I’m going to do a series of posts titled “Memories of Racism, Memories of Grace.” As a Korean-American, I have faced much racism. I want to use this series to relay some of those experiences. But rather than rant about the injustice of racism, I hope to take a memoir-like approach where I describe the experiences and how they shaped my life.
You will find that while the racist encounters I describe in each post caused me significant pain and scarring, they were also the “source” of much grace. This was something that I could not have anticipated when I was young, but over the years, as I grappled with the many bitter memories, I found that they forced me to plumb the depths of not only my own heart, but also the heart of humanity in general. This wrestling helped me to better understand myself as well as those around me. And when I combined this knowledge with my faith, I discovered that there is a way to weave those racist encounters into the narrative of my life so that they produced understanding instead of tribalism, empathy rather than bitterness and wisdom over blind retribution. In other words, experience and faith helped me to find ways to redeem the evil within and without to produce grace and hope. I have not always succeeded, of course. But I have found that it is indeed possible. In fact, as a Christian, this type of redemption should be the dynamic thread running through all of life’s moments.
I relay these personal encounters because I find that seeing how one person processes an experience can help give others the vocabulary and structure to work through their own stories whether it be to reject the method, to embrace it or to modify it.
I also pray that both victims and perpetrators will benefit from these posts. Personally, I have been on both sides, as I assume is true for many. I do know, however, some who have not been outright victims of racist comments or attacks (though they may have been marginalized in a different form). Regardless, I believe “seeing” the memories of a victim can have a sobering and humanizing effect for the thoughtful perpetrator. In general, I have found that for each person, the human experience is vast enough that though she may not have tasted the particulars of a victim’s pain, she can piece together a reasonable approximation of that pain by extrapolating from the fragments of her own life. (This is why novels are so successful.) But, of course, this only applies to those willing to front the cost that true empathy requires; not empathy’s evil twin that rears its ugly head because of guilt, but true empathy that shines when we’re able to see in ourselves what we see in others.
The first experience I’d like to share happened some time in elementary school. At the time, we lived in a town called West Paterson found in North Jersey. (They recently changed the name to Woodland Park probably because they don’t want to be associated with Paterson, which has a “particular” reputation, if you get my drift. I have a feeling racist motivations were mixed into that decision.) The apartment that we called home was located in a complex at the top of Overmount Avenue. The name’s appropriate because the road literally went up the side of a hilly mountain. I can’t remember how many times I peddled up that road on my Mongoose bike, which, by the way, I won at a police event where they were raffling off confiscated items only to have it stolen a few years later.
Anyway, in our section of the apartment complex was a closed-off parking lot of about 50 spaces, and in this lot was parked our family car – a used Oldsmobile Delta 88. My parents purchased it soon after they immigrated to the US. It looked very much like this picture, but ours had a maroon vinyl top and a white body. I considered it my personal tank. I always felt invincible while riding that car because it was bigger than everybody else’s. Unfortunately, that feeling evaporated the morning after one particular mischief night (the night prior to Halloween where kids do “mischievous” things).
As my mom and I walked out into the parking lot on Halloween morning to go to school, we noticed that our car had been vandalized. It had curse words written on it and exaggerated penises and testicles drawn on the windows. I’m not sure, but I believe racial slurs like “chink” were also scribbled on the doors. And it wasn’t even artfully done. The whole car just looked like a mess.
My first thought was a panicked one. “I can’t go to school in that car! I’ll die of embarrassment,” I screamed in my head. The second feeling I had was that of extreme loneliness and deep injustice because when I looked around the parking lot, no one else’s car was vandalized. I say “feeling” because it didn’t occur to me as a semantic thought. I just felt viscerally violated.
I looked over to my mom, and she didn’t flinch. She just opened her door, got in, and told me to get in. Even though the front windshield was covered, she still drove halfway down the mountain to Charles Olbon Elementary School. The whole time I was hunched over thinking, “I hope no one sees me. I can’t believe we didn’t clean the car.” When we pulled up to the front, I was relieved because we got to school late, and no one was around. So I just ran in to school as if nothing happened. The thought that my mom would have to drive home in the vandalized car and that she would have to clean it alone didn’t occur to me. But now that I think about it, it must have been humiliating. I believe my dad was in Korea at the time, so she must have washed it alone. Even today, just the image of my mom having to scrub off those words and those pictures is too much.
Over the years, I learned why my mom was able to face something like that stone-faced. My mom was the first born of many children. She had to care for her younger siblings most of her life. She knew responsibility, and she had already experienced much adversity living in post-war South Korea. On top of this, she had to face the daunting pressure of surviving in a foreign country whose language she barely knew. (I have much more on this for a future post.) By the time I was well into elementary school, racist encounters were a daily routine for her. (So much for the friendly American she read about in her basic English books.) But one thing she knew was that by being Korean, she had “done” nothing of which she had to be ashamed. That morning, she wanted me to know that. “These things are not a reflection of you. Don’t you dare let them dictate to you who you are.” And so she drove refusing to let the scribbles of small-minded racists make her flinch.
My mama’s a tough mama. She shared with me once that when I was barely 4 years-old, a drunken Korean man had once come to our apartment wielding a knife threatening to kill everyone. (He had had a prior argument with my dad.) My mom shared with me that she came out with a kitchen knife and started screaming at him in Korean. The rough translation: “Come on, you son of a bitch! I dare you to try. I’ll kill you first.” (My dad corroborates this story.)
Scary. But there is something else I’ve learned over the years. Probably the only thing that brings my mom to tears is when she thinks of me and my sister. She’s actually very emotional. And I’m sure coming from a hard life in Korea to a hard life in America wasn’t what she had imagined for her children. So when she drove me to school with her dignity intact, I know she did it for my good. But when she went home to clean the car by herself, her heart probably broke and her tears probably flowed because this is not what she wanted for me.
As a teenager, I remember teachers always saying that racism is wrong. So when I would come home to hear my parents talk about white people and black people negatively, I’d chastise them. “Racism begets racism,” I told them. But as I’ve grown as an adult, I understand why they were they way they were—they were trying to survive and to hold their heads up while doing so. I don’t condone racism in any form; past hurts don’t justify becoming perpetrators. But I’ve come to learn that helping my parents heal from the past comes not from teaching them anti-racism platitudes coming from a culture that both has barely experienced it and teaches it from a place of guilt. Healing starts from my understanding the history of their pain literally in their terms.
If folks want to share their stories in the comments, please feel free. I may highlight some stories in future blogs (with your permission, of course).
By the way, I’m curious as to why other colors aren’t represented in the t-shirt pictured above? A topic for another day.