Now that it is May, have Seattleites recovered from the Seahawks’ Super Bowl loss? May is also “Asian Pacific American History Month.” What does the Super Bowl have anything to do with this ethnic tokenism? Hines Ward, the Super Bowl most valuable player, of course!
Ward’s saga made headlines after the Pittsburgh Steelers’ victory in February. It had the makings of a mediagenic tale: a child of a broken home, born to a black GI and his Korean wife; a dedicated immigrant mother who worked three menial jobs to support her son; an unselfish player winning the MVP award. Capping it all was Ward’s triumphant visit last month to his native South Korea, where he was feted by its president and hailed by the local media as a Korean hero and a symbol of new South Korean multiculturalism.
There were, however, sour grapes. Some multiracial South Koreans, especially those with dark skin, expressed bitterness at all the attention Ward garnered. These mixed Koreans, who still struggle with daily discriminations, think that the Ward story is essentially an American one, impossible in South Korea, despite the rhetoric of Korea’s globalization. They fear, probably accurately, that the new awareness will subside shortly.
Underneath the glitzy exterior of economic success and high-tech development, South Korea is still a clannish society that values family ties and ethnic purity. Women who marry American soldiers are derided as “GI princesses”; those who marry blacks are scorned as little better than prostitutes. Mixed children, especially those with African or Southeast Asian ancestry, face taunts, impolite stares, spitting and other indignities. Many drop out of school and become unemployed.
But if Ward’s story highlighted the dark side of South Korea’s society, it seems to have done little to shed light on ethnic relations in the United States. While the American mainstream media fixate on black-white issues (note the Duke University rape scandal), they pay less attention to the more complicated ethnic mosaic that is our country today.
The black-white fixation fits the leftist stereotype that whites are the oppressors, blacks the victims, and that this is the primary problem of racism today. Ward’s case is interesting for those who see beyond this simple construct, because he is a product of two nonwhite ethnic groups considered hostile to each other.
Korean immigrants in the U.S. often bring the prejudices of their own society, and the view that blacks are less developed human beings is pervasive. The Korean bias against blacks tends to emerge as “soft racism” from stares and extra vigilance to discrimination in housing and employment (Korean shopkeepers, for example, prefer Latino employees, “because they work harder and don’t steal”).
In turn, many American blacks, far from being helpless victims of racism, harbor hostility toward Koreans. Much of this hostility is based on economic resentment (the myth that Koreans cheat blacks to become wealthy is found among blacks of all strata) and nativism (“Koreans shouldn’t be making money in black neighborhoods”). If Korean prejudice against blacks generally manifests as rudeness, that of blacks against Koreans has taken a violent turn at times: robbery, assault and even occasional pogroms most infamously during the Los Angeles riots and the “Boycott Koreans” demonstrations in New York City.
And yet, there he is Hines Ward, a product of these two seemingly incompatible communities, a kid who was at once shunned by Koreans, and ashamed of his Korean mother. He is neither one nor the other, but that quintessential American character, a hybrid success story.
Indeed, without any counterproductive social engineering, it is the new generation of Americans that is redrawing this complex ethnic map on its own. Away from urban ethnic enclaves where old habits still persist, young, middle-class families in “tech” cities and suburbs are mixing, mingling and intermarrying.
In a new exurban development outside D.C. where I now live, there are many multiethnic couples, having children who will not be able to identify themselves with a single box on government forms and college applications.
Despite this new reality or an old one, given that human beings never existed in discrete, separate categories but along a continuum that belies the imprecise construct of “race” the government and other institutions of our society continue to insist on separating us into color-coded tribes that stand in the way of forging our single American-ness.
Isn’t it time for “E Pluribus Unum,” finally? That is what I saw when Hines Ward won the MVP neither a black nor a Korean story, but a tale of American transcendence.