How I Learned About Racism
Updated: 3 days ago
Dear Asian Youth,
We sat on the rainbow carpet, and I was cross-legged on top of a red square while next to my three best friends. The entire fifth-grade class was listening to our teacher, Ms. Loderer, about the Civil Rights Movement and Martin Luther King Jr. and segregation and discrimination – all things we thought were in the past when, really, they weren’t. Daniel, my friend’s crush, was too busy giggling with his friends to notice the seriousness of what we were learning, but I didn’t bother to tell him to be quiet. I wasn’t too familiar with the words “race” and “racism” either. Not yet.
Then, Ms. Loderer demanded the class to stand up. Gathering into a circle, we watched the screen as she played the “I Have a Dream” speech for us. I was mesmerized by Kind’s low and rumbling voice, hypnotized by his words, words I can’t recall anymore, and inspired by his ability to be brave. He was speaking in front of hundreds and thousands of people, and I couldn’t help thinking that this was like a black and white movie from the past; history was history.
Several months later
“Do you know why it’s so safe in Hong Kong?” my dad asked. My sister, Erin, and I shook our heads. The Starbucks we were sitting in played a barely noticeable mellow tune – it was jazz, a symphony of beautiful brass instruments singing together, and also my favorite type of music – and I sipped on my iced tea, addicted to the sweet flavor. We sat at a tiny corner by the window as Erin and I admired the world of Hong Kong that we had yet to explore. Right as I was going to begin the sixth grade, my family had flown across the ocean from New York for my dad’s job a couple of days ago. The air was saturated with the scent of coffee grinds, but it was nice.
Our dad turned to us after taking a gulp of his Americano. “It’s because there are no 흑인사람 here.”
With my eyebrows scrunched, I repeated his last words in my head: 흑인사람 (heug-in salam). I understood what he meant, but I didn’t understand why he had said it. Glancing away from the plastic cup in my hands, I looked up at my dad.
Erin glanced at me, confused. Her Korean wasn’t as fluent as mine. “What does that mean?”
I sighed. “Black people, Erin.”
We didn’t say much after that. Acting like nothing was wrong, my dad smiled at us and turned to read an article on his phone while Erin and I sat in puddles of personal thoughts we didn’t talk through. Why did he say that? we wondered. We unsuccessfully attempted to drown our confusion in the sugary, cold drinks in our hands. Discomfort crept into the back of my throat.
Two years later