Do We Call Them Internment Camps or Concentration Camps?

Ryan Fan
The Manzanar War Recreation Center - From Ansel Adams, Public Domain

When I taught seventh grade English, one of the books assigned to my curriculum was Farewell to Manzanar, a young adult book about a girl’s experience in a Japanese internment camp. We unfortunately didn’t get to read it because of the COVID-19 pandemic taking us out of school.

But I never realized that internment, the word I learned throughout my understanding of history, perhaps isn’t the right word — more historians are referring to the relocation centers as concentration camps. Concentration camps are usually associated with the Nazi treatment of Jews during the Holocaust. At the time, however, it had a more universal implication to anywhere people are confined under armed guard. FDR used the term “concentration camp” in reference to Japanese internment, four years before World War II started:

What arrangements and plans have been made relative to concentration camps in the Hawaiian Islands for dangerous or undesirable aliens or citizens in the event of national emergency?

FDR would later issue Executive Order 9066 following Pearl Harbor. In an era of mass hysteria and fear, over 100,000 people of Japanese descent would be uprooted from their homes and isolated into 10 camps, a period of time known as Japanese-American Internment.

For many historians, concentration camp is the more apt word for what the camps were. However, the fact is most people, when they hear “concentration camp,” will associate it with Auschwitz and the Holocaust. And many people will take offense to compare World War II camps relocating Japanese-Americans as concentration camps.

It’s easy to say semantics don’t matter. But they do. Many defenders of keeping it called “internment” say the meaning of “concentration camp” has changed over time. While it used to refer to any camp where human rights are being violated, the Holocaust changed the meaning. And in referring to Japanese relocation centers as concentration camps, those defenders argue we are diluting and demeaning the experiences of Holocaust survivors.

According to Edward Schumacher-Matos and Lori Grisham at NPR, Talk of the Nation podcast director, Neal Conan, hosted a segment where he interviewed the daughter of Fred Korematsu, the civil rights leader who fought against Japanese internment, and one listener wrote back talking about how much he liked the podcast and the story but objected to the use of concentration camps, which he deemed offensive to survivors of Nazi death camps:

“I cannot imagine a more offensive way to portray the situation. To compare the Japanese internment camps to the Nazi or communist concentration camps is beyond offensive to the Jewish community and any reasonably intelligent American.”

In his defense, Conan said “concentration camp” was a term that came before both Hitler and communism. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a concentration camp is “a place where large numbers of people…are detained or confined under armed guard,” so under the official definition, Conan is correct in his interpretation. Schumacher-Matos and Grisham note the debate “goes beyond textbook definitions,” and they’re very correct.

Alice Yang Murray, a history professor at the University of California, says the definition of “concentration camp” has changed over time, and is now a euphemism for a Nazi “extermination camp.” While someone could say during World War II that Japanese Americans were confined in concentration camps without people thinking of the Holocaust, the same is not true today.

And Murray has a point. To me, the debate between internment camps and concentration camps reminds me of the ongoing debate over what it means to be racist.

I believe I am racist. I have said over and over again that I harbor internalized prejudices I have been working on for a long time, and even if I don’t acknowledge it, I am part of a system of oppression. I believe where you choose to live can be an act of racism, where you choose to send your kids to school can be an act of racism. In my call to wokedom, I increasingly see the “I don’t see color” defense to racism as being wrong.

The counterpoint is clear, though, and I’m increasingly seeing that the opposition has a strong point. What about people who are openly hateful, like Ku Klux Klan members, people who regularly say the N-word, and George Chauvin, the man who had his knee on George Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds? That malicious racism being put under the same umbrella as your average person with implicit prejudices, but isn’t hateful may dilute the severity of what it means to be racist.

The counterpoint to calling myself racist is that if everyone is racist, then many people will take actual hate less seriously because when you call someone racist. Still, most people won’t gravitate towards “that person is implicitly racist but doesn’t make it their life mission to perpetuate hate.” No, most people are going to think you’re an openly hateful person when you’re labeled racist — society is not at the point where the differentiation of racism on the spectrum is taken seriously, and we live in an imperfect world, not a utopia where everyone wants to engage in the verbal gymnastics.

Following the killing of George Floyd and the mass demonstrations across the country, the Merriam-Webster dictionary changed its definition of racism after a request from Kennedy Mitchum, a Black woman and graduate of Drake University, to make the definition encompass the broader definitions of racial inequality. And as someone who has experienced anti-Asian racism, just because someone doesn’t wave a Confederate flag in your face doesn’t mean they can’t make you feel discriminated against based on race.

So the war over semantics is a big societal issue and has broad, far-reaching implications.

I acknowledge my way of seeing racism might be wrong, so admitting I could be wrong means I’m a man without a country — a bit disillusioned with the “who can be the most woke” virtue-signaling across Twitter but still an advocate for universal health care, a $15 minimum wage and an end to police brutality. To the critics of how I interpret racism, I simply believe society can use more introspection and less judgment. Who am I to cast the first stone when I have my own sin? To each person, it is a personal decision, but the political polarization of the day shows not everyone is in the same place.

As such, society isn’t at the point where calling something a concentration camp conjures anything less than images of emaciated Holocaust survivors in death camps. But I would argue calling them internment camps doesn’t do much service either since it connotes Japanese people were just relocated and lived normal lives.

What we do know is that words matter. And the debate over what is and isn’t a concentration camp, much like what is and isn’t racism, is especially relevant today. In 2019, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez came under fire from Republicans for saying the U.S. was running “concentration camps” on the border. Some Republican Congress members called her comparison “ludicrous.” AOC defended herself using the definition of the term from experts:

The words were used when the Department of Homeland Security said it found overcrowding and unsanitary conditions in border camps in El Paso, Texas. But her critics also have a valid point that what experts say a “concentration camp” means and what it means in popular imagination is very different. The Auschwitz Memorial Twitter account responded, saying “the 12-years history of development of concentration camps in Nazi Germany is more complicated.”

To be clear, many people object to the use of internment camps as well, including historian Roger Daniels. Daniels notes that internment camps are generally well-run camps run by the Department of Justice, in accordance with the Geneva Convention. Internment camps were used to intern “enemy nationals” and only held people 14 and older.

Executive Order 9066 was different because American citizens of all ages were incarcerated. Daniels also says the U.S. didn’t apologize for the Department of Justice internment camps. It did apologize for the camps run by the War Relocation Authority for Japanese-Americans and compensated those who lived in the camps.

People have pretty strong opinions about this. I’m going to say I don’t know in terms of what the right term to use is. What I will say is that the debate forces us to confront nuance, something social media does not incentivize, to say the least.

This might dissatisfy you. These days, you’re supposed to pick a side and stick to it. You’re not supposed to be conflicted — it means admitting you’re weak. You’re not supposed to be somewhere in the middle. You can’t show uncertainty. This is a world the dynamics of social media has created, the black and white world of right and wrong. And the debate over what to call camps where Japanese-Americans were relocated is a case where every option is, in some way, problematic.

But the debate about words, about semantics, will rage on. Some people are going to start calling them concentration camps. Others will keep calling them internment camps because that has been the familiar term. A lot of people won’t care, but the lesson is clear — language matters a lot, even if we don’t think they do.

Originally published on January 29, 2021 on An Injustice!

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Believer, Baltimore City special ed teacher, and 2:40 marathon runner. Diehard fan of "The Wire," God's gift to the Earth. Support me:

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