My Life In Public Spaces: How My Race Colors The Way In Which The World Reacts To Me
Every fall, I teach Brett Staples' essay, "Just Walk On By: Black Men in Public Spaces" to my juniors. We analyze how the author presented himself in the text, how he organized his thoughts, and how he used anecdotes to deliver his message.
Staples begins his essay by calling the white woman who crosses the street to avoid him his "victim." He is acutely aware of how his dark skin has "the ability to alter public spaces in ugly ways" and how he must manage this perception.
This school year, a Black student asked, "When was this published?"
"1986," I answered.
The class grew silent. "This still happens now. It happened to me," said the same Black student. Then all the Black students nodded their heads solemnly in agreement.
I don't know if that lesson imparted what rhetorical devices Staples used or how he organized his essay. What I remember is how quickly all 35 teens knew and understood Black men still endure the same injustices of public perception.
I left class wondering how many times my students had encountered similar instances. I wondered if there would ever be a year where Staples' experience would be a foreign one. I wondered if I've ever had to manage public perception because of my own skin color. I wondered if I've ever altered public spaces and if my race has altered my classroom.
I'm aware that my interactions with public perception as a Korean American woman aren't remotely similar to those of a Black man's. But neglecting to acknowledge them doesn't discount those experiences and, in facing them, I might bring a deeper empathy into the classroom.
'CHINESE, JAPANESE, DIRTY KNEES'
One time in elementary school, I joined a bunch of kids swinging on a frayed volleyball net. The nylon border separated from the net, and we made it into a swing. When a teacher supervising the playground stomped over, the other kids fled, but I was caught.
The teacher grabbed my arm and demanded the names of the other students. In a state of panic all I could manage to cry was a pitiful, "No."
I had been trying to say, "No, I don't know who they are. No, I don't know their names." But language is hard when you haven't learned it fully yet (I didn't begin learning English until first grade). It was hard to build a defense for myself.
My punishment that week included random kids running up to me as I sat alone on a bench on the edge of the playground, with their fingers stretching the corners of their eyes singing, "Chinese, Japanese, dirty knees." In their contorted eyes, I was one and the same: Chinese, Japanese, it didn't matter. I was not them.
When I look back on that experience, I'm quick to remember that the world -- the school playground -- seemed oppressively large, and I, especially small. I'm also aware that the teacher did what she could. I understand that now, as a teacher myself.
I've learned that the teacher didn't mean to single me out. I was visually more noticeable than the other students -- Brown students, mostly -- whose skin color was more or less the same. Theirs mirrored hers. Her intent wasn't to solely punish me or to make me an example. But I remember crying over the jumble of emotions I was unable to identify at the time: shame, frustration, injustice.
I realize that her intent was to act upon what was in her control -- to correct a child's behavior. She was unable to identify all the other students, but me? Immediately. So, she did what she could. But the result was that I felt wronged. Not wronged for being punished but wronged since I knew -- as all young children of color know -- why I was singled out. And the kids on that playground knew it too.
My skin color, highlighted by my sitting alone, made me an easy target for them. By their approaching me with racial taunts, I had unintentionally contributed to how those children -- as well as those who witnessed it -- interacted with someone who was Asian. I altered that public space.
Until police shot and killed Michael Brown in 2014 in Ferguson, I wasn't certain my students' parents -- those who weren't Black or Brown -- had discussions about race. Growing up, mine didn't. Even during the 1992 L.A. riots when the acquittal of four policemen for brutally beating a Black man and ensuing racial tensions erupted into violence and flames, my Korean parents never discussed race. Even when we watched the news, where images of Korean men holding semi-automatics on the rooftops of their businesses were spliced with images of Black communities destroyed, we didn't talk about race. Not once.
It wasn't that they thought they were exempt from racism or that they were resistant to its effects. It's because when you're unable to change your skin color and you don't speak the language of your new country, it's easier to keep your head down and move about silently -- obediently.
My parents have been quarantining with my husband and me. The pandemic and Black Lives Matter movement have provided a perfect milieu to have these discussions about race, inequality, poverty, the American Dream and who can have it.
My parents still go to work everyday at the clothing store they've run for 21 years. Here, they converse with customers in a makeshift language comprised of a little Spanish, a few words of English, some Korean and mostly, emphatic gestures that usually involve picking up pieces of clothing. Since reopening their doors after the citywide shelter-in-place measures, my parents noticed that patrons have been saying thank you in Mandarin, "Xiè xie."
"They think we are Chinese... I'm worried," my mother confessed to me.
Her concern is understandable as recent anti-Asian racist attacks have been on the rise, even in places known for their diversity and sizable Asian populations: Long Beach, Torrance, San Francisco. Still, my parents don't correct these people. To them, it's easier to survive when you're not confrontational. For them, it's better if you're indistinguishable than to be identified as something you're not. For immigrants whose livelihood rests on aesthetic perceptions, they understand how their race alters the spaces they're in.
In recent conversations, I asked them about their decision to have me bused to the Valley for junior high when we were living East L.A. at the time. I went from a predominantly Latino, working-class school in Echo Park to a predominantly white, affluent one in Sherman Oaks. They said that access to quality education shouldn't be dependent on where you can afford to live. They couldn't afford to live in the Valley, so they did the next best thing.
I thought about one November morning when I rode the usually sleepy bus to Sherman Oaks. On this day, all the kids were clamoring, excited. The energy was much like the anticipation before the start of a concert or before the first punch is thrown in a fight -- infectious tension mounting. Something was going on; something was going to burst. Everyone was going to walk out.
When I asked why, my seatmate said, "It's not for you."
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Prop. 187 to a bunch of kids bused in from East L.A. meant yet another rejection from the state they called home. It meant that undocumented immigrants wouldn't be able to attend public schools or use other public services.
When I asked my homeroom teacher about Prop. 187, she echoed my seatmate, "It doesn't concern you." As I sat listening to the din around me and reading flyers, it dawned on me that to some, "immigrant" was a title exclusively reserved for Mexicans, Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and so forth. It didn't matter that the majority of my homeroom classmates had a hyphenated ethnic identity. I didn't have the same skin color as them, I was the "wrong kind of immigrant."
Therefore, I was not included. They were all wrong. But I did what was expected. I sat obediently as the rest of the class walked out in protest.
I think about moments like this as I revisit my curriculum every summer. I think about how race has shaped my understanding of what it feels like to be an outsider: a person of color who is often overlooked as a person of color.
I think about the time my junior high social studies teacher taught the class about the Chinese Exclusion Act. I remember how uncomfortable I became as I sensed his gaze. A well of emotions and questions flooded through me: How would he know about injustice? Why is he staring at me? Has he ever been singled out as a white man? His presumptive stare offended me. I was not Chinese. I was Korean.
I tuned out the adjectives, the descriptions, the anecdotes he presented and focused on the facts: 1882, 1892, Geary Act, 1920. Although I knew what he was hoping to achieve, when it was my turn to share my thoughts on the only time the U.S. government denied a specific ethnic group entrance into a country composed of immigrants, I was mute.
As a teacher now, I realize he merely wanted me to connect my identity with my country. He wanted my classmates to benefit from an Asian student who may have experienced racism and exclusion. He wanted to show me that Asians have a part in American history, that they too helped shape its identity, that they belong here as much as any other group.
And I understand because I'm guilty of that gaze, too.
When I briefly taught at an affluent private school in Seattle, I found my gaze falling upon the only Black student in my English class as we were analyzing Zora Neale Hurston's essay, "How It Feels to be a Colored Me." I had to consciously remind myself to stare elsewhere. It was difficult, because in my own mind, I knew she could offer insight where none of the other 13 white students could do so.
There, in that class, was the literal depiction of Hurston's line: "I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background." I was grateful when that only student of color in class spoke: "I've never experienced racism until I came here [to the United States]."
As one of only two Black 10th grade students in a predominantly white school in an overwhelmingly white city, she had grown accustomed to being individualized. She was also an immigrant, and, like me, understood how she contributed to the enrichment of her peers' education. When I was her age, I didn't. She was perceptive of how her skin color changed her surroundings and embraced it. I didn't.
But I do now.
It has taken years of deflecting, navigating and refraining to really understand how I can't avoid delving into my personal experiences with race, especially in the classroom. My reluctance to actively incorporate my experiences was due in part to feeling disparaged each time a student's parent said, "Oh, you're not what I expected." Translation: You're not white.
Somehow, I subconsciously felt that my skin color invalidated my credibility as an English teacher. Perhaps, by refusing to turn the lens onto myself, I would be able to assert that I was somehow more of an English teacher, more legitimate?
After all, how common is an Asian English teacher? In my school of approximately 120 faculty members, 30 in the English department, I'm the only one. In last week's Advanced Placement training of 33 educators from across the country, I was the only one.
However, while I don't explicitly recount my experiences with race in the classroom, all of them permeate nonetheless.
They're present when I'm asked to represent my school at recruiting events. They're present when I sit in a Zoom training of English teachers. They're present when I stand in front of my students. They were present when our staff selected Anna Deavere Smith's "Twilight: Los Angeles" as a central text.
They were present when a student in my second period asked me if I ate bats the week before LAUSD closed their doors due to COVID-19, and opened remote classrooms.
They were present as I tried to make sense of an Asian police officer's involvement in George Floyd's murder to a Zoom screen full of students this May.
They're present every fall when I teach Brett Staples' essay. They're present in the choices I make for my curriculum.
My interactions with race -- as is the case for my students -- are valuable, and I'm reminded that they require serious reflection and mindful application. Not only in my personal experience in Los Angeles as a Korean American and an immigrant, but in relation to other minority groups. After all, we have a shared history.
And I'm still learning my part in shaping that history.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Caroline Rhude is a first generation Korean immigrant who arrived in the U.S. as a child, learned English as an ESL student and is now an English teacher in LAUSD. She has lived in Los Angeles since 1985 (save for a long 11 months in Seattle). She is a strong believer in helping the whole child through coaching with Students Run LA and supporting students to achieve goals in and out of the classroom. In 2017, she was one of LAUSD's Teachers of the Year. That same year, she was instrumental in finding funding for a school district subscription program to The New York TImes for LAUSD.