The World Divided

Third Place Runner Up. Published in SLAB: The Sound and Literary Art Book of Slippery Rock University. Creative Nonfiction Judge: Dr. Faith Adiele. Published 2006.

I have prepared myself since falling in love with my husband. His predawn runs make me nervous not because I’m afraid he’s going to have a heart attack, his body sprawled on the ground, unnoticed by the random passing car, or the early stirrings of each house. Instead it’s all the other possibilities that make me hold my breath once I’ve heard the soft click of the front door. A black man running, in the early morning hours, in our mostly white neighborhood, could be construed in all the wrong ways. We’ve joked about how he would identify himself to the police, which is more notorious for racial profiling and brutality than for their heroism, in case he ever got pulled over. With his Arms raised, he would give his name and California Bar Association number, to make certain they understood he was a law abiding citizen just out for a morning run.

Despite these heart-stopping scenes of ‘what ifs’ for my husband, my worries for him pale, compared to the ones I have for our two year old son. He’s still too young to feel the subtle and sometimes not so subtle withdrawal of people, categorizing him with a burden of his color that he may never fully understand. The secret part of me, the part never voiced out loud, is relieved he resembles more of my Korean features. Perhaps his blended looks, despite his brown color, will make him the target of other assumptions, perhaps not. Perhaps the worst he’ll suffer is to always be mistaken for the help instead of someone with a more menacing motivation.

My heart doesn’t just plummet, but actually stops when I try to imagine the day he comes home in tears. For the first time in his young life, he will see the world divided. This day will, forever, be the demarcation line of before and after. The before would be marked by a blessed naiveté to the cruelties of a world where your color and race is used to demean and dehumanize you, so that in the end, you become a shell of the fearless, confident child you had been. The after would be the rest of his life.

I imagine him hiccupping, as he recounts how his classmate, a boy who had not seemed particularly angry, cruel, or noticeable, had taunted him and then whispered, “Nigger” just loud enough for only my son to hear. Tears streaming down his face, he asks, “Mommy, why?” confusion and heart wrenching pain so commingled in that one question.

When I imagine this scene, my eyes blur instantaneously before rage, of a ferocity which startles me, makes my hands shake. This rage is much more immense than what I had felt when taunted and called, “Chink,” in the first grade. My fury had landed me in the principal’s office for, soundly, beating up the name caller. This being the seventies and racial awareness not a high priority I, along with my Korean immigrant dad, was reprimanded. Not the name caller, just me. The principal, unapologetically, told us, “This can’t happen in the future.” As painful as that memory was, and is, for me, it will never compare to the experiences my son will face as a black man. Most ethnic minorities will acknowledge the power of that word – Nigger. It is the racial epitaph that out trumps all others. It is a word laden with a history, so ugly and violent, its power to hurt, humiliate, never diminishing with time. Even the current trend, for better or worse, of hip hop culture co-opting the word as part of their vernacular, still does not lessen the painful impact for a black person to be called Nigger.

I know, I will, forever, be haunted by his question of why. But what’s worse for me, is acknowledging my own experiential ignorance to the devastation of being so demeaned by one word. It is even more painful when I ask myself whether I am up to the task of being his mother, knowing any and all the consolations I offer are from a place of “I can imagine,” not “I know how that feels.”

My son’s school will, I assume, have a vastly different response to the name calling, unlike my own. Shock, like the epicenter of an earthquake, will ripple through our progressive, diverse, tolerant community. I can picture mothers, fathers, and teachers, speaking about the incident in hushed tones, words left dangling in embarrassment and pity, when we are spotted nearby. There will be conferences with the name caller’s parents, well meaning people, who are demoralized, in a different way, by their son’s racist name calling. Their identity as politically and socially liberal, inclusive, non-judgmental, ecologically aware, and, most certainly, racially tolerant, will be shredded by this event. I wonder if they will have the stomach to ask the hard question about whether these previously held, carefully crafted perceptions were realistic, or merely a mirage, borne, more from rebellion against their parents, than true conviction. If I and my husband, made a big enough fuss, there might even be a school wide symposium on racism, the power of words and names, how to break down stereotypes, defining white privilege.

Outraged friends who stood in solidarity with us would wonder too quickly why we didn’t let it go as our fury spiraled, all of the privileges of our class and education being swept up into the vortex of this destructive force; in the end, leveling all of our hard work to safeguard against such experiences. Isn’t that why we chose to live in this enclave of privilege and class, where standing out as different, unique, the other, was rationalized in our minds? I suppose, this event, a sledgehammer against our foolish optimism for a world more tolerant and open, is what will be so profoundly painful. All of the calculated decisions we had made picking neighborhoods and schools, and in truth, every aspect of our lives, will seem silly, useless.

In the end, the urge to drive over to the name caller’s house armed with a baseball bat will help me feel more in control. I will play and replay images of me, deranged Korean mother, bashing in windows, bushes, maybe even an outdoor cat. It is the only thing that will comfort me as I lay sleepless next to my husband each night. Neither of us capable of dealing with this collective pain of our son’s experience, both of us barely able to inure ourselves against our own individual wounds, collected over our lifetimes.

Worse than our anger will be our discomfort as those around us become hyper politically correct. All the casual intimacies, built on countless dinner parties and birthday parties, will be rescinded by this day. Their collective guilt, unfair, in some respects, and not in others, will make all of us acutely aware of the differences we had blithely, so easily ignored before. As our presence becomes a constant burden to the injustices they did not create, they will, gradually, start pulling away. After a while, we will wonder if we shouldn’t move to another neighborhood, and school. However, these discussions screech to a dead end, all of the possibilities of this world, shrinking as we realize no new location, school, can erase the color of our skin, the slant of our eyes, darkness of our hair.

In the end, we will cobble together some semblance of normalcy. Friends who had been tentative for months will, finally, reach out gingerly. A few dinner invitations will be extended. Evenings spent, conversations stilted, all of the ugliness of the past few months swirling around us like kites swooping high above. For us as a family, we will resign ourselves to the permanent, lasting role of our son’s name-caller to our family history. Ultimately, we will realize his part in our son’s education about his racial identity, and the precariousness of it. Sadly, we realize this will certainly not be the last time. Perhaps by the third, fourth, or hundredth incident, we will react less emotionally, less devastated, more matter of fact, just accepting this as a part of our life as a family.