Family Talks Race, Culture

Family Talks Race, Culture
Posted on 12/11/2018
Kim Lee and her mother
Korean-American Family Talks Race, Culture
Rachel Shin
Staff Editor
[email protected]

There is a deep cultural history of people who are ethnically Korean in the United States. Korean Americans or, 한국계 미국인 (Hangukgye Migukin), are one of the largest Asian American demographics in the United States.

Being an Asian immigrant has its own challenges, as does being the mother of biracial children. Kim Lee has experienced obstacles in both of these areas of her life. She is a Korean immigrant and mother of three biracial (half Korean, half Irish) children: Senior Dylan, Sophomore Kayla, and Freshman Michael Keefe.

Lee immigrated to the U.S. with her uncle in 1975 when she was 7 years old, “for better education and the American dream.”

During the time when Lee began her new life in America, racial stereotyping and prejudice was highly prevalent. “In the 1970s there was a lot of discrimination and a little bit of prejudice, but I adapted to it,” Lee said.

Some of this behavior prevails today. “The prejudice has definitely improved since when I was growing up. But we will always have prejudice no matter what. It has improved 65%,” Lee said.

Lee faced direct racism when growing up. “There was this one boy in middle school who always called me names for no reason.”

More recently, racism towards Asian Americans and other minorities has often stemmed from ignorance rather than malicious intent.

For example, Lee’s daughter Kayla has been subject to this form of racist ignorance. “In 8th grade during a basketball game, the referee referred to Kayla as ‘the oriental girl’,” Lee said.

She continued to explain that the referee was very old, and had no idea that the word ‘oriental’ in reference to Asians is highly offensive.

This continues to be a problem as many people are unaware that this word is racially insensitive and outdated. In 2016, President Obama banned the the use of the word in federal laws and documents, but many people, especially older generations seem to think that referring to Asians as orientals is permissible. It is not just the older generations who make this mistake, though. Keefe indicated that many of her high school-aged friends did not know that the word was offensive at all.

The history of this word traces back to an era in the 19th and 20th centuries when the term oriental was used in American campaigns against Asian immigration, and overall it is associated with Asian segregation and political disenfranchisement. While it is not outrightly a racist slur, it is a term of disparagement.

Despite the public view and treatment of minorities having improved greatly since Lee was a child, she still feared that they would encounter racism or prejudice.

“I was afraid kids would be racist to Kayla because she is half Korean. I also wanted to make sure she didn’t show any racism to others because she is half Caucasian,” Lee said.

This dichotomy is constantly present in Lee’s life because of her children’s multicultural background.

“It is very important for me that my children connect with their Korean roots, but they don’t really want to,” Lee said.

Lee has expressed how difficult it is to connect her children with her heritage while they are surrounded by American culture, but she tries to teach them about Korea by cooking Korean food and sometimes speaking to them in Korean.

Lee’s oldest child, Dylan, also feels the difficulty of having two cultural backgrounds.

“It’s complicated because I feel like I can’t fully commit to either side of my ethnicity without abandoning the other. It’s hard to balance feeling fully American at school because I am surrounded by American culture, but wanting to experience Korean culture when I’m at home with my mom,” Keefe said.

This balancing of two identities is a struggle that many biracial children deal with. However, Keefe and his mother agree that the best way to handle it is to take pride in both sides of one’s cultural background, and to enjoy the duality of one’s heritage.

“I have come to be glad of my mom’s race, because she has taught us so much about her background and I realized that I love being able to have that understanding of her culture,” Keefe said.

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