It was a big deal when my brother started to come to school with me. We could walk together, to and from, and I felt like such the big sister. I was very proud of my position.
I don’t remember the first time it happened, someone pointing out that my brother did not have the same color skin as me. I do remember the day I decided I wasn’t going to take it anymore, though.
This kid, I still remember his name, called my little brother a ‘gook’. I had learned from a family member the nastiness of that word and it brought up all kinds of pent up, never-used feelings. I wasn’t having it.
I had my little brother’s hand in mine as I tried to punch this kid. The boy and his friends laughed at my inexperience with violence. The rage launched me forward onto him while the kid’s big brother watched, his companions cheering us on. I feel like he was shocked. He didn’t know I was that mad. I remember him saying, “Kara, Kara. Stop.”
But I couldn’t stop – the thing propelling me forward was bigger than me.
I was incensed on behalf of my very small brother. My brother with his beautiful dark eyes and dark hair and coffee colored skin. I loved our differences. I was proud that my brother was Korean, that he was different. He was so beautiful to me.
I don’t remember a lot except that I was screaming hysterically as I ran home. I raced to my garage, where I grabbed a hammer. I wanted to inflict the worst kind of pain on those boys.
It didn’t matter that they had not made Todd bleed. His wounds were invisible but deep. You could see the wariness in his eyes. After all, some of our own family members had no problem making fun of his race.
Why should he be surprised by the kids at school using mean words on him?
Why should he be surprised at the teachers who pretended not to overhear?
Why should he be surprised at the adults who asked idiotic questions of him?
Back to that day, the day when violence came into my heart. I chased that boy for two blocks, anger growing with every pump of my legs. The boy was faster than me and reached his house before I could reach him. His mother was sitting on the front porch.
He ran up the two concrete stairs and stood behind his mother. I stood gasping for air, grasping a hammer tightly in one hand, sweat rolling down my forehead. It was the voice of his mother that calmed the fire in my heart.
Thinking back on it, I believe it was her understanding that acted like cool waters.
I thought, “She gets it.”
His mother didn’t look like the other mothers at my elementary school. Her clothes were different, her accent not the same. Maybe she understood being on the outside. Maybe she recognized the flames engulfing my heart.
She listened to my tearful story, words coming between hiccups, snot and tears running down my face. She nodded her head and took her son’s hand and told him to apologize.
I went home exhausted, defeated, and scared.
For the first time I saw that the thing my little brother was up against was an indomitable foe.
I was also frightened by the monster inside myself.
Racism is raised generation by generation on hate. Racism is fed small children to keep it growing into a proper big monster. How would I ever beat that?
For me, the day I chased that boy home with a hammer in my hand, I realized something new: knowing the person at school wasn’t the same as knowing the person.
When I saw that boy’s mama was waiting on the front porch I had clarity about his life. For one, he had a mother. I don’t think I’d ever considered that.
For another, he had a mother who was different. Lastly, I could see that his life was not the same as mine. There was something about the way his yard looked that suggested that what happened in my home was not the same as what happened in his home.
Suddenly his chipped front tooth didn’t add to his malice; it was just a chipped tooth.
I think he learned something new that day, too. I think he learned that someone can be pushed too far, that they can lose the ability to choose reason. Sadly, I think he learned to like that feeling, at least while he was at school.
That was not the last run in this boy and I would have. He and I would have words again on a school bus in high school. He didn’t grow out of bullying even in high school. One afternoon, I would sit back and watch as someone pummeled him, after months and months of taking mean words, and think, “Yeah, I remember that feeling.”
By the way, it isn’t a good feeling that you’re left with after you do violence. It’s a lonely feeling.
Doing violence leaves you feeling separate from everyone.
I need you to know that I wasn’t always the champion of the underdog. There were times that I did the bullying, a fact that still fills me with regret.
It seems that learning to do the right thing is an ongoing process. The pendulum is always swinging between reaction and inaction.
It’s the middle where it’s good. That’s where we can make some progress.
We need to accept that there are race issues in the U.S. My experience in America, as a person with pale skin, versus the experience of someone with darker skin, or a different accent, differ greatly.
We appear polarized as a country, and I know there’s truth to that.
I’m not buying it completely, though. No photograph or video can ever fully encapsulate the complexities of our lives.
Those of us in the middle are a little confused. But here in the middle we can see both sides a little more clearly than if we were swung over to the far left or the far right.
Still, I want to make sure that I’m not falling into the white moderate default of inaction. Neither do I want to run home for my hammer, a reaction that is not helpful.
“First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice…” ~Martin Luther King, Jr.
So what do we do?
We know that hammers don’t work. We also know that apathy will not move us forward.
As always, I believe the answer is community. I believe it’s about inviting people into our lives and into our homes and having (potentially uncomfortable) conversations. Be willing to know people in your home and in theirs.
And this is why I have hope: it’s never too late to move forward.
I’d like to point out that racism does not always wear a white robe and march with tiki torches. Racism uses words like ‘they’ rather than ‘us’. Racism, like all -isms excludes rather than includes.
Most often racism is silent, pretending not to see inequalities or hateful behavior.
Be brave, misfits, not silent. It’s okay to shake up the order of things.
Just leave your hammer at home.
Also, for further reading on the issues of racism: