Standardized tests gave Ravens safety Kyle Hamilton anxiety — but not because of the long list of questions and a, b, c and d bubbles awaiting him. He stalled on the first page, the one that asks which race you are.
For years, the tests gave you the option of picking only one. And, for a kid who was proudly Black and proudly Korean, how could he choose between the two?
Hamilton is a self-described “racial rainbow” who said some people have assumed he’s Hispanic or Middle Eastern. People in Atlanta, where he grew up, were less likely to recognize him as “Blasian,” as Hamilton referred to it.
In Weeks 7 and 8, the league allowed players to add another flag to their helmets alongside the U.S. flag as part of the NFL Heritage Program. You could add a flag if you lived in another country for two years or if your parent or grandparent lived there. Hamilton, whose mom and grandparents lived in South Korea, added that flag.
Although the rarity of his ethnicity in professional football isn’t something he thinks about every day, Hamilton said, when he looks at the bigger picture, he sees the importance of repping Asian culture in the NFL.
“It’s cool that people identify with me, in a sense that I’m on this stage and able to perform at a level or I’m good enough to be out here,” Hamilton said. “And for those who may not look like they suit the sport, or whatever it may be, it’s cool that that doesn’t really matter at the end of the day.”
Hamilton is proud of every part of his culture, not just his Korean and Black ethnicity but also having lived in Greece and the American South. But, in the NFL, it is his Korean heritage that makes him rare. In a league of more than 1,600 players, he is among a group smaller than 10.
As a kid, he looked up to former Pittsburgh Steeler Hines Ward, who is also half-Korean and who went to the University of Georgia, near where Hamilton grew up. In addition to the numerous accolades he won as a wide receiver, Ward is an advocate of acceptance for mixed-race people in Korea and was appointed by former President Barack Obama to the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders.
“It was cool to see someone like me do it,” Hamilton says.
Hamilton’s Korean heritage was a big part of his childhood, including the food he ate and the language he heard in his household.
He became familiar with phrases from his mother, Jackie, who would tell him to “sit down,” “come here” or “give me a kiss” in Korean. The family shared meals of Korean barbecue. Hamilton’s favorite dish is bulgogi. As he grew up, he learned more about Koreans’ cultural respect for elders.
He’s excited because this offseason he will go for the first time to South Korea, where he will see family and eat — he’s beyond excited for the food, he said with a laugh.
Now that Hamilton has made it to the NFL, he can tell you most of the active players with Korean ties (not that the list is long). There’s Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray, whom he wanted to meet last week. There’s Atlanta Falcons kicker Younghoe Koo, Washington Commanders quarterback Sam Howell, Houston Texans tight end Brevin Jordan and Denver Broncos guard Luke Wattenberg.
“There’s not many of us,” Hamilton said.
Even if you expand to East Asian players, the list is short. Among others, Buffalo Bills safety Taylor Rapp is half-Chinese and half-white, and Detroit Lions wide receiver Kalif Raymond is half-Black and half-Chinese. This week, Hamilton will face off against Seattle Seahawks running back Zach Charbonnet, who is half-Black, part Chinese and part Cambodian.
“It’s cool to be a unique part in a league with so many people,” Hamilton said.