Talk of the Quad: Discrimination will always be there, but race and ethnicity still matter
My ethnicity has defined me as a person over the years, and I hate when I hear people saying things like “Never let your race dictate who you are.” From my experience, both with and against my will, my race and ethnicity—that is, my outward physical appearance—have defined me as a person both to myself and people around me. Since I moved to the U.S. in 2007, I have heard much talk on race and ethnicity in this nation. I moved around a lot while growing up, and I believe race and ethnicity play a much bigger role, both positive and negative, in the U.S. than they do in most other places. This is especially important in terms of both recent events and trends that have been continuing for centuries: discrimination based on race and ethnicity. Of course, the situation must be rectified. Yet I just wanted to say that ending racial and ethnic discrimination won’t put a stop to all discrimination. I hear a lot of misguided talk on this campus about how once racism stops, our society is going to turn into some utopian wonderland where everyone is happy and unicorns frolic. But that’s simply not the case. We will still discriminate based on more subtle and easily hidden differences. When I was in elementary school in South Korea, my family got into pretty serious financial trouble. We moved to a “rougher” neighborhood, but I was still attending the same nationally run, hyper-competitive school in the middle of Gangnam District, made famous by Psy. I immediately recognized the change in people’s reactions when I told them of my family’s new neighborhood. It was subtle, but it was there. Yet, as soon as I told them about my parents’ jobs, or that I played ice hockey, or any number of things, the reactions changed “for the better” again. Korea is a homogenous country. “Everyone looks the same,” said an English friend when she visited me in Seoul last summer. Despite the lack of racial and ethnic diversity in my homeland, I’d say discrimination is actually bigger there than here. Koreans discriminate, and we discriminate openly. I’m not saying discrimination is good. What I am trying to say is discrimination will always be there, with or without racial and ethnic diversity. Koreans will ask right off the bat where you live and what university you attend. If you don’t live in Seoul, forget about earning instant respect or favors. Even if you live in Seoul, how you are treated will vary significantly based on which district. As far as universities go, if it’s not one of the SKYs (Seoul National, Korea, and Yonsei, the Ivy League of Korea), most wouldn’t take you seriously. Bowdoin isn’t well-known at all in Korea, so most people just assume I go to some bottom-tier community college in the U.S. That attitude usually doesn’t change until they hear me speaking perfect English with negligible accent or read my personal statements, previous research papers or just simple emails. Last summer, while in Korea, I dated a girl whose life had been pretty similar to mine. She was 21, and had a noticeable accent when speaking Korean. She grew up in a conservative home, lived abroad for all of her teenage years, attended an English university, and both her parents were renowned lawyers. When I first met her parents, I wasn’t dressed particularly well because it was summer, and I took the subway to the restaurant, rather than a taxi. At first, her parents did not approve of me at all, just assuming I was from an average family: a social class below their own. It didn’t help that my family moved out of Seoul because my parents hated the crowded city after having lived in La Cañada Flintridge, a wide-open suburb of Los Angeles that’s home to the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab. Their disapproval was blatant—interrupting my words, not paying attention, etc. I got talking about my summer internship, my parents’ jobs, Bowdoin and my future plans; their attitudes changed completely. Don’t dismiss this incident as an anomaly. The idiomatic “silver spoon” is discussed all the time in Korea in terms of relationship and marriage prospects, coining new derivatives such as dirt, wooden, gold and platinum spoons. When I first moved to Southern California, I really came to terms with my identity, especially my race and ethnicity. There are a lot of positive stereotypes about Asians and Koreans, and I realized people just viewed me with sprinkles of those stereotypes. I probably would have very different views if the negative stereotypes of my people outweighed the positive ones, but fortunately that was not the case. As a naïve 14-year-old kid in a foreign land with no friends or even acquaintances, those positive stereotypes of my race and ethnicity helped me out a lot, and therefore I just let them slide. There was no reason for me to actively resist when people viewed me positively without even knowing me. Those stereotypes were much better than others that could have applied to me, such as stereotypes about foreigners, kids whose parents both work, etc. Over time, I became more and more connected with my ethnicity. I am proud to be Korean. Yeah, we might be rude and unpleasant, smell of garlic and kimchi, and we probably fixed matches in the 2002 World Cup—but we are also one of the four tigers of East Asia, developing at an incredible pace over the last several decades. We also managed to hold onto a tiny piece of land on a strategically crucial peninsula for over five millennia, sandwiched between China and Japan. I hear a lot of people saying, “I don’t see your race” or “Don’t let your race define you.” To me, those statements are just as ignorant as those made by actual racists and bigots. Race and ethnicity are literally the first thing I see in a person. It’s like an annoyingly loud noise with flashing neon lights. Of course, we ought to not judge others by their race or ethnicity, but that’s a radically different idea from ignoring race and ethnicity completely. If you have suffered because of your race or ethnicity, or if you are someone who supports these people in their endeavors, like many in the US have, I understand your point and I support you in your pursuit of justice. However, never make the mistake of assuming every person of color has had the same experience. My race and ethnicity have put me in uncomfortable, even seriously dangerous situations in the past, but they have also transformed me into the person I am today. “Korean,” is the first word I say every time I am asked the million-dollar question, “What are you?” Race and ethnicity, along with identity, should be celebrated, not neglected. We should be talking more about them. I realize my experience has been uncommon, and I just wanted to share it with you. I want racism and ethnic discrimination gone from this world like a lot of you do. But I have also realized, from personal experience, that discrimination is always there. In the presence of such ethnic and racial diversity in this nation, it is sometimes convenient to assume that all discrimination stems from the different shades of our skin color. Don’t make such a mistake, because other differences among us are caused by much more silent factors. So be careful when you tell me that racism and ethnic discrimination are the last shackles holding us back from Wonderland. In my life, the biggest discriminatory actions I’ve faced have not been inspired by my race or my ethnicity, but other subtleties, including where I live, what my parents do, what school I attend, what I study and what kind of cars my parents drive. To me, discriminations based on subtleties have been far more ugly than those based on the color of my skin.