Dr. Nadia Kim is a Professor of Sociology at Loyola Marymount University who resides in Los Angeles, California. As an Asian American professor born into Generation X, she focuses her research on US race and citizenship inequalities regarding Korean/Asian Americans and South Koreans, racism in Los Angeles, environmental injustice, immigrant women, critical race theory, and the racialization of Latinxs, Asian Americans, and Black Americans.
Nadia Kim was born in New York City, where she was given the name ‘Nadia Yun Kim’. However, that actually isn’t the middle name her parents intended to give her, due to the hospital having trouble understanding her parent’s English and writing that down as her official name. She grew up mainly in St John’s, Newfoundland in Canada until she was 10 and has resided in California ever since.
Since she mentioned living with her mother and step-father after her father passed away suddenly at age 9, I asked her to tell me a little bit about her parents.
“My dad was very inspirational, he was a professor himself so obviously that had some influence on me. He was somebody who was a go-getter and a people person, he just loved people. I think I kind of, personality-wise, am like him. And obviously being socialized by him I’ve picked up a lot. But I think a lot of his traits that I just describe came from him coming from the United States when he was 18 all by himself.” -Nadia Kim
“My mother, I think one of the biggest lessons I learned from her is that when you live a life of experiencing discrimination on the basis of being an immigrant, not speaking English well, being female, that definitely affected who she was and it definitely harmed her parenting. You know, and so I do think that that’s one of the biggest lessons I learned from her and you know it’s like trying to be understanding, but because as sociologists, right, you and I very well know how patriarchy and xenophobia and all that racism work. But, you know, at the same time not wanting to repeat what our parents did wrong because the apple never falls far from the tree for any of us.” -Nadia Kim
Personally, I admire Dr. Kim’s honesty when describing the influence her parents had on her especially after losing her father at such a young age. She described her father’s effortless ability to “roll with the punches” and take life as it comes. This is an important piece of advice for us all. Her parents gave her the identity of an Asian American and Korean American woman. These cultural ties influenced much of her research because her family ties had her traveling to Korea on a regular basis (before the pandemic, of course). Her mother left her family in Brazil because her family were Jehovah’s Witnesses and she felt too much pressure to become one and live that life, which is what brought her mother to New York. So, to say Dr. Kim is strong-willed and determined is only an understatement because it runs in her blood. This reminded me of Amy Tan’s essay, “Mother Tongue”, in which her mother also didn’t speak English very well. Tan, similar to Dr. Kim, learned from her mother’s life experience facing discrimination and shaped her own life to not relive that. Amy Tan writes, “When I was growing up, my mother’s “limited” English limited my perception of her. I was ashamed of her English. I believed that her English reflected the quality of what she had to say” (Tan 255). After reading Amy Tan’s work a few times throughout college, I always wondered if this was the case for all immigrant children. I wish I would’ve asked Dr. Kim if that is what she meant by her mom’s English harming her parenting. I can only imagine how hard it must be as a child for someone to look at your mom or dad with confused eyes and judgment. My mom also had two immigrant parents who didn’t speak English very well. Although she says that she was always proud to hear her parents attempt conversations and get out of their comfort zone with their new language, it was hard at times because all you want to do is help them. I am sure my mom’s experience was different though, since her parents were Italian and therefore White, while Dr. Kim’s parents did not, which was the cause of the discrimination they experienced.
Most of Dr. Kim’s schooling was completed throughout California. She attended Middle School and High School in SoCal, University of California Santa Barbara for her undergrad, and went to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor for her MA and Ph.D. Her decision to go to UCSB was out of opportunity, a love for the beach, and an inkling to explore her independence. In the end, her experience was overall very positive. I was curious as to any challenges or roadblocks Dr. Kim was faced with in being an Asian American woman in school.
“I think in high school, I really struggled with the fact that it was like a very white campus, and there’s a lot of casual and joke-based racism that happens. And then there’s the race, gender, fetishization and sexualization of Asian American women and that is definitely something that I struggle with, just like how white and how privileged and, you know, racially problematic, politically problematic these people were.” -Nadia Kim
Through this experience in primary education she gained a better understanding for those Asian Americans suffering from mental health issues due to the stereotypical academic expectations and not meeting them. She came to realize how much it pushed her away as a student and caused her to rebel, which resonates with many others in that community. At UCSB, she was an English major and struggled with being surrounded by privately educated students. Dr. Kim was public school educated her entire life and was floored by how articulate, prepared, refined, and culturally educated her classmates seemed. Initially, this made her doubt her abilities, but she realizes now how it only motivated her to do her best work. This resonated with me because I too was public school educated before coming to LMU and felt as though I wasn’t equivalent to my classmates. Many students who attend Loyola Marymount come from private religious schools, so I always believed myself to be at a disadvantage, when really all I needed to do was change my perspective. In Bhoomi Thakore’s essay “Hopes for My Daughter,” she longs for her daughter to have a better experience in school than she did. Although Thakore is an Indian American woman, she writes about her similar experiences of being surrounded by mostly White students and White teachers which caused some triggering experiences of discrimination (Thakore 73). She too was expected by teachers to out-perform in some subjects rather than others based on the racial stigma of her skin color, just like Dr. Kim.
Dr. Kim didn’t find her interest in Sociology until the end of college when she met a professor who was both a professor of Asian American Studies as well as a social justice activist. So, with the influence of this professor and subtle influences from her dad in her childhood, she decided when she’d apply for grad school she would pursue the professorial route.
Impact of Race
Because all of Dr. Kim’s work is focused on race, I was curious as to what drew her to that. Whether it was her own life experience or the longing to research her culture, I asked for some specific life circumstances that she felt were impacted by her race. She explained that overall the biggest struggles that women of color deal with and overcome is the overwhelming sense of inferiority, insecurity, self-loathing, and questioning of where you belong. She used these feelings as a catalyst that informed everything she did in her research, teaching, and when she was younger in college. In college, she got heavily involved in the fight for affirmative action after realizing that her own experiences made her hyper-aware of racism and injustice. This immediately reminded me of Anne Mai Yee Jansen’s piece, “What Are You?.” Jansen writes about the presence that skin color has had on her life and the expectation of explaining herself to others to unburden them from their confusion. Jansen had the same drive to study ethnic literature (except she focused mainly on China whereas Dr. Kim focused on Korea). Jansen states, “My professional life has shaped itself out of the questions I take away from each of these encounters, leading me to want to understand how skin color functions in the United States today and to teach others to think critically about their own relationships to race and colorism” (Jansen 159). Jansen describes how the lives of many are filled with questions marks surrounding skin color and finding a sense of belonging, very similar to what Dr. Kim said.
“Similarly with immigration right it’s like if we can’t allow people to recognize that the whole reason that immigrants are here is because we bombed out, waged war in, polluted the world so badly that there’s you know a refugee climate refugee crisis right like if we, if we can’t understand that and then when they get here we demonize them and deport them and prevent them from being able to access health care and you know like there’s just no hope right.” -Nadia Kim
“I can’t understand race without the understanding of, sexism, and patriarchy because that’s the way I’ve been treated that’s what I’ve been seen. And I definitely struggle to this day.” -Nadia Kim
No matter how important and successful Dr. Kim’s career has been, I did not want to discount the fact that she is a mother as well. She really does it all. My mom’s parents immigrated from Italy the year she was born and I know my mom has shaped her children’s lives around things she wanted us to experience, things she missed out on as a child, or what she learned from watching her parents. So, I wanted to ask Dr. Kim the same kind of question: if there was anything she knew she wanted to provide to her children that she didn’t receive growing up.
“First of all I wanted to provide them an emotionally stable home. That’s because I didn’t have that and from not having it I know how incredibly crucial that is not just for them learning how to be emotionally stable but for dealing with insecurities, right, dealing with and all these insecurities that the world is going to inflict on you. Right, so people don’t realize how incredibly vital social and emotional development and health are but they’re just as if not more important than reading, writing and arithmetic right. And I think the other thing that I wanted to provide them was the ability to openly and fully understand racism and racism and sexism in this country.” -Nadia Kim
She went on to tell me how her parents did an okay job with explaining what an emphasis race and racism will have on her life but with her own children she wanted them to fully understand. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to explain to a 6-year-old that the color of their skin is significant and how to handle that. This reminded me of the “Feminist Parenting” chapter of Feminism is for Everybody by Bell Hooks. The chapter explains how important it is to raise your children in a world where anti-sexist ideas are not only understood but respected. Parenting these days has become exponentially more difficult because parents need to deal with harder conversations earlier in life, like Dr. Kim, which is admirable.
When delving into the type of work Dr. Kim has produced, I wanted to know how her work was connected with feminist theory or movements.
“I think my work has always been sensitive to gender and misogyny, patriarchy. So, for example, even though it wasn’t a major part of my first book. I definitely talked about how U.S. imperialism in Korea and other parts of the world I mean that’s completely anchored in imperialist sexism right and paralyzed misogyny.” -Nadia Kim
As stated in Bell Hooks’ Feminism is for Everybody, “Understanding the way male domination and sexism was expressed in everyday life created awareness in women of the ways we were victimized, exploited, and, in worse case scenarios, oppressed” (Hooks 7). Women like Dr. Kim challenge sexist thinking and have created strategies to change future generations of women. Dr. Kim has spent ample time studying the citizenship experience of Asian and Latina immigrant women and their strength. These women facing intersectional discrimination have come up with ways of fighting, strategizing, and resisting in ways that men never have had to. Her work brings so much awareness to these groups who have too few advocates; it’s inspiring.
For the Future
To conclude my interview with Dr. Kim I wanted to end with two important questions: How do you define success in your life, and how has this changed over time? And: from your life experience, what advice would you give the women of today and future generations? These questions were especially important to me. As someone who looks up to Dr. Kim, her advice is always special to hear.
“Success in my life is me being very proud of what I produce, so you know I think it’s changed over time and so far as in the past I used to use metrics of external validation right like did I get an award, did this get published, did I get praise, right, and I’ve completely sort of abandoned that.” -Nadia Kim
When Dr. Kim spoke of what success meant to her, I could hear in her voice that this was something she also had to overcome because she sounded proud of herself. Success to many of us is always compared to those around us when really we should only perform until we feel personal validation and not external validation. She made me realize that life is a personal journey and success will always mean different things to different people. As my time at LMU is coming to a close, I will always make sure that I am working, living, and growing to reach my personal success and not look for validation from others. As a young White woman going into the business world, I am preparing myself to push harder than others have to but I want to make sure that I am pushing towards my own validation of hard work and not others’.
“The advice I would give is don’t sweat the small stuff. It takes away from you, probably more than it does the other.” -Nadia Kim
This piece of advice says so much in so little. It seems so silly but as women, we have to pick our battles, and hearing this from someone who has been through a lot makes me realize how right it is. I gained so much new perspective during this interview and while I have only known her for a short time, I hope my relationship with Dr. Kim only grows in the years to come. I am endlessly grateful for this opportunity to learn more about her.
Click below to listen to the full interview:
Hooks, Bell. Feminism Is for Everybody: Passionate Politics. Routledge, 2015.
Jansen, Anne Mae Yee. Whiter: Asian American Women on Skin Color and Colorism, by Nikki Khanna, New York University Press, 2020, pp. 155–161.
Tan, Amy. “Mother Tongue.” [Threepenny Review 1990; 1989.] The McGraw-Hill Reader: Issues
across the Disciplines. Ed. Gilbert H. Muller. 11th ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill , 2011. 76-81.
Thakore, Bhoomi. Whiter: Asian American Women on Skin Color and Colorism, by Nikki Khanna, New York University Press, 2020, pp. 72–75.