I black. You, me, same!
By Jason Lim
He might be better remembered as the tiny guy yelling, “Do you know, do you know, do you know?” in Nike commercials with Michael Jordan, but Spike Lee provided one of the most seminal moments of my youth growing up in New York City.
His movie, “Do the Right Thing,” drove home, for the first time in my life, a dawning awareness that there were tensions among the various ethnic communities in the melting pot. No, it was more fundamental than that. It made me realize that there was more to the world than my family and school friends. That there were other people around me who were invisible to me until then.
I still remember cringing in my theater seat as Sonny, the Korean grocer in “Do the Right Thing,” tried to hold off the angry mob with a broom by shouting in a quivering voice, "I no white! I black! You, me, same! We same!"
The mob backed off in the movie, more out of pity than anything else. I cringed then because even I didn’t believe Sonny when he said that “I black. You, me, same!” I knew that I certainly wasn’t white, but, then again, I wasn’t black either. And I both respected and resented the movie because it made me uncomfortable.
The movie proved prophetic with one exception. The real life mob didn’t back off in the 1992 riots in Los Angeles. Who could have foretold that a beating of a black man by white LA police officers would bring down such devastating consequences on the Korean American community? Even the Oracles of Delphi wouldn’t have made the connection beforehand.
But it did happen. Five Korean storekeepers were killed, 2,100 stores burned, and the world witnessed Korean Americans with automatic guns desperately fending off largely African-American mobs. And we all realized that “You, me” was not same. We were occupying the same space, but there was no sameness about us, only bitterness. We lived side by side, but we were not neighbors.
The ultimate lesson to me, which came in bits and pieces over the years, was that being a part of America’s multiethnic quilt meant that you had to be interwoven into the fabric along with other, various colored threads. You couldn’t create a quilt by yourself, in isolation.
More importantly, it made me realize that what the Korean community did ― whether it was running a drycleaner, car wash, or delicatessen ― was not done in the middle of a vacuum but had a real impact on real people in the community.
Living and achieving the American dream was not only about our immediate families. It was about the community. Otherwise, it was not sustainable and will invite backlash. America was not just a place to make a living. America had to be a place to make a life.
Which brings me to one point that I always felt the Korean-American community (and the Asian-American community to a large extent) overlooked: how much we owe the African-American community for the basic civil rights and freedom that we enjoy today.
Without their struggles during the civil rights era, Korean-Americans wouldn’t be achieving professional successes and academic excellence today. Without their suffering under Jim Crow, Korean-Americans won’t be sending their kids to Ivy League schools today. Without the African-Americans’ silent dignity in the face of unspeakable ignominies, Korean-Americans would not be celebrated as the “model minority” today.
In short, our lives as Asian-Americas would have been impossible without African-Americans paving the way for us. When Martin Luther King said, “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality,” he was speaking about the symbiotic nature of our interwoven quilt.
But how many Korean-American households celebrate Martin Luther King Day with reflection and meaning? How many Korean-American children know what the Greensboro Four did? How many Korean-American students realize the significance or Rosa Park’s simple courage? Do we know that we see so far over the horizon because we are standing on the shoulders of African American giants?
Martin Luther King draws a lesson from the bible: “The first question which the priest and the Levite asked was: ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’ But … the Good Samaritan reversed the question: If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’”
What happens to the Korean-American community if we don’t stop to look around and see that there are people we should reach out and help along? Are we willing to step down and pull others up to stand on our shoulders? Are we willing to become giants so that others might see farther? The answer has to be yes.
The Korean-American community must recognize that the American Dream is not spelled “Korean-American Dream,” and realize that the sustainability of our successes are contingent upon the successes by every part of the American community.
Let freedom ring on Martin Luther King’s dream today. It’s our turn to sound the bell.
Jason Lim is a Washington, D.C.-based consultant in organizational leadership, culture, and change management. He has been writing for The Korea Times since 2006. He can be reached at email@example.com and on Facebook.com/jasonlim2000.