How do you talk about race with your child? How early do children start to recognize that not everyone has the same skin color? Is race one of those topics you should discuss openly and honestly with your child like how to safely cross the street, or why you shouldn’t talk to strangers, or the dreaded “Birds and the Bees talk”?
I’d like to think that as a person of color I have some extraordinary insight about how to talk about race, but the truth is, I don’t. Talking about race is simply uncomfortable. Is it because if you’re white it conjures up a great deal of emotions like uneasiness, defensiveness, and possibly even anger? And if you are the person of color, undoubtedly, there are feelings of shame, hurt, and at times isolation.
I understand and accept the fact that by adopting my son and bringing him to live in America, he will be judged by his skin color. There will be school playground incidents where kids will make fun of him because of his physical differences-his eyes, his nose. More than likely I will have to explain to him the hurtful name calling and navigate the tricky questions he will ask about not being white. Others will try to pigeonhole him because he is conspicuous and he will feel vulnerable living in a mostly white world.
Maybe the platitude, “Love is all you need” doesn’t apply in this situation. I can’t love away my son’s pain and grief, but what I can do is help prepare him for the messy complicated reality. As his parent, I do need to be honest about the hurt he will experience when kids ridicule him for the first time because of his eyes and skin color. I do need to be candid and tell him that his race does matter. But mostly, I need to be empathetic about how he feels because when that inevitable day arrives where he realizes for the first time that he’s not white, then my only choice is to quietly listen.
It’s been one week since the election and my feelings of anger, disappointment, sadness, and hopelessness have emotionally exhausted me. As a female and a person of color, this campaign has felt entirely personal because so much of the hate filled rhetoric was targeted at people who like myself have been marginalized due to my race and gender. Opportunities and entitlements belong only to those who fit into the Trump version of America. If you are labeled different, then you excluded. But I see you. I understand you. I am with you in your anger.
This week was also a difficult teaching week. I took the easy way out and avoided any election discussions with my students because I didn’t have the emotional capacity. How could I remain neutral when all I wanted to do was unleash my own anger and sadness? I wonder what words I would say to my son if he was here and old enough to understand. I’d like to think that I would tell him the truth no matter how hurtful it is, but honestly, I don’t know.
Eventually, I will have to stop grieving and crawl up off the floor. There are small moments when I feel myself moving forward, but then I learn about yet another racial graffiti hate crime or I overhear a student chanting, “Build the wall!” and I’m right back where I started. The truth is that no matter how stifling and confusing the world feels right now, I have to find a way to acceptance. I didn’t choose to elect this president, but I do have choices. I can choose to listen. I can choose to show empathy to others. And I can choose to be inclusive with those who are different from me. Now more than ever I want to stretch myself in the direction of kindness and forgiveness. I choose to be filled with the bigness of love.
Growing up, I remember there were two clearly distinct experiences when I felt noticeably different. One time a stranger in a store commented, “Your skin is so porcelain just like a China doll!” Or another time when a stylist cutting my hair declared, “I thought all Asians had straight hair.” Although these comments weren’t malicious, nevertheless, I remember feeling confused that my appearance should be different than what it was.
I know that early on in my son’s life, he will experience feeling different. He is Korean and will grow up as a minority in America. He will more than likely be teased by his classmates because of his eyes, nose, skin color or simply because he doesn’t look white. I struggle knowing that he may internalize this as him being inadequate and feel ashamed. How can I protect him from this? I know that I can’t. It’s entirely impossible.
As a new parent, maybe I’m naive to think that if I enroll my son in a Korean language immersion school, attend a multiracial church or have playgroups with other Korean adoptees, he will grow up to have a positive self identity. The truth is, that even if I do all of these things to support his connection to his Korean culture, there will still be moments when he will feel conspicuous and compromised because of his race.
I understand that my son doesn’t have a choice. He will leave his Korean culture and gain an American one. These are the losses and gains of being adopted. But maybe throughout his adoption journey, my son will be able to find a new space where he is able to create his own narrative that is completely free from the expectations and definitions of others.
“Where are you from?” “Minnesota.” “No, where are you really from?” “Do you speak Korean?” “No.” “Have you ever met your birth mother?” It seems like everyone from friends, coworkers, and even strangers are intimately curious about my Korean-ness. There have been numerous interactions throughout my life which highlight that yes, in fact, I am Korean. One particular incident I can distinctly remember well. I was five years old attending an open house school event with my parents and brothers. As we walked from classroom to classroom, a teacher saw me and was convinced that I was lost, while the entire time I was standing next to my brothers. I remember feeling confused and not being able to explain what happened. I just knew that I was different. Then, right at the moment when you start to forget that you are Korean, you are abruptly reminded like the time a complete stranger approached me and started to speak to me in Korean. After a few seconds of giving him a look of total bewilderment, he realized that I had no idea what he was saying. Which is more awkward? An absolute stranger speaking to me in Korean. Or a white person who fluently speaks Korean.
Maybe I’m a late bloomer in discovering my Korean-ness because it wasn’t until my twenties when I first began to explore my Korean identity. I felt this relentless need to absorb all things Korean. I read every piece of literature written about being Korean American. I binge watched K-dramas (and you think Days of Our Lives is dramatic) and even sought out friendships with international Korean students because somehow I felt they were more Korean than my Korean adopted peers.
Twenty years later and I’m still exploring my Korean-ness, but with a different purpose. Now my intention is to provide my son with a home where he can see his culture represented. I’m curiously experimenting with cooking Korean foods (you had me at banchans), slowly learning how to speak the Korean language, and carefully researching bilingual books in preparation for our adoption. There are moments though, when I wonder am I Korean enough? One day will my son wake up and say, “Okay, mom, the jig is up.” Whenever these irrational thoughts begin to consume me, I find comfort in the insightful words from the beautiful poet Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge. She says, “In the margins, fertile things happen. When things are fixed, things can’t grow. But in margins, things grow.”