Author Soo Bong Peer, 64, is an executive coach and the owner of Soo Peer Associates, a diversity consulting firm, brings a distinctive voice to the discussion of promoting diversity.
“It’s one of America’s great ironies,” Peer says, “that so many programs designed to foster acceptance and inclusion are reinforcing separation and worsening the racial divide.”
Peer, the daughter of a South Korean general who later became an ambassador to Mexico, the United Kingdom, and Japan, has lived in the United States for the past 45 years. As an immigrant and the mother of a two biracial children, she’s experienced firsthand the dehumanizing effect of rampant racial categorization.
Peer’s book, A Foreigner Within: Connecting Beyond Labels and Political Correctness to Build an Authentic Path to Diversity is part memoir, part essay and a full-throated, thought-provoking rebuke of the racial labeling that we’ve come to take for granted.
“Our society has been very much into racial grouping,” Peer says. “The unintended consequences of that have been labeling, political correctness and divisiveness. Labeling creates an ‘us vs. them’ mentality.”
Peer attended the American High School in Mexico City and it was her first time outside of racially homogeneous South Korea, and she was surrounded by a melting pot of international students. In essence, even though she was learning a new language and immersed in a new culture, she blended right in. Then she came to the United States to attend college and, to her great surprise, she was no longer going to be viewed as “Soo Bong” but rather as another nameless “Asian minority.”
“It was the first time I was feeling, ‘Oh, I’m viewed as an Asian,’” Peer recalls. “It’s something about American culture where we define people by race. It was a surprise to me.”
At its simplest level, the notion of race itself is a relatively modern concept. Genetic research backs up the theory that all modern humans stem from a single group of Homo sapiens who emigrated from Africa and spread throughout Eurasia over thousands of years.
While the idea of race itself is suspect, Peer says the idea of forcing people to self-identify by race has had the opposite of its intended effect. The idea was to promote acceptance and diversity and enforce anti-discrimination laws. Peer says that over time the race box has become a powerful subliminal catalyst that reinforces America’s way of thinking of and seeing people primarily based on race. That leads to separation, stereotyping, and divisiveness.
A study by Nicholas Subtirelu, a Ph.D. student in linguistics at Georgia State University, looked at the changing use of racial labels at The New York Times. Subtirelu’s study found that over the past half-century, country-specific terms were gradually replaced by the umbrella terms, like Hispanic and Latino. Such terms remain dominant, although the majority (51 percent) of Latinos say they prefer to be defined by country of origin or heritage, according to a 2011 Pew study.
The Times’ shift from country-specific to umbrella terms is an example of how the media can reinforce understandings of diverse peoples as belonging to a single, broad category, Subtirelu said.
While this kind of research on labeling is enlightening, Peer suggests that we’re still asking the wrong questions. To really move the needle, we need to ask: Why must we label people at all?
By lumping people into categories, Peer says, we erase the human being behind the label. Labeling leads people to distinguish themselves from others based on a racial category. Peer says that for many years she felt constricted and diminished because she could sense that people were reducing her to stereotypes.
“As much as I think I’m so empowered that I can withstand all the stimulus coming from outside, we are a product of the environment,” Peer says. “Always, I was regarded as an Asian, regardless of how long I’ve lived here. Regardless of what I studied or who I was inside, I was Asian. To always be made to feel different, to be viewed as different, I really didn’t like that at all.”
Viewing racial labeling in and of itself as a bias might be a new concept for many people because well-intentioned race-based diversity programs have championed labeling for years. But, Peer asserts, racial labeling leads to stereotyping people, which builds biases, which in turn leads to racism.
While the makeup of the United States is more racially diverse than ever, the racial divide only seems to be broadening. In a 2016 Gallup poll, the four most important problems Americans identified were the economy, government, jobs, and race relations. This is the first time that race relations ranked that high.
Americans who say they personally worry a great deal about race relations have sharply risen in recent years: 17 percent in 2014, 28 percent in 2015, 35 percent in 2016, and the highest in Gallup’s 17-year trend at 42 percent in 2017.
“There are so many things affecting this racial tension and divide, but if I had to pick one area to change, it would be the race box,” Peer says. “We have to change our psychology. To change our perception and stereotypes, we have to stop defining people by race.”
Those who might not be affected emotionally by having to self-identify by race might still be skeptical and suspicious of it, Peer says, wondering how the data is being used and if it will help them or hurt them. It’s no secret that many people manipulate and change their answers, as we see in job and college applications, to try to use their racial background to their best advantage.
“The reason I wanted to write a book is that in my mind people don’t understand the height of where we are right now in terms of tension,” Peer said. “The current is pretty high right now. I worry about our kids’ generation.”
While written from a personal and immigrant perspective, Soo’s book challenges all of us to rethink how we look at people. Think about when you first meet a neighbor who moves in next door: Do you first see a black, Asian or Hispanic person? Is that the phrase that comes to mind when you describe the individual? Or do you see a kind, quiet or friendly person, who happens to be black, Asian or Hispanic?
“Do I look at this other person and think of their race or think of them as another human being,” Peer says. “That can be a great way that people can begin to understand their own lens and their own mindset. And it’s a huge difference.”