My Reflection on Racism
Updated: Jun 8
I was twelve when I first felt the strange feeling of being treated based on the color of my skin. Fresh off the boat, I only knew a handful of English words. And perhaps he was just trying to communicate with me. But the odd feeling I felt when he shouted the strange sounds of Kung Fu at me, I had to look around to see if he was talking to someone other than myself. I didn't even know what Kung Fu was (I was Korean and did know Tae Kwon Do, a black belt by that time, which I now look back and wished I had let him know!). And as I looked around and realized he was actually talking to me, not in English, but in Kung Fu. Making sounds as you would to an animal. Laughing as he was passing by, while I, in my chair, frozen, and speechless. Why was he talking to me like that? He doesn't even know me.
Fast forward 30 plus years. I am a hospice chaplain, responding to the sense of calling from my God. To serve and love the sick and hurting. Chaplain to all faith backgrounds and all people. Part of why I chose to be a hospice chaplain was this almost peaceful sense of knowing that we all face death one time in our lives. It's the great equalizer and there is no discrimination in death. All would need support in this journey, and I can be a small avenue of support to anyone who might come my way. Rich or poor, young or old, Those with accent or not.
Of course, that was until one day in my early years of being hospice chaplain when I called one of my new patient's family. To introduce myself as the chaplain assigned to her family. She listened politely and asked somewhat unexpectedly, "so where are you from?" Um... I'm sorry? "May I ask where you are from?" Um... I'm from so and so hospice? Um... I live in so and so city? Um... I belong to so and so church, denomination, etc? I'm sorry, I'm not sure what you are asking? (and thinking to my self, why any of this is important as we are discussing the spiritual care for your ill mother?). "Oh, I was asking, as I think I hear some accents, where you might be from?" OH, SURE. You are interested in getting to know me! Of course, SURE! I would love to tell you about myself! Well, I'm originally from Korea, lived in Chicago area for many years, came to California to study.... .... .... As I enthusiastically started to tell her about my life, for some reason, there was silence. Something didn't feel right. Did I say too much? And finally, "Well chaplain Peter. Please don't take this personally. It's not me,.. but it's my mother.... She doesn't do very well with Asians."
So, I know. I know how it feels to be viewed at solely based on the color of my skin. To be judged and dismissed not by my character or learnings but my background. I know how it feels to be stereotyped. I know the deep feelings of disconnect you have between who you think you are and who others say you are, and slowly finding yourself adjusting your self to match the latter. And I know how it felt to see my sense of divine calling invalidated by the very people I felt called to serve, and doubting my calling and competency altogether. And the inexplainable feelings of sadness and loneliness I felt when I brought it up to my white supervisor who instead of sending me back with a vote of confidence and support changed the chaplain assignment for this family.
So I know... But, I don't really know.
Because, I'm not Black. I've never been a slave. My family has never been a slave. I had 30 plus years of fighting the subtle sentiments of racism directed at me. But, I am not a product of 300 plus years of systematic discrimination and oppression directed upon my ancestors and communities. I've seen those in my communities coming out of the harsh immigrant lives of America after just one or two generations of being here. But, Blacks don't do that as readily, perhaps because they've been oppressed and treated unfairly far longer than just one or two generations. I never had to receive "the talk" and never will have to give one to my two boys.
So i know, but I don't know. I can't possibly know, even if I tried.
What I do know, is that this isn't how it was supposed to be. Something is not right. Not right how I've felt over the years. And clearly not right how Blacks have felt over the centuries. Because it's in the Bible, and I believe the Bible. It says we are all created in God's image. And there is only one image of God, the image of love, holiness and righteousness. As Martin Luther King Jr famously proclaimed, we all are part of the "beloved community". Part of the same community, and one that is beloved by none other than our one creator. Those whom God loves, who could dare to ignore and invalidate?
As I write this today, just some of my personal thoughts, I have much more on my mind. But, the complexity of the issue and the illusiveness of finding easy solution humbles me to quiet my thoughts. Because even though I know and feel the pain, I don't really know. The generational pain and agony. I do know, however, there is always hope. Hope that comes from God, because it wasn't really supposed to be like this. And what God intended, he will fulfill. And somewhere in this gap of present reality and the promised future, I find myself, part of God's community, standing still, with the beloved.