When I was in the 2nd grade, my teacher would occasionally ask for a student to volunteer and help close the end of the school day with a joke, funny story or even just sharing something about themselves with the rest of the class. I have long since forgotten just about every anecdote and feeble attempts at humor that my classmates proffered before me. All but one, that is.
One afternoon Carol raised her hand and proceeded to share one of the most racist, horrific “jokes” that I had ever heard. I don’t want to give the racist joke any more power by repeating it here on this blog, but I will say that the offensive material targeted blacks and that the N-word was used. As the only person of color in my classroom, I couldn’t believe the words that were coming out of Carol’s mouth; worse yet, I couldn’t believe the amount of laughter the “joke” garnered from many of my peers. Still even more horrifying was the lack of reaction (read: absolutely none) from our teacher, Mr. L. I remember looking around and waiting for someone to say or do something. Was I the only one who had heard the foul words out of Carol’s mouth? I couldn’t possibly have been the only one to have felt hurt, disgusted and dehumanized by such ugly and hateful words, I thought. It was as if Carol had just shared with the class that she and her family were going to go to their cabin that weekend – it was as if her words were completely innocuous and casual – all in the name of good, clean fun. Minutes later, our class was dismissed and we were told to have a great weekend by our 24 year-old white teacher, who until that afternoon, I used to adore. To my knowledge, Carol never got in any trouble for sharing her “joke” with the rest of the class.
I was 7 years old and I will never forget how I felt that day.
Years later I shared that very incident with a group of peers from my church when we were talking about racism, prejudices and stereotypes. Once again, as the only person of color in the group, I found little to no support in trying to convey just how wrong and dangerous racial “humor” can be. “What are you getting so upset about?” asked one peer. “You’re not even black. What do you care? It’s not like you were the one being made fun of.”
When I was in the 4th grade, a classmate named Michelle asked me to come over to her house after school one day. I told her I had to ask my parents first and that I had to make sure that she had received permission from her parents as well. “Oh, I’m sure it will be okay. Well, I suppose I should tell my dad about you. He doesn’t like black people, but I don’t think he’d have any problem with you.” Suffice it to say, I never felt comfortable going over to Michelle’s house to play, and she had no clue why our friendship started to dissolve seemingly overnight. “Was it something I said?” she confronted me after I repeatedly declined invitation after invitation to her home. Even as a 10 year-old, I remember thinking to myself, “If I need to spell it out to you, there’s no way you’ll ever understand.”
When I was in 8th grade, I was at a friend’s birthday party. One girl named Julie was talking about a group of Chinese boys and ended her rant with “Freakin’ chinks – what do they know?” A few people immediately looked at me, trying to gauge my reaction. Julie stammered a bit and finally said, “Ohmygosh, Paula. I didn’t mean you, I mean you’re not even Chinese are you? I hope you’re not upset. I was totally NOT talking about you.”
During college, I had several friends and acquaintances tell me, “My parents would absolutely kill me if I ever brought home a guy (or girl) that wasn’t white.” They’d quickly follow it up with a psuedo apology/explanation like, “But I’m not talking about people like you. You’re practically white anyway. It’s not like you have an accent or anything or have Chinese parents who don’t know how to speak English.” (Never mind that I’m not even Chinese.)
As a child, I was an Asian girl who existed in a sea of white. My search for identity was baffling to say the least. There were an ample number of mirrors in our home. Both of my parents are trigger happy with a camera and I’ve seen plenty of pictures of myself. If there is one thing I know to be true about who I am, it is that I am undeniably, certifiably Asian. Yet for years, I was treated by many who had been around me for a significant enough time as “just another white girl” – - so much so that there were times when even I was caught off guard by the “Hey, chink! Why don’t you open your eyes, already!” comments. Who were they talking to, anyway? There was such a disconnect to how I felt inside and to what image was boldly and unabashedly reflected back to me whenever I’d look at myself.
Perhaps if I had known – or at the very least – been exposed to other Asians, I wouldn’t have been so quick to identify myself as white. My parents are white. My brothers are white. My entire extended family is white. Every teacher from Kindergarten through my senior year in high school was white. Every coach, every piano teacher, every doctor, every babysitter, every clergy person I’ve ever known growing up, was white. Immersed into such surroundings, is it any wonder that I never wanted to bring any attention upon myself by actually doing or saying anything that didn’t conform to the white world in which I lived?
I’ve been told countless times throughout my life how lucky I am, as an Asian, to have been born the “best alternative” to being white. I’ve heard the following said to me, in one combination or another, on numerous occasions: “Your people are hard working. Your people are good at math. Your people are automatically assumed to be smarter than anyone else in the room. Your people have an incredibly strong work ethic. Your women are exotic and desirable. Your people are industrious. Your people know when to keep their mouths shut. Your people are agreeable and get along with everyone. Your people are the next best thing to being white; just thank your lucky stars that you weren’t born black. If you can’t be white, being Asian is definitely the next best thing.”
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told that I’m just overreacting or being hyper-sensitive to a racially charged incident where I’ve been a direct target. “Don’t be silly, Asians don’t have it that bad. How can you complain when your people get to benefit from all of the positive stereotypes? Believe me, there are other races that people hate a lot more than they do yours.”
I have been told by others that because I am educated, because I am the daughter of middle-upper class parents, because I am well spoken and well read and well traveled, and especially now, because I have a white spouse, that I am “practically white”. Or as one guy once put it, “You may as well just be a white girl with a tan; you’re really no different than most white people I know.” So I guess only white people can be educated, the child of middle-upper class parents, well spoken, well read, well traveled and married to a white person? This is not the message I want to be sending to our children.
I know for a fact that there are people I’ve encountered in my life who feel that I am white “enough” for them to expect me to understand their compartmentalized racist attitudes and beliefs about other races without me feeling offended or hurt, simply because I am not the race of which they are attacking. That somehow it is excusable and even justifiable for them to hold racist views, as long as I’m not the one being marginalized. (Or, even if they are attacking a certain ethnic group within my race, somehow it’s still permissible since they believe I’d have no logical reason to be upset at a joke about the Chinese, Japanese, Filipino or Vietnamese.) I have seen it in many other families who have adopted transracially – that somehow a grandparent or uncle can “find it within themselves” to eventually love and accept a little girl from China or a boy from Korea into their family, but never ever a child from Liberia or from Kenya or from Columbia.
I have witnessed it in my own extended family as well – the venom that spewed from a certain uncle and grandparent about blacks – all whilst reassuring me that they loved me and didn’t consider me to be like “one of those people”. Are their words of comfort and support actually supposed to have convinced me that somehow I, as an Asian, am actually excluded from their narrow-minded and hateful, racist thoughts? “Don’t worry, Paula”, people would say. “We don’t think of you as one of them.” How was I to explain that I AM one of them? That I AM an other. That I am not white. Just because someone is not bashing Asians specifically does not mean that I do not consider them to be just as racist as those who yell racist epithets to my face.
Racism is racism is racism is racism. Those who proclaim to want nothing to do with one or two select races, but in the next breath will proudly announce that they won’t mind if an Asian family happens to move next door or if an Asian guy happens to work in the next cube over, is no one I want to be acquainted with. On two different occasions when I shared the news of the impending adoption of our son from Korea, I was told twice in so many words, “Oh, I could never adopt. But if I had to and I couldn’t get a white baby, I’d definitely pick an Asian one – there’s just not as much baggage or trouble with the Asians.” Sadly enough, I know these people actually meant this as a genuine compliment towards me and my perceived ability to assimilate into total and complete “whiteness”.
When I was younger, I used to take it as a great compliment whenever anyone would tell me, “I don’t really think of you as Asian. To me, you’re practically white”. Back then, it told me I must have been doing a really good job of fitting into the mold that everyone else naturally and effortlessly matched into. But now when someone says they see me as “just as good as white” because of the way I act or speak or write, it more often than not tells me about their own insecurities and their irrational desire to want and need me to fit into that mold for their own comfort. It’s as if they can somehow see me as white, then they won’t have to confront their own racist tendencies or be challenged by the feelings that my very real, very transparent non-whiteness actually brings to the surface.
I’ve had several discussions with our daughter, who is 5 1/2 years old, about how certain groups are systematically targeted as being thought of as less than and are discriminated against simply because of what they look like or for what they believe. I’m proud that she can speak intelligently about Ruby Bridges and Rosa Parks and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and other people who took a stand for what they believed in. She has a white father and an Asian mother, many who see me, for all intents and purposes, to be white. For this reason alone, many would argue that racism won’t affect her and that it’s something she doesn’t need to necessarily address or be made aware of.
I want both of our children to be proud of the fact that they are Asian. As a Korean-Irish American girl and a Korean-American boy – but more importantly, as human beings – I want our children to be able to speak up and out against racism, sexism and other oppressions, regardless of who is being attacked. I don’t want them thinking that the key to their happiness or success hinges upon their ability to be perceived by others as “practically white” or “just as good as white”. I want them to be able to recognize racism in all shapes and forms, even when it’s under the guise of their race being excluded from the dehumanizing and reproachful attacks that other races may be subjected to.
More often than not, most people – once I start talking about educating our daughter about racism and how it will undoubtedly affect her and her family and how it has already affected her mother – will say with an irritated roll of the eyes, “Why make such a big deal about it? Your daughter doesn’t even look Asian.”
And I tell them that their response is precisely the reason why I do need to make a big deal about it.
Paula was born in Seoul, South Korea and adopted as an infant into her family in 1971. She and her husband, Sean, have two children; a five year-old daughter and a son who is almost three. Paula currently is a full-time mom, part-time volunteer for various social justice organizations and is also a licensed elementary and middle school math teacher. She blogs about her experiences as a transracial adoptee and adoptive parent at Heart, Mind and Seoul.