Surrounded by White

I was born in Seoul, South Korea and moved to Deerfield, Illinois when I was four years old. The main thing these two places had in common was that they had extremely racially homogeneous populations. Around the time when I moved to Deerfield, the small village of roughly 18,000 people consisted of an overwhelming majority of white Caucasian people (95.88%) and a small percentage of everyone else (with 2.52% Asian people). Thus, it should be no surprise that all of my friends, both boys and girls, growing up were white.

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Me and my closest girlfriends

Although Deerfield was the opposite of a town you would call diverse, I did not feel like I faced that much overt racism during my early years. Sure, there was the occasional subtle comment that distanced me as the “forever foreigner,” like when my friends lovingly referred to me as their “Asian blossom” and spoke of my mom’s Korean cooking as something exotic and alien. However, I always felt like I fit in.

After taking this course, it has become clear to me how hard I tried to make sure this was the case. By assimilating and forcing myself to be as white as possible, I was able to avoid racism. By laughing along with my friends as they called me the “token Asian betch,” I tried to dodge even further ridiculing. By only speaking English around my friends, even when my family spoke to me in Korean, I felt like I was showing that I was just like them. By brushing off incredibly demeaning comments like, “I’ve never tried an Asian before,” by random strangers, I attempted to push away any attention from being Asian.

However, the main reason I had this all-white friend group was due to Deerfield’s extreme lack of diversity. There were a few conscious choices made by me like not going to Korean school that prohibited me from integrating more with the Korean American community in the suburbs of Chicago, but I still blame my hometown the most. Heck, if I grew up in some of the predominantly Asian communities in California, I’m sure I would have had plenty of Asian friends, right? That is why I thought my college experience would be different.

Northwestern has an Asian population of ~17%, making it the largest non-white demographic, with the majority being the white population at 52.3%. That means there are roughly three white students for every Asian student.

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Northwestern’s “candid” diversity page cover photo

However, I find myself with almost the same percentage of white friends. I may have made a few more Asian friends than I had in high school (read: zero), but it is not even close to this 3:1 ratio. My main friend group and sorority are extremely non-diverse, but before this course, I had never really thought anything of it; this left me with the question, why do I consistently find myself surrounded by only white people?

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Friendsgiving with my closest college friends

My blog posts kept focusing on how Asian women were portrayed in media because I am still struggling to figure out how to see myself. I grew up looking for Asian female role models because I wanted to be proud of who I was. I have come to the realization that I have subconsciously been trying to be white my whole life without considering the harm that it does to my own race. Although I do not know the explicit reason for why I have always surrounded myself with white friends, this class has helped to uncover all of the plausible causes. Could it be the media that continuously portrays Asian women in a negative light? Could it be that I am accustomed to appropriating white culture as a means of surviving and breaking out of the forever foreigner stereotype?

As I’ve grown up, I have become increasingly more accepting of my Korean background and have wanted to embrace it more. I now regret not going to Korean school because of my lacking ability in speaking Korean. I now call out my friends when they say even the most subtly racist comments. I now have a greater interest in Korean history and how my parents have faced racism in their lives. However, I see that there is much room for me to grow. I hope our society works towards making sure that young Asian American girls are not pressured to adjust their identity as a way to assimilate and succeed. If I can learn now, maybe that means these young girls can learn even earlier on.

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