Story of Takumi Iseda
Takumi Iseda is the Director of Communications at Evanston Township High School. While she lives in the far North Side of Chicago, she has been working in Evanston for over ten years. She grew up in the Chicago area and identifies as biracial. Her mother is Black, from Jackson, Mississippi, and her father is from Japan.
YIMING: What’s your name and the story behind your name?
TAKUMI: So first name Takumi, T-A-K-U-M-I, last name Iseda, I-S-E-D-A.
YIMING: And what’s your name story?
TAKUMI: I actually have a traditionally male name. Takumi — it's actually pronounced a little bit differently in Japanese and it got westernized and anglicized over the years I was in school. My father's best friend in high school was named Takumi, and so he just named me after somebody that he cared about. And Iseda, my last name, I kept my maiden name. And it's also a very uncommon last name in Japan, you don't find too many Iseda’s in the world actually. So I take a lot of pride in that, that I have an unusual name.
I struggled with it when I was young, especially in elementary school when the teachers couldn't pronounce my name and the other students couldn't pronounce my name. Takumi is actually my middle name. My first name is Lisa, but I've always been called by my middle name. So I don't really use my first name. And I tried it for a little while, when I was about 16, I got my first job, where I filled out a tax form, and it just didn’t feel right. I had been called Takumi my whole life, and it just represented who I am.
Now, I'm always really proud to have a different name and, and don't mind sharing how I got my name and all of that, but it was hard. When you want to fit in, or you want to assimilate as a kid, your name is like, the first thing that makes you different. And that can be hard.
YIMING: How did you wind up working in Evanston?
TAKUMI: I had a background in the nonprofit sector, I learned of a job opportunity here in the communications office, it really kind of brought forth all of the skill sets that I have had, and demographically, there aren't very many Asian-identifying students and families in Evanston. It's quite a diverse community as it's well known for, and it's really the first place that I have worked, where I could really talk very openly about my own struggles with identifying as a biracial person who didn't really feel like they fit in to every place.
And so as we have been going through both the formal equity training that our staff go through, but also opportunities to facilitate conversations among our own staff, I think about how who we are impacts what we do and what I personally bring to the table every day as an Asian and Black identifying person who then can be visible to our students. So even though I'm not a classroom teacher, I have been able to find opportunities to work with our students through clubs and activities, and just being available to have conversations around what it means to, to be on this journey of of equity, diversity inclusion having a voice that I probably hadn't had before and other work settings. So that's been really refreshing for me.
YIMING: For Takumi, a turning point in how she thought about equity and visibility at schools was at a past SOAR, or Students Organizing Against Racism, conference.
TAKUMI: I remember a student who was a senior that year and came and walked up to me at the end of the conference and said how much they appreciated that I came and said, I'm a senior at ETHS, I've been here for for four years, and she said 'I've never seen you once." And it just like hit my heart. I realized that all of the work that I do on a day to day basis is really about centering students in and making sure that the district and the school is always mindful of impact on students.
YIMING: Tell me a little bit about growing up?
TAKUMI: I think at that time, especially at that point in our country's history, assimilation was the priority. My father didn't want us to have an accent or not fit in and we were already different, right? Like we were brown people that looked racially ambiguous and so I think he really emphasized us being American kids in an American family. So he didn't speak Japanese at home with us.
I think that these days, it's more valued. I think that people like to embrace tier culture and their language and all the differences, but when I was growing up that was not embraced so much. And I think the assimilation was more important for my family at that time. We talked about race and culture, and I remember being embarrassed if my friends came over, and my house smelled different, because Asian food smells different than American food, or that we took our shoes off when we came into the house.
YIMING: Did your family talk a lot about their stories?
TAKUMI: In the Black community in particular, oral history is so important. On my mother's side, I do remember my grandmother from Mississippi just telling me like so many stories and she grew up in poverty. So there was just a lot about that part of of my family history she would share. I remember my mother telling me that when she was young we had "white only" drinking fountains and she remembers that. lt's just a generation away from me that she couldn't drink out of the same drinking fountains as white people, or that she couldn't go into certain restaurants or stores.
I remember my parents telling me a story when I was around 10 years old that when they were first married, and they hadn't yet moved to Chicago yet, they went into a restaurant to eat. And it didn't say whites only. So my Japanese father and my Black mother walk into the restaurant, and they said that the entire restaurant, that was so crowded, went completely silent. Everything stopped when they walked in to the place. They didn't prevent them from being there, but it was so obvious that they were not welcome.
YIMING: Wow, I’m so impressed with how much you know about your family history.
TAKUMI: Honestly, I'm still learning. I did the Ancestry DNA just to get a sense of some of the things I didn't know, because again, Black history in this country was essentially erased. My mother has green eyes, by the way, so we knew that her green eyes came from slavery. Myh father, though, actually had an aunt with green eyes. And I was just like, oh, so interesting.
But this is where I found both language barrier and the geographical distance were barriers to me learning more. And also, I think culturally, like Japanese people didn't — my father in particular didn't — share that much about some of the more painful things that happened in history. Because my father was born just before World War II, and I think that he certainly experienced some racism when he came to this country, but he didn't talk about it as much as my mother did. Both because, you know, she had generations of family before her and he was newer to this country, but also just culturally, not talking about the painful things was, I think, more present for him.
YIMING: Now, we’ll move into more current day topics. What do you feel about the rise of anti-Asian racism?
TAKUMI: I think it's been really difficult. I think both as a woman of color who knows, like, that could be me, when I think of the targets of anti Asian violence and the way it has shown up in this country and when I think about whose lives are valued. It's been a very eye-opening and anxiety-filled time in this country's history.
I feel like at the same time, some of the things that this country has been talking about for so long, when it comes to like anti-Blackness in this country, as well as, you know, the experiences of Black and brown people, that sometimes Asian people have not been included in those conversations because there's the myth that Asians aren't people of color in the same way that Black and Latinx people are. And so having this commonality of the struggle and saying this is how this shows up in all the communities of color, and how we can work together to address the racist practices and the racist environment that we continue to see. I wish I had all the answers and the best way to do that for myself, like, walk around sometimes like feeling fearful.
YIMING: Do you feel safe in Evanston?
TAKUMI: I do. I mean, Evanston is an interesting community because it's considered a very progressive community, I think both because of the Northwestern student population, as well as the fact that there are a lot of demographic groups represented here. But it can be deceiving. I think it's easy to get a little too relaxed about what's going on in the world around us. And we feel very insulated or siloed into our comfort of Evanston, or when we just literally don't know what's around the corner.
I think that there's this assumption that, you know, that doesn't happen in Evanston or Evanston is different, or it's somehow better because of the historical acceptance. I don't like to use that word tolerance, I think, years ago that was a very common term, like "Evanston tolerates so many differences in this community." But it's here. Racism is here, it just sometimes looks a little different than other places
YIMING: You said it can be “decieving?”
TAKUMI: Because it's less overt, right? It's even with this being a public high school, and you might hear a white family say, "Oh, well, I'm not racist, I send my kids to school with those kids, right?" Those kids? Like you've made a conscious decision not to send your student maybe to private school, you're choosing the public school, and therefore you're not racist? There's just a gap in understanding of what racism kind of looks like.
I find that sometimes people have a fascination with like exotic foods or even the term exotic. I think it's both racialized and gendered. Like, I was called “exotic” when I was growing up, I think both because I was racially ambiguous and as a young woman who showed up in a certain way. My brother was never called exotic. I think people thought it a compliment to say, "Oh, you look so exotic" or something like that. But it also created an environment where I felt like I was the subject of someone's misperception of what women are supposed to be, and I had to be quiet, and I had to be polite, and I could sit there and look nice, but I couldn't like say too much
YIMING: What do you think of the TEAACH Act, which mandates Asian American history be taught in Illinois public schools?
TAKUMI: Yeah, it's amazing that we've had legislators who have really taken such great strides with this, and specifically, Asian American history, right, which has been very absent from the curriculum, absent from the history books, and yet has played such an important role in this country's history. Students have previously had to seek that out on their own, if they wanted to learn anything about Asian American contributions to this country. I'm really looking forward to hearing from our own students, their experience with the classroom curriculum and how that impacts the way that they see themselves.
Again, seeing yourself in history, seeing yourself in the curriculum, seeing yourself in the building and prioritizing I think is something that will be very different for students. And one day, it'll be very commonplace, which will be exciting, too. But right now, it's just so new that I think students will feel the impact right away. It's so exciting.
YIMING: What hopes do you have for future generations of Asian American students?
TAKUMI: I feel like students and young people in general are doing more and more at a younger age to have an impact on their future. And for all of us. When I think about the students here that have been in the Asian heritage Alliance Club and have started social media groups and have shared their own stories and their own journeys and about things that have been challenging for them and things that they want to see changed, they're motivated to do it right away. They're not waiting until they have a career, they're not waiting until college. Like they're, they're doing things right now in high school that I think will have long term effects. So I'm really hopeful that we'll have more conversations and more action around social justice and what that looks like.