Jung Kim still remembers when a group of white boys chased her and her friends around their neighborhood, hurling racial and sexual slurs at them. Kim, who at the time was an incoming high school freshman, said she and her two friends were just walking over to another friend’s house when the boys approached them and began taunting them for being Asian American.
“I actually didn’t talk about this for years,” said Kim, now a Korean American mother from Oak Park, as she recalled a few more details about the incident that took place decades ago. The boys – who were slightly younger than Kim – were riding their bikes, throwing rocks at the girls. Kim said they escaped the boys by running into an apartment building nearby.
“I was actually only thinking about it today that I didn’t talk about it for years. I think it’s because I thought there was something wrong with me – that I had somehow brought this really shameful thing to happen to me,” said Kim during a May Zoom event that featured her and other Asian Americans in Oak Park. The online community event – which was held by the River Forest School District 90, Oak Park Elementary School District 97 and Oak Park and River Forest High School District 200 – was a forum for people to share their experiences with racism, finding a sense of belonging and opening up about one’s identity.
The event was part of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, which came on the heels of an uptick in attacks against the Asian community. The mass shootings in Atlanta and Indianapolis on top of the viral videos displaying violence against elderly Asians loomed over AAPI month.
This past year, nonprofit Stop AAPI Hate revealed that nearly 3,800 hate incidents have been reported since the beginning of the pandemic last March. Most incidents disclosed were verbal harassment and shunning, which the organization has defined as the “deliberate avoidance of Asian Americans.”
Stop AAPI Hate shared that about 44% of hate incidents reported involved Chinese Americans. Data collected by the nonprofit also showed that Koreans comprised 15% of the hate incidents reported, while almost 9% were Vietnamese. Filipinos fell last on the list with 8%.
Asians make up roughly 5% of Oak Park’s population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But Kim said she thinks Asian American children in the community may be undercounted, as many of them are multiracial and “get lumped into that mostly racial category.”
During the event, Kim remained candid about how her parents were busy working to make ends meet, and they, as a family, never talked about experiencing racism. “They told me these things happen. They’re horrible, but you just have to work hard,” Kim said to viewers. “There wasn’t a sense [of] how to grapple with these things.”
In a separate interview, Kim spoke of the model minority myth, which often stereotypes Asian Americans as obedient, diligent, studious and smart.
In 2019, educator Sarah-SoonLing Blackburn explained the myth in an article for Learning for Justice, a free resource created by the Southern Poverty Law Center. She wrote that the myth holds the power to erase the differences among Asian American cultures and spreads the message that “Asian Americans are all the same” but still different from other Americans.
“On one hand, Asian Americans are often perceived as having assimilated better than other minority groups,” Blackburn noted. “On the other hand, Asian Americans are seen as having some foreign quality that renders them perpetual outsiders.
Kim reiterated, “We’ve been told we have the positive stereotypes, and [if] we just work hard, we’ll be fine.” But the recent rise in anti-Asian hate crimes put a spotlight on a harsh reality: “We’re still getting attacked,” and the myth minimizes racism toward the Asian American community.
“One of the ongoing tensions with the Asian American community is there’s such a long history of what we don’t know,” she said, noting the absence of Asian American figures in elementary and high school textbooks.
Kim, an associate professor at Lewis University in Oak Brook, shared that she is working on a book that focuses on Asian American teachers, most of whom are still discovering their own cultural and ethnic identities.
“Some of them have been really frustrated that a lot of their activism and their awareness of Asian-American identity didn’t really happen until after college. None of this happened in their school. These were all things that they had to do on their own time. And, that’s such a huge issue.”Jung Kim
Kim’s findings resonated with Sabrina Maggio, a French teacher from Percy Julian Middle School. Growing up in Alabama, Maggio, who is half Korean and half white, thought back to those moments when her classmates teased her. They would say her eyes were slanted or made fun of her nose’s flatness. The name-calling didn’t stop, even after Maggio and her family moved to Chicagoland.
By high school, Maggio began poking fun at herself, as a way to cope and beat everyone else to the punchline. These experiences led Maggio to become disinterested in her Korean culture, ultimately choosing to hide parts of herself.
“I spent a lot of my life running away from being Korean,” she said. “When I was a kid, I didn’t want Korean food because it just felt like it wasn’t normal, and I certainly didn’t want to learn Korean because that didn’t feel right either.”
As an adult, a teacher and a mother, Maggio has tried to reconcile and reclaim the years she lost abandoning her Korean identity. Inside the classroom, Maggio’s on a mission to create a warm, welcoming place and make her students feel like they belong. Back at home, she has worked to help her family learn more about her own roots, cooking them the food that she once despised and passing down stories, especially from her grandmother.
“I just feel like my purpose and my responsibility to them is just to make them extremely aware of what they have and of the privilege that they have,” Maggio said about her sons. “Just to constantly expose, expose, expose. Because they could very easily live in their little bubbles and not be really exposed to what it is to be different or anything like that.”
The journey to embracing being Korean American has been long and complicated, and even as Maggio got older, she uncovered there were parts of her identity she still wrestled with. When news of the mass shooting at three spas in Atlanta unfolded in March, Maggio was devastated. For her, the deaths of six Asian women hit home.
“I remember when I saw the pictures [of the victims]. I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, that looks like my family,” said Maggio, who immediately phoned her sister who lives in a suburb near Atlanta.
And, when the hashtag ‘Stop AAPI Hate’ came out, Maggio said she was hesitant to post it on social media. As Maggio continued to confront her own feelings about her racial identity, she talked more about the way Asian Americans are perceived in the U.S. compared to other marginalized communities.
Last summer, civil unrest erupted across the nation sparked by the deaths of unarmed Black men and women such as George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. As the calls to end racial violence and police brutality grew louder and louder, the days of protests led to months-long conversations, unveiling the storied history of white supremacy and systemic racism against the Black community.
“Asians are known for being smart and very successful with all the degrees and all the labels. That’s the stereotype. When people think about racism and oppression, sometimes I feel like it doesn’t necessarily apply to Asians because Asians ‘do well.’”Sabrina Maggio, French teacher from Percy Julian Middle School
Samina Hadi-Tabassum, who is Indian American, mirrored Kim’s and Maggio’s thoughts and added that it isn’t enough to teach Asian American history. In fact, she believes Black history must come first.
“Our nation is a Black-white country,” said Hadi-Tabassum, a clinical associate professor at Erikson Institute in Chicago. “We are a country based on slavery, and [the] master-slave narrative is still inherent.
“Black history needs to be taught first because if you understand Black history, you understand everybody else’s. You understand why colonization occurred with Mexican Americans. You understand why sugar plantations occurred in Hawaii with Asian Americans.”
Early this month, the Illinois Senate passed the Teaching Equitable Asian American Community History Act, otherwise known as the TEAACH Act, by a unanimous vote of 57-0. The legislation was introduced in January by Illinois State Rep. Jennifer Gong-Gershowitz (D-Glenview), and it passed the state House in April. The House now has to approve a Senate amendment before the bill heads to Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s desk for his signature.
TEAACH Act aside, the message here is about giving young students, especially those who are Asian Americans, the chance to learn, explore and understand.
“When we are erased in K-12 curriculum, the void that gets filled by popular images tend to be racist, sexist, homophobic and stereotypical,” Kim said during the online community event in May. “We need a space where we can kind of push against that.”
That space is crucial, said Oak Park resident Corinne Kodama. Kodama, the founding associate director of Asian American Resource and Cultural Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago, shared that weaving Asian American history can be life-changing for some students.
“You shouldn’t have to see yourself to feel like you belong here, but for some people, it does matter,” she said. “It is so powerful for them to understand that they’re not alone – that they have a history in this country before they got here.”
Looking back on her childhood, Kodama said she didn’t share the same narrative as other Asian Americans. “I didn’t come from the immigrant experience,” said Kodama, a fourth generation Japanese American. And, despite growing up in a predominantly white community in rural Washington state, Kodama hardly encountered any racial incidents.
Kodama went on to say that while it is important to make room for the stories of Asians and Asian Americans who have experienced racism, those aren’t the only accounts that exist.
“Asian Americans get reduced to the stereotype, and [people] can’t see outside of that because our stories aren’t told,” she said, noting young people, especially, need to see themselves as part of the country. There are plenty of Asian Americans who work in different industries and who are politicians, businessmen and women and leaders in social movements, she said.
At the event, Kim spoke about a message she received from a friend about The Linda Lindas, an all-girl punk band from California. Kim’s friend sent her a tweet about The Linda Lindas – a half Asian/half Latinx band and whose youngest member is 10 years old – and their recent performance at the Los Angeles Public Library during AAPI Heritage Month.
In the video, drummer Mila de la Garza told a brief story about a boy from her class.
“His dad told him to stay away from Chinese people,” said de la Garza, right before the band broke off into their song, “Racist, Sexist Boy.” “After I told him that I was Chinese, he backed away from me. Eloise and I wrote this song based on that experience.”
Kim laughed, as she told the sidenote and thought about those boys on their bikes who tracked her and her friends down.
“I wish I had the capacity to realize what that was, instead of thinking there was something wrong with me,” she said.