Jennifer Kelly remembers, as a half-Korean and half-American 6-year-old girl in Korea, the unmistakable scowling of onlookers as she and her mother walked down the street. Kelly would ask her mother why people stared with such anger.
She would respond: “They’ve never seen a little girl so beautiful,” Kelly remembers.
This was her mother’s way of transforming a horrible situation into an endurable one.
Today, Kelly has two children of her own: a 12-year-old son and a 6-year-old daughter. Her youngest attends Matheia School in Ballard, an independent K-5 school that launches into fresh curriculum every few months. The last was a focus on American Indian studies.
This November, classes began a unit on race — including a fieldtrip to the Pacific Science Center’s exhibit, “RACE: Are We So Different?”
Kelly is strongly in support of this scholastic focus. She acknowledges that race is a difficult topic to address, an issue easily swept aside. “But to actually pull it out of the drawer and look at it and analyze it, that’s great,” she said. “I like that it incites dialogue at home. If kids start talking about it now, they’ll be that much further along as they grow into junior high, high school. They’ll just have a better foundation.”
Children are arguably colorblind, Kelly said. Instead of noticing differences, most children seek commonalities with their peers. Kelly’s daughter returns home from school with a list of traits she shares with new friends: Are they funny, are they fun?
“Colorblindness,” however, is not one that Kelly hopes to instill in her children. Denying others their identified race is, Kelly said, “denying something of who they are.” Instead, she will teach her children to embrace others, race and all, as they grow into their own respective identity.
With light hair, blue eyes and fair skin, her son and daughter — whose father is Australian — have a Caucasian phenotype.
“But I don’t want to just pass them off as white,” Kelly explained. “I want them to choose their own identity.”
This could include exploring their Australian roots or embracing their Korean heritage. Korean food is occasionally cooked at home, and Kelly’s son has begun pestering his mother to study the language. Kelly’s daughter, meanwhile, is learning people come in all shapes and sizes and colors.
As her children grow, Kelly continues her search for a positive role model in the media. The male Asian stereotype: the Jackie Chan martial-artist type or the studious, A+ scholar.
“The stereotype of the Asian female, it’s overtly sexualized, demure and cute,” Kelly said. She added that some mistake this stereotype as flattering, but she said that it is far from the truth.
“You just become a caricature,” she said. Many wrongly view Asian women through a filter constructed by society’s stereotypes.
After Kelly moved to the United States at the age of 10, she faced racism once again. Racial discrimination is not solely perpetuated by one race. “It’s a human affliction,” she said.
Remembering words Kelly loved her mother for saying, the assurances meant to mask the ugliness of discrimination — “they’re just really jealous, honey” — Kelly shakes her head.
“But was it the truth? It wasn’t the truth. It was beyond her control. It was endemic, insurmountable at the time,” she said.
This month Kelly’s young daughter prepares to continue her exploration of the topic of race at school with a generation whose parents await at home, ready to tackle the issue of race.
“I get to define me,” Kelly said. “My identity is my own.”