The way we look…it’s so hard not to judge, be critical of, what we look like. It’s like we have this sense, this feeling, deep down, that what we image to the world isn’t good enough. Our hair and eyes and nose and lips, our arms and waist and legs and hips…they’re all created in the image of God, right? Then why, why, why do we forever spend time wishing they clung to our bodies differently, more beautifully, like the ones we see behind storefront glass and billboards and TV? Is there someone somewhere with the ultimate body and skin type and height out there, or up there, sending us subliminal messages about who’s in and who’s out?
For as long as I can remember, I’ve had people ask me, “What are you?” Weird. Awkward. Rude. Ignorant? I always knew that what they were searching for is to know what ethnicity my features reflected. So, I would always respond with, “I’m Korean.” I’ll totally admit that there were a few feisty times that I responded with, “What are you? I’m a person, a girl.” I loved catching people off guard. The random comments continued as people willingly shared with me how I reminded them of other Asian people and told me which of my features mirrored the Japanese, Chinese or Koreans. And then, there was that one time, when someone I had just met asked me if I knew a Korean girl in Michigan, and as I naively tried to connect how I knew her, he said, “Oh, I just thought that you would know her because she’s Korean too.” Seriously…that happened. And then, I have lots of stories about people assuming that I know karate or kung fu and telling me what good English I speak. I’ve always thanked them and let them know I’ve been working on it for 30+ years. And then, there have been those shocking times when good intentioned people have said, “Well, at least you’re not full blown Korean.” I guess to look more Asian would be a bad thing.
It’s been tiring to have people question and comment on and evaluate my appearance…all because I look different than they do.
Funny how we live in a country that’s so interested, so naïve, and in some places, so homogeneous that we think a person of color is so rare that we would feel the need to ask him/her, “What are you?”
I’ve laughed. I’ve cried. I’ve felt hurt, and even angry.
And then, I began learning how America found herself in these shoes. These shiny, better shoes that shouted privilege and power for almost 350 years (Did you know that the first slaves were brought to America in 1619?). For some, knowingly. For others, ignorantly. And, just for the record, I’ve been in these shoes. I’ve misused my privilege, my power. But now, years later, I hope to use my experience, my privilege, my face, my voice…for good.
So, like most growth and change and paradigm shifts, it began with awareness…awareness of what moments with people, with people of color, were significant, were defining, which meant that most likely, I had some emotion attached to that experience.
For me, my first memories of people of color involved experiences like, “Lock your doors. We’re going through the bad part of town.” Or, seeing a black man sitting on a curb, passed out, dirty, poor. Or, seeing an Asian woman aggressively and angrily shouting words that sounded like a mix between Chinese and English to a cook in a kitchen. Or, a Mexican family in the heat of the night all piled on a porch with all their kids running through the streets, unattended and wild. Or, an Arab man with a keffiyeh on his head walking mysteriously through the mall. And, even sometimes, on the TV, on the news, when time after time a person of color is being highlighted for a crime that he may or may not have committed. I remember these moments. My world? It consisted of almost all White people. The people of color I saw were distant, helpless, stuck out, bad.
Images: they’re vivid and piercing and sustaining.
Words: they’re descriptive and powerful and stick.
What was shown to us, what was told to us, what we experienced…it lingers.
What we see, what we say, what we do…it shapes us. It shapes how we view others…”them.”
Did you know that by age 3 there is already an awareness of racial difference? And by age 10, 90% of attitudes towards other ethnicities are set? That’s either a lot of significant emotional experiences with people of color or a few really powerful ones. Whatever way you look at it, the human mind and heart get shaped, deeply, by the experiences we have with people of color. If we’ve had more negative experiences with people of color than positive experiences, we will need other powerful experiences to change the power of those first memories.
For me in my journey, this shift began with listening…listening to stories shared by people of color – their hurt, their suffering, their pain, the misunderstanding, the violence, the injustice, the inequality – and believing them. It’s been reading books like Healing Racism in America by Nathan Rutstein. It’s been watching films like, Ethnic Notions (California Newsreel) and Shadow of Hate (Charles Guggenheim) and Blue Eyed (California Newsreel) and Color of Fear (Stir Fry Productions) and Crash (Paul Haggis). It’s been attending Institutes for Healing Racism. It’s been understanding more of how God calls us to love…everyone, no matter what color skin they may wear. These experiences have all been a part of my awareness, my learning, my recovery…of seeing people as human, not less than human. And, at the same time, hearing my own voice (and God’s voice) tell myself that what I look like is good, is beautiful, is enough. And somehow, in gracious ways, asking for others to see me, my Asian features, as needed, as human.
Perhaps we could start the conversation with, “Who are you?” instead of “What are you?”
So, if you find yourself stepping into a culture that values sameness, may your heart begin to value different-ness. I have this belief, this hope, that stepping into different experiences and crowds and cultures and parts of town could bring us perspective, relationship, love, wholeness…more of Jesus.
Because when I think about Jesus having a dinner party, I’m pretty sure that there would be a place at the table for everyone.