Six Words: Ask Who I Am, Not What

Mar 13, 2013
Originally published on March 14, 2013 7:46 am

This month NPR begins a series of occasional conversations about The Race Card Project, where people can submit their thoughts on race and cultural identity in six words. Thousands of people have shared their six-word stories and every so often NPR Host/Special Correspondent Michele Norris will dip into the trove of six-word stories to explore issues surrounding race and cultural identity for Morning Edition. You can find hundreds of six-word submissions and submit your own at www.theracecardproject.com.

Sometimes the themes that surface in The Race Card Project involve deep philosophical differences and seismic divides over fairness, opportunity, equal treatment and festering historic wounds. And then sometimes the six-word essays reveal personal memories or smaller moments in everyday life. For example, dozens of people have submitted Race Cards that touch upon a simple, seemingly innocuous encounter revolving around a question that goes something like this: Where do you really come from?

On paper it looks like a straightforward expression of curiosity or perhaps a social icebreaker. But dozens of people have said that their heart breaks a little when they hear that inquiry.

Jessica Hong is a 29-year-old reservationist living in New Orleans. She is originally from Seattle and she heard about The Race Card Project via comedian W. Kamau Bell on Twitter. As a Korean-American, Hong is constantly asked about her heritage and those queries became the basis for her six words: "Ask who I am, not what."

The Other Side Of The Question

The lesson Hong is trying to teach is one that Charley Sullivan, a historian and rowing coach at the University of Michigan, learned after an encounter when he was in the seventh grade. His six words: "Where are you from? No answers."

He describes the day he asked that question, what led to it and what he gleaned from the response:

It was 1976. I was 12 and just moved back to the D.C. suburbs after growing up in Southeast Asia and West Africa. The first question to me in seventh-grade English class was "Did you see Tarzan?" This is how much my new classmates knew about the world. To say I didn't really feel welcome or understood would be an understatement. Then again, who does feel understood at 12? But 12 and just moved back from someplace weird compounds your weirdness.

There were very few students of color in the school at that point — maybe about 30 black students — only one of whom was not in the "special ed" track — and a few Asian students. There were a pair of Arab twins, the sons of a Saudi prince, whose [private parts] were the endless talk of after-gym-class showers. We'd already learned to connect race with bodies and with sex and with the exotic.

But, as a white boy having grown up in brown and black worlds, for the first time in my life, I was NOT on display as the other. For the first time, I sort of was just sinking into the background. No one had any clue what my life had been like or why I liked mangoes — or even what mangoes tasted like, much less a rambutan.

They knew that I had asked a kid whether the Miami Dolphins were a swim team, and that I knew ridiculous amounts of vocabulary and grammar — which had been drilled into me at my West African elite prep school — and that I already spoke French, which no one got to take until eighth grade, but I was doing it in seventh with special permission. And they knew that I could read music because the first day in chorus, I made the mistake of picking up the sheet music and just reading the thing through to the delight of the music teacher, who spent no small amount of time telling the others that reading music wasn't hard, see? Charley just did it right off.

They didn't know, at least not in any official way, that I was gay. But kids sense that stuff. And they knew I hadn't grown up with them since kindergarten. So, I was, or at least felt like I was, an outsider.

On about the third week of school, I saw two Southeast Asian kids together, clearly Vietnamese, I now know, but closer to the Filipino and Indonesian kids I grew up with as friends than anyone else at the school. So I went up and asked my simple question, "Where are you from?"

They didn't answer. There was no conversation. They ignored me and walked away. I wondered if they spoke enough English to understand the question, since everyone in the school knew these kids didn't speak very good English.

The next week, I was walking down the hall during class time for some reason, and the two of them were coming the other direction. Looking at me with barely disguised contempt, they threw Army salutes my way as they strode by in lock step.

The light bulb went off in my head instantly. Not just the "a-ha" moment about race, but the "oh shit" moment, too. For me, I read race and saw connection; they read race and saw a challenge to their very presence.

I wanted to go running and say, "But wait, you don't understand ... we're the three kids in this school who know that part of the world. We should be friends." But it never happened.

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NPR's Michele Norris is with us. She was the longtime host of NPR's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Hi, Michele.


INSKEEP: And her projects now include something called the Race Card Project, which she is going to share, occasionally, with us. What is it?

NORRIS: It's essentially a place where people tell their stories about race and cultural identity, in only six words.

INSKEEP: Six words.

NORRIS: Six words. And it's amazing how much people pack into just six words.

INSKEEP: Why not five? Why not seven?

NORRIS: Well, because, you know, it was a popular - this idea of telling a story in six words is a popular idea; there's six-word memoirs, there's six-words sports, six-word cities. And there is this urban legend that Ernest Hemingway threw down the gauntlet and challenged other writers to tell an interesting story; and said if you were a writer worth your salt, you could do it in only six words. And his six words - to prove his point - were: Baby shoes for sale; never worn.

INSKEEP: So now, you're encouraging people - the Race Card, in effect, is writing this down on a card, I suppose; encouraging people to write in six words about an incredibly complicated topic that's really scary for a lot of people to address.

NORRIS: And people do it sometimes on the actual race cards, on the post cards; they submit them via Twitter; they do it through the website. And what you see is a broad range of emotions. You see guilt, you see anger, you see people using humor to deal with a difficult subject. You see people going down memory lane, and talking about that thing that they just can't get over. And what you see overall is a lot of candor - people expressing in six words the kinds of things that you don't generally hear in public or polite conversation that, Steve, you frankly you don't hear in a studio like this.

And I'll give you a few examples, and these are all examples that are taken right from the project: Reason I ended a sweet relationship. She's nothing but poor white trash. Grandma sent $100 when we broke up - interesting because you wonder, was it a reward or was it consolation? Angry black men are so scary. Not all Mexicans can do landscaping.

And these, for the most part, are not sent in anonymously. People sign their names knowing that their - that other people will see their expressions, but also knowing that they're contributing to an open and honest conversation about a difficult subject.

INSKEEP: Some of these things are excruciating just to hear. Not all Mexicans can do landscaping - you can hear the wounded person behind those words. And what we're going to do here, occasionally, is dig behind six specific words. So which six are you going to start us with?

NORRIS: Well, I'm going to start with six words that were sent in by a woman named Jessica Hong. She's 29. She now lives in New Orleans. She's originally from Seattle. She is a Korean-American, and she talks about something that we hear a lot about on the Race Card Project - an offhand comment, a simple question that is not so simple to the people who hear this. Where are you really from? And when she hears a question like that, it's more than a simple question to her. It's loaded, this idea that people are not really asking a question but challenging whether she's really American.

JESSICA HONG: My name is Jessica Hong, and these are my six words. Ask who I am, not what.

INSKEEP: Ask who I am, not what.

NORRIS: And when Jessica is asked this question, she often will say, well, I'm from Seattle; or, I now live in New Orleans. But that doesn't get to the question. And then people often follow that up: No, where are you really from? And when she explains that her family is from Korea - well, I could explain but maybe she should.

HONG: It's like people need to figure out that I was Korean so that they could put me in their Korean box. And I knew that there was a box because anytime that I told them that I was Korean, everything else that was in that box came spilling out.

NORRIS: What comes spilling out? What do they say to you?

HONG: Oh, you know - when I was in elementary school, my favorite friend, my best friend, was Sara Kim. We hang out every day. I hear about everybody's Korean best friend from childhood. Oh, you know, I tried kimchee once, and I don't know if I liked it. Or I think really, the most jarring, the most stirring one was, I would have older gentlemen say, oh, I saved your country. I didn't - I couldn't quite...

NORRIS: They were talking about the Korean War.

HONG: Yeah. I couldn't quite say thank you. I mean, it was - it put me in this really horribly awkward position.

NORRIS: For Jessica, when you talk to her, she makes an interesting observation about this question, and generally about race. You know, she's not saying that someone is trying to take away her rights. This is not, you know, a stand in the schoolhouse door or something like that, or telling her she can't live in a certain place. It's more like a paper cut; it's of that variety. And yet we all know that paper cuts sometimes sting.

HONG: It's not like, the mean kind of racism that we think of when we think of racism. Yes, it's not, you know, blatantly mean or rude or hateful. But it's still - it adds up. It's like adding pebbles into a backpack. Eventually, your backpack is 20 pounds, you know?

INSKEEP: That's Jessica Hong, who spoke with our colleague Michele Norris, after sending a submission to the Race Card Project. And of course, the way you ask a question can make such a difference. I'm thinking about the old saying that if you're talking to someone who's grieving, don't ask how you're feeling because that's kind of obvious. Ask how are you doing, which is something that people can actually answer. If you're meeting someone for the first time, and you are interested in their racial and ethnic background, is there a proper way to ask about it that's comfortable for everyone involved?

NORRIS: Well, since we're telling Jessica's story, perhaps we should hear from her. She suggests that maybe it's not just the first thing you ask.

HONG: I think so long as your intention is to really know a person and the whole of who they are, you will learn that. I think maybe just ease up on knowing it right away; maybe check your anxiety a little bit. You know, why is it that you feel like you need to know right away?

INSKEEP: That's Jessica Hong, who spoke with our colleague Michele Norris, who is the curator, among other things, of the Race Card Project, which we will be hearing from occasionally, here on MORNING EDITION. There is more of Michele's conversation with Jessica at NPR.org, where you can also find someone who's on the other side of that conversation, Michele.

NORRIS: Yes. We hear from Charley Sullivan. He's a historian and a coach at the University of Michigan. He's white and as the son of diplomats, he spent a lot of his childhood living overseas in the Philippines and Indonesia and in Sierra Leone. And when his family returned to live not far from here, in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., he had what he described as an unforgettable encounter at a middle school. He saw two Asian students at his middle school, and that formed the basis of his Race Card essay.

CHARLEY SULLIVAN: My name is Charley Sullivan, and there are my six words: Where are you from? No answer. I asked that question once, and the answer I did get gave me a lot to think about.

INSKEEP: OK. And if you go to NPR.org, you find a lot to read about there. Michele Norris, thanks very much.

NORRIS: Always good to be with you.

INSKEEP: Talk to you again soon.


INSKEEP: By the way, in about two years, the Race Card Project has accumulated about 20,000 six-word essays. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.