I wasn’t much good at my job. My parents, even my younger sister, told me I wasn’t made for this kind of work. I couldn’t disagree. My job wasn’t too difficult, on the face of it. My sister and I were supposed to run the cash register and watch the front of the store while Dan, the security guard, watched the back. Despite repeated warnings, however, I couldn’t do it — watch Black people.
In the summer of 1991, my father quit his factory job and bought a small store in the inner-city of Milwaukee, WI, just south of the intersection of North Avenue and Martin Luther King Boulevard. It stood like an island among the vacant building and lots. The store specialized in Black women’s fashion, beauty supplies (relaxers, conditioners, curl activators, and other hair products), and hair (wigs, braids, and bundled human and synthetic hair), in addition to miscellaneous goods (from candy and cigarettes to garish statuettes, clocks and jewelry). The previous owner, someone my parents met at the Korean Catholic Church, had named the store “Apollo Fashions,” but the primarily Black, working-poor customers usually just called it the “Chinese store.”
I never felt good at the store. I felt cramped. The store was long, narrow, and cluttered. Purses hung on thin steel wires from the ceiling, racks of clothing crowded together in the rear, and old mannequin heads adorned with wigs lined the length and height of one wall. Near the front, opposite the raised cash register counter and glass display cabinets, sundry bottles and boxes weighed down bright pink, always dusty, wood shelves. The broad hips of the many women who frequented the store had to bump and jostle through the aisles, regularly inciting my father’s ire. The air itself was congested, thick and hazy, as if all the beauty products had leaked chemicals into the air, leaving on my face an oily sheen by the end of the day. In that jumbled space of unfamiliar goods, I was usually in a daze, unable to act, to do what was asked of me. What was I doing there? Why was my Korean family even there? At a “Chinese store” in a Black “ghetto”?
I had little idea why my parents would make such a decision. My father had little business experience, certainly no retail experience, especially one catering to Black women. For that matter, our family knew little about African Americans in the inner-city. We lived in a small semi-industrial town of 35,000, some seventy miles southwest of Milwaukee. I’d left home for a small liberal arts college in the Twin Cities a couple years back and heard nothing about the store until I came home for summer break.
My parents’ lack of communication wasn’t unusual. They were the so-called long-suffering kind of Asian parents who’d withhold from me my father’s massive heart attack and, years later, his first cancer diagnosis. They didn’t want to bother me and upset my studies. Like many immigrant parents with little formal education, they only had vague visions about my success, a few names of renowned schools and a simple list of lucrative and respected careers. What they had was an immigrant’s compulsory belief in hard work and education. Our family’s distribution of labor until the store was simple: my parents worked hard, and I just had to study, just study.
I wouldn’t say I was too disappointed at being kept in the dark. I left home relieved to escape the confines of a small town and my parents’ always-expectant gaze. While I didn’t flee to an East Coast fortification, I found refuge at the Yale or Harvard of the Midwest, or something like that. It was close enough – in reputation – to ease some of my parents’ worries but far enough for me to create some semblance of autonomy.
Away from home, I indulged in philosophy and creative writing, as well as late-night pizzas, cheap beer, and packs of cigarettes. I only fell into anthropology, at first, because I did well and the professors showed some confidence in my smarts when I was struggling with so many other classes. But I stayed on as a major because it sounded respectable, if only by its seeming esotericism. I was happy to know that grades weren’t sent to parents.
I wouldn’t tell my parents what I was studying until a couple years later, at the start of my second summer working at the store in 1992, when I thought I might do an ethnography for my honors thesis in anthropology. When I told them, they didn’t understand why I would want to do something like anthropology. “It is a hungry major,” my mother told me. “Professor is starving job, hungry job. Why come to the US and have your son be a professor [of anthropology]?” I couldn’t respond. I hadn’t even thought that far ahead.
I kept quiet about what I really wanted to do with my life: write fiction and poetry. My choice of majors felt selfish. It felt like betrayal. I would betray them again and again over the next two summers.
My job was to watch for theft. But it was more than a job, it was my family obligation. For my father, each act of theft was like a personal assault, not only a violation of his person but an attack on his family and its future. He often erupted in anger, an emotional outburst disproportionate, in my eyes, to any potential crime. He chased down the block after teenagers for taking a pack of gum, a lighter, a dollar-ninety-nine pair of fake gold hoops, despite my mother’s warnings about danger. My watching was the same as guarding my family’s rights and property. Yet, I winced and turned away when my father accosted black customers. My embarrassment wouldn’t settle down even when he was found to be right, which was most of the time.
My education may have spoiled me for real life, as my father said. I came to the store with lofty ideals about racial equality, developed and affirmed at college. I learned liberal competence - scholars’ names and concepts, mental catalogue of statistics, and, most important, my own experiences framed by theories of racism. I had made my alliance with the liberal educated, and I assumed I knew more than my parents. Perhaps I could educate. I could intercede and translate customers’ slang and my parents’ broken English. I could bridge cultural differences. Anything but watching, accusing.
I tried to hide behind books instead. My father had always supported my schooling. He came up to me often to tell me, “I know your job is to study, but not here, when reading and writing, they stealing. And they run out the store. Who going to chase them. You cannot.” He defended his actions. “You think it’s wrong. It’s not wrong. It’s have to be. People make that way. I don’t like but have to be.” I saw he could also be conflicted, but he knew, with the certainty of his beliefs, what he was working for. I, on the other hand, did not.
By the end of the summer, I had settled awkwardly into my role. I memorized the various hair and beauty brands and could make (amateurish) recommendations. Try the Dark & Lovely, Precise, Ultra Sheen, Carefree Curl. Make sure to use a neutralizer with the booster. I studied the various kinds of shampoos and conditioners, hair grease, pomade, and gels, and even snuck small samples to try on my own hair. (It was less an indication of work diligence than my vain search for a substance to tame my thick and unyielding hair.) I familiarized myself with the number system used to differentiate and label the color of human and synthetic hair. At a glance I could match a customer’s hair with a corresponding number. “Yours is 1-B (black-brown) and it’s over there.” Still, after three months I didn’t catch a single person thieving — even as my parents, sister, and Dan regularly and rightly stopped many.
When I returned the following summer, it was barely a month past the L.A. Uprising (April 29, 1992). After seeing Koreatown burn and repeated television footage of looting and Korean men with guns on rooftops and behind makeshift barriers defending their stores, I could only imagine the worst. My parents said nothing on the phone. When I asked about it back at the store, Dan and my parents remarked little happened: a rock thrown at the front window and racial slurs thrown at them. While Koreans in LA began calling it “Sa-I-Gu” (4-29), a widely used numerical code for marking momentous Korean events, such as the war (6-25) and March independence movement (3-1), in Milwaukee, it was more or less an ordinary day. I was relieved but taken aback. I made up my mind that summer to research “Black-Korean conflict.”
“Black-Korean conflict” was already news, well before the “riots.” In 1990, Black residents of the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, NY, boycotted the Korean-owned Family Red Apple grocery for thirteen months. A Haitian woman was allegedly assaulted by one of the workers after she resisted accusations of theft. In March 1991, Korean woman Soon Ja Du shot and killed 15-year-old Latasha Harlins after an altercation over a $1.79 bottle of orange juice at the Empire Liquor Market in South Central Los Angeles. Later that year, Ice Cube put out the song “Black Korea.” After describing mundane but hostile interactions at Korean-owned stores, it ends with “So pay respect to the black fist, or we’ll burn your store, right down to a crisp.” It turned out to be prescient.
Popular and academic commentaries commonly referenced cultural and linguistic barriers, but blame generally fell on Black customers — their misdirected anger, chronic poverty, welfare dependence. Echoing longstanding tropes of model and middleman minorities and the Black underclass, Black-Korean conflict stood proxy for urban decay, Black criminality and the American Dream, as embodied by righteous struggles of hardworking immigrants. More nuanced narratives reported on the policies and political economic changes that led to urban disinvestment and poverty. Korean merchants were only the latest scapegoats in America’s racist social engineering, placed as a buffer between white power and Black disenfranchisement. In a memorable line, scholar Elaine Kim wrote that the uprising “was a baptism into what it what it really means for a Korean to ‘become American’ in the 1990s” (Kim 1993: 219). Koreans were victims, and they finally learned their place.
I found strange comfort in those narratives. It is in retrospect unnerving to find consolation in someone’s victimhood, but such portrayals eased my anxiety about my parents. There were in fact reasons for my father’s explosive temper, the yelling matches between my parents and customers, and the ugly slurs thrown back and forth. There were reasons for my unease and my paralysis amidst so much blatant shoplifting.
I know I’ve been circumspect here. I’ve been avoiding calling my parents the “r-word,” that word which had become the worst kind of slander in the past decade of ostensible racial reckoning. More than a few times I’ve screamed at my parents for their insensitivity, their apparent deep prejudices. I now suppose my frustration (or was it shame or something else) was not unusual. Asian youth responded to the staggering number of recent police killings of Black people with a letter-writing campaign explaining the BLM movement to their parents. I was sympathetic to their pangs of guilt and anguish as I’ve felt the same. Nonetheless, there remains the suspicion that those letters were less about their parents than themselves, my temper, less about my parents, than myself.
To call them “racist” or victim doesn’t seem to do justice to their situation — neither my parents nor their customers. At the store my parents were robbed multiple times. My father had fought with young men, injuring his arm and wrist. He also had a gun pulled and pointed at his head. My mother blames this incident for his heart attack and declining health. When recalling those moments, I’ve seen my mother swallow her anger, hold back words. “Black is Black,” I’ve heard her say, as if in resignation. But it was also at the store I’ve seen my father gently pat children on their back and shoulders, hug them, and give small gifts of candy or gum, while engaging in teasing banter with their mothers. They were gestures of affection my sister and I rarely experienced. At the store, women come by week after week for my mother to touch up their hair and style their wigs. They chatted like longtime friends. After my father collapsed, many customers came by the store to offer condolences and words of prayer.
There’s a scene near the end of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989) where Sonny, a Korean grocery store owner, is swinging his broom in wide awkward arcs trying to fend off a growing crowd of Black residents. They had just ransacked and burned down Sal’s, an Italian-owned pizzeria across the street. Residents had gathered after a police officer choked to death a Black man while trying to subdue a fight which had broken out over a longstanding neighborhood dispute over an all-white “Wall of Fame.” Sonny is yelling, “I’m not white. I’m black! You, me, same.” An elderly Black man disagrees, yelling that he is Black but Sonny is not. His friend puts his arm around his shoulders and tells him to leave the Korean alone, “he’s alright.” The store is saved.
It’s hard to make out what the right thing is at the end of the movie. As I remember watching it for the first time, I couldn’t decide whose side I was on, the Black Bed-Stuy residents, Sal and his sons, the Korean shop owners? I most sympathized with Mookie, the protagonist (played by Lee), who worked at the pizzeria. He was the one to incite the looting and burning by throwing a trashcan through the window. How did it feel to betray his longtime employers? Did he choose a side, or was it chosen for him? In the summers I worked at my parents’ store, I could never decide. I was stuck, unable to act. What did I owe my parents, who worked so hard for me? What did I owe the Black community? To my notions of right? I just wanted to be able to say that my parents were alright. That they were, in the end, on the right side of things.
Jong Bum Kwon is Associate Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Webster University. His most recent research looks at the ethical dilemmas of whiteness in the aftermath of Mike Brown Jr.’s killing in St. Louis, MO.