I vividly remember the night I became aware of the Klu Klux Klan. As a third grader, I was up late watching the news when the horrific images of current events flashed on the screen. By this time in my young life I was living in the projects and well aware of the danger this could pose to my neighbors. But, in my young mind, it was going to happen to me.
Two years earlier, I would have never thought this. I would have felt saddened by the news report for “those people” but it wouldn’t have made me lose sleep like I did that night. It wasn’t long after I moved to the projects that I became aware of my mother’s race. Sitting in a reading group with students I barely knew, a boy (I can’t even recall his name or face) started hurling racial slurs toward me about being Chinese. Little did he know I was Korean; little did I know that my mother looked different than others. His remarks stung. I denied them. As the new girl learning to fight to survive not so much the school but the new neighborhood, I was ready to combat his attacks. But more than that, as a person who was noticeably different, at least by my mother’s appearance, I felt singled out. He put me on display and the teacher did nothing to protect me.
I was so disgusted by his ignorance and the teacher’s lack of empathy that I acted like I was physically sick to go home early. Emotionally, I was sick. Walking home alone in the middle of the day, I kept asking myself how I never noticed my mother’s appearance. I was well aware that our single-parent family was different than some of my school friends who had fathers and lived in actual houses instead of a small apartment above a printing press, but I never realized she looked different.
Though I was cognizant of my social and familial status at my previous school, no one ever called me out for not being like them. Mind you, this was still in the city and there was diversity yet I lived unaware. Even growing up in bars and sleeping in corners of parties where no child should be, I didn’t see my mother’s race. I didn’t become aware until I was treated differently because of it.