When President Trump recently tweeted that Rep. Ilhan Omar (my representative) and three other congresswomen of color should “go back” to where they came from, empowering others to parrot him, I felt that hate personally. Those are words that I, and so many others, hear because we’re “different.” It reminded me of the racism my dad faced when he first came here and reinforced that, even though discrimination is illegal, it’s up to each of us to respect and make that a reality.
My dad immigrated to the United States more than 50 years ago from South Korea. He came for the “American Dream.” Carrying a suitcase containing his beloved judo uniform, he hoped for a good education and a new life – not unlike many of the immigrants who come to the U.S. today. He arrived with little resources: just $20 and an alarm clock in his pocket. My dad was fortunate that the university kindly let him stay in a basement office of the Dairy Science Building. He didn’t have any blankets, so he used his judo uniform as a blanket. For six months, all he could afford to eat was peanut butter sandwiches.
A fellow student approached my dad with a request. He was going to serve in Vietnam and wanted to hire my dad for judo lessons. As poor as my dad was, he refused payment. My dad told him, “This country welcomed me in, and I want to give back for what the United States has done for me.” He agreed to teach the classes for free and open it up to interested students.
Three days before my dad’s first judo class, the local news ran a story about a woman with a judo black belt who fended off three attackers. The story received a lot of attention. When my dad arrived at the gym, he found 200 students waiting to learn judo. He didn’t turn any of them away. Instead, he divided them into two classes a night and taught six nights a week on top of his full-time student schedule. He was so tired some nights, he would get nosebleeds or come close to fainting. Still, he refused to take any money and continued teaching.
The local paper found out about his judo classes and ran a story about my dad. But it wasn’t to recognize him for volunteering his time and skills. Instead, they called him the “Buddhist Dictator” and accused him of using judo to convert students to Buddhism (my dad is Catholic, by the way). It was classic racism – uninformed, prejudiced, and intolerant of those who are “different.”
My dad’s experience happened a long time ago in the 1960s. But racism does not end with time. When I was in elementary school in the 1980s, other kids told me to “go back to where I came from.” This confused and crushed me. I was born in Minnesota. The only language I spoke was English. This was my country. Where was I supposed to go? What really hurt was how I was treated differently from our classmate, “Christine.” Like me, “Christine’s” parents immigrated to the U.S, but from Western Europe. She never got called names like “chink” or was told to “go home.” The only difference I could see between us was that she had brown hair and blue eyes. I am Asian.
My dad earned his Ph.D., worked 27 years at the same company, and became a U.S. citizen. But racism doesn’t go away with degrees, a job, or citizenship. And my own personal experience tells me racism doesn’t go away with years or generations. Racism lives because people are fearful or ignorant about who or what is different from them. And to me and others who are “different,” that translates into hatred.
Time does not defeat racism. People do. It’s 2019. And it’s time for each of us to stand up against racism and stand up for human rights.
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By Rosalyn Park, Director of The Advocates’ Women’s Human Rights Program.