Saturday, April 2, 2011

Are you...or aren't you?

Perhaps this story began in the fifth grade when Tanya was my best friend for a short time. She was perfect. She always smelled amazing. I suspect her mom let her use some of her own perfume. Her hair was perfect all the time, with the kind of body I could only dream about. She was tall and thin and athletic--everything that I was not. Yet she never gave up on me even when most others did.

"You need to exercise. Run. Do pull-ups. You'll feel better."

It didn't happen right then, and I still can't do a pull-up to save my life. But she was right. When I finally began to exercise, I did feel better.

But she was also perfect in other ways. She was willing to share my flights of fancy, interested in what might be under rocks, live in trees, or cavort while we were sleeping.

So it was a complete surprise when she began to ignore my questions, to turn away when I spoke to her.

Finally, Tatiana walked up to me. I could see Tanya a ways behind her, pretending not to look at us. "Don't talk to Tanya anymore," she said. "She's not your friend anymore." She paused. "Because you're a racist."

I was crushed. (Had I mentioned that Tanya was African-American? Probably not. Because that wasn't what I thought of when I thought of her.)

I think I cried right then. I know I cried that night.

I couldn't imagine what I had said or done. I'm not sure to this day if I really said or did anything. Perhaps I had and not known it. Or perhaps I hadn't, but the distance between the ways that people approached us was so different that it was no longer traversible. Is that racism?

In the intervening years, I have come to reconsider racism many, many times. And many times, I have once again been struck that racism, sometimes very real, is most often overlooked by the transgressor when it is truly there. And other times, misunderstanding is mislabeled as racism by the minority who is tired of explaining and, occasionally, just as unwilling to understand the majority trangressor as the transgressor is to understand the minority.

This morning I was forced to review it again, but more on that later.

It was the second time in two days that someone had done it. She was trying hard to cover.

"So you're husband is Korean?"

"Yes," I answered.

"And you're not. (squinting)...Are you?"

"No," I say with half a laugh. "I'm not."

I cannot fault the woman at all. In truth, there is nothing that she could have said that would have been "correct."

"It's funny sometimes having an Asian last name," confided my caucasian friend. "There are those moments when someone announces your name in the waiting room and is obviously not looking for YOU to answer the call."

I laughed hard. It is, afterall, part of my daily existence.

Then I counter with a story.

"You should have seen what it was like when I first began advocating for my son regarding ESL. They looked at me as if I didn't speak English. I grew up here! I went to that school, for pity sake. I mean, look at my face!"

And there it is. As if being white means that I speak English. Of course, I did mean other things beyond that. Foremost, that our assumptions (that only Asians have my Asian last name) color our perceptions (their belief that I am Asian when one close look at me reveals that I am obviously not). And then, not far behind, that the same Asian last name has wiped out the fact that I was born here, that I grew up with these same people, that the woman in the room next to us, who had already interrupted with a message once, had sometimes left her son in my care. I was a foreigner to them. But by the same token, I was claiming that my white face made me their peer. Could I say the same for my own children later? They don't have white faces. What of my brother, also non-white/non-black, who has spent his entire life (minus the first 105 days) here in this very small town?

Even those of us who are aware of the problems have our own blinders or moments when our prejudices, blindnesses, or overall ignorance is exposed.

Another non-white/non-black friend recently described the same experience in reverse. She said, "When I lived in Atlanta and someone asked where I was from, I could say Pittsburgh. Now when someone asks, I feel I have to justify it or come up with another answer."

I have spent a long time pondering this. It happened to me all the time in Korea. Of course, it was different there. You were not Korean unless you were ethnicly Korean, so it kind of made sense to ask. But it often felt to me (and to a lot of other foreigners I know) that the person was reminding me that I did not belong there. Perhaps. But more often than not, I think it was an attempt to make small talk and, more importantly, to establish connection where there previously wasn't one.

And I have often asked myself if there is anything that the other person could have said that would make me happy. I have to admit that I cannot think of any. And I realize that the problem is as much in my own mind as it is in theirs.

Which brings me to this morning and an acquaintance's post regarding this link. I don't really know the mother, but I had spoken to the son about a year and a half before he died. I would hate to think that he was murdered, but I would believe it.

But once again, the claim to race here obscures the much larger issue. Bullying and being an outcast is a big problem in Korea, as it is in the United States and Canada. Murder will always be a hate crime. It doesn't mean that the hate stems from race. It is truly an utter loss that this beautiful child's life has been cut off from the earth. In the few minutes that I spoke with him, he was engaging, fascinating, joyful, and precocious. He was also homeschooled and, while holding unconventional ideas, seemed to have the closed-mindedness and lack of empathy that many children who have not been exposed to more than a few adults and children often possess (in a nutshell, THIS is my problem with homeschooling).

This boy would have been completely unprepared to meet and negotiate with an opposing group of boys (Korean OR American). Being alone, as he was so often, he didn't have a buddy to protect him. He didn't have the cultural fluency or exposure to others unlike him to help him, and he was an outcast for more than his complexion--his weight, his lack of friends (adolescents in Korea tend to travel in packs), and most likely his mannerisms.

HIS DEATH IS WRONG. YES, IT IS WRONG. There can be no condoning. There can be no explaining. But at the same time, there are issues here that go much deeper than race--namely bullying, pack mentality, and the arrogance of the individual in thinking that they don't need to understand the other (and I mean this on both ends), among others.

My heart bleeds for this mother. I pray that I am never in this situation. But I know that we are all walking a tightrope. Years ago, someone (non-white/non-black) was beaten in this very same small town less than a block from the home where he had grown up. No one has called this a hate crime. But in this small area, I don't know anyone else that this has happened to. I also didn't see much in the form of police work. Similarly, a non-white neighbor appears often to be harshly punished for behaviors similar to those that his white counterparts also engage in (unpunished). Is it because of his race? Is it because those who are white better understand how to dance on the line of what is going to be punished and what it not? Or is it because one set of parents is not about to be silent at the punishment of their children while the other has perhaps given up?

Even early this fall, I spoke to a school administrator about the need to deal with my son's anxiety which is, in part, tied up with his language (and, because his language is nearly only spoken by those of his race, his race). When I told her that we were seeing four times the amount of self injury and that it was dangerous, her response was "Well, we expect behaviors to increase."


Perhaps I had failed to mention that these behaviors had nearly resulted in his falling from a second floor window onto the concrete below. (I can't believe that I did.)

I could say that she was callous. I could say that this was racism.

But I think it highly more likely that she just didn't know what to do and was overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problem.

Is it okay? No.

Is it understandable? Yes.

And, I think, we have to choose to start with the understanding.

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