My youngest son is not exactly wild about his middle name. Admittedly, he’s at an age when most children find their middle names a bit awkward. Middle names come to represent a less familiar aspect of themselves, perhaps, and one that is not wholly comfortable. I recall comparing middle names with my friends when I was his age. Many of us bore the names of long-dead relatives we’d never met, names that had fallen out of fashion, or that were easily mocked by our peers.(In my case, I wear my grandmother and great grandmother’s names as a hyphenated mash-up that causes me endless problems at the DMV.)
The reason my son does not particularly care for his middle name is that it is not an English one. His is a perfectly common Korean name with a beautiful meaning. Still, as many Asian Americans do, he has chosen a new English middle name: Daniel, D being the initial letter of his Korean name. More than once he has asked to officially change his middle name, and I always tell him he will appreciate his name someday. For now, at the age of fourteen, he is not so sure.
My son is a Korean adoptee, growing up in a suburban community in which he finds himself a racial minority both in his own home and in his social circles. He has other Korean friends, but like him, they’re the adopted sons of white parents, learning what it means to be Korean from parents who themselves have no idea.
The message he hears from our extended family is that he doesn’t need to know what it means to be Korean; he’s American now. That’s clearly not an idea he finds fully comfortable. When my son walks through this world, people don’t see an American kid. He may have an American accent, carry an American passport, and attend an American school, but his face—no matter how American he actually is—is also quite outwardly Korean. He can be completely American by every definition of the word, but he will never stop being Korean, too.
I don’t know if he has noticed the petty racism around him; but I have. I’ve quietly addressed parents and the leaders of social groups on two occasions when, several years ago, children have thought themselves amusing for making “Chinese” eyes at him, pulling the skin around their eyes tight. I’ve bitten my tongue on several other occasions when people assume his intelligence because of his appearance. I’ve quietly tolerated the socio-political overtones when people ask, as if it mattered, on which side of the DMZ he was born.
Through it all, I have worked hard to teach my child a love for his birth culture with every resource I have, from Korean food to language and travel and personal relationships. I want nothing more than for him to walk through this life thankful both for the way God made him and for the country and family in which God placed him. In short, I want my son to accept himself for who he truly is in every part of his story—Korean and American. And for the most part he has.
I share this story in a world where the immediate response from so many is to sweep this sort of experience under the rug. Of course, anyone of us might say, society accepts him for who he is.
That is a pious ideal, but it is not reality. At some level, below the skin, to be American is to be culturally white. To integrate into the melting pot, immigrants are told to speak English, even amongst themselves. To sit in a school room little black girls are told that they must tame their hair into a socially acceptable style. Sure, we tolerate the immigrant and the minority, but do we accept them for who they are, with their curly hair, broken English, strange foods, and cultural habits? Or do we complain that they’re too loud, too intimidating, too distracting, or simply exotic? Do we accept them on our terms, or theirs?
The question in America today is not about equal protection under the law; it’s about human dignity. We have a unique opportunity to hear and receive the stories of black Americans, immigrants, neighbors, and friends whose lives are different from ours. The view is different from where they sit, too, and if we are humble and patient, we are capable of seeing through their eyes. Yet too many in the Church take the easy way, claiming that the view is the same no matter where one sits, dismissing these stories while adopting a more comfortable view of reality.
Of course, we do so to our own detriment. There is so much we can learn about what it means to be human from those for whom the recognition of their humanity has been hard won. While we ignore the Gospel mandate to love one another—to treat others as more important than ourselves—and continue to accept the people God brings us only on our own terms, the Church will continue to make an unforced error, diminishing our witness to that Gospel love in the eyes of those who need it most.
To be brutally honest, I am tired of hearing comfortable white Christians dust aside the stories of America’s ethnic and racial minorities because it makes us uncomfortable to hear them. I am tired of every claim that America is now color blind, when what we mean is that we choose to turn a blind eye to the beauty that is color. I am tired that so many of my brothers and sisters in Christ are more than tired, that they are weary of a cultural divide that does not accept them except on terms set by others. I am white; I can walk away from the discussion into the safe haven of my simple American life, and I am tired. How tired must my child become as he grows to maturity? How tired is my neighbor?
Jesus spoke to tired people: Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. (Mt. 11:28) For too many years, parts of the Church itself have stood in the way of that rest for so many. It is time to step aside, and let others in.
Until we do, my son will keep his middle name buried, in anticipation of the day when he is ready again to claim it.