there because they had lived under Japanese colonization. Here I am in the middle of Seoul and thinking about, “Oh gee, two imperial nations. Now I am going to have to change my framework about how I think of oppression in the U.S., and in other places.” That was another important turning point. The first was when I was trying to come out and trying to figure out my identity. Twenty years later, I started really seriously thinking about these two categories of imperialism and capitalism as interrelated processes.
JS: You are the founding member of the Afro-Asian Relations Council in Washington, D.C.. You spoke about the tensions between Black and Asian communities in the diaspora. In your opinion, why do you think it is imperative that we have Black and Asian solidarities?
MOR: Because we share the same fate in some ways. We are affected by similar forces of capitalism and imperialism. We also have to take seriously that there are class differences. Even in African-American communities, we don’t do a good enough job talking about class. You know from your own experiences and from your readings that class is really under-recognized and under-discussed. When I am talking about Afro-Asian solidarities, I am not just talking about solidarities among middle-class folks and folks of privilege. It is important for us to recognize ourselves as workers and see ourselves as affected by neoliberalism, militarism, and gender oppression. It is about identities in the sense because we are occupying a particular space together. But it is beyond identities in that we are trying to struggle against forces that will always have an “in-person.” There always has to be a person or group of people who occupy that position of power over others. As people committed to liberation of all people, we have to want to understand that we don’t want anyone in that position—irrespective of their identities or categories.
Korean people have been colonized and poor, and working class Korean people have suffered at the hands of the elite. Korean women have been violated by U.S. military personnel. It is really complicated. In the context of D.C., and the Afro-Asian Relations Council, it was important for us to get together because we wanted the violence to end. We were also hoping that we could see the potential for solidarity that would take us further into more liberatory spaces as groups.
JS: You have authored many books but there is one book in particular that stands out to me because in it you write about the importance of activism within and out of academia. Why do you think it is so critical to bridge those two elements—activism and academia?
MOR: I think the bridge for me is my purpose in life. When I was about eleven, I knew I wanted to be of service. I remember telling my grandparents that when they asked me what I wanted to be when I grow up. I was an accidental academic; I didn’t aspire to become an academic. It was just a series of events. Before I even went to the doctoral program, I was working in different communities and neighborhoods in Boston. I wasn’t taken in by the lure of the academy. It is very seductive, especially going to a place like Harvard. It is very seductive because the institution and your peers want you to think you are all that because you are there.
My being there was an accident of history in the sense of when I was born, how I was influenced, and where I happened to be when I applied to do doctoral work. I thought that even back then, some of the most brilliant people are not at academic institutions. The young people who are hustling on the streets are brilliant, do you know what I mean? I am not trying to romanticize their lives but I am saying they know how to read people, they know how to organize, and do all those things that we have to go somewhere else to learn.
I was not taken by needing to be at a Research I university because my mission was to be of service. Right after my doctoral program, I went to the University of Maryland. I hated it. I was offered a position at San Francisco State University and that was the perfect fit because it was a people’s university and they were concerned about teaching. I did academic work; I wasn’t anti-intellectual. I just tried not to be elitist and tried not to think that because I am at an academic institution, I am better than anybody else including my students. The activism and the intellectual work were always combined for me; it was never separated. So I didn’t have to struggle to make the connection and because I am at a low status institution, there was no pressure. The pressure was for me to be involved in the community, to do really good teaching, and still do these other things.
When you go to a Research I community or any of these aspiring places where they are trying to be like Harvard, they are going to try “to out Harvard, Harvard.” I found that really interesting. I think it goes back for me to: what is your purpose of being on this planet? How are you going to make a difference and for whom? Being an academic is one way. In my generation and in the institutions that I have been connected with, it was really easy to do that in a sense. If I was at an elite institution, I don’t think it would have been possible. I would have left if it wasn’t possible because my commitment is always to try to be connected to the community and leverage the resources of the academy. Everything from little things to postages and copy, to using space that we didn’t have to pay for. I did a lot of that. [Laughs]
So much of that stuff is nonsense—doing the neoliberal thing or just reproducing the same inequalities. Institutions are not being transformed. I think about this for myself, too—the fact I am able to do this kind of work is, in a sense, proof the system works. The idea of “she worked hard and she became a professor, so you can, too!” kind of thing. I know it is really bigger than that. It is not about my individual achievement that got me here. It was the movements that were in place and the people who carved the way ahead of time. It is unfortunate I notice in your generation and with some older academics, that many think you are in the positions you are in because you are super smart. Yes, you are smart. However, there were a lot of people who were smarter than we were and who were not able to get into the places we are in now. It is not about our own capacity only. Surely, some of it is but it is also class and circumstances. I think we are seducing and deluding ourselves when we internalize it and think it is about us.
JS: When thinking about Combahee, what are some fond memories you have of being a part of the collective?
MOR: I think one of the things I really loved about being a part of Combahee was we laughed a lot and we ate well. We were able to play together, especially the humor and the good food. The chocolate chip cookies were extraordinary. A lot of our theoretical knowledge came from Black women writers. A lot of us had read standard social theory but we were informed by the works of Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Paule Marshall, and Zora Neale Hurston. We learned how to do grounded theorizing by reading those novels. We had social science backgrounds but that wasn’t what really excited us. It was being able to read about our lives through these women’s fiction and poetry. It was fun reading those texts and reading them individually and collectively and discussing them. The arts and the humanities played a big part in the life of Combahee River Collective. I think that really needs to be emphasized.
The Combahee River Collective Statement, the statement itself, was written by three people: Barbara Smith, Beverly Smith, and Demita Frazier. [All of us contributed to] the thought that went into it. We have to give Zillah Eisenstein credit because she was the person who kind of commissioned that piece to be written. We also have to give credit to Women and Gender Studies professors because they kept using it. We wouldn’t have been as known as we are had they not seen something in that writing that was worthwhile and for the generations of students who see the value of it. Now, the [Combahee River Collective] statement is so current—it is kind of scary. [Laughs] Again, this is a point about how we create each other. It is important we valorize each other and recognize that it is not just about our own merit. At that time, we didn’t know the statement would be so forward-thinking. It was other people who saw its value, kept saying it was worthwhile, and that it makes sense. I want to emphasize the relationship between individual group achievement and the wider communities that promote the work, recognize the work, and remind us that it matters.
JS: What advice would you give to organizers today?
MOR: I think one of our most important roles as organizers and as leaders—and I don’t necessarily mean the formal role of leadership but I mean those people who make things happen—is that we have to deepen relationships because that is what is going to carry the day. We have to go through hard things together, we have to be vulnerable with one another, and really push back against these politics of scarcity that we operate out of. There is status, there are resources, and all the stuff we think we need. The assumption is, there is not enough of it to go around. I think the more serious assumptions embedded in that are that we are not going to share. Whoever gets it first, may the best man win—and I mean that metaphorically but also in a literal sense. Sometimes, I think we equate our own individual value and worth with how much we accumulate, even in the movement sense. How many followers do we accumulate? How many resources are we accumulating? How much press time? When you peel back some of that, I think the core of it is about accumulation and the capitalistic way of thinking about value and worth. I want us to really check that about ourselves.
I want us to say that what is going to enable us to really transform institutions is to deepen relationships. adrienne maree brown talks about that. I am an absolute believer in that and I have come to believe that more and more. The crux of it is really love in the most complex and profound sense of the word. Love is service of justice, it is commitment. It is to be honest with one another and it is commitment to go through the hard stuff together. It is absolutely honoring and respecting each other’s dignity. Those things sound kind of fluffy, just the words, but I think when we get to practice it, we can see how deep it goes and what effort it takes. It requires us to be vulnerable. It requires us to practice radical vulnerability and that means we have to commit to being wrong; not knowing; our willingness to be hurt and disappointed; as well as all the fabulous stuff that comes out when you are deeply in love. I am not talking romantics but I am talking about love in the political and spiritual sense. That is the advice I would go to my grave with: think about how best to deepen relationships; the role of love; a commitment to taking off your own glasses and using somebody else’s glasses because our individual frameworks are really limited. No matter how smart we are, it is important to put ourselves in situations where we can unknow the things we think we know, so we can really know them together, collectively. I think the other piece that is important is asking: what is our vision? What are we really trying to create? And related to that is: what kind of people would we have to become to be able to be in a place without messing it up and recreating the same mess we just got finished changing? Love is about service and transformation of our communities and institutions. It is about transforming ourselves so that in the new places we are creating, we will be able to really be in them in such a way that we don’t end up reproducing what we just finished changing.