"We Always Hoped Our Daughter Would Not Marry Outside of Our Race"

Diane Farr on confronting racism in surprising places.

by Diane Farr

One year into my marriage, my mother looked at my husband and said, “We always hoped that Diane would not marry outside of our race.” 

My mother felt the silence in our living room. Her glance swung between my husband’s eyes and mine. Looking at them did not give her pause so I had to interject. “Mom, you realize Seung and I are different races?” My mother grunted a laugh. “No, you’re not.”

My husband is Korean. He was born in Seoul and immigrated to the United States as a child with his parents. I am a second-generation American, of Irish and Italian descent. And my mother, at fifty-eight years old, did not realize that my husband and I are different races because she, above everything else, is a New Yorker. And to a New Yorker, there are only two races, it seems: black and not black.

I would say black and white, but every time my husband’s family refers to me as “white,” my mother, and the rest of my family, laughs out loud. My mother claims I am not white. You may be thinking my mother is not all there from the previous quote, but she’s right about my skin. My coloring is olive. My hair is dark. I’m taller than most American women, and my body frame is small. You could argue that I look Brazilian or Russian, with the body of a Swede or a sub-Saharan African, depending on your frame of reference. But when my Korean in-laws look at me I am most importantly not Asian. Therefore, I am white.

When my Korean in-laws look at me I am most importantly not Asian. Therefore, I am white.

While I do not own a set of pearls or a single knee-length skirt, nor have I ever been to a derby of any sort, we could assume the Koreans mean I am “culturally white.” But if this is acceptable logic, even an appropriate generalization, then why is my mother’s belief that my husband and I are of the same race wrong? Seung and I grew up watching the same TV shows. His sister and I had the same dolls and similar restrictions on eyeliner. He played all the same sports as my brothers and was also told that boys don’t cry. These similarities are all that my mother sees when she looks at my husband. Does the fact that my mother did not see my Korean-born husband as different from us make her more or less racist? Specifically, more or less racist than my husband’s parents, who categorize me with a culture I have little in common with except that it’s not theirs?

Or are both of our parents’ misnomers just a generational mistake? Should every age be given license to use antiquated, incorrect language just because “they don’t mean it that way”? Should we also excuse young people in pockets of this country who use “regional” terms for race and religion just because their parents did? Or is there a larger question? Why don’t any of these people, of either generation, just consider themselves to be American — the most obvious and common bond between them all?

The plain answer in my story is because the Koreans in this family trust Korean Americans more than other Americans. Not because they have an inherent dislike of anyone but because they feel most comfortable with their own race. As do many Americans, recent to this country or not. On the other hand, my mother felt that specific groups of Americans — having nothing to do with her heritage and only to do with her very regional experience — would not fit in her family. She may love all people as friends and neighbors and business partners, but she just didn’t see a comfortable fit at her holiday table for some. Neither of these prejudices is a blanket statement of hate. Both may even have validity. However, they become an issue when the parent expects the child to subscribe to (what is at the very least) their narrow-mindedness.

Immigration to the United States, today, usually leads to über-embracement of the society left behind. There is so much revelry afforded to the old country now that Americans whose ancestors have been in this country for two hundred years are seeking out and embracing foods, holidays, and clothing of people they presume a relation to and have often never met. So if many old and new Americans are burning a torch for a way of life that has nothing to do with their current residence, is the homage just alienating us from other Americans?

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