Sheldon Eakins:

Welcome, advocates, to another episode of the Leading Equity Podcast, the podcast that focuses on supporting educators with the tools and resources necessary to ensure equity at their schools. Folks, I have a very special guest in the building today, in the virtual building space today. Ms. Unsuk Zucker is here. I am so happy to have her. We just met each other, by the way, not too long ago. It's been a couple months, a month and a half or so. How long has it been?

               Unsuk Zucker:

We met in late March.

               Sheldon Eakins:

Late March.

               Unsuk Zucker:

So, a month, a month and a half.

               Sheldon Eakins:

May 2nd is the date of our recording, so yeah, it's been a month and a half. We've always kept in touch. We had the opportunity to share the stage together during the Deeper Learning Conference out in San Diego. Man, I'm so glad you're here. Thank you so much for your time. Thank you. Thank you for being here today.

               Unsuk Zucker:

Yeah. Thanks for having me. I knew I was in special company when a woman came up to the stage and asked for a selfie before we even got started with you, because you're famous.

               Sheldon Eakins:

First of all, I am not famous. Every now and then I go somewhere and someone recognizes me, but I'm not famous in any way. But yeah, we had just met, and so I've had the opportunity to get to know about your work more, and I would love for you to share, before we get started with today, if you could share a little bit about yourself and what you currently do.

               Unsuk Zucker:

Yeah, absolutely. My name is Unsuk. I'm Korean American, born and raised in Boise, Idaho, coming to you from the suburbs of Denver. Unsuk is Korean. Un pronounced is somewhere between the short U, long U vowel sound in the English language. It means grace or mercy. Suck rhymes with hook or book, and means dignity. I share that because it has everything to do with who I am and what I do growing up. I grew up in Idaho. I brought that up very intentionally because not shockingly, there were not a whole lot of people who looked like you me growing up, Sheldon. And so, as a result, I've reflected on how much of my life I have been asked to extend grace and mercy at the expense of my dignity, at the extent of other people of color in the community.

               So that's a little bit about me. I've spent most of my professional career in the education field, so in the classroom, central office, and now currently in the ed nonprofit space. I work for an amazing organization, Promise54, 54 coming from Brown versus Board of Ed being in 1954, and us fundamentally believing that we have yet live out the spirit intended in Brown versus Board. We are adult-facing. We want to create a space for adults to show up fully as themselves so that they can enter and create the space for kids.

               Sheldon Eakins:

I forgot. Yeah. Our commonality. You grew up in Idaho. I've lived here for a few years. I forgot about that. That was our connection there, is Idaho. Shout out to the potato folks out there. Yeah. That's neat. That's a big deal. Okay. Okay. Okay. Okay, folks that are listening, this episode's going to be a little bit different than normal because we don't really have a topic. We kind of just said, let's just turn on the mic and hit record. So this is going to be interesting. We briefly chatted about we might have differences between our definitions of diversity. I want to start there and we'll just see where this conversation goes for this episode. But you mentioned to me while we were chatting before we hit record was your definition is different. I'd love to off there. Diversity. What is the definition of diversity?

               Unsuk Zucker:

Yeah. At Promise54, we spend time with organizations that we're paired with to walk them through a process of creating a tailored definition of diversity because oftentimes people think of different identities when they think of the word diversity. At Promise54, we enter into the conversation in the most base level, being diversity is just the presence of variance or difference. At base level, that's what we mean by diversity. At Promise54, we take diversity to include the intersections of all the visible and invisible identities and experiences that make up who we are with the specific decision to center race in all of that, because we believe that race is the single most predictive factor of many of those outcomes. And so, we say visible, invisible, and make a really intentional decision to center race in conversations about diversity.

               Sheldon Eakins:

I love this. Okay. This is a good starting point. Thank you for the definition because here's my thought, because I believe diversity ... And so, I'm with you, so I agree. I believe that diversity includes multiple perspectives and backgrounds, culture, language, these type of things all are included in diversity. Sometimes when I see DEI, it's almost like it has its own definition these days, but really DEI, diversity, equity, and inclusion, that's three different buckets, if you will. So I love your definition.

               Here's a thought that I have when you mention centering race, and I don't think that we should not center race. However, here's some thoughts, because in a lot of people's minds, you get four black people, for example, or four people of color, let's just say four people of color from ... No, no. Let's limit it to a specific race. Let's just say you have four black people from various parts of the country. You're getting diversity. I have two black kids growing up in Idaho. It's not the same as black kids growing up in Chicago or growing up in Oakland, California, or growing up in Houston, Texas. In a sense, if you got four of those individuals in a room together, that would be considered race. I'm sorry, that would be considered diversity. So with your definition, that second part of the definition, I would love to know why did you choose to center race when it comes to diversity in that definition?

               Unsuk Zucker:

Yeah. There's some intentionality in the verbiage. When we say including the intersection of the visible, invisible identities and experiences that make up who we are while centering race. We center race because race tends to be one of the single most predictive factors in outcomes, whether it's finance, education, health, all of those things. And we recognize that there is no monolithic experience, no matter how many identities that you might share. I actually really love ... Robin DiAngelo and Özlem Sensoy have a visual where they talk about frames of glasses, glasses frames, being your main identity, things like race, gender, socioeconomic status, immigration status being the shape of your frame, and then your prescription lenses are your individual experiences that actually create your specific vision, like what you see in the world and what the world sees in you.

               And I have really held onto that metaphor because that has helped me make sense of what is true in what is a shared experience, and creates enough of a space for us to be clear about what is different. To your point, I was born and raised in Boise, Idaho. My cousins grew up in Seattle and LA. We got together and they looked at me like I had a third eye most of the time because they didn't know what to do with me. Now that we're adults, there are certain aspects culturally that we know we have in common and can have those shared conversations, and how we came about to realizing our commonalities, we went on very different journeys to get there.

               Sheldon Eakins:

I love it. All right. So do you think ... I mean, if you Google diversity, you're going to get your Merriam-Webster definition, you're going to get Promise54's, you're going to get Sheldon Eakins' definition, you're going to get a million different definitions behind what diversity is, right? I love the part that you talked about where it's like, "Well, me and my family, we live in different parts of the country and when we get together, we can still bond. We can find some commonalities." Do you believe that when it comes to diversity, we need to find some sort of commonality in order for us to get along or is there something else?

               Unsuk Zucker:

I think it's a bullhorn. People are listening. You couldn't see me shaking my head. My initial reaction was like, "No." I think it could be a bullhorn. I think oftentimes as humans, finding some sort of commonality and connection that we have with one another helps us better understand each other at a human level. I think what often gets lost in translation in a lot of these conversations in the equity space is how do we value and celebrate those differences? I think about the process of ... There was that website Teaching Tolerance, and there was a lot of pushback about tolerance. It seems like a very base level expectation. I don't want people to just tolerate me. That's an offensively low bar to have. I want to be celebrated and accepted for all of who I am. I don't want to just be tolerated.

               Sheldon Eakins:

That was my exact thought. When you were answering, I was literally thinking about teaching tolerance. They're Learning for Justice now, so We do want to highlight that they have changed their name, but I remember first starting this work and trying to find resources and I came across Teaching Tolerance and it just didn't sit well because I'm like, "We tolerate the weather." And I live in Idaho. If folks aren't familiar, it was raining yesterday, and it's sunny as hell today, and it will snow tomorrow.

               Unsuk Zucker:

It snowed today in Colorado. So, yeah.

               Sheldon Eakins:

Yes. And so, you never know. You never know what you're getting, literally. I mean, you can check the news, you can watch the meteorologist and see what they got to say, but I literally just walk out the door and go, "Okay. I should probably put a jacket on or I should put some sweats on." So I get that part. But when we think about embracing differences, and it doesn't necessarily mean ... I love how you said, I wrote it down, value and celebrate these differences. It's one thing to acknowledge, "Okay. Yeah. You come from here. This is your experience. This is your lived experience. This is mine." However, how do I celebrate and value someone else's experience? And I think that's a piece that's missing a lot of times when it comes to these type of conversations.

               Unsuk Zucker:

Absolutely. And I think about ... Well, I thought about two things. We talk often in our conversations at Promise54 around the difference between fitting in versus having a sense of belonging. I've learned how to fit in, but that means at the expense of me contorting myself, me understanding what is expected of me and bending towards those rules, spoken and unspoken, versus a sense of belonging means I get to step into a space and I get to take up as much or as little space as I choose to take up. And so, I think about that a lot. And I also would be remiss if I didn't acknowledge that this can sometimes be a sore subject for me as a daughter of immigrants and the expectation of assimilation and the bribe of my life, which was, "The better you assimilate, the more you will excel, the more you will benefit. Assimilate, assimilate, assimilate, and it'll do you good," while completely overlooking the humanity that I had to pay to learn to assimilate.

               So, just recognizing that, this is a little bit of a sore subject for me because it's been a journey for me to learn how to start to shed ... I say "start" because I don't think I've ever totally shed what it means to assimilate. My first instinct in any new space is sit back and observe and take in as many spoken and unspoken cues as possible, and I know that is also true for other groups of color, whether they're immigrants or not. Just noting the Asian community, in particular, especially immigrant communities, that notion of assimilation and expectation of assimilation is loud and clear.

               Sheldon Eakins:

Can I ask you a personal question?

               Unsuk Zucker:

Absolutely.

               Sheldon Eakins:

Just between you and I. Okay? No one else is listening.

               Unsuk Zucker:

Yep. No one's listening.

               Sheldon Eakins:

No one. This is just between you and I. Here's the question. What did your parents say to you? Because you said assimilation was bred into you from the very beginning. What was the conversation like? Why? Why did they feel like you needed to assimilate? Where did that come from, I guess?

               Unsuk Zucker:

It was literally messages from like, "Oh, no. You can't speak Korean in public. You only speak English." So there was some of those messages, but all of that came from what I think was a well-meaning place. I genuinely think that my parents understood that the more I played the white supremacy game, the safer I was psychologically, physically. In fact, there was a study. I don't have it off the top of my head, so I can't cite it, but there's a model minority myth about immigrant parents who expect their kids to assimilate and excel, whatever, and there was a study done where they went and asked all the students, "Why do you think your parents are encouraging you to assimilate and do all these things?" And they're like, "Oh, it's cultural."

               Well, there's one particular study that actually then went and talked to the parents and they said, "Why are you pushing these kids to excel?" And they said, "Because we understand that we have moved into a racist country and we understand that our kids have to excel and prove themselves in order to survive in this country." And I just think about such a fascinating message that didn't get translated from generation to generation. Our parents, my parents understood the context, but didn't necessarily narrate that. They just said, "Put your head down and play by the rules because that'll keep you safe." So I don't know if I actually answered your question. I got off track a little bit.

               Sheldon Eakins:

No, that's good. That's good, because it's funny. I just had a conversation. I did a training maybe last week and somehow the conversation of model minority came up in the training and I only had an hour's worth of time to get through my presentation. So I briefly touched on it. It was just real quick, just like, "Hey, I'm not a supporter of the idea of model minority. I think that's offensive." And I was like, "I can't really get into it right now." I got an email later that someone asked me, "Could you have pushed a little bit more?" And I just said, "For the sake of time." So it's just interesting that you brought up the conversation about ... Oh, my God. The double Ms. I don't know.

               Model minority came up. And so, I wanted to touch on that because you are Korean, and so often Asians are associated with the model minority. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on that. Personally, I'm not Asian, but I would find it offensive if I was because what does that mean? What are you trying to say? I think a lot of the terms that we utilize uphold white supremacy, bottom line. I mean, if you're telling me, "This is how we expect you to behave, and everyone look at this model." I don't know. What are your thoughts?

               Unsuk Zucker:

Yeah. Yeah. So many thoughts. One is, you saw me flipping because I grabbed a book. One of my all time favorite is my Minor Feelings by Kathy Hong Park, and she actually has a specific quote that I quote often around assimilation, and she talks about how the privilege of assimilation is not power. The privilege of assimilation is that you're left alone. But it must not be mistaken for power because once you have acquired power, you're exposed, and your model minority qualifications that helped you in the past can be used against you because you're no longer invisible. So there's the false promise of what assimilation really does for you. But, ultimately, historically ... I mean, Sheldon, I was in my mid thirties before I actually knew our own history. Model minority, the term, the concept was not a thing until 1966. It was socially constructed.

               Think about timeline, 1966, what's happening in our country? The height of the Civil Rights Movement. And so, if you look before that, there's actually examples of Asian Americans, specifically the Chinese railroad workers being compared in political to black slaves in the South. In fact, there's actual political cartoon that has a black man and it's labeled south, and there is an Asian immigrant worker labeled west, because they were compared side by side. What happened is if you actually peel back the layers beyond Martin Luther King, Black History month, there's actually many examples of solidarity across our Latinx, black and Asian communities. Malcolm X, one of his closest friends is a woman named Yuri Kochiyama.

               And the model minority was sort of dropped into media in 1966. What it overlooks is the fact that Asian Americans are the one ethnicity that have ever had legislation barring them from entering into the country, the Chinese Exclusionary Act. Well, as all of this uprising is happening in the Civil Rights Movement, whiteness says, "Oh, shoot. They're all on the same team. This can't happen." So just before the model minority was introduced, they changed the integration laws and said, "Oh, just kidding. Now, some Asian people can come into the country." But what they don't say explicitly in media is only certain people could come. So you had to have existing family members or you had to have a college degree. Now, all of a sudden, there's an influx of Asian immigrants into the country who seemingly are flourishing and thriving. But we overlook the fact that if they already have family here or have a college degree, they're already coming from levels of privilege from their home countries that sets them up a certain way.

               But what that allowed then is for the powers that be to say, "Oh, see? All you black people, you don't have a right to say that you're oppressed because these other people of color are doing just fine. In fact, they're thriving." Well, yeah. That was socially constructed. We created a fib of only privileged Asian immigrants to come into the country. Then we dropped this bomb of model minority, and all of a sudden, now there's a divide because Asian American immigrants are like, "Oh, yeah. Look at us. We're model minority." And then it created the model minority myth. The rift, historically, between black communities and Asian American communities was socially constructed. We just didn't even know it. We still don't know it. I tend to be an outcast in many AAPI circles because of my stance on white supremacy and anti-blackness. That was way more than you probably asked for. Sorry.

               Sheldon Eakins:

That was ... Okay. Hold on. Hold on. Hold on. It was more than I asked, but I'm glad that you went for it because you just ... I'm a history, dude. You start talking about history, I'm on it. It makes sense. It makes sense because when I think about the sixties and we think about what was happening, Civil Rights Movement. I always said ... And I appreciate Dr. King and I appreciate Malcolm X, but I don't know Dr. King would've gotten a lot of the work done without Malcolm X on the other side, because President Johnson, for example, has Jews, right? We got nation of Islam over here and we got Dr. King or SNCC and everything going on over there.

               I think I'm going to listen to someone that's talking about being nonviolent versus being called white devils and by any means necessary. But I didn't think about how there could have been a connection between the black community and the Asian community as well, and I appreciate you going through the historical standpoint of where this myth came from and it makes a lot ... Oh, my gosh. Wow. Okay. I'm blown. That was kind of the thing. Okay. Let's shift gears for a little bit because one of the things that you and I talked about at the Deeper Learning Conference was raising kids of color in predominantly white spaces.

               We started our conversation just now about diversity. We've gone into model minorities. And I want to end this with tips for maybe educators, or maybe if you want to share some experiences that your son has had being at school, being biracial, and dealing with different challenges. And I can share some stories as well with my kids. And just understanding the difference, like what it means to be ... When it comes to being, and I don't like to use the term minority, but when it comes to being a person of color in a predominantly white space, as a parent, what are some of your thoughts on that, or what would you like to share, I guess, when it comes to some of your experiences as a parent that's just raising a child?

               Unsuk Zucker:

As simplistic as it might sound, I think my biggest desire is to help normalize that it's okay to have these conversations, that they're uncomfortable, they might be awkward, you might not say all the right things, but we got to have the conversation. And I bring that up because in the moments of implicit and explicit racism that my child has experienced, attempts at bringing the situation to light almost always results in, "Oh, don't say that." And that's the end of the conversation. So the perpetrator, almost always white perpetrators, take away the message that, "Oh, we don't talk about race," as opposed to, "Here is the impact. Here is why we don't say this or do this. And here's how to, how to maintain or restore the relationship."

               It's just, "Oh." So these kids, adults walk away with the message of, one, "I said something wrong," and two, "It's the other kids' fault that I just got in trouble, so now I don't want to talk to them." And two, "I know I shouldn't talk about race because I'll get in trouble." We got to learn how to talk about it. And I think that's the biggest request is how do you normalize having those conversations, even if it's hard.

               Sheldon Eakins:

What do you say? How do you respond to that?

               Unsuk Zucker:

I try to enter into conversation through parallels, but different paths. What I mean is, if we were talking about gender discrimination, would we shy away from it? Probably not. So how do we use a similar conversation as an on-ramp instead of an off-ramp to the conversation. And I see that in our work all the time. What about gender issues? Well, what about them? Let's talk about them. But also let's talk about how gender patriarchy also is uphold by supremacy. They're intersected. And so, I try to bring up context that other people might be more comfortable with as an entry point to better understand how to have those conversations and also make the case for we don't shy away from LGBTQ. Well, sometimes we do. I should not overlook that. That is a very real thing. Gender issues. We're much more comfortable talking about those conversations than we tend to be as society about race. My biggest desire is that we normalize having conversations about race.

               Sheldon Eakins:

So that's the big one for you. For me, I was thinking about a couple things. I think, as a history person, when my kids go to school, I want them to learn more than just Dr. King. And not just my kids, but I would like the other kids in the classroom to learn more than just, "Dr. King had a dream and Rosa Parks sat on the bus." Right? I want them to learn a little bit more than that. But I can literally watch the whole month of February go by every year. Nothing. And then you get your Dr. King on January, but that's about it. So, that's my big challenge, because what happens is, and I probably mentioned this on the show before, but we start talking about Africa or slavery or something, something oppressive, and all the kids are looking at my daughter, or there's a picture of a black, African kid. "Oh, that looks like you."

               So when my daughter comes home, I got to educate her. "Okay, this is what you say next time," or, "This is how I want you to handle this." So I got to coach her up. But wouldn't it be so nice if, as educators, we did things in the classroom to make the students feel welcome and be more, what do you say? I wrote it down. Valued and celebrated. Wouldn't that make more sense than for me as a parent to have to, "Okay, Layla, this is what I want you to say next time. Baby girl, I want you to boom, boom, boom, boom, boom," because that has been her experience. So I would like to see more ... not just the history.

               I mean, we can talk about conversations about race too, but when it comes to what the kids are seeing, when they do see that black person, how are they presented? Are they presented in an oppressive, negative state, having a dream, trying to get civil rights and been fighting for 400-plus years? Or are we celebrating and valuing some very great things that have been associated with this black person or community or event or whatever it is. And that's probably my biggest challenge as of a father raising kids that are always going to be either the only person of color or the only black person in their grade or classroom.

               Unsuk Zucker:

Yeah. Valuing and celebrating beyond stereotypes and food. Right? Stereotypes and food. My son, one of his first acknowledgements of his race was Lunar new Year when his kindergarten teacher asked him where his mom was from and had a map of Asia out. Now, I do introduce myself as being a Korean American, but the assumption that I couldn't possibly have been born here. And, "Where's your mom from? China? Japan?" And he says, "Idaho. Why?" But even then, that's the only time his race was ever acknowledged. And so, to your point, how do we celebrate more of who he is? The only other time I remember even growing up, my race or ethnicity was ever acknowledged was when my mom made Korean barbecue or brought Korean pears to the school.

               Sheldon Eakins:

They love the food. They love the food.

               Unsuk Zucker:

They love the food. Wearing my hanbok, my traditional dress for literal Halloween, because I was taught that it was so different. To this day, I have a teacher that I'm no longer in close contact with, a few years ago, tried to convince me how not racist she is by saying that she thought my Korean costume was beautiful. She called it a costume. They're my clothes. They're my clothes.

               Sheldon Eakins:

Okay. Is it the same ... I'm being very facetious, but I'm like, "Why do they call it costume?" If I go to another country and I'm dressed the way I'm dressed ... Yeah. I got a t-shirt on and some pants. Is that a costume if someone dressed ... "Let's dress up American." I don't get where this comes from. I had a conversation with someone earlier about that. No. Like you said, these are clothes. These are clothes. And the simple microaggression sometimes, it just baffles me. And I do a training on cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation, and I have a really nice slide that I love to show when it talks about Halloween, and what is it? Oppressive dominance, I believe, is the definition where it basically is like, "Well, why can't I put on Korean costume and dress up? Why can't I do that? Why?"

               And I was like, "Why don't you understand why you can't? Why would you want to?" My thing is, why do you want to? Oh, boy. Okay. Why would you want to? I had a conversation, same topic, same training. Someone asked me, "My child loves Black Panther and he wants to dress up like T'Challa for Halloween, but he's white. Is that okay?" And I said, "I don't have any problem. I don't see anything wrong with that." It's a fictional character. But when you're talking about dressing up as actual people and calling what they have on, what they normally wear on a regular Monday, as freaking a costume, that's where we have a problem.

               Unsuk Zucker:

100% agree.

               Sheldon Eakins:

Okay. You got me fired up, but we got to wrap things up. I should have known this was going to fire me up. Thank you again so much. I consider you as providing a voice in leading equity. Could you share with us one final word with the audience?

               Unsuk Zucker:

I think my parting thoughts would just be, I want to be really clear. I went off the rails a little bit about assimilation and covering, and I want to be really clear that there are moments where covering and assimilation provides enough cover for someone to survive, someone of color to survive, and that is very different than when we have conversations about an organization or leaders upholding oppressive culture and oppressive structures that harm other people. I often find people of color to be the most open and receptive to. "What do I need to change about how I show up?" And that is true, particularly as an Asian American leader who benefits on the surface from perceptions of model minority. I recognize that. And also, there are moments where I had to hide and cover under assimilation to just survive psychologically to get to the next day. So I just want to acknowledge that. It's not a one-size-fits-all approach to people, to situations, but ultimately we all uphold it. We just have to be really crystal clear about when and how we're upholding it and the why behind it.

               Sheldon Eakins:

Thank you. The why behind it. I appreciate that. Unsuk, if we got some folks that want to connect with you, what's the best way to reach you online?

               Unsuk Zucker:

Yeah. I am really bad at Twitter, but you all can email me. It's just my name, [email protected] If they have work related questions, they can reach out to me at my email, my work email, which is [email protected]

               Sheldon Eakins:

And what's the website?

               Unsuk Zucker:

Promise54.org is the website

               Sheldon Eakins:

Yep. The number five, the number four. I will put some links in the show notes as well so folks can click on it directly and check out the work that you're doing. Unsuk, it's always a pleasure. Thank you so much for your time. Thank you.

               Unsuk Zucker:

Absolutely. You too. It seems like every time we get together, it's never enough time, but thanks for having me. I really appreciate it.

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