Written by Monica Heilman
Tired eyes glued to my computer screen, a sinking feeling—some concoction of dread, shock and helplessness—stirs in my stomach. The feeling tries to manifest itself on my face, but my mouth only hangs open until the bell rings, other teachers trickle back into the office, and I deliberately relax my expression. I don’t tell anyone what I am reading, and no one asks. A cheerful co-teacher announces, “You’re done for the day!”
During my 30-minute walk home I am torn between boiling over and breaking down. Gimhae, South Korea is 10,849 miles away from Ferguson, Missouri.
On August 9th, 2014, the day Michael Brown died, I didn’t make much of it. Preoccupied by the hectic lifestyle of Fulbright orientation, having enough panty hose for our strict dress code, and wondering where I was even going to be living this year, I shrugged it off. “Officer Kills Unarmed Black Teenager.” Seriously, again? How sad. But I’d read the same headline enough times to feel numb.
To those who have studied (or experienced) race and inequality, Michael’s death is not a surprise. Black men in America are more likely to be stopped by police, more likely to be arrested and more likely to receive harsher sentencing, especially if their alleged victims are white. In contrast, perpetrators receive more lenient sentences when their victims are black. Or in the Brown, Garner and Rice cases, no sentence at all.
I formally studied all of this in college. But I already understood facts like this to be true from my own experiences as a person of color in America. My appearance is racially ambiguous, which means I am constantly asked “what are you?” by those lacking enough tact to realize the question is offensive. I am a human being, for one thing, what else do you want to know? So when I realized you could study race in school, I latched onto the topic, excited and relieved that someone thought my experience was worth studying.
However not everybody thought so. I encountered students and faculty alike who thought majors like African-American or Asian studies weren’t worth the time or tuition. They held firm to the belief that racism no longer exists, yet their ignorance only provoked me to take action. I discovered my weapons and developed my war cry in my primarily white university, amongst cowboys-and-Indians frat parties, cheerful “ni hao”s directed at light-skinned women who appeared Asian, eyes rolled at the word “diversity” and slurs scrawled on dormitory mirrors. It became necessary to fight back, or else remain complacent and by default, supportive.
Yet in preparation for my grant year in Korea, I tried to suppress this newly awakened activist. “I can’t be as sensitive,” I told myself. “Korea is so homogenous. Some people won’t know any better.” And so, weary of warfare anyway, I simultaneously gave in and built up defenses to keep myself numb. It worked. In Korea, I simply brushed away remarks that I would have gotten fired up about just a few months earlier. Sadly, I also brushed off Michael’s death, not even bothering to look at the details. However, as I watched Ferguson from the other side of the world, I saw my fellow Americans had not become complacent like me. I watched as Ferguson transformed from the location of a tragedy into the name of a national movement. Despite how intensely I wished I could be there, I grew proud, gazing through the far-reaching eyes of the Internet as college friends posted pictures from Brown’s memorial site, clamoring and hashtagging for change. I woke up, and along with them, silently held my breath as the date of the verdict grew near.
The grand jury’s decision came on a lazy Monday afternoon, as I browsed articles alone in the English office, waiting for the bell to ring. This time I forgot about being in Korea; shock ripped through my defenses before I could even try feeling numb.
Instead, I was immobilized, at a loss for what to do. I settled for reposting the words of others in rapid and frenzied succession. I admired those who constructed coherent, meaningful status updates, as I could not. This time we as a nation had seemed so close to taking a step forward, only to be brutally shoved back. When people asked about what was going on in America, I could only tell them I was deeply disgusted and embarrassed by my country.
Disgusted, embarrassed and unable to do a thing from this 10,849 mile-distance, I envisioned this too, as part of the battle I fought in college. “Stop talking about Ferguson like there are two sides! It’s not a war!” one angry Facebook post screamed on my feed. This metaphor seemed so pertinent that I laughed. From where I stood, two sides had clearly been drawn. While I opted for a “BLACK LIVES MATTER” profile picture, a Facebook friend digitally donned an “I Support Darren Wilson” badge as his. We had clearly opposing profile pictures and slogans; sharp words and skewed editorials had been fired. Does this mean war yet?
But there’s only so much I can do over social media. My Korean battlefront is in the classroom with my students, chipping away at ignorance that only seems to grow stronger if left to its own. The battles that arise include homophobic comments, fixations on race and a fear of foreigners. Every time my students shout that the black woman in that picture is Rachel (the former ETA at my school), I cringe on the inside, but on the surface, try to convey how ridiculous the idea is by laughing or feigning shock.
However, as with any fight, there are inevitably high points to soothe the bruises formed by the low. In a textbook lesson about role models, I brought up Martin Luther King as an example. The words left on my board after classes included race, injustice and human rights. I couldn’t have been prouder of these students. Another day we talked about privilege. Referencing their reading on Oscar Pistorius¹, I told them, “You have all of your arms and legs. You can walk. You can go to school—that’s privilege. We all have some kind of privilege.” To my delight, there were nods and murmurs of agreement.
Unfortunately, I’ve also fired in the wrong direction. One day, I showed Black Friday video clips to fill extra time. My students were fascinated, and so I decided to show the next class too. The first time was fine. The second time—great. Students said that the people looked like zombies. Happy to hear their unsolicited English, I laughed and admitted they were right. But the third time, a student honed in on race: “Look at that black person! Wow, scary. They’re really scary.” I couldn’t tell if he meant all black people are scary, or just the people in the video. It was only a passing remark in Korean that I didn’t address. However, in showing them this video—media that reaffirmed the stereotypes I was constantly trying to repel—it felt like all of my careful groundwork had been destroyed. After all the depressing exposés of racist holiday origins and meticulous PowerPoint picture choices, intended to give greater representation to women, POCs² and simply unconventional-looking people, did I just bring us back to square one?
Of course, there is no measurable “square one” nor is there a step-by-step guide to becoming a socially-conscious world citizen. This is something my students must discover on their own. I give myself too much credit if I believe I can completely rid my students of racist stereotypes. But sometimes when I try to guide them in what I hope is the right direction, we instead end up so turned around that even attempting to explain feels like a maddening pursuit. Then I am reminded that it isn’t any easier in the U.S.
It is even more maddening to watch Americans deny racism when the bodies of black men grow cold on city pavement, black fathers are denied their pleas for air and black children cannot play outside without risking their lives.
I don’t want my students to become the Korean counterparts of this oppression, lulled into a false sense of colorblindness. So I put on a smile and try to speak honestly, even when I have no answers.
Monica Heilman is a 2014-2015 ETA at Gimhae Jeil High School in Gimhae, Gyeongsangnam-do.
1. Pistorius is a South African Olympic runner who uses prosthetic legs. He is known as “The Blade Runner.”
2. People of color