Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Connecting the Dots

In 1960, our family moved to South Korea, a country struggling to recover from a war that had devastated and divided the peninsula just seven years before.

Every time I walked the city streets or went to the market, I saw children my age, dressed in rags, begging. Some families, refugees from the north, were still living in mountain caves on the outskirts of the city. Nearly everyone I met had less than our family did. (Over the next twenty years, we witnessed South Korea's rise, like a phoenix from the ashes of war, to become one of the world's economic superpowers, but that's another story.)

My parents were actively engaged in trying to relieve suffering through delivering medical care and supporting women's groups. In fifth and sixth grade, I spent many after-school hours playing with the orphan babies who were patients at the hospital where my father worked.

Fast forward to my arrival at an American college campus, straight from the rural health care project my father directed on a remote Korean island. Though I wasn't aware of it at the time, I was carrying some extra baggage along with my trunks.

I had deep and loving relationships with many individual Koreans and by then knew many who were well-to-do, but my early childhood experiences had ingrained within me the idea that the task of a privileged white American was to be a helper. The little I'd been exposed to of the experiences of African-Americans - mostly slavery, civil rights, and Martin Luther King - only confirmed my unconscious impulse to respond to people of color by trying to help.

It wasn't hostile, it wasn't hateful, but it was still a way of viewing people of color as less than. It made me see Them primarily as victims and myself as some kind of caretaker, which is a "benign" form of white supremacy. It caused me to behave oddly, especially around African-Americans: self-conscious, careful, effortful, earnest, overcompensating - twisting myself into a pretzel instead of just being myself. (Because of my comfort level and sense of belonging with Koreans, I was much more relaxed with Asian Americans.) I spent a great deal of time earnestly trying to prove how good I was, that I wasn't one of those white people. None of this was any help at all in developing equitable, authentic bonds across race.

Fortunately, I had also gained some strengths from my upbringing, including awareness of race and knowing that cross-racial relationships were essential to me. So in spite of all the baggage, I developed friendships with black students and began learning. Watching myself repeatedly behaving in peculiar ways gradually brought me to awareness of the unconscious stuff, how it was in my way, and what I could do about it.

I share all this only as an illustration: In a similar manner to the work done by Adult Children of Alcoholics and other groups, we can examine the experiences of our upbringing to uncover the patterns we have formed around race. We can become witnesses of our own implicit attitudes, behaviors and actions, without judging ourselves, and ask, "Why in the world do I think/feel/do that?"

Once we see the patterns, we are freed to make conscious choices.

1 comment:

jeannie brett said...

thought provoking post annie.