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
I learned a lot about racism through books and movies.
With The Hate U Give grasped within my gripping fingers, I read each page carefully. The entire room was silent, each student reading their own book, and my eighth-grade teacher sat by her desk typing. I knew of police brutality and the continuous racism that occurred against African Americans, but reading about it always made my heart heavy. As much as it was humiliating and embarrassing for me to say, I sometimes forgot about these ongoing issues because of living abroad. Starr was the main character, an African American girl living in a Black neighborhood but attending a white private school because the education there was better. I began to read the part where Starr’s parents had to give her children the “talk” – otherwise known as how to act around police.
Always keep your hands where they can see them. Always obey their orders. Never talk back. Be respectful. Comply.
For Blacks, calling the police could mean death. The sadness I felt was ineffable. And all the while, I felt helpless.
One year later
13th. I stared at the title on my screen; the documentary was given as summer homework for my AP US History class. I was excited to watch it, especially as someone who loves history, but I dreaded the horrifying truth that was going to be revealed. And I didn’t even expect half of what I heard.
The one hour and forty minutes flew by too quickly when I was learning something new every second of it. Each story made me fume, each rising number of incarcerated Black men made me furious, each interview made me astounded. The incredulous amount of existing racism wasn’t surprising to me – it was hearing the many more personal stories where injustice occurred in hundreds of harsher ways. We studied history to learn of the past, yet the racism that is intertwined in our lives now, especially for Blacks, didn’t just vanish according to our history textbooks. It has yet to be changed.
I remembered my mom recommending the Netflix series about Kalief Browder, one of the boys mentioned by 13th. He was wrongly accused of stealing someone’s backpack, and instead of pleading guilty for a lesser charge, Browder wanted to go to trial. But the trial took three years to occur while his mental health deteriorated in the violent depths of Rikers Island. Violent footage in his jail cells was already enough for me to feel utterly frustrated.
I laid in my bed, with my computer on my lap. And I pressed play.
By the end of the series, I was in tears.
“Things aren’t always so black and white, Hannah,” my dad told me while we were chewing on our lunch. We were discussing the systemic racism that exists unfairly intertwined around the world. “There may be two equally qualified candidates, one Black, and one white. Many will choose the white person because a white person makes the business look better. Does that necessarily make the person hiring a racist?”
I set down my fork. “Well, you’re contributing to that racism.”
My dad nodded. “Yes, you are. But that doesn’t mean that you are racist.” I shrugged, understanding his point but not completely agreeing with it. Contributing to racism is also an issue.
“I’m just saying that there’s a grey area for a lot of these things. It’s not always that simple.”
Yes, of course, issues are more than just a simple coin toss. Not quite sure how to respond, I just got up from the table and put my dishes away. I wished that I could understand more about what he was talking about and refute the statements that sat uncomfortably with me, but I couldn’t.
By the time I went back into my room, I was scoffing at my dad’s words. But you can’t always stay in a grey area. Sometimes you have to choose between being the better person. And I think I know which person I want to be.
- Hannah C.