In light of the riots occurring across America.
“Where you from?”
The question often brings a smile to my face and it also makes me a bit confused. Are you asking about my nationality or what team I root for during any sport’s season? The answer to the first is that I am Korean, but born in the States. The answer to the second is very complicated. I was an army brat, born in the southwest, was a toddler in the Northeast, started school in the Northwest, finished grade school in the Southeast, high school in the west, finished high school in the south, college in the Midwest, graduate school in the west, became a mom in the Northwest, and found my identity in Los Angeles. It’s complicated. The answer to where I’m from might be more of a question, “America?”
“Where you from?”
My husband and I ate lunch as we sat across from another older pastor couple attending the same conference as we were. Again, what is the real question they are asking? I proceeded with my very long-winded answer that probably made them regret asking, but the husband seemed more interested in my husband’s response. My husband responded with his complicated story of going back and forth between Korea and the US. The man asked the same question three times, worded differently each time, about my husband’s origins and when he came to the US for good. Even his wife was getting a bit annoyed at him and told him, “He already answered the question.” He just had this interesting smirk on his face.
As my husband and I walked away, my husband was very upset. “Oh, stop it. He’s a pastor. Stop being so sensitive.” Over the next 5 years of our marriage, we would get into disagreements about people’s motives when asking various questions about our origins. My husband was clearly way too sensitive.
“Where you from?”
“Why is that question so sensitive?” I asked my student. His response, “When someone asks me where I’m from, they’re asking what gang I roll with.” He proceeded to name a few of the street corners where the rival gangs would hang. He said that he was always on edge because every gang thought he was part of a rival gang. He told me about how different gangs were trying to recruit him and he was just trying to lay low. He had almost been initiated into a gang in an empty hallway corner of the school. He tried to back out in the last minute, but they jumped him and took his wallet. By the time security came, the gang was long gone. My student would not say who they were.
“Where you goin’?”
The cops asked another student of mine. The 15-year-old responded that he was on his way to pick up his little brother and sister from school. The cops made him put his hands up on the wall, did a body pat down on him and made him sit in the back of their car. He kept telling them that he needed to go pick up his siblings. The cops finally let him go after telling him that he looked like a criminal.
“Where you goin’?”
For about a month and a half I tried taking the train to work. My 2+ hour daily commute was a lot and I was just trying to see if this was a better option for me. Once I took the bus and then took the blue line and then the purple line to Union Station. When I got on the blue line, there weren’t too many people on the train and I noticed a tall Black man sitting. He was probably about my age. I didn’t really assess him beyond that. I sat down across from him, the closest empty seat. It had been an ordeal to just get to that point of the day.
At the next stop a bee flew in the open doors and landed on a sleeping passenger. The man got a rolled up piece of paper and tried to gently nudge the bee off while not freaking the passenger out. The bee began to fly around and people began to get nervous as the doors closed with no way of escape for the bee or the passengers. The bee landed on a window and I quickly drank the last few drops from my water bottle and caught the bee with my bottle. As we all nervously laughed and sat back down, the guy looks at me and says, “Man, you just made me look really bad.” I just laughed it off. “I don’t mind bees. Hahahaha.”
I thought that would be the end of the conversation, but he kept talking. “I just got discharged today.” For the first time, I looked at him, I mean really looked at him. He was wearing a cheap black disposable jumpsuit. I didn’t know how to respond, but I didn’t want him to think I was uncomfortable or anything. “Oh, yeah,” I responded because I had nothing better to say. “This is my fifth time in 18 months,” he continued, “and each time I was innocent.” “What?!” “Yeah, and I served in the marines too.” He proceeded to show me his marine tattoo on his arm.
He told me how he would get stopped by the cops and taken to jail because he had a record on file of possession of brass knuckles once. He had taken the brass knuckles from his nephew so that his nephew wouldn’t use it. His luck was that was the first day he was pulled over and the cop told him to step out of the car and found the brass knuckles in his pocket. Every time after that, he knew he was innocent so he would be discharged shortly. “When I am there, I just try to stay low and not get into any fights. People approach me and try to talk to me and I just try to stare straight ahead and be chill. I keep telling myself, just a few days and I’m out. If I get into a fight, then I won’t be getting out at all.”
What a scary position to be in. What an interruption to his life.
This happened during my first year of teaching and I was just becoming aware of the systemic racism and sexism that was all around me. He had definitely found a listening ear. “To think that we would treat a veteran this way. This is institutional racism.” I told him about how my own father served in the military for over 20 years and I thanked him for his service.
We got off the train and he said, “Well, I’ll see you later, Ms. Kim.” He got on the stairs going down as I asked him, “Where you goin’?” “To Union Station.” “I’m going that way too.” The guy immediately turns around, going against all the traffic and begins to walk next to me. “Ain’t nobody taking your backpack today, Ms. Kim. Ima protect you.” We both laughed. We got on the purple line together. When we got to Union Station I asked him, “Would it be okay if I got you lunch? You mentioned you hadn’t eaten all day and on behalf of my father who served in the military, I would like to get you something to eat.” I bought him a subway sandwich and we never saw each other again.
I know where I’m from. I’m from a place where it’s best to stay away from the world so you don’t dirty your hands. I’m from a place where women are expected to not have careers and place all their energies on making great kids. I’m from a place where women and especially pastor’s wives are expected to fulfill certain duties for the church and be quiet and not speak out. I’m from a place where authority shouldn’t be challenged. I’m from a place that holds strong beliefs that various races have different roles to play in society. That place is not a physical geographic location. That place is in the hearts of scores of people in the United States. You find it everywhere.
I know where I’m from and I know where I’m going. I’m going to a place where I can walk next to the oppressed of society. I’m going to a place where I can learn and give tools to be a positive change in society. I’m going to a place where a woman can expect to have the same rights and benefits as any man. I’m going to a place where I can speak openly and respectfully about changes that need to take place in our society in order to have peaceful coexistence of all people regardless of gender, sexuality, religion, lifestyles, socioeconomic status, and political affiliation. That’s where I’m going.
For many of the Black people of America, they know exactly where they are from. Sadly, there is little hope for many that they can change where they are going. There are too many systems that are broken around them. In view of the many Black lives that have been lost due to law enforcement, no one doubts that the system is broken against those of color. For those cops who stuck my student in the back of their car, it was like they were taunting him. They might as well have said, “This is where you are going. Get used to it.” They even told my student that he looks like a criminal. In view of our judicial system, students of color will often serve 3-6 times harsher punishment than their white counterparts for the SAME EXACT CRIME. A quick internet search will show you the huge racial disparities in sentence time for criminal offenses. Our financial and housing system is working against people of color with far fewer being approved for loans, all things being equal. Why do those of color have so many more health issues? I could go on and on about this.
It’s like we’re playing Jenga. Everybody is missing a few pieces, but the tower can still stand pretty securely. When too many pieces are missing, however, the damage is irreparable and costly. The system is so much more broken for minorities.
I know where I came from, but that isn’t determining where I am going. Too many are scared to really look at where they came from and why they believe what they believe. Too many are scared to walk with the oppressed. What would happen to the walls that they have built around their belief system if too many of their beliefs were challenged by walking with people who came from a different place than them?
I will be honest. The last three years were tough. Partly because I was working in South Central LA, but mostly because every aspect of my upbringing was challenged. I almost lost complete faith in God because I saw how religion has compelled so many to wash their hands of the atrocities that were happening all around. I saw how so many chose to close their eyes to what was going on and used God to condone their actions. I saw so many Christians who were so content to stay where they were from, point fingers at people they didn’t know and make so many assumptions. I realized that all those videos showing how Black people were oppressed and trying to stand up for their rights in their own way was considered unacceptable and rebellious by non-Black America. So many non-Black Christians could not understand the nonviolent voices of the Black community because they had failed to walk next to them for so long.
Each video that appeared to show Black people being too aggressive was hailed as why the Black community was at fault. That 8-minute video was just a paused screen of a very long movie. That probably wasn’t the only time the system failed for that Black man. There is a story behind each video that few want to face or even listen to because it will force them to think. Unless you are the victim of racism or you are willing to walk with those who are victims of racism, you will never understand the emotions, fear and hurt that are stirred up by simple questions like, “Where you from?” “Where you goin’?” “Where’s your ID?”
Please consider where you are from. And please consider where you are going.