I been thinking about criticism of a community coming from outside the community. This is when someone who is not part of a community steps forth with critical comments about that community. I trust that I don’t need to provide concrete examples of what I mean.
I thought about what this would look like in my life. I am a Korean American. My parents were born in Korea and emigrated to the United States. I was born in Atlanta, and grew up in Los Angeles. Most of my friends growing up were Korean Americans. I am proud of my people and what we have accomplished in this country, even as I continue to learn more about our history.
Now, let’s say that a stranger comes to me. This stranger is not Korean-American. He has never been to a Korean community center or church. He has a few Korean-American friends, but has not spend significant time with their families. In fact, the only thing he knows about Korean Americans are what he sees on television and on the Internet.
He comes up to me and says, “The problem with the Korean-American community is your misogyny! You oppress your women. The problem with the Korean-American community is your idolization of academic achievement! You raise children who are so focused on academic success, they become emotionally scarred. The problem with the Korean-American community is your bigotry! You hate other ethnic groups.”
Each of those comments may have some truth. As a Korean American, I can say that there is a ring of truth to each statement. But if I were to hear that, my response would be, “Who…are you? Do I know you? More important, do you know us? Have you spent time in our community? Have you come to our houses, eaten our food, connected with us? Clearly, you haven’t. You claim to be concerned about the Korean-American community, but you haven’t exercised that concern. To paraphrase the poet Knowles, you must not know about us. Why should we listen to what you have to say?”
The stranger may reply, “What I have to say is true, and you’re too stubborn to listen.”
To which I would reply, “Perhaps, but why should I listen? You are a stranger to me. If you came up to me and told me about all of my personal problems, I wouldn’t be inclined to listen. So why should you expect an entire community to listen to you? Even if what you say may be true, that doesn’t make it complete. You don’t have the whole story.”
“Furthermore, this is especially true if my community is exercising its voice and you come from a community that has historically tried to undermine our voice. My community is trying to speak out against injustice. How do I know that you are really criticizing us from a place of helpfulness and genuine concern, instead of trying to shut us down because you don’t like what we have to say?”
“You might claim that this time, you are trying to be helpful and sincere. But please understand, that it’s difficult for us to trust you. People from my community have trusted people from your community time and time again, only to turn around and be stabbed in the back. Trust is not a given. Trust is not an entitlement. Trust must be earned. And once trust is broken, it cannot be easily repaired.”
“Now, this doesn’t mean that you aren’t free to share your critiques. You are free to say what you want. But don’t expect us to listen if you haven’t taken the time to get to know us. And if you know that we won’t be able to listen because there is a lack of trust, yet you continue to critique us, I wonder if you are really trying to help. I wonder if you are instead trying to show how wise and insightful you are, and how foolish and stubborn we are because we refuse your obviously sage advice. But our cry against injustice is not about your ego trip.”
“You may feel uncomfortable by how we exercise our voice, by our protests and votes and campaigns. Please understand that we are not asking for your permission. We don’t have to, for we are equal human beings, just like you. But if you are genuinely concerned, come and hear what we have to say. Please don’t make this about you. We didn’t work this hard to organize just to draw attention to your discomfort with how we speak up.”
“Stranger, I hope that you visit our community. Let us embrace you with open arms. Sit with us, enjoy our food (I especially recommend the tofu soup and the Korean barbecue), and hear our stories. Hear about how many of our families still carry the scars of the Korean War, with long lost relatives in North Korea that we haven’t seen in decades. Hear about how our mothers and fathers worked so hard to make a better life in this country for their children. Hear about our dreams for the future, for equality and healing in our families in the U.S. and in Korea. And then, when you are no longer a stranger but have become a friend, we would turn to you and ask you for your help. We would ask you to speak to us, help us see our blind spots, help us to grow. Because then we would know that you care about us, that your comments come from a place of genuine love and honor.”