Note: This Lent, Mount Olivet is doing a community-wide book read of A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota. Info on discussion groups and a reading schedule can be found here. Each week this blog will feature a reflection on one of the stories we're reading. It is our hope that by reading this book and engaging in conversation, we can build empathy for those whose race is different than our own, increase our commitment to racial equity, learn about ourselves and the role race has played in our lives, and listen for God speaking through the stories that are shared with us. Please contact Pastor Joel for more info (firstname.lastname@example.org).
I must admit, JaeRan Kim’s “The Good Kind of Immigrants” was difficult for me to read. I found myself bristling as she shared her ongoing pain and anger at growing up in a white Minnesotan family, disconnected from the South Korean culture of her birth. I have been taught to view adoption as a beautiful, selfless act of love on the part of the adoptive parents. These parents should be given a parade for making space in their lives for a child who isn’t biologically theirs! It was confusing to me to hear anything but gratitude coming from an adoptee.
I had to remind myself that part of the difficult grace of having conversations about race is that it invites you to let someone else’s story prompt you to reconsider how you view the world. It is not my place to tell Kim how she should feel. It is not my place to resolve her pain for her. It is not my place to make excuses for her parents, or to tell her that what’s done is done.
What it is my place to do, however, is to let how she feels change me. Stories change us. And change is hard work.
What I am learning from Kim’s story is that adoption is always a complex situation, even under the best circumstances, and that I should respect that each person involved (biological parents, adoptive parents, and the adopted person) probably carries a variety of conflicting thoughts and feelings about the adoption. And that’s ok – that doesn’t make adoption a bad thing, only a complicated one.
Ultimately, this essay is not about Kim harboring resentment toward her adoptive parents. She knows they did the best they could. Instead, I read this essay as a plea for white people in Minnesota to reckon with the ways that color-blindness, or trying to not see race, has let people down.
You’ve probably heard it, or maybe even said it: “I don’t see color.” JaeRan Kim gives another spin-off: “People can tell you they don’t see you as Korean as if that is a compliment” (126). I think that these thoughts come from beautiful places in white people’s hearts. Perhaps the intent was to say “I want to see you as more than the color of your skin. I want to view you as a unique person. I’m not judging you as less than me because of your skin color. I see that there is a similarity between us even though our race is different.” These are wonderful things to intend. What we need to learn is that there is a difference between intent and impact.
To Kim, even though they might have had good sentiments behind them, hearing comments like that had a negative impact. How do you respond when someone says “I don’t see you as Korean”? Thank them? Point out that they actually do see you as Korean, or otherwise they wouldn’t have made a statement like this? Agree with them, and define yourself as different from (and perhaps better than?) Korean immigrants who have kept their culture? Ask them what’s wrong with being Korean?
Comments like these simultaneously highlighted and denied her racial identity, and left her with no easy route to feeling affirmed for all of who she is. She may have picked up all the cultural habits of white Minnesota, but as she says, “my physical appearance would never allow me to become fully assimilated. There were always people willing to remind me that I was not a ‘real American’” (131). Kim speaks about feeling “invisible and hypervisible” all at once (126) – I can’t imagine how confusing that would be. Or how tiring.
Kim’s writing makes me wonder why we who are white feel so weird about acknowledging that people’s races are different from our own, or why we are resistant to admit that how people experience this world might be shaped by their race. It’s obvious that despite the good intentions that lie behind it, silence around race, or the denial that it wields power altogether is helping no one, especially people of color. What might it look like for us to start asking how race shows up in our daily lives? What might it look like for us to listen to other people say how race is showing up in their daily lives?
Moving beyond colorblindness by naming the way race is at work in the world should be easy for us – we’re Lutherans, and we have great theology for helping us out here! We are able to sit with two equal and opposite truths at the same time: we are simultaneously saint and sinner, God is simultaneously beyond us and within us, and race simultaneously makes a difference and doesn’t.
Most of all, we believe that God’s own image is present in each human there is. Saying you don’t see color, or don’t see someone as Korean when they actually are, denies them the opportunity to tell their own story in all of its glorious complexity. It also denies you the opportunity to hear that story, and to look for God’s own image present in someone who sees the world differently from you in part because they look different than you.
May God go with us as we learn to listen more deeply to one another, and may God bless us as we change because we have listened more deeply to one another. Amen.