RACE CARD PROJECT

I am an NPR/WNYC junkie.  Brian Lehrer saved my sanity when my little one would sleep only in a car seat every morning for his nap.  So for two hours I would drive around and listen to Brian.  My daily intake of NPR expanded to many other segments and in particular Michele Norris and her Race Card Project.  This project came at a time when we believe ourselves to be living in a post-racial society to which I consistently balk.  However, it also stimulated my curiosity as to where we, Asian/Korean American adoptees fit into the perception of race and identity within the larger context of this discussion which so often gets bifurcated to black and white.

This past summer, I was asked to come to a culture camp for Korean adoptees and American born Korean children to facilitate a conversation on their sense of identity as children with a hyphenated identity.  The Race Card Project was the perfect way to get the campers and counselors thinking, talking and creating their ideas on how they see themselves, their community and America.  What started out as an exercise of creativity for the counselors and teachers and subsequently, the campers (ages 11-16) became THE project for camp.  Everyone contributed at least one card, some multiple cards, and posted them on a wall in the cafeteria.  Not one was identical to another.  This one week long camp also brought daily visitors who were intrigued by the display and also added their thoughts on cards as well.  The result was an amazing presentation of the 6-word essay challenge.  It was so exciting, I got permission from every participant to publish the wall of essays.  

What stood out for me was how much has not changed in the world.  These are kids who are being raised in a more diverse world of wider definitions of race and family and yet, the feelings of difference, uniqueness, prejudice and misperceptions still pervade.  It is our package that consistently alters our inner realities of what it means to belong and to whom.  However, all is not doom and gloom.  I found myself laughing out loud to the immense humor that arose from this discussion too.  Our younger kids may be facing the same as we did, but their core is a lot more intact making room for more sarcasm and inside jokes.  Lessons were learned all around.

I have sent this to Michele Norris twice now and have never heard back from her, so I am putting it out there for my readers.  I hope it inspires you and maybe someone will be able to reach Ms. Norris.

The challenge is to create a 6 word essay on race and/or identity:

We are all people of color

Not one or the other, in-between

I eat with forks and chopsticks

I am more than your stereotypes

Toast for breakfast, rice for dinner

I’m me, not only my face

I know exactly who I am

Adaptation: the true Korean adoptee experience

I’m not my parents, I’m me

I have always known my identity

We are all one in a billion

Foreign because of my Asian name

In the end we are all people

Oriental is a cookie, not me

I am me that is it

Malleable as clay, imprinted as stamps

My name doesn’t mean anything, sorry

You know you have yellow fever

I use chopsticks at home, mostly

Race is only one broad term

It’s always about rice and noodles

Life is more complicated than speaking English

We are doctors but also patients

Korean-American is not Korean or American

As a foreigner, they categorize me

Home is where you make it

I don’t eat cat or dog

I decide what shapes my identity

Race is nothing but a word

No, I can’t do your nails/laundry

Everyone has feelings, so be nice

Transcending into one world as Korean

White privilege makes me feel guilty

Adoption is different, difference is pride

I am a Korean American girl

Race is nothing but a word

Color is just color, not identity

Be yourself, but also be unique

Guess what?  I suck at math

The world is a melting pot

I really like being Asian (Korean)

I do not bow like that

My skin color is kinda yellow

Not all of us are cousins

Asian doesn’t mean I am Chinese

Guys, I actually don’t speak Korean

I bet I’m a better driver

We the people appreciate our life

I don’t speak like Ching Chong

I do not love my calculator

I’m just as American as you

This is not the 40s anymore

We are more than our appearance

I’m Korean American, are you jealous?

I heart my long Asian hair

We have better hair than you

People think I’m quiet, I’m not!

Americans are just jealous of us

Watch out for our nuclear weapons

I am a yellow rice love

I’m actually good at math

Wish I was a k-pop star

I don’t work for Samsung, What?

Need help with your math homework?

Starcraft is not my national sport

My parents actually loved me

God made me for a reason

I am not a rice farmer

I’m from Korea and I’m adopted

My heritage is who I am

Don’t be hatin’ cuz I’m Asian

I’m blazian and I am proud

Racism will last until the end

I am Korean, deal with it

Different colors different people all human

 

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Privilege

If you are living a life where there seemed to be little choice, little care in how you think or feel; where happiness as a possible pursuit was dashed, I wonder if it is nearly impossible to think of life as privileged based on the color of your skin, your gender or sexual orientation?  I do workshops on race and racism with adoptive parents, mostly Caucasian adoptive parents to children who are not.  I had a father, Caucasian, who was genuine in his confusion as to how I could possibly label him “privileged.”  How dare I – who knows nothing about him, what he has lived or how he has struggled – possibly say he comes from a place of privilege based on his gender and his skin color?  He’s right.  How dare I?  But how could I see it and he can’t/won’t? I am a woman, adopted, Asian American. How would I cross that chasm to bring him to my world?  What was I inviting him to see?  Will seeing it be worth all the work, resentment, pain and shame?  What would it take for him to know what it feels like to be me?  Is it just because he has a kid that looks like me?  Is that enough of a reason for him to get it?  While I don’t think so, it is a beginning.  I want him to get it as a human being, not just a father of a child who was born from a Korean person.  But for a moment, he was willing to listen because I look like his kid.

It isn’t right for me to want to humble this man into believing that he has walked through life without having to second guess his right to be in a room, in a restaurant, in a store, in a place of higher education, in a neighborhood.  If he does know those feelings, does he get that he has far more places to escape to than I do?  What is my end goal in getting in touch with these feelings?  Compassion for people like me, like his son?  Perhaps it is compassion for himself so he can own his privilege and in that owning be open to others who are not.

It got me thinking of how I could convey to this Dad a way of thinking that comes to me pretty regularly based on traveling in this country in places where my face was clearly an apparition, not just the Caucasian world I would add.  There are places I don’t go not because I can’t but because I won’t dare.  There are some places in this country where it would not fall on my radar of options even if I think myself brave and adventurous; not because of fear or insecurity but because of fear of death.

More subtly and consistently is the knowing what privilege does for anyone.  With it, I know eventually I will be accepted if I make one connection.  Without it, I feel unwelcome and most definitely waiting for a chance for someone to take the risk in getting acquainted.  That simultaneous feeling of unwelcome and waiting is really humiliating.

I think what is slippery for an adopted person of color though is that we live in privilege, see it up close and personal and most often operate from that same sense of knowing as our Caucasian parents do until…. the line gets cut off right behind them in a restaurant leaving you behind, until you are spoken to loudly because the assumption is you don’t speak English, until the dressing attendant passes you by to give your options to the other girl who matches your Mother’s complexion far better than you do.  A one off?  Could be.  An embarrassing moment?  For them maybe.  Completely understandable?  Not totally.  Not if you are in my shoes today and every day.

At the same time, I fully suspect there are transracial adoptees who believe themselves to be a version of their Caucasian upbringing and believe that shared history entitles them to the same privilege as their parents.  How humiliating when it is not.  How disturbing to see such ignorance within our own community.  How helpless it feels to see the pain of realization when that changes.

I find myself ruminating about the father who was brave to challenge this notion of privilege.  I felt as if he was was listening to a vocabulary that was all new.  He was genuine in his non-understanding of it.  I think what put me off was the defensive posturing that went along with it.  Again, privilege without knowing it. Getting defensive feels like a luxury.  Who has time to debate whether racism and privilege exist or not? Yet, time is what I really want. Time to talk, to listen, to challenge and to invite.

What strikes me odd about the conversation of privilege is that I am the one doing the thinking, the inviting, the asking, the educating as if I am the pied piper hoping for followers to hear the music when others don’t.   I cannot imagine living in one or two dimensions, homogeneous and passively engaged upon.  But I doubt there is a sense of privilege in that either.  What is the subtlety I keep twisting in my fingers that have no words?  As I see it, it is my privilege to see the differences, the times when inequality happens.  I love the music and colors I see in my world of being other. It is my narrative burden and yet I am empowered.  I am empowered by the challenges overcome, the pain transformed and the celebration of uniqueness. I want others to see it, to reflect on it. Without it, I would feel so empty. I don’t really think of it as a burden, it is a privilege for me to talk to people about this subject matter.

I always leave workshops hoping to gain more members (allies?) of my world of color.  Not confident that I do.  After all, I know that that father can walk out of the room and never have to think about this again.  He doesn’t absolutely have to get it.  He actually will still be loved by his son; he may even be given a pass of forgiveness for not getting it.  Privilege. But I fear his world will be absent of a real connection to his child and the legacy of the family he created by adopting him.  I know too many adoptees who leave their relationships with their parents behind because this cannot and will not be open for discussion.  For them it is not just a matter of privilege, but of life.