THE BLOG

My Nickname: A Cautionary Tale About Racism

06/28/2015 06:03 pm ET | Updated Jun 28, 2016

We have seen the devastation that racism can perpetrate when the ignorance and hate embedded within it are allowed to fester in silence at the margins of our society. But where does this sort of racism come from?

I don't know that I have the answer, but I do have a particular, firsthand experience that may give some insight into the question. Because, I know exactly when racism, as a concept, began for me: during dinner at home on a bright, fall day in September, 1970. I was introduced to the awfulness of the concept and its racialized words and their effect at our family dinner table.

I was adopted when I was six years old. I was the mixed-race product of an uneducated, starving Korean prostitute and an unknown American GI. I had been adopted by a Swedish American family in rural Minnesota who had a son and three daughters of their own.

My parents were pleased -- and relieved -- at the progress I'd made through kindergarten. Although I had known no English when I arrived to be their son, I had become fluent enough for my age and was deemed by teachers to be "capable of doing above average work" as my first-grade year began. That evening, as my family sat around the kitchen table in our fixed seating positions, wedged in our small, cramped kitchen, conversation turned to various topics among my still-new siblings.

"You should go out for basketball, so we could nickname you Wilt!" my middle sister declared to my brother.

She looked pleased with the nickname she'd thought of on the spot for my brother. She loved sports, and she particularly liked Wilt Chamberlain, then star center for the Los Angeles Lakers, because the team used to be Minnesota's professional basketball team until 1958, named after "The Land of 10,000 Lakes." Despite Los Angeles being in a desert, the team kept the name after it moved to LA.

"What's a nickname?" I asked in my first grader voice. I still spoke with a noticeable accent. Although I understood English reasonably well, like any first grader, there were words I didn't know.

"It's a name that people call you that's not your real name, because it may describe something about you or something you're known for," my oldest sister supplied the answer. She took her job as the eldest very seriously and liked being the knowledgeable and mature one, to my brother's great annoyance.

"Your sister was comparing your brother to a famous basketball player whose name is Wilt Chamberlain. And Mr. Chamberlain has a nickname -- Wilt the Stilt -- because he's so tall."

"Well, I have a nickname!" I blurted out the new word that I'd just learned.

My mother and father, and all my new, blonde-haired, blue-eyed siblings turned and looked at me, as I sat in my infant's high chair at the foot of the table. At seven years old, I'd been so starved and deprived of food for most of my life, I was barely more than the size of a two year-old.

"Oh? What is it and who gave it to you?" My dad's bass voice boomed the question, the sound bounding around the tiny kitchen. He was smiling, clearly encouraging me to speak. "Yeah, what is it?" A chorus of the family's voices chimed in, all of them smiling and nodding and looking at me expectantly. Encouragingly.

"It's Joe Ching-Chong Chink!"

Dead silence and blank stares.

I had made my proclamation with a burst of pride. I had nearly shouted the words, because I had a nickname! Like some famous basketball player!

"Some of the bigger boys at school gave it to me. And they call me that all the time!" I was smiling and pleased at the new word I had learned and the news I was able to share.

There was complete silence around the table. The smiles had vanished from every face. Everyone just stared at me through a long, too-tight-in-the-collar silence.

I found the silence frightening. I shut off my smile immediately and thought that I was in trouble. I thought I'd done something very wrong. I still didn't understand all the American rules and thought I might be sent back to Korea -- back to starvation -- if I broke them. And that terrified me. I felt a knot in my stomach, and I suddenly didn't feel very hungry and I started to tremble.

It was then that my mother reached out to me and touched my hand and held it in hers. She locked her bright blue eyes with me and gently explained that I had done nothing wrong and that no one was angry with me. But she explained in a clear, calm voice, that what I was being called was not a nickname. She explained that words were not all equal, that some were good, but others were bad and hurtful and fueled by ignorance. Her voice went on to tell me never to use such words to describe myself or anyone else; that I needed to remember how bad I felt, so that I would never use such ignorance-driven words to make others feel bad.

So where and how does racism begin?

I'm not sure that any of us can really know the answer, but I do know that it can start with simple words. Words have power and can lead to ideas. And ugly ideas can kill.

Racism, as a concept, began for me at my dinner table when I was seven. I learned that words matter -- they can and do affect people. As I grew, I learned that thoughts arise from the words we have and use. And that thoughts precede actions -- both for good and, sometimes, for evil. But I also learned that keeping silent in the face of racism -- being unwilling to talk about it and the reality of its existence and therefore letting it ferment in the dimly lit crevasses of society out of polite conversation -- may be complicit in its origins and growth.

Years later, my mother shared with me how powerless she'd felt that day. And how ashamed she had been of our society and herself; that she could not protect even a small child from the ugliness of ignorance and hate. She said that it was then that she knew that love -- her love -- could not protect me from racial hate. Instead, it must be the moral courage, the willingness of us all, to confront and acknowledge racism for the evil that it is, which may hold the best promise of limiting its destructiveness.

Joel L. A. Peterson is author of the recently released novel, Dreams of My Mothers