In light of yesterday’s beer-fest hosted by President Obama to quell racial tensions around the recent arrest of Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr., I have found my thoughts turning, once again, to race, ethnicity, and identity. This morning I listened to a call-in show on my San Francisco NPR station wherein this topic was addressed. Specifically, listeners were invited to share their thoughts on the Gates arrest and its aftermath, which President Obama says is a "teachable moment" on race in America. One caller on the show observed that her young child seemed to have no concept of race – that she had school friends of all colors, and based her decision on whether or not to befriend someone on their behavior and character, and not on their skin color.
I remember feeling that way, being race-blind, in elementary school. I attended a public school in Southern California in the 1970s and my predominantly white-populated classes always included a good percentage of African American and Latino students. I remember having giggly crushes on African American boys and on Chicano boys, and gave skin color no further thought than I did a red versus a green T-shirt. Other people’s races were simply not on my radar. However, I was conscious of my own race.
Because I was the only Asian American kid in school, I was singled out, by certain less evolved kids, as being “different” and “strange.” (Being one of the only kids having divorced parents also made me an oddball, but that’s another story.) I would frequently be asked by school kids, in rather a confrontational and accusing manner, “Are you Chinese?” “No,” I would say. “I’m half-Korean,” My reply would usually be greeted with blank expressions indicating no awareness of such a country or nationality. “Huh?” the kids would say. “Korea is a small country in Asia, near Japan.” I would explain. Not buying it, the kids would then make slanty eyes at me, using their fingers to pull the skin up around their eyes, and would chant: “Chinese, Japanese, dirty knees, look at these!” (“Look at these” referred to tits, I might add.) Then they’d run away, laughing.
While I sensed that these kids were being mean and disrespectful to me, I never understood why I deserved to be mocked, nor did I feel that it was a big enough deal to tell anyone, including my mother or teachers. So, I let the teasing happen for years and just accepted that some kids were mean, and that’s the way it was.
In retrospect, I wonder how damaging these ethnic taunts were to my self-esteem. I can think of one negative outcome: until much later in life, I was the kind of person who took a lot of abuse and suffered many injustices without feeling that there was anything I could do about it. Being ripped off by a landlord; being sexually harassed by a superior at work; and being verbally assaulted in the street – these are all things that have happened to me that I’ve chosen to brush off and ignore rather than fight back. Did that early childhood taunting teach me that I am somehow lesser than white kids and deserving of mockery and abuse because of my different ethnic background?
Now, as a well-seasoned old broad who’s lived in the political-activist-filled (East) Bay Area for twenty years, I have become the kind of person who does fight back. I no longer just “take it” when I am wronged: I always speak up, sometimes a little too aggressively, and do everything I can to make things right. (Especially when I feel that my child has been wronged!)
How times have changed! My daughter, who’s hapa, is just finishing up in a preschool where WASP kids are the minority: many of the kids are Asian-American, hapa, Jewish, Latino, African American, and even Native American. I am grateful for the opportunity to send my daughter to such a wonderful melting-pot of differently ethnicized kids. In such an ethnically-varied environment, there is no place for the kind of teasing I received when I was a kid. Why not? Because there is no longer an ethnic majority to do the teasing! No kid sticks out as different (unless their behavior is different) because everyone is different in their own way. This is what I call progress.
I am glad that Mr. Obama decided to have a beer with Professor Gates, Officer Crowley, and VP Biden on the White House lawn yesterday. It may seem like an insignificant and inconsequential action (and one that has been given way too much press); but, given the huge racial problems that still exist in the United States today, Mr. Obama’s decision to hold this conversation was a positive step toward ensuring that the dialogue on race relations remains open and relevant.
By Twizzle, who hasn't posted on Kimchi Mamas for the gestation period of a horse, or so it seems.