Letters Home: Connecting with Korean American Families on Black Lives Matter
“Mom, Dad, Uncle, Auntie, Grandfather, Grandmother: We need to talk.”
So begins an open letter that was drafted by hundreds of Asian Americans and addressed to their families to explain the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement. It was a crowd-sourced effort that took place in July completely online through a Google document, and the letter has so far been translated to over 20 languages including Korean.
“I support the Black Lives Matter movement,” the letter reads. “Part of that support means speaking up when I see people in my community — or even my own family — say or do things that diminish the humanity of Black Americans in this country.
“I am telling you this out of love,” the letter continues, “because I don’t want this issue to divide us. I’m asking that you try to empathize with the anger and grief of the fathers, mothers, and children who have lost their loved ones to police violence.”
The project was initially a response to early rumors that the officer who shot Philando Castile on July 6 in Minnesota might have been Asian American, raising concerns that the case could become divisive in the same way that the fatal 2014 shooting of Akai Gurley in New York by then-police officer Peter Liang divided Chinese Americans.
For many first- and second-generation immigrants, the letter and its translations have served as a way to begin tough conversations on race with loved ones, especially in families where language barriers can make them especially difficult. In the accompanying note on the project, the contributors said that the project’s goal was “speaking empathetically, kindly, and earnestly to our elders about why Black lives matter to us.
“We know first-hand that it can be difficult to find the words to talk about this complex issue, especially in the languages that resonate most with our elders,” the note reads.
Jasmin N. Choi, a Boston University graduate student in social work who helped coordinate the Korean translation, said showing the letter to her parents helped begin an open conversation about police brutality and systemic racism. Before, she said such discussions were rare.
“We never really talk about racial tension or anything related to racism,” said Choi, who grew up in Los Angeles. “Coming from a family upbringing like that, it was very refreshing to actually talk about racial tension and racial issues. I think it was a breakthrough point for me.”
Over 40 people helped translate the English letter to Korean alone. It was a daunting task, not least because of the sheer number of people involved. Just a few days after the call was made over social media for volunteers, there were already several versions of translated sentences made by different people that included varying nuances and context clues that might help Korean readers.
“It kept growing because people would say, ‘Oh, I can do it better,’” said Seyeon Lee, who helped manage the workflow and sort through people’s suggestions. “Some phrases in English didn’t translate literally, so people would say, ‘That sounds weird.’ Protector of peace, for example, was changed to another word that sounded better.”
Beyond phrases in English that might sound awkward in Korean, gender also presented a challenge. Many involved in the translation wanted to ensure that the writers would not be gendered in a binary way and that gender fluidity was acknowledged; however, this meant signing the document without using gender-specific words like “your son” or “your daughter,” the absence of which could seem impersonal to the Korean reader.
“It might sound awkward to a native Korean speaker [when trying to use gender-neutral terms], but it’s real to us — it’s how we identify, and sometimes gender is awkward because our language doesn’t accommodate it or it’s not built for it,” said Juhee Kwon, who was involved in the discussion. “We settled on janyeodeul.[ref]“Children” in Korean.[/ref] It’s not something we use to refer to ourselves [informally, and the phrase is still gendered], but that still felt better to me than dal[ref]“Daughter” in Korean.[/ref] and adeul.”[ref]“Son” in Korean.[/ref]
There was also talk about whether to deviate from the original English letter and include references unique to the Korean American experience such as the civil unrest in Los Angeles that followed the police beating of Rodney King in 1992, known in Korean as 4.29, the date the event began. Many consider it a seminal moment in Korean American history, as its aftermath marked the formation of many activist organizations.
“Coming from L.A., being an L.A. native, I know it is still important because that’s all we talk about every time we have a Korean American social justice function,” Choi said. “When I worked in L.A. in a hospital setting, some of the African American patients, older adults, would actually talk about it with me and ask me how I felt about it.”
The group ultimately decided to leave out details about 4.29, in part because the authors of the English letter wanted to keep all translations in the project consistent. Others added that the L.A. unrest was not necessarily an event that resonated with every Korean American, especially those who immigrated to the United States after 1992.
“There are some segments of the Korean American community who are too far removed from it,” said Lee, who was working on the document from Seoul. “Their anti-Black racism doesn’t stem from that experience necessarily.”
Lee previously spent time working with Korean Americans in a majority-Black and Latinx[ref]“Latinx” is a gender-inclusive way of referring to people of Latin American descent.[/ref] housing project in New York City and having conversations with them about their neighbors. She was helping CAAAV, an Asian American grassroots community organization, produce a report on the lack of resources for residents, and part of the effort included going door-to-door and talking with Korean Americans who lived there.
Lee recalled many of their concerns revolved around worries about crime in the development and not feeling safe.
“Those comments weren’t always racialized, but sometimes, they were,” she said. “We would have to try to find a way to validate their experience, their pain and their trauma, and try to understand where they’re coming from, but also try to bridge the gap in empathy and ask questions that can put them in the shoes of their neighbors who are Black.”
That meant shedding light on shared experiences living in the housing project, such as complaints about lack of repairs and safety. Lee recalled that many of the Korean Americans she spoke with expressed surprise when they discovered that many of their Black and Latinx neighbors had similar concerns.
“It was just about creating an opportunity where people can question their assumptions again,” Lee said.
For Kwon, talking with family about police brutality in communities of color meant connecting with their experience of state violence in Korea during the 1980s democratization movement.
“My parents went to college when the student democracy movement happened in the ’80s, so they’re very aware of the state’s affiliation with the military, with the police, how the media are controlled or manipulated,” Kwon said. “Those things are more important, personally, in my ability to have conversations about police brutality and violence against Black people.”
Choi said the group hopes to work on a second letter that speaks specifically to the Korean American experience and addresses topics that weren’t included in the translation, such as 4.29 and Korea’s history of colonization. She has already been in contact with another person who was involved in the first letter about possibly working on another.
“I think it’s good to start the conversation, and I hope that other people will make [resources] that continue that conversation because I know it’s hard to throw [the letter] out there and not really have other materials that can help continue [the conversation],” Kwon said.
Most of the people involved in the translation effort had never met each other before and only communicated online through the Google document’s comments tool. But ever since that project ended, some have met up in-person, and they say they’re excited to continue the process of building resources on Black Lives Matter.
“It’s an ongoing thing,” Lee said. “People say your family is hardest to move and the hardest to talk to.”