Professors’ Right to Quirky Clothing

Teaching 17 year olds, I find myself teaching not only writing but also life lessons. Whenever I address my students’ questions, I think of how my answers affect their values, beliefs, and view on life. Recently, one student asks me about what to wear during her presentation. At the end of the semester, my students write a research paper on the topic of their choice, and they give a short oral presentation on their work. My student Kayla emailed me to say that she would love to dress up for her presentation, but she has a gym class right before mine, and she would not have time to change for her presentation. Would she lose her points for wearing sweatpants, she asked. I immediately wrote back to her: “insofar as you don’t show up naked, I don’t care. I care about what you have to say in your presentation, though. Good luck.”

As soon as I pressed the send button, however, I began to rethink my response. Did I send her a wrong message? Perhaps I should have allowed her to wear sweatpants for her presentation day, but at the same time, I should have coupled my permission with an emphasis on the general rule that wearing proper clothing is a way of showing respect and she is normally expected to look professional during her presentation. But wait, do I really think that? And what do I mean by “proper” clothing or looking “professional?”

Sometimes I see on the Internet advices on what college professors should wear. They vary from “don’t wear anything that you purchased prior to the 90s” to “black blazers are your best friends.” Some are kind enough to include a visual example.

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I know that in reality, people are treated differently, depending on what they wear. So, the pressure to look professionally is quite intense for teachers, more intense for women teacher, and pretty intense for young women teachers. Given that young women teachers should put forth more effort to be taken seriously than, for example, middle aged male teachers, I understand the importance of a professional wardrobe. I have certain lessons to teach in the classroom, and if what I wear helps to get my message across to the students, why not look professionally?

Nevertheless, I have deep-rooted qualms about yielding to this pressure for professional looks. Despite multiple years of teaching, I don’t own a pair of dress pants. When I go to school, I just wear jeans. What I wear may be considered professional by some and not so much by others. There are multiple reasons why I don’t invest in a professional wardrobe. First, I am lazy. Second, I don’t have extra money to buy tons of new clothing. Third, I feel strongly in revolt against the “buy more” culture. I already have a closetful of clothing, so why do I need more? Fourth, I want to indulge in my particular tastes in clothing. I personally find the staple professional look, the white blouse with a black suit and mid-heel black pumps, very, very stifling.

But most importantly, I do have a modest philosophy behind my sartorial choices. I want my students and my children to grow to become strong and free thinkers who can look past people’s looks. By wearing a crisp, flawlessly ironed white blouse under a black suit myself and teaching my kids to look smart and sharp, I feel that I send the message that one’s look is important and it is okay to judge people based on their looks. I don’t see much difference between this way of thinking and high schoolers’ bullying a kid who look “weird.” Instead, I want my students to enhance the ability not to be distracted by my shoes and hair-dos but focus on what I have to say.

So, I issue an apology for teachers’ unprofessional looks. Rather, we do have an obligation to look quirky.

Was Beethoven Really Black??


Even those of you who know nothing about classical music will recognize this guy. Yes, I want to talk about Ludwig Beethoven today. About his race, specifically. I am personally a big fan of classical music, and I sometimes spend my time, researching some of my favorite composers and pianists. Today, I learned that there is a Beethoven Research Centre, and while browsing their website, I ended up getting pissed off. The Centre has a FAQ section, and most of the questions they address are borderline imbecile, but one question is particularly imbecile. The question goes, “Was Beethoven Black?” Jesus. Seriously? But, okay, this is an FAQ section. Perhaps people frequently ask this dumb question. Let me forgive it. But I could not rein in my temper any longer, when I read the Research Centre’s answer to the dumb question:

Many people in the African-American community claim that there has been a conspiracy on the part of European-Americans to conceal Beethoven’s alleged black heritage. The theory that he was black is based on the fact that Beethoven’s ancestors came from the Flemish region of northern Europe that was invaded and ruled by the Spanish. Since the Moors were part of Spanish culture, it is possible that Moors were part of the invasion. This theory, however, is not based on genealogical studies of Beethoven’s past, which are available to the public. Rather, it is based on the assumption that one of Beethoven’s ancestors had a child out of wedlock. Another part of this theory is that Beethoven was given the nickname “Spaniard” as a child because he had a dark complexion by European standards. However, it is important to note that no one called Beethoven black or a moor during his lifetime, and the Viennese were keenly aware both of Moors and of mulattos, such as George Bridgetower, the famous violinist who collaborated with Beethoven. (

So, basically, Beethoven was not black because his ancestors were all respectable white folks who never fucked outside marriage. I think this is a super dumb answer for a Beethoven Research Centre to give. Dumb, not because the respectability of the Beethoven family is an honest truth, but because this answer hopelessly falls into the trap that the dumb interlocutors set. In other words, the question “was Beethoven Black?” is a totally misguided one and invites a stupider answer.

How is the question stupid? First of all, I want to emphasize that I do understand where the question is coming from. Most of us are aware of the white male orientation of classical music (as in ALL cultural fields), and by questioning Beethoven’s white identity, these people want to unsettle the idea that most musical geniuses we respect are white men, not women, not people of color. I am totally with these people in wanting to criticize the white male orientation of classical music. It is with their next move that I disagree. Their next move is to reclaim Beethoven as a member of racial minority. In order to do so, they present all kinds of evidence, including but not limited to his death mask with a pronounced African nose. I find most of their “evidence” spurious, but whether their evidence is spurious or not is not important. What concerns me and what I think is much more important is what they try to get at. By showing that one of the most admired composers of western classical music was in fact black, what do the well-meaning critics of racism in classical music try to demonstrate?  Let’s concede to our interlocutors and assume that Beethoven was really a black. What difference does it make? What does it change about our understanding of his music in particular and western classical music at large?

(Disclaimer: please continue to read. “Music is just music, and people are just people, regardless of skin color” is NOT what I want to say.)

What I see in the effort to establish Beethoven’s black heritage – whether it is successful or not – is the desire for assimilation, or the “we blacks never joined that honorable hall of fame, but we also would like to gain membership, and here is our claim to it” thing. Driven by the desire to enter the hall of fame, these critics who argue Beethoven’s blackness lose sight of how blacks got excluded from the hall of fame to begin with. How western classical music evolved to accept certain kinds of music and exclude others, and how those “acceptable” musics promote and are promoted by white male interests – these are important questions we need to ask ourselves to understand classical music. By trying to send one “black” composer through the guarded door of the hall, however, people who say that Beethoven was black forget that the door is guarded, and the barriers are especially high for women, people of color, and non-westerners.

I see often and everywhere this kind of mistake which changes racism from a structural matter to an individual one. People seem to think that we can overcome racism, if women and people of color are treated as white men are. These people often need iconic figures. To criticize racism, they need a Michael Brown. To criticize heterosexual society, they need the new CEO of Apple, who recently declared his homosexuality. But things are not that simple. Accordingly, their effort to criticize racism has the effect of exacerbating racism. To this, I add that the desire of the marginalized for assimilation or their cry of “please let us in, too” does not help the situation, either. So, if you hear someone say, “Beethoven/Mozart/Picasso was actually black/bi-racial,” I hope you say, “you miss the point.”

No to Hilary Clinton but yes to Elizabeth Warren?

Elizabeth Warren Yesterday, Vox published an article that announces Elizabeth Warren’s ascendance to a leadership position within the Democratic Party. ( A lot of my democrat friends “liked” the article, and this morning, Elizabeth Warren showed up under the “trending” section of my Facebook newsfeed. So, I want to write about Elizabeth Warren today. And I hope you noted the question mark in this post’s title.

A lot of my democrat friends argue that despite its flaws, the Democratic Party is a lot better alternative to the Republican Party. I agree. There are differences between the two parties, and I do see that they are important differences. I am also with my friends about being skeptical about Hilary Clinton. They think that she is too much wedded to the wealthy and conservative thinkers to promote the interest of the American middle class. I cannot agree more. It seems pretty obvious to my liberal friends and to me that Elizabeth Warren is a lot better than Hilary Clinton.

However, here is what I want my democrat friends to think before they decide to support Elizabeth: most of my friends supported Obama before he became President, and what happened to him? They no longer support Obama. And what does that mean? What I think Obama’s case suggests (and a lot more politicians before him not just in the US but across the world) is that within the two party politics, our options are very much limited.  When we debate between a Democrat candidate or a Republican candidate, it always boils down to the question of lesser evil. A nicer evil is an evil nonetheless, and s/he will fail us eventually.  This is why I am skeptical of politics that are invested in “good” politicians. Let’s refresh our memory. When Obama ran for Presidency,  he said, “when I became President, I will do this and that…” The assumption is that he runs the job. Unfortunately, the assumption is wrong. You don’t run the job. The job runs you. This is why the structure or the system in which a president works is a lot more important than the president. Of course, most (educated) voting citizens are aware of the problems of the structure. Nevertheless, when they pick a candidate and invest their hope in him or her, they distract their attention from the real source of the problems.

About Elizabeth Warren, yes, she has some very good ideas, but I already see unmistakable symptoms which suggest that she would compromise with power and eventually repeat the tracks of Obama and Hilary. It also should be pointed out that the Democratic Party is strategically using Elizabeth Warren to appeal to progressive voters and thereby grab more vote for Hilary.  So, dear my friends, please consider Warren in a larger picture, and let’s focus more on her ideas than on her.

My Special Guest

My friends who know that I live 9000 miles away from my parents sometimes ask me if I miss them.  And my usual response is, “Yes, I do miss them, but it is better to live away from them and miss them than to live in a proximity and fight with them.”  It seems that most of my friends find this answer satisfactory, and they usually respond with big smiles. But don’t be misled by the pretty conclusion. We’re discussing a “thorny” question. My friends may find my answer good enough to them, but I always feel that my answer falls short of capturing my complicated feelings on how to relate to parents as an adult and parents living on the other side of the earth at that. Moreover, what complicates my relationship with my parents is that they are Korean Koreans who live in Korea all their lives and I stopped being Korean Korean living in Korea when I was 20 years old. Whenever I have reunions with my parents, therefore, I feel this divide created by fifteen years of inhabiting two different cultures. Recently, my mom visited me for about 3 weeks, and we had to argue a lot, standing on the two different ends of the divide.

Basically, my mom thinks that I am 19. I left my parents’ house when I was 20, and since then, many things happened to me. As a result, who I am today is quite different from what I was back then. By contrast, not many things happened to my mom. So, when she visits me now, she draws upon her memory of 1.5 decade ago and treats me as she did back in the day. And this is a problem.

One of the big problems in my relation to my mom concerns money. When I grew up, my family never had enough money, and when I was in college in Korea, our home economy was pretty bad. I attended the school that charged the highest tuition across the nation, and my brother, who is only 13 months younger than me, went to school which showed off the second highest tuition in Korea. And that’s the time when my grandmother developed Alzheimer’s. By the time I left for America for graduate school, however, the financial situation at home began to improve. My parents were almost done with the college education of their two children, and my grandmother checked in a low-cost nursing home. Yet, my finances on the other side of the Pacific did not improve. I was a graduate student for the first seven years in this country.

I think my mom feels sorry for the old days when she could not allow me to do all I wanted to do because of money and time constraints (my mom had a full time job all her life). Now, however, she has both money and time. So here goes her motto: let’s make up! Unfortunately, it is this motto that makes me argue with her consistently.

As I said above, for the past 15 years away from home, I grew up to be an adult, experienced different things in different places, and developed new values, which are no longer interchangeable with the values that I grew up with. One example of such values is the importance of time.  To me, time is a more valuable resource than money, and both I and my husband try to invest in good time and good experience, rather than in good stuff. The problem is that while I grew up to adopt time as an important resource of my life, my mom was not there, and from her perspective, it appears that I am still struggling with poverty. For example, I still use the dinnerware set that I purchased at Walmart on my day one as a graduate student. My mom finds it depressing. In Korea, newly married brides never, ever bring old stuff to their new home. But I am a practical person, and I don’t live in Korea, so why should I bother with the Korean practice? When I refused to add a dinnerware set on my bridal registry when I got married, I had to argue with my mom for days. I won, of course, and my mom is forced to use the old, old set whenever she visits me. When she uses it, however, she resents using it and insists that she buy me a new set. To stop her, I had to argue passionately.

Clothing is another problem over which I argue with my mom. I spend most of my time at home, and I don’t feel an urgent need to update my wardrobe. Consequently, I still keep a lot of clothing from my undergraduate days. This is also depressing to my mom. For example, she is unhappy with the fact that I don’t own a quality suit. But why the hell do I need a quality suit when I spend most of my time, sitting in my living room alone? I had to argue with my mom, to convince her that I don’t need a suit that would be acceptable by Korean standards. Here is another silly example. When I am at home, my to-go outfit is a loose fit sweater and leggings, sans socks. She asked me, “you don’t have winter socks? Let me go buy you some.” I have socks, I don’t need more, it is my choice to be barefoot, so I argued with her.

So, I need to revise my initial response, because my experience shows me that I live in a distance from my parents but still fight with them. As of now, however, I don’t see how I can stop arguing with my mom. I know for a fact that the reason why she wants me to buy this and that is not because she has extra money. When I was checking her seat on her flight back to Korea, I saw that she could upgrade her economy seat to a better, more comfortable one for extra $250. I suggested that she pays the $250 and flies with more comfort. She refused. I asked her why. She said, “because it is too much money.” So, she has money for my new suit, but no money to upgrade her seat? Come on!


Here are some of the foods that my mom made while she visited us. She made dinner almost everyday, and for the 3 weeks that she stayed with us, I made just one dinner. On that day, mom said, “thank you for the dinner. You must be tired from making the dinner. Be sure to go to bed early.”

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