That would be me in Korea….
There is a guy who speaks really good English and who was very helpful the day I cried at school. I am always getting him confused with another man in a suit, the one who wanted me to go to church services on Monday mornings. Of course, side by side they look TOTALLY different, but they are never side by side and then I just get confused whenever I see one of them.
Part of my lesson with the evening class tonight was about racial sensitivity. I had the students describe the people in some multi-cultural photographs. They were engaged and interested in the task, and they took a lot of time and put a lot of thought into their answers. As we reviewed their answers, I taught them how they didn’t need to focus on race at all when describing the people individually, and that each person had something unique and distinguishing about themselves or how they presented themselves. Of course, their descriptions were exactly as one would have expected – the black man was a gangster, the asian looked smart, and surprisingly two women were mistaken as men, due to their strong features or short afro.
So I had to explain how there was nothing in the least bit scary about the African American man, that there was not even anything indicating that he was a gangster, (and then I went into an explanation of why being scared of someone based simply on the way they look can be insulting) that there was no way in knowing that the Asian was any smarter, and that there were other visual cues about the femininity of the East Indian and African American women.
Then, I had them try and point out the differences between the at first similar-looking people in the photo above. (interesting article to read if you click on the photo)
I explained how it is a natural survival skill from our earliest evolution to categorize: that things we know are safe, and categories we don’t know are potentially dangerous because they are not part of our familiar world. I explained how distance makes us generalize, and that we can’t know specifics until we get closer. And the problem with race and race relations is that we let our fear keep us from getting close enough to see people as more than just their category.
I STILL HAVEN’T SEEN ENOUGH ASIAN FACES to be able to distinguish them enough. To me, Asians are still foreigners and my white brain is still working from generalizations and moving too slowly to specifics…My exposure has been so limited my entire life, and this is really the first time I’ve been in close contact. Only it is overwhelming, and anyone not within my immediate sphere I still have a hard time identifying or describing.
One of the videos we watched today on being Asian in America was about the “vibrant” Korean community in America. It touched upon the Rodney King L.A. riots, and how that was a galvanizing point in history for Koreans to become more vocal and politically proactive as a community. But after the describing people exercise, I reminded them of their unwarranted characterization and fear (we’ll explore what that’s based upon in a later lesson on history of racial image and the media) of the African American. I told them that the backlash against the Korean American community in L.A. was in part their own doing, because their fear was offensive (I’m working hard yet you think I’m an ex-con simply because of my color?) and how the Koreans didn’t take the time to get to know any of the brothers & sisters who spent their money in their stores, and how the African Americans came to view the Korean shop owners as the privileged model minority who exploit those who are denied privilege.
The lovely thing is, the class got it.
Teaching can be great sometimes.