Southern-Fried Racism

Be advised: This post contains explicit, racist language that should be found offensive. We have chosen to barely censor it, as it is a part of our everyday experience, and we have no luxury of censorship.


If you have been watching the news or social media, you know the turmoil that has been plaguing our country and the world. We hear of tragedy after tragedy and, because they are so frequent, we become so used to it that it does not even faze us anymore. Hatred is all around us, no matter where we are or what we are doing. It is up to us to rise above it and shine light into our communities. We are taught at a young age to treat others how we want to be treated. Somehow, many have forgotten this basic principle. It does not matter where you were born, which family you come from, or what you have accomplished in your life – every life matters!

It has been about a month since we attended the KAAN conference and there was a particular session that I still find myself thinking about. It was a panel discussion on adoptee advocacy, talking about how both children and adult adoptees need advocates for everything from racism to societal bias. Joy Lieberthal Rho (a Korean adoptee) was one of the panel leaders and her son’s story is what stuck in my mind. She talked about how outgoing he is and of one day at school when he was called awful names, just because he was Asian. He attends one of the most diverse schools in their state, yet this is still happening. After that session, I felt so many emotions that I had bottled up for years. Anger, sadness, and bitterness were just some that came to mind. We all have stories from our past – some positive, some negative. Many times we try to bury the negative memories (deaths, break-ups, financial crises) and focus only on the positive (birth of a child, wedding, graduation, etc.). As a Korean adoptee (not speaking for all), I will tell you that there are many negative memories that I have buried for years and forgotten about, until something happens that triggers them all. For me, this session was that trigger and I’d like to share a few of these difficult memories.

The first time I can recall being singled out because of my race was in 4th grade. I attended a small, private school and was one of the only Asian students enrolled. I remember being with a group of my buddies when one of them called me a “flat-faced, ch*nk-eyed, four-eyes.” I had never been called anything that before and had no idea how to react. I went home, locked myself in my room and cried. Afterwards, a thought occurred to me: if I put baby powder all over my face and body, my skin would magically turn white and I could blend in much better. I realized that wouldn’t work because I was back at square one after bath time. If I couldn’t change my skin color, one thing I could change would be to never wear my glasses in public ever again. By not wearing my glasses, my eyes would not be so noticeable and that was one less thing I’d have to worry – being called a “ch*nk-eyed four-eyes.” I never told my parents, although looking back, I should have. Even to this day, I still have a hatred of glasses and refuse to wear them.

I put baby powder all over so my skin would magically turn white.

The next memory I recall about growing up Asian in a Caucasian community occurred every time a family member would take a picture of me. I would say that this became more and more prevalent in high school and into adulthood. I would smile like normal for a picture, but because I am Asian, when I smile, my eyes tend to appear shut. They would always have to retake pictures over and over again because they said that my eyes were closed. I eventually completely stopped smiling because I didn’t want to go through the hassle of having them retake pictures and pointing out my “flaw.” In more recent years, especially being married to another Korean adoptee, my smile has definitely returned. As I mentioned in a previous post, I was so excited when I met Whitney’s Korean family and they had the same closed-eye “problem” as I have, which really is not even a problem!

I have debated whether or not I should share this most recent memory, which is still ongoing. I’ve decided to share, with the hope that others can understand how much words can hurt, even as an adult. When these racist words are spoken to me, they are not filtered, so I decided not to filter them here, either. In my line of work, I sometimes have to give people bad news when it comes to benefits or claims. A lot of client interaction is done face-to-face and many individuals see me at a very vulnerable point in their lives. Before moving to the South, I had not really experienced racism to the extent that I now experience it. It has become a much more frequent occurrence.

I eventually stopped smiling completely because they kept pointing out my flaw.

A few months after I had started working in my new office in Tennessee, I had to deny a claim. The client screamed at me, calling me a “f*cking ch*nk who had no brain who should go back where I came from.” I did not even know how to respond so I just apologized, told them to have a good day and walked away. The words hurt, but I figured that was just one unusual case. Up until that point, this had never happened, so I shrugged it off and didn’t think about it much. A few weeks later, it happened again. I delivered the bad news and was called a “f*cking ch*nk who is taking all the American jobs.” I reacted the same way as I did before because I didn’t feel like getting in an argument about how “American” I am. Sure, I was born in Korea, but I have lived in the States all my life, other than my first 3 months on earth. I love football, sports cards, pizza, and fries. How is that not American?

I would like to say that, after the second time, this never happened again. It definitely has. But I chosen to not allow it to define me or get me down. I know who I am as a person and I treat others with the same respect I would want. Every single life matters and it is a shame that there is still such hatred that exists for fellow human beings. We need to stick up for each other, help those in need, and do our part to make this world a better place.


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12 thoughts on “Southern-Fried Racism

  1. Thank you for sharing this difficult post with us. Such an important issue! My husband has experienced so many of the same things, and it breaks my heart whenever he tells me about it. Wish people would show more compassion and stop being so ignorant!

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  2. I was in 6th grade when I first heard the dreadful C-word, which I didn’t even know what it meant. Once I found out, I was just even more confused because I was born in Korea, not China… How I respond to these situations as an adult is like flipping a Rolodex. On introverted days I also apologize and walk away. On angry days I give a smart-ass quizzical look and correct the person that actually, I am Korean. On confident days I engage with the person and educate them on why the word is bad. On KADful days I agree and state that I, too, wish I was back in Asia. All in all, we are not alone and the light always outnumbers the dark. Just like in Star Wars.

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  3. Thank you for sharing. I’m so sorry you’ve experienced these things — I have, too. But I do think you are doing the right thing by shining a light on what still happens in our world. Big hugs to you and Whitney.

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  4. Mr. Lee, you certainly display the character of that which The Lord commands of us. Your Christian upbringing shines through in all walks of your life. I can relate as far as racism rears its ugly head.
    Your and Whitney’s testimonial blogs are inspirational. Don’t change who you are. We’re who we are and where we are for good reasons.
    HUGS☺

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  5. I can so relate to this. I had the hatred of glasses too, but mine was because of my flat nose. A whole lot of my insecurities were due to my nose being “flat”. It couldn’t hold up glasses properly. And like you, I didn’t want to have to draw attention to my defective eyes.

    I’m sorry anyone goes through this. As an adult, it seems so barbaric. I just don’t think my parents ever had a clue.

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  6. I know exactly what you mean. People tend to just speak their minds not realizing how much hurt they are causing another human being. I know words hurt and it’s hard to sit on the sideline while your husband has to experience it but he’s so lucky to have you and your support. Thank you again so much for reading and your input!

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  7. Thank you so much for reading Bethany and sharing what happened to you in 6th grade. Isn’t it crazy how we can remember these memories as if they were yesterday even though they were so negative and hurtful. You would think that we would just totally forget them, but then something happens to us triggering all these memories. I’m so sorry for you being called those names and I can totally relate as you know. Hopefully someday we won’t have to deal with racism anymore but I know that’s a dream.

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  8. Absolutely and thank you for reading and your kind words. We hope that our experiences may help others and show that they are not alone. If they need to talk or reach out there is a community that can help and embrace them.

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  9. Aunt Shirl 😊 Thank you so much for reading and your nice comment. You have been a great example for me in my life on how to live and act even when someone mistreats or says horrible things. I know you have story after story of things that have happened to you but you chose to rise above it and not let it define your character. Your positive example and leadership has helped me which I hope to help others with as well.

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  10. I’m so sorry you had to experience that and I can definitely relate to it. It’s so sad how cruel people can be, whether children or adults, and how much hurt we go through. Our hope is that future generations don’t have to experience what we have. Even to this day, I don’t think my parents had a clue like yours. It’s just something that I learned to deal with. Thanks again for reading and your input. It’s greatly appreciated.

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  11. Thanks for sharing, Lee. I know it’s devastating as a child to have to deal with racism, because you’re still not quite sure “why” people are picking on you. As you get older, you’d think you can deal with it through reason and logic, but since there’s usually no reason or logic to it, it hurts just as much. Sorry you had to go through all this.

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  12. Thank you so much for reading John and your nice comment. You are so right that as we get older we think that words don’t hurt as much as when we were children, but they still do. I think a lot as an adult has to do with us not wanting to show vulnerability and that we have outgrown the “sticks and stones may break my bones etc”, when in reality we have not. We just do better at hiding our feelings.

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