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Beginnings of Consciousness: Asian American Christians share how they started connecting race and culture to their faith.
From her perspective as a Korean adoptee, Robyn Afrik speaks and trains nationally on issues related to diversity, international adoption and race relations. She’s also the new coordinator for local missions for the Reformed Church in America and is a lifelong resident of Holland, Michigan where she lives with her West African husband and three children. Her twitter: @afrikadvantage
This is the first of a two-part interview: Part 1, Robyn highlights various levels of awareness. Part 2: Robyn will speak about how she met God through her experiences.
How old were you when you were adopted and where did you live?
Robyn: I was adopted at 6 months of age [and] brought here to this little Dutch all white community of Holland, Christian Reformed Church people.
How did your parents hear about adoption, and how did they come to adopt?
Robyn: My mother couldn’t have children biologically and she was older. [Years later,] I read in a newspaper that interviewed my parents that initially, my parents wanted to adopt domestically—which meant [increased] chances of the children being white. But because the wait for children through international adoptions was far quicker, my parents were urged to consider international/transracial adoptions more seriously. Korea was a country that was pushing for quick adoptions.
Do you have any siblings?
Robyn: I have one younger brother, adopted as well, not blood related.
He’s Korean also?
Robyn: Yeah. My brother and I [had] the normal brother/sister relationship, where we love each other, hate each other, [and] fight like normal siblings.
I’m guessing that you’ve always been aware of race/cultural differences in your life?
Robyn: Yes, and I’m going to kickback on that and say there’s different levels of awareness.
Becoming aware of difference
Being adopted in a family who happens to be all white, I think that on one level I knew growing up that I was not white. I realize everyone is born able to see colors, so you obviously would know the difference between a brown person and a white person on that level.
Whenever my parents would take us out into the community, people would ask, “Are these your children?” And obviously they would say, “Oh yes, they were adopted from Korea.” You kind of knew from that point, you were different.
Becoming aware of what difference means to others
But I’d get a follow up statement to it: “Oh but you’re not (really) different. You’re just like us!” In that statement, there’s a value being implied: we see that you’re brown, but we need to affirm that it doesn’t mean anything different from being white.
I would encounter this on the playground as well. There is a meaning to that kind of different, and there’s a meaning [for] the ones who are pointing out differences.
I was in an all white school and little white children who didn’t know better would ask questions like: “Why do you look different? Why are your eyes slanted?” And they’d laugh or giggle or point. Yet, no one ever asked them, why is your skin white and why is your hair blonde or brown?
Just the fact that they were asking the questions, with a tone like “Why do you look different? Why do your eyes look different? Why is your skin brown?” held a bit of a“What’s wrong with you?” kind of attitude. It’s almost like projecting a feeling of inferiority…
Becoming aware that being “color-blind” is not helpful
And the other thing that was prevalent in our community was to have a very strong sense of being what they call “color-blind.”
“We just don’t really see your color. We know that you’re another color, but we’re not going to acknowledge it anymore, because God obviously doesn’t see color, neither do we.”
I grew up in a Christian home, Christian school, church etc., God was infused pretty dramatically in my understanding of race because of those kinds of comments. If I wasn’t brown and I was just like everyone else, they probably wouldn’t had to say that. It would be understood. You don’t walk into your house and say why are my walls white? They just are. But you do say, “Why is there a brown spot on my white wall?”
Becoming aware that racism is real
It’s [in my radio interviews] too, but I went to Valparaiso my freshman year, and I made a lot of great friends who are still pretty white and normal for my world. And we found out that the KKK was coming to rally on the courthouse steps down in Valparaiso. And my girlfriends and I were like, “Wow, that’s so wrong, anyone would know that. Let’s go and protest.” So, we made a pact to go out there.
We grabbed our signs, and we ran out to the courthouse, and we saw them handing out pamphlets on the steps to people. And as we were standing on the courthouse steps, we got really close to them. They weren’t dressed in robes or anything, they were like normal white guys just standing there. [Then,] one of the guys looked down to my friend on the left, and to my friend on the right and completely just bypassed me.
So of course, I’m thinking to myself, they are the KKK right? They’re supposed to ignore me. But it just hit me—it was a backwards paradox for me. The KKK chose not to acknowledge me based on the color of my skin [whereas] my community chose to acknowledge me for the color that I wasn’t, the one color they wanted to see.
Before we continue your story in Part 2, are there any other levels of awareness we should be aware of?
Robyn: I’m sure there are (laughs), I just don’t know all of them. My husband always talks about the level of awareness from Africans to African Americans. So that’s another dynamic. I think being an adoptee, an Asian adoptee—the whole issue of how do we reclaim our own heritage, culture, not just in our skin or in our looks, but what does that mean beyond that? [These] are all valid questions.
. . .
This is not a strict transcript of the conversation. While preserving as much of the interviewee’s voice as possible, this interview has been edited for clarity. This post was originally published on March 6, 2013. New edits were made to this post on April 8, 2013.
The interviewee wishes you to know that these opinions are hers alone, and not necessarily those of her affiliated organizations.
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