Seeing in Color
A well-meaning friend recently told me that she does not “see color.” By which she meant she did not take note of the color of someone’s skin, but instead, she insisted, looked people in the eye. It is a noble sentiment, and one I used to espouse before I became the mother of a brown child.
Brown. That is the word my son has chosen, though I suppose he could be more specific and say Korean. He prefers brown, so brown it is. I am grateful that he is blissfully unaware of older, less palatable color-terms for his ethnicity. But he is not unaware that he is brown, and as his mother, I cannot be unaware, either.
I cannot be unaware of his ethnicity because when he was younger, I listened to the testimony of an older Korean adoptee who shared that she had grown up in an otherwise white family—and community—that had ignored her color. As she grew older, she had no way to reconcile her self-image with their expectations of her as an Asian person. Everyone she knew was white, and while she wasn’t scorned for her ethnicity, she became a teenager who grieved over her brown skin. She did not have any words of beauty to identify with it, so she saw her brown color as defective and wished she were white.
I cannot be unaware of my son’s ethnicity because the world receives him differently than it does his brothers. He was the only one of my children who was constantly patted and cooed at by elder Asian ladies in our favorite Thai restaurant, in the Korean grocery store, and among the local Chinese community. “Is he Chinese?” “Is he Thai?” My ears had to learn to hear their questions as “He is cute. He must come from my country.” (I hated to disappoint the Thai restaurant owner by telling her he was Korean, but she still stuffed his little hands full of fortune cookies every time we went there to eat.)
I cannot be unaware because the grandmotherly ladies in the Korean restaurant and grocery store would often chatter away to him in Korean and give him unexpected treats that they did not give his brothers. Even as a toddler, he was mortally embarrassed that he could not understand or respond to them. I had to understand why my Korean child was more shy than my white children were around Korean people.
I cannot be unaware because sometimes Asian mothers in my extended social circle will see that I am not unaware—that I am trying my best to raise a child who is comfortable in his Korean skin—and will commiserate with me about how difficult it is to raise Asian children in majority-white America. Sometimes they will do so with in-group language that simultaneously welcomes me as one who shares that part of their world, and shocks me by using words and expressing ideas that were not part of my all-white upbringing. These wonderful mothers grieve the loss of their culture from one generation to another. We grieve together that there is no durable “Korean-American” identity—one that maintains the best and most beautiful of both labels—which could last more than a generation before fading into a less nuanced cultural “American” identity.
I cannot be unaware because now that my son is a teenager and, as we sometimes tease him, “no longer cute,” he moves through this world in a brown body. He tells me how much he notices the lack of diversity in his school and identifies his friends, whether they are Asian or African, as “brown like me.” He loves all his friends; his brown friends have a special voice.
I cannot be unaware because just last month he was randomly selected by airport security to have hands swabbed for explosive residue before boarding a flight. He is the only one in our family ever to have experienced this, but he has experienced it twice in his fifteen years, and once more as a toddler when his tiny shoes were swabbed. He asks out loud (and alas, while still in the airport) if this happened because he is brown. I want to assure him that it is random, but the statistics are no longer favorable to that perspective.
I cannot be unaware because on the same trip, we visited a church in which the preacher chose to make disparaging remarks about the Chinese, which he surely thought were funny and would be well received by his usual congregation, and perhaps they were. Perhaps both preacher and congregation were blissfully unaware of the visiting Asian teenager in their midst who was quietly raging and pouring entirely too much emotional energy into keeping himself from walking out of the church during a sermon ostensibly on the subject of hospitality to strangers. They might have been unaware; but I could not be.
I cannot be unaware because violent racism against Asian people still exists in this world. The recent uptick in attacks on Asian-Americans since the advent of the coronavirus is unignorable. My son has an Asian face, an Asian body, and I cannot promise that no one will hate or hurt him for it. I cannot be unaware in a world in which one preacher’s attempt at humor could come to pose a very real and present danger for my son, or for someone who looks like him.
In short, I cannot be unaware because he cannot be unaware. I must be able to speak words of love and beauty into his life, custom-tailored for the life he is living. I have to acknowledge that he is adopted. I have heard other mothers claim to forget which of their children is adopted, but to do so is to forget which one needs a special affirmation of their birth- family’s worth, of their place in their adoptive family, and, if adopted internationally, of their place in both of their national homes. To claim to forget is to label his adoption or his ethnicity as shameful, something to be hidden. I must acknowledge that he is brown because I have to help him understand that, as much as we grieve it, he moves through a world of expectations that are not placed on his white brothers. Likewise, our family celebrates with him a birth-culture that bears a unique dignity and beauty on the world stage.
If we were to fail to see our son’s color, we would be failing to acknowledge the beauty of that color in a world that will easily call him anything but beautiful. What is good for my son is probably also good for my friends whose skin color does not match mine and whose differing perspective on the world gives new shades of color to my own. To hear their stories and acknowledge their differences is to speak peace and beauty into those differences.
For the dear lady who said she preferred to look into people’s eyes, I will share a final story: Once, when he was about two years old (and still cute), our youngest son climbed onto my lap and announced in his growly serious tone, “Mama! You have blue eyes.” Yes. “Mama! Daddy have blue eyes!” Yes. “Mama! Brothers have blue eyes.” Yes, again. “Why I have chocolaty eyes?” Even at two, children are keen to see differences. The response is not to sweep those differences under the rug (how absurd would it be to deny my son’s observation) but to speak words of love. He was quite satisfied that day to learn that most people born in Korea have “chocolaty” eyes. His observation of his reality was normalized and appreciated.
In return for seeing color, I am blessed to have a fuller perspective, a glimpse of how those chocolaty eyes see the world. I see a world in which difference is not shameful, in which ethnicity is part of the bold brushstrokes with which our world is painted, and in which we celebrate our colors with curiosity and respect, not shame.
I do see color; why would I want to live any other way?