Asian Americans and Oak Park

Opinion: Columns

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By Jung Kim

Though much ink and discussion have been spent on the racial climate of Oak Park, little has been addressed in terms of race and Asian Americans. Yet, on my way out of picking up my children from preschool, I got called out — "Hey, Chinese lady" — by some elementary-aged kids on a school bus. 

A flood of emotions flew through me at that moment, ranging from anger to frustration to sadness and then weariness. My only response was, "I'm not Chinese." 

I had my 2- and 4-year-olds with me, and while my gut (teacher) response was to get on the bus and school them, I just didn't have the energy to do it with both of my kids in tow. 

A woman walking by witnessed it and responded, "That's horrible, that's atrocious," in sympathy and as a reprimand to the kids on the bus. I responded, "It happens all the time" and kept walking. I didn't hear a response from the kids. 

This has happened multiple times to me in my 10 years in Oak Park. The experiences have ranged from being randomly called Chinese on the street to an individual saying "ching-chong" while walking by and a bus full of kids pulling "slanty" eyes at me at a stoplight. 

However, this was the first time I had such an experience with my kids present. Observing these interactions, my 4-year-old proceeded to ask me what was going on, and as I tried to explain, I realized there was no good way to explain it. For a moment, I felt overwhelmed and hopeless. I had an ocean of scholarly words, explanations, justifications, and analysis, but, ultimately, no simple answer for my child about what just happened or why. 

Reflecting on the various experiences I have had in Oak Park, I realize that this is a conversation I will have to have with my children more than once. This is an experience that I will most likely encounter again and that my children will encounter again.

Compounding the complexities of this incident further were the fact that the kids were African American, the bystander white, my kids biracial. As we try to critically engage with the complicated histories and relationships of race within our nation, much is left out about Asian Americans — here in Oak Park and nationally. 

Often discussed as being "model minorities," of having "positive" stereotypes associated with them, Asian Americans are often ignored in larger discussions of race. However, while not wildly publicized, there have been recent racially-motivated attacks on people of Asian descent, images that have gone viral of individuals and athletes pulling slanty eyes in photos, and the innumerable daily humiliations of "go back to your own country," the ethnicity guessing game, and "you speak English so well." 

Scholars have written about how Asian Americans are forever seen as foreigners, always presumed to be immigrants — to be Other. I have friends who are fourth-generation American citizens who get asked all the time where they are (really) from (i.e., not American-born). 

As I see the Asian population in Oak Park growing, I wonder how they/we will be perceived, treated, addressed. Will people automatically assume we are Chinese/Japanese/immigrant/English language learner/etc.? Will we have to constantly explain ourselves? Will people feel the compulsion to randomly identify us on the street like exotic birds? 

One of the things I love about Oak Park is its engagement in social issues, its deep desire to be reflective. However, it is time for us as a community to engage with race beyond black and white, as multilayered, nuanced, and fraught with challenges. 

We must all question the stereotypes, preconceived notions, and generalizations we hold about one another as members of groups — whether it is that one group is "hard-working" or another "lazy" — and work to build connections beyond these limiting stereotypes. 

We border one of the most segregated cities in the country, and while we do a better job at physical integration, I would challenge us to do more as a community to break down the emotional and mental spaces of segregation that too many of us still experience far too often. 

Reader Comments

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Shawna Seaton-George from Oak Park  

Posted: July 30th, 2014 6:47 AM

Thank-you for writing this piece! Clearly we need to do some more work in our community around the complexities of race. I read your piece to my 8 year old on our walk home from camp. Stereotypes are called out on a daily basis at home with Disney providing ample opportunities for discussion. Although not super active, folks in OP are trying to do some work around the Asian American experience. FAASt (Families of Asian American Students).

Winter Skye  

Posted: July 29th, 2014 7:31 PM

@Simon: You are confusing the mighty White bleeding hearts! Stop it! Their cognitive dissonance is acute. However, your calling uneducated, uncouth kids from Austin "human garbage" is totally over the top and unacceptable. Those kids from Austin come from a hellish condition. They are likely surrounded by people who don't have much of an education and don't know any better. They have been treated by liberals as incapable of much of anything so why should we be surprised by the results?

In Glen Ellyn formerly from OP  

Posted: July 29th, 2014 7:03 PM

Simon and Kathy- while I may think verbal expression of racism may have gotten worse in some local areas, in OP perhaps, it's still a far cry from true racism that affects privileges, rights, and opportunities. The Federal government, the white bread voting population, and your friends and neighbors are proof in this country that racism has been reduced to an exception rather than the rule. Discrimination on various levels will almost always exist, especially without advocates. Cheer, don't cry.

In Glen Ellyn formerly from OP  

Posted: July 29th, 2014 6:51 PM

cont'd or I should say, I could choose to resent, your ignorance of my sacrifices for, and being several times a victim of violence by, member(s) of minority group(s) doesn't provide me with some insight to the power and insight to some expressions or plight of seemingly racist situations. I choose NOT to lump all apparent racists together, nor all victims of apparent racism together. I do appeal to cooler heads to, "don't feel offended, just be honest".

In Glen Ellyn formerly from OP  

Posted: July 29th, 2014 6:42 PM

Joan- please read my response below addresed to Kathy. You, too are presuming way too much about me. You are criticising me me from a prejudiced perspective as well, assigning me to liberal camp. Nice namecalling, btw. However, while I'm not in the exact situation either you or Simon may be, you could also make the fallacy of logic by claiming I couldn't be an effective expert gynacologist if I wasn't a woman of child-bearing age. I resent cont'd

In Glen Ellyn formerly from OP  

Posted: July 29th, 2014 6:34 PM

Simon- I offer you what works and advise you to do whatever you want. I don't know what else to tell you but it seems to me, no offense intended, you are intent on being a victim and intent on passing the entitled feelings of being a victim to the next generation. A notable significant difference between physical bullying and verbal bullying is that you can choose how to respond to the verbal bullying, ie, racist comments, and on a case by case basis discern an actual threat or not.

Joan from Hinsdale  

Posted: July 28th, 2014 9:26 AM

Simon, @Glen Ellyn is speaking from the perspective of someone who doesn't have to worry about being threatened, marginalized, or otherwise hurt by virtue of their race (and likely their gender.) It's akin to the limo liberalism that OP is perceived to be so very guilty of. Problem is that smaller minority groups don't have the voice, or the collective liberal guilt behind, racism directed at blacks.


Posted: July 28th, 2014 1:26 AM

to be a solution, but moments of "racism" need to be called out, and the people being racist need to know it's not okay, and you can't always rely on a third party to be present to come to your aid. We need a wider conversation and education about racism that extend further than issues that blacks endure. To answer your question about threat, yes, I have felt threatened by groups of young blacks targeting my children with racist comments when it's expressed in an overtly aggressive way.


Posted: July 28th, 2014 1:20 AM

Glen Ellyn, have you used what you say "works"? Are you an Asian with kids that have to listen to black kids calling them racist names? Yes, verbal bullying is not the same as physical bullying, but that's not to say it's less damaging. Kids commit suicide from mere "verbal bullying". The "racism card" maybe over used in Chicagoland by blacks, but it is rarely mentioned in concerning Asians, so please don't lump us together. Nobody is expecting that a "single incident of reprimand by a parent"

In Glen Ellyn formerly from OP  

Posted: July 26th, 2014 6:03 AM

Simon- coincidentally, what I suggest to do is just what the author, Jung Kim did- resist the knee-jerk reaction and allow an advocate do the admonishing. There's not always the perfect thing to say without further direct confrontation and an intervening third party changes the odds against the offender/bully. Misbehavior is rarely cured with a single incident of reprimand by a parent anyway, is it? So, don't expect it with this "racism".

In Glen Ellyn formerly from OP  

Posted: July 26th, 2014 5:35 AM

I don't know what to tell you Simon. You deal your way, I'll use what works. Understanding the underlining source and true intent is key. Buzz words don't have to illicit strong emotions. Verbal bullying is not the same as physical bullying and again, the "racism" card of feeling offended is so overused. Gandhi, MLK Jr., and Mandela didn't fight back from feeling offended, though they did maintain their dignity. Upon receiving a racist remark, ask yourself, "Do I really feel threatened?"


Posted: July 26th, 2014 3:18 AM

Glen Ellyn, Racism, especially against kids, is a type of bullying. I of course explain to my kids where this comes from, but I'm not going to tell them that they need to put up with it, which is exactly what "laugh it off" means. Another problem with the "laugh it off" solution is that bullies usually pick on who they perceive to be weak, and when someone doesn't stick up for themselves, they are perceived to be weak, and the assaults continue. Would you instruct black people to laugh off the N

In Glen Ellyn formerly from OP  

Posted: July 25th, 2014 10:44 AM

My point is, racism has to be fed. I didn't see it as a young student. Thankfully, I didn't see my teachers feed into it, for whatever reason. Maybe other students' perceptions were different, but, looking back, I appreciated my quality male, female, and non-caucasian teachers, as well as the opportunity to appreciate the diverse personalities and abilities of all my classmates without fixating on their non-whiteness. Heritage was respected in 5th grade assigned projects then, but not racism.

In Glen Ellyn formerly from OP  

Posted: July 25th, 2014 10:25 AM

Oak Park also had its controversial bussing when Hawthorne (Percy Julian) and Emerson (Gwendolyn Brooks) lost their K-6 students to other schools and became junior high schools serving only 7th and 8th grades. Upon my entering the 5th grade, Beye School would get Hawthorne's students, a significant increase of "black" students. My student experience was that my teachers at Beye handled it seemlessly without distraction of racism. The next year, my very good science teacher was of Asian descent.

In Glen Ellyn formerly from OP  

Posted: July 25th, 2014 10:09 AM

Kathy, Simon- I grew up in the Beye School district that borders the Chicago Austin neighborhood in the early 70s, a racially temultuous time elsewhere. Coincidentally, my mother's parents moved out of the Austin neighborhood the year after my mother moved out and married my father (a Navy Pier collegemate from Elmwood Park) in '55, many years before that area experienced the "white flight" phenomena. Anyway, with 70s came controversial school busing in various parts of the country. cont'd

In Glen Ellyn formerly from OP  

Posted: July 25th, 2014 7:23 AM

Simon- yes, I would advise you to tell your kids to "laugh it off". Tell them that the comments come from ignorance and the offenders just don't know them like they should with all the good upbringing you provided. Racist comments often come from insecurities. Idiot offenders verbally lash out when they feel threatened. Reacting physically to racist comments certainly would validate those feelings. So, taking stock in your own worth and having the company of verbal advocates works best.

In Glen Ellyn formerly from OP  

Posted: July 25th, 2014 7:10 AM

cont'd. Kathy- I did not mean to offend you but stand with you with confidence to put hasty stupid supposedly racist affronts in perspective, and to point out that you needn't give some inexperienced idiot, child or adult, the power over you and your worth to the community and family. Long ago, I put my money where my mouth is, been victimized by supposed race offenders (projects of Western Av. and the Ike) and resigned employment in support as an advocate. "Don't feel offended; just be honest"

In Glen Ellyn formerly from OP  

Posted: July 25th, 2014 6:53 AM

cont'd Kathy- true racism, true negative racism that is, takes away rights, privileges, security, opportunities, etc., from others. Mentally and emotionally, racism can only take what is willingly given. The offended recipients of racist comments have the ability to CHOOSE whether to be offended. And again, I say, it is the responsibility of onlookers to stand up for the recipient as advocates for the wrongly insulted. We all have a role in ending perceived racism. cont'd

In Glen Ellyn formerly from OP  

Posted: July 25th, 2014 6:42 AM

Kathy- you presume way too much about my ("pontificating from the distant safety of my homogenous home"). I more-or-less landed in GE after living out of the Chicago area for some years. Presumption also promotes much of the perceived racism- often the knee jerk reaction of feeling offended just adds credence to loose-lipped, hasty, thoughtless and ignorant nonsense, and NOT true racism. True racism is perpetuated by action and reaction and defeated when advocates don't yield to it. cont'd.


Posted: July 25th, 2014 1:30 AM

were real, and caused actual distress to my kids. Come back and tell me to take the "high road" when a group of black males calls your young kids "chinks".


Posted: July 25th, 2014 1:28 AM

NOT tell them to "laugh them off", because that would be minimizing the severity of such discriminatory behavior. It's the same mindset where adults tell girls, "boys will be boys", when they slap girls on the backside, basically saying "it's okay to be a victim of abuse, just don't make a big deal out of it and maybe they'll lose interest". Ignorant or not, young or old, if you say something racist, you should be held accountable, not be excused. Also, the "offenders" we not "perceived", they


Posted: July 25th, 2014 1:20 AM

In Glen Ellyn, While I can see that these racist comments from "kids" (many late teens and probably early 20's) are the result of ignorance, it is racism none the less, and none the less disgusting. I'm an adult and though I'm disgusted with such racist slurs, I do have the ability to understand the root of such slurs are arrived at through lack of upbringing etc? but would you suggest that my children "laugh them off"? They are certainly greatly affected by these disgusting remarks, and I will

Kathy from Oak Park  

Posted: July 22nd, 2014 9:56 AM

Ps guessing that @Glen Ellyn not only moved to that homogenous suburb to escape the madness, but also that he/she has never been the recipient of some of these hurtful/hateful comments directed at one because of their ethnicity/race.

Kathy from Oak Park  

Posted: July 22nd, 2014 9:52 AM

How convenient for @Glen Ellyn formerly from OP to pontificate from his/her safe perch in the homogeneous in every respect new home. Another great example of living one's ideals from a safe distance. ps I'm Asian and I sadly second all of the comments about horrible racist comments from black kids in OP. Enough is enough!

In Glen Ellyn formerly from OP  

Posted: July 22nd, 2014 8:27 AM

Lastly, it is the responsibility of us witnessing bystanders of a healthy community to stand with and defend the recipients of undeserved denigrations. Indifference, apathy, and silence only empower senseless bullies. Advocates for the humble are sometimes absolutely necessary to nip ignorance in the bud.

In Glen Ellyn formerly from OP  

Posted: July 22nd, 2014 8:04 AM

Furthermore, while we resist conceding the stage to the crude insulters with our victim-confirming responses of lashed back labels onto our perceived offenders, we inherently give credence to their belief of having superiority and control over us and our actions. Laugh them off (figuratively) as you know your worth before God, friends, and family. Otherwise, we are consenting to their implied will to control us. We lose if we insult back unsympathetically to their self-imposed plight. Stand.

In Glen Ellyn formerly from OP  

Posted: July 22nd, 2014 7:29 AM

Why is it that we take stock in ignorant loose comments by youthful, much less adult, individuals? Why is it we feel entitled to be offended by inexperienced and unappreciative individuals using superficial labels to describe us? Why do we CHOOSE to be offended when hastily addressed with historically negative slurs by a poor representative of the local majority? This, I dare say, is reaction to DIFFERENTISM, rarely true racism. Avoid taking the bait and perpetuating the animosity of dumasses.


Posted: July 22nd, 2014 1:43 AM

I should also say that I've experienced racism comments from black kids I assume are from the west side of Chicago, as I see them walking across the border, but I don't care where they come from, what they're socio-economic status is, how they have been treated by society? None of that is justification of being racist! The fact that these low lives, both in and outside of Oak Park, would shout racist words to little children makes them human garbage.


Posted: July 22nd, 2014 1:38 AM

"Chink", they can't see their ignorance. Before anyone cries out about how the "N" word is more offensive cause it has it's roots in slavery, the word "Chink" is what Americans called Chinese people because of the sound the hammer made when the Chinese were nailing the railroads down while they were "slaves". Oak Park "diversity" is solely focused on integrating blacks and whites, but does nothing to address the other races around town. Is that true "diversity"?


Posted: July 22nd, 2014 1:26 AM

Diversity only means "black" and "white" in the minds of many. Being Asian, I have experienced racist slurs from quite a number of black kids in Oak Park (OPRF kids), but I have near experienced any type of racism from a white kid. Call it lack of parenting, education, money, whatever? None of that stuff matters to me when my kids experience it. No doubt there would be a national outcry if the "N" word was shouted at a black kid, because of black slavery, but when black kids call my daughter a

Paul from Oak Park  

Posted: July 21st, 2014 3:43 PM

Just saw the comment from Russell below, who more eloquently articulated my point. And he makes it as someone who grew up in OP!

Paul from Oak Park  

Posted: July 21st, 2014 3:34 PM

Hate to be the one to state the obvious, but chances are the black kids are not from OP. From my personal experience, lower income, black kids tend to be disproportionately openly racist, usually because they come from uneducated parents who haven't taught them how to behave. Ugly fact. Now whether white kids feel this way but are more closed about it is another topic-- and I think unlikely in such a hippy dippy suburb as OP.

Victor Yipp from Oak Park  

Posted: July 20th, 2014 3:15 PM

Jung Kim, your opinion piece is spot-on. You've captured my experiences, my emotions, and my gratitude as a fellow Asian American Oak Parker. Thank you.

John Butch Murtagh from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: July 18th, 2014 1:11 PM

Asians have played a large and important role in OP Education. They follow issues closely, serve on committee, and express their views effectively. Unfortunately, Asians have been less involved in Oak Park Village Community Activities; including running and serving in public office. We sure could use your help.

New resident  

Posted: July 17th, 2014 10:06 PM

Thank you for your article, Jung. We will be moving to OP in a few weeks and we are an Asian American family. Having been involved with several Asian American organizations in the city over the years, we are interested in better understanding the experience in OP.

OP Transplant  

Posted: July 17th, 2014 4:18 PM

You guys are gonna get in trouble! White people are racist oppressors. Black people are helpless victims of white oppression. There are no other people. Is that so hard to remember?

dutch elm  

Posted: July 17th, 2014 1:55 PM

As I earlier posted: "Accountability for thee but not for me."

Russell Trenary from Oak Park   

Posted: July 17th, 2014 1:10 PM

Having gone to OP public schools all my life, I have always been annoyed by the level of racism directed against Asians and Asian-Americans among school children. And I always got the impression that racial comments and taunts against those of Asian decent were more likely to made by black kids than white. Maybe that's because racism is always taught as a black-white issue, so some black children might feel they are exempt from being racist. It's a problem whatever the race of the perpetrator is

Violet Aura  

Posted: July 16th, 2014 10:03 PM

This article will be sure to perplex some of the bleeding-heart White liberals who would have us believe that only White people use slurs against others. Being a person of color myself, the only place I was ever called an ethnic slur was OP. Ain't that a blip? So I feel your pain. Just a little observation, however. Your sentence describing the races chose to use AA and White side-by-side. What gives? Do you find it uncomfortable to write Black? Does it seem impolite somehow to you?

Kat Tanaka Okopnik  

Posted: July 16th, 2014 9:29 PM

Perhaps it is time for (East? All?) Asian American Oak Parkers to join together to come up with some community enrichment projects.

Kathy Egan from Oak Park  

Posted: July 16th, 2014 9:20 PM

Thanks for sharing. Yes, embracing diversity means everyone.

Hopeful in OP  

Posted: July 16th, 2014 5:07 PM

Thank you for sharing. The village certainly needs to move beyond the black white binary. We can all do a better job.

Rob Breymaier from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: July 16th, 2014 4:03 PM

Thank you for this thoughtful piece Jung.

OP Transplant  

Posted: July 16th, 2014 3:22 PM

Any discussion of race in OP has always been in terms of black and white. Those of us who don't belong to either of the village's approved races can only be observers. On the plus side, you get to observe some funny stuff!

Dutch Elm's Dis ease.  

Posted: July 16th, 2014 2:57 PM

What is your point? Who is not being accountable?

Dutch Elm  

Posted: July 16th, 2014 2:52 PM

"Compounding the complexities of this incident further were the fact that the kids were African American, the bystander white, my kids biracial." Sums up the whole "embrace diversity" meme: "Accountability for thee but not for me."

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