Seeing through Colorblindness

“Teaching the N-Word” montages memory. Emily Bernard carefully assembles personal history across time, place, and people. She describes the ways in which we uphold and subvert our constructions of race, traversing an emotional landscape that is all too familiar for people of color living in America. We engage and disengage in conversations about race and inequality, where gender fits in, and if it isn’t just wealth and class that matter more. We do this all while trying to be polite, trying not to offend. People want to believe that race doesn’t matter anymore.

I revert to a Korean idiom, 마음이 아파 or Ma-eum ee apah. Loosely translated, 마음 (ma-eum) means heart, mind, soul – consciousness. 아파 (apah) means to be in pain. It means my heart hurts. It describes oppression like the thickness of air on a humid night, a heavy and ubiquitous aching that transcends time and space.

In the days after reading Bernard’s essay, my own memories floated in and out of my mind. I thought of all the times I had walked down a street in New York City and heard some man leeringly say nihao, sexy or pssst…chinita to me. I thought about being sent to the ESL teacher when I switched schools in third grade and the look of surprise on her face when I read aloud a book in perfect English. I thought about the kid in 5th grade who screamed “Open your eyes!” at my back as I walked home from school. I thought about the time I went to a football game on a date with a white man who pointed at another white man/Asian-American woman couple and said “Look, everyone’s got one.” I thought about the white woman who (without asking permission) took a picture of Delen contributors, Zahra, Maria, and myself while shouting, “You’re so multi-cultural!” at us. 마음이 아파.

As a teacher, I ask my students questions. I work to make my classroom a safe space where my students can voice their opinions, where they can ask questions without fear, where they can trust that their voice will be heard. Most of the time, I am invigorated after teaching a class. In its most raw form, I feel adrenaline rushing through my body as I sit back and watch my students start to develop their thoughts, articulate them, and be critical thinkers.

There’s a tendency, however, for my students to be uncomfortable when I bring up race and inequality. This is when I question myself. I wonder if my Black and Latino students see me as a privileged Asian-American, if they see me as an “honorary white” who should not be teaching about inequalities. I wonder if my Asian-American students see me as betraying my own kind for not focusing more on the inequalities Asian-Americans face. I wonder if I’ll ever be able to ask my students, “Who can say the word nigger? Who can say the word gook?” 마음이 아파.

As this self-doubt creeps in, I am exhausted. I am tired of always being the race-conscious advocate and activist. I am tired of always having to teach others about inequalities. I’m tired of always having to teach other people about what it means to be Korean. I’m tired of people who roll their eyes when I bring up this conversation. I’m tired of the silence. My voice is wrapped in the desire for honesty and kicked in the gut through a threat of further marginalization. 마음이 아파.

To me, this is violence. Violence is not about silence. It’s not silence that’s the problem. It’s silencing. I work hard to create a safe space for my students, but I know we are not a self-contained space. There’s a world outside our windowless classroom walls, and we are all a part of that world – socially constructed, marginalizing, and silencing as it may be.

This is violence, and it’s backed me into a corner. This is why I speak. This is why I write. This is why I teach. This is when I tell myself, “Screw it.” I see through this colorblind ideology, and I call bullshit. People need to learn to embrace the discomfort. I’ll talk about race if no one else will, even knowing that I may very well be pushed to the margins for doing it. It is here that I am Bernard’s apologist. Bernard reminds us how some of us tiptoe carefully, trying to avoid setting off the landmines hidden beneath the surface of an American colorblind pastoral. We do it to cross a border to a place that’s different from where we began.