Thursday, March 19, 2009

Race Consciousness

For most children, race is not a conscious thought. You just play with the kids in your neighborhood without much thought as to why some kids had darker or lighter skin. In most cases, due to the racial homogeneity of the majority of neighborhoods in America, you usually played with kids who were the same color as you, so there'd really be no reason for the philosophical "Who am I?" question. For me, the self-realization of my race was one of my earliest thoughts. I was probably only four years old when my brother and I had a discussion of why everyone else in town looked different from us. We had this talk while walking down the street and seeing the dozens of fellow pedestrians with significantly darker skin than ours. My theory was that it was all by chance. I said that when a baby was born (brought by the stork) the color of the newborn was completely random. And by luck of the draw, our whole family came out the exact same color. My brother, Jung, didn't have his own explanation so I took his silence for agreement.

Usually the difference in skin color, alone, doesn't trigger race-consciousness in a four-year-old; there has to be something else. That something else for me and my brothers was the frequent name calling we received when we walked down our street. It was a pretty regular occurrence for complete strangers to see us and immediately say, "Yo, chink!" Well, I guess it wasn't always completely random. More often, it would be in an instance like when we passed by some kids playing baseball and if their ball happened to roll by us, they would yell something like, "Yo chink, get the ball!" Since these kids were always bigger than I, the most I could muster would be a, "Yo, shut up!" That quickly became my knee-jerk retort. After which, I would quickly put my head down and walk away, almost hoping they didn't hear me.


  1. Edward James Olmos weighing in on your blog from the UN:

    While his speech could use a little more polish and a little less irony, he refers to a very important distinction between race and culture (I might add class as well). That discussion, however, may be outside the scope of this post. In addition, I am really enjoying the anecdotal tone of this blog and would hate to spoil it with sterile, philosophical banter.

    In that spirit, I relate a story my mother told to me about my childhood. I was three years old walking with her in a shopping mall. As an African-American family, with a child about my age, passed by us, I looked up to my mother and asked, "Mommy, why is that little boy made of chocolate?" I assume from this story that it was, perhaps, the first time I had seen people with a skin color different than my own. Right there I, as a small child using not only skin color but also name calling, may have contributed to the race consciousness of that family. (Sioux Falls, South Dakota - pop: 130,000; if you do not know the demographics, you may have attended public school).

  2. Sucks that they called you a chink. Those bullies should at least get the racial slurs right.

    I remember my freshman year @ Fordham University was when my own racial identity came into question; when the issue of race became an "issue." As I never ran out of fingers to count the amount of Asians on campus, I felt the urge to join the Asian Cultural Exchange to empower more fellow Asians to participant in community outreach and cultural interaction. Soon after, I became the Public Relations officer promoting events throughout campus. Asian Pride, right? But I think I was pushing the idea of comfort. The term "Asian-American" became more significant to me. But in retrospect, it seemed as if I just created a safety net dining companions.

    I don't want to push away the history behind the Asian-American experience, however I'm looking to write my own experiences.

    For those of you who are are rhythmically inclined:

    When forced in a corner, you fight or flight. Do you flee or plea?
    This has been my answer for the past 4 years:
    Mr. Kam the outlandish educator
    Breaking the walls and bridging the gap
    My mission in fact is to strap dreams to my back
    Perhaps in-between the laps, one could collapse
    But my spirit numbs that fact, come hear it
    HiStory? We're gonna bring you Her-story
    Let's investigate the facts. Ladies to
    Gentlemen be cool like peppermint
    Ladies too, please think before you act 
    Don't just blink and react.

  3. Jordan, that youtube link was awesome! "Race is not a cultural determinant!" I love it! Usually, when people say hokey stuff like "there's only one race-the human race!" I usually roll my eyes, but he said it so convincingly that I had to listen up. I will post later on the culture/race distinction.

    And your story is pretty cool too. You had no idea at that age that you were helping some else develop their race consciousness. While you did it in complete innocence, I don't believe my mockers were quite as innocent.

    Sunny, many people develop their racial identity in college, for better or for worse. And yeah, it usually is because it's easier to fall into that or as you say the "safety net."

  4. oops! I didn't know Joey was logged on this computer. any way...
    Very interesting. Just a week ago or so, at Aston's school, I was talking to my friend, whose daughter is in the same class as Aston. She said, "they must teach about the race here. Yesterday, 00 told me, 'mommy, && has brown skin. What am I, mommy? Pink?" I was kind of shocked, didn't know how to respond to that, so I just smiled. I still don't get why it is so important to teach the kid s there are different colors of people. I have a long way to go.



  7. There's a book I read about children becoming aware of their race called, "Growing up Black" by Bill Adler & Jay David 1968, got some good stories.
    On the mixture of the use of race and culture...feels like too many people drown out the power of race discussion with a lecture on culture...the sociologist says race is a social construct it does not exist. I recently talked to someone that explained the true constructivist paradigm does not use the statement race is a social construct to say race doesn't exist but to say it is created by man. This is an important difference because to fight racism I believe we have to first start with the statement race exists...all that said whether or not race exists cannot down play America's history of violence one group of people towards another solely based on skin color...that violence and overcoming it is my focus...I believe that violence exists today even if only as simple as individual verbal attacks by children on playgrounds. More prevalent is institutional racism which can be found in schools and other public organizations...but here is a big question...can integration be legislated? Can the government or administrators force groups of people to get along on social levels? At best can public services be offered to all equally? I got asked to speak on NAACP today in a couple weeks, we'll see how that turns out! paz

  8. Saerom, yeah I think it's a little early to be teaching kids Aston's age about race. But I guess it's going to come up sooner or later, whether from teachers or other kids.

    Jody, I agree that you have to recognize race if you want to eradicate racism. And that's why I mentioned that I sometimes roll my eyes when ppl say "there's only one race-the human race." Because a lot of times the person who says that is intending to diminish the significance of racism that exists. And your "can integration be legislated?" question brings up a very important issue, which I don't really have time to elaborate on now but will probably be the topic of a post later.

  9. My husband is mostly white, he atleast looks it, and lived in neigborhoods where he was a minority and frequently was the token white kid at the pow-wow (his grandmother married a Pawnee) so as a result he got plenty of "Yo, honkie/peckerwood/wonderbread/cracker/etc." Sorry for posting so many years after. I just really enjoyed your early theory of race.