Thoughts: MLK, Jr. Day 2014

This past summer, I remember sitting on the floor of my parents basement watching the Zimmerman trial. When the verdict was announced, I was numb. I just sat on my bed and thought for a while. It wasn’t a “race case,” but clearly racial implications were woven throughout the dialogue of the trial from the jump. That night it was like the Justice System was looking me in the face, looking my brother, my cousins, my father in the face and saying, “You don’t matter. We will not protect you. We don’t care.” That’s what it felt like, and that night I cried myself to sleep. It was the first time in a while I’d done that.  A few hours later, I awoke from a nightmare about someone trying to kill my brother, and the police doing nothing to stop them. It was a rough night for dreamers.

A couple nights ago, I was at this foreigners’ bar where they were having a trivia competition. A question was asked concerning the year Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his “I Dreamed a Dream Speech,” to which one of the bar patrons corrected the guy at the mic, saying, “It’s ‘I Have a Dream.’” With a “same difference” type attitude, the guy at the mic dismissed the patron. I thought, As life-changing as Les Mis was for me, they’re not the same. Give respect where respect is due.

Monday is MLK, Jr. Day. Being a US holiday, it’s not observed in South Korea.

Korea is by far the least diverse place I’ve ever lived, but I haven’t experienced any problems with racism. In fact, there’s only been one instance when someone’s even been borderline rude to me at all. For the most part, everyone’s gone out of their way to be hospitable, even speaking to me in English when, for goodness sake, it’s their country; they don’t need to speak my language. Granted, I don’t speak Korean, so people could be talking about me behind my back, but let’s give everyone the benefit of the doubt.

It’s funny though because at least once a month, my students ask about my skin and comment about how I’m from Africa (…My ancestors, but I’m a US citizen.). “Teacher, are you black or white or yellow?” (I had to laugh at that one. No one in the US would ever ask if I was white…) I answer their questions politely, like any other question. The kids probably haven’t seen too many black people and, I mean, they’re kids. They’re curious. They ask those kinds of questions.

Sometimes though, I am a bit taken aback. “Teacher, why is your skin black? Is it because you’re so dirty?” Pause.

Another time, we had an African substitute teacher for a day. After he left a classroom, one of my students ran up to me, eyes wide exclaiming, “Teacher, his skin is so dark! I thought he was a slave!” Pause. You’re ten. Where would you even get that?

Remarks like those are not innate; they’re learned, and unfortunately go to show how deeply bogus racial constructs have penetrated our global society.

My last semester of college, I took two of the most influential classes of my life, “The History of Racialization in America” and “Introduction to African American Studies.” I wish I’d known about courses like those when I was a freshman. In the classes, I learned how in 1776, a guy named J.F. Blumenbach thought it would be a good idea to hierarchize the peoples of the world based on their aesthetic beauty, the fair skinned people of the Caucuses Mountains being at the top of the pyramid and the Ethiopian people of sub-Saharan Africa at the bottom. And from that was born decades of slavery, human rights violations, and self-hate. From a stupid human construct.

But being man-made, it should bring hope to know that the ills of racism can be deconstructed. How? I’d be lying if I said I knew. This thing is a mess. An absolute mess. I actually had a long conversation about this with a friend of mine over the summer, and the only answer I could provide after lots of thought and introspection was Love, which is essentially the message of Christ, the Gospel.

In Suwon, the most diverse place I’ve been is my church, which is kind of cool. For the longest time, it was also the only place I’d ever seen interracial children, which is also cool. The congregation is made up of Koreans, Indians, Americans, Canadians, Nigerians, Kenyans, Egyptians, South Africans, and the list goes on. If anyone should be demonstrating how to break down the walls of racial separation, it should be the church.

***

I often wonder, had I been living in the 60s, would I have participated in the Civil Rights Movement? It’s a scary thought. I pray that I would have been/will be brave enough to stand up against injustice, be able to discern causes worth fighting for, and forever be disagreeable enough to shun the apathy and comfort that prevent me from doing so.

Happy MLK, Jr. Day.

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