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Saturday, February 27, 2010

Adoption Carnival IV: The Racism Rainbow

this post is part of Grown In My Heart's adoption carnival iv: the racism rainbow

I'll just come right out and say it, y'all... I am terrified to talk with the Tongginator about race and racism. TERRIFIED, I tell you! And although I think ALL parents should talk to their children about race (yes, even white parents of white children), I feel I have an even greater responsibility to do so because I am a Caucasian woman parenting an Asian-American child.

But just because I know I should doesn't mean I know where to start.

I mostly don't know what the heck I'm doing, but the events of this week taught me a few valuable lessons. The first, and most important, is that I need to force myself to use the word "racism" with the Tongginator, even when I'm talking specifics and not just in general terms. When I held her as she cried on Wednesday morning... when I listened to her describe how she felt when M1 and M2 labeled and then criticized her food while targeting the way she looks... I knew I needed to do more than just empathize and help her problem solve. I needed to use the word racism.

I'll be honest, y'all... I had to force the word out of my mouth.

Because it felt uncomfortable. And it felt awkward. And because I've spent most of my life defining racism as something evil and horrible, as something that calls to mind men wearing white sheets, standing in front of burning crosses. When I hear the word racism, I think of others making judgmental comments using the phrase "those people" or peppering their speech with well-known racial slurs. When I hear the word racism, I don't immediately think of very young children making insensitive remarks about physical and cultural differences.

But I need to.

Because if we don't talk with young children specifically about race and race relations, they just might go down that road. Oh, I understand that the vast majority of children will not grow up to don white sheets and march with others beside burning crosses, but it's easy to imagine them making the occasional snide comment about "those people," chuckling over a stereotypical joke or unknowingly engaging in countless microinequities.

It's easy to imagine because racism is still alive and well in the United States.

Now if y'all don't believe that, I challenge you to attend a school board redistricting meeting in any moderately diverse, suburban area. Go ahead. I dare you. I promise it will open your eyes. (It did mine.) Or you could just watch the news... and pay close attention to stories such as the one where African-American kids got kicked out of a public pool or when Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. was arrested because he tried to enter his own home or when, in 2007, a group of students on the grounds of Gallaudet University held another teen against his will, scrawling swastikas all over his body.

But racism isn't just these horrifying events that you absolutely! cannot! believe! happen in this day and age... it's not just about overtly hateful comments, intended to demean and degrade another race... it's also about assuming that the "normal" way of looking or behaving - the way that one may be accustomed to - is the only or best way of looking or behaving. THAT is the racist behavior we often see in young children.

And THAT is what happened to the Tongginator earlier this week.

The second thing I learned this week is that I have a choice when the Tongginator encounters racism such as that. I can look the other way, tell myself to not make a mountain out of a molehill, avoid rocking the boat and allow discomfort to guide my choices... in fact, that's the easy road to take. Especially since, in the day-to-day happenings of life, two children telling the Tongginator that her lunch is "Chinese food and looks like throw-up" doesn't seem like that big of a deal. Because, you know, kids do that. And kindergartners are notorious for their lack of tact.

But what is the long-term impact of allowing that comment to slide?

If M1 and M2 weren't called on their behavior (and the attitude behind it), a teachable moment would have been lost... a moment that tells the girls that the food they consider normal is not the only or best food out there. And the Tongginator would not have learned that it's okay to stand up for yourself, to tell others that it's unacceptable to stereotypically tease others. And I would not have learned that sometimes it's important to overcome my discomfort and make mountains out of molehills.

And do you know why?

Because all parents, especially those who've adopted transracially, need to stop looking at the day-to-day and start looking at the long-term, cumulative effect of "little" comments and actions that whisper with racism. How will our children feel after 20 years of their parents looking the other way when people say those things? Even more terrifying, what will they believe? How will our children think and feel when they learn - through our actions and inaction - that avoiding conflict is more important than insisting upon equality and fairness? Even more terrifying, what will they do in response to that belief?

Yeah.

The little things don't seem so little when we look at the long-term, do they?

15 comments:

Clare said...

First of all I must say a big big bravo to you. One for this post but most importantly to how you have dealt with this situation. Your actions and the way you have clearly analysed the situation will have empowered the Tonginnator greatly and at such a young age - it's the best start you could have given her as unfortunately it won't be last time she encounters racism but now you have given her a clear example and the tools by which to deal with this.

Also you have hit the nail on the head about what is sometimes called the racial "default" setting and anything other than this is at best "exotic" and at worst inferior. By highlighting this assumption and by showing how prejudiced it is - you are giving the Togginator valuable tools. Tools I didn't have until I was in college. I have always disliked the word "minority" also I think it implies inferiority and at the end of the day also skews the reality since globally - black, Asian, latino peoples are the majority not the minority.

Anyway just wanted to say how wonderfully I think you are handling this and that I am certain the Togginator will grow up to be a proud Asian-American woman, who stands up for herself and recognizes ignorance when she sees it.

Kim K. said...

Amen, sister! What a week for your family. My husband is a school social worker and actively teaches in the classroom anti-bullying/racism lessons. It's so important that it doesn't just end in the classroom. This issue also needs to be talked about at home too. Thank you for sharing this week's experience with the rest of us.

happygeek said...

I think that anyone who doesn't believe that racism is alive and well is asleep.
But I must confessed that I was shocked when I realized that Caucasians were not the only perpetrators of it.
I can still vividly remember the phrase used by a African American colleague to describe an Indo-American.
This made it even more important for me to talk about it with my kids because the more people are knowledgeable, the less it may ( I like to dream) happen.
Because it is currently everywhere.

autumnesf said...

It's already been a wild ride...and we are just in kindergarten!!!! And its sad how often my earliest battles have been with our own family members. What an eye opener!

All I know is that I don't want to do wrong by my daughter. This makes me keep putting myself out there and fighting back. But geezzeeeeee, I never knew how tired it was going to make me!!!

A Beautiful Mess said...

I am not going to be shy...but girl I <3 your mama brain and all the wonderful advice and insight that you provide:)

I work in a school that for years has been very white...but times are a changin' and I couldn't be happier! Our halls are slowly but surely filling with Asian faces, Latino boys and girls, and African American kiddos all from varying socioeconomic backgrounds. Ummm yeah and lots of teachers don't recognize this as an amazing gift! I have had to say more than once this year that the diversity that walks our halls is our greatest gift to our students...not our new tech cart! But with this change in student body I have heard over and over again "those kids". I have sat at student assistant meetings and challenged our ALL WHITE STAFF (GOD HELP ME!) and asked them why only little black kids at S**th school can't read? C'mon their has to be some white kids with learning challenges?? I have asked teachers in 5th grade if they were going for a world record for suspensions ( all minority students). What the freakin heck! Sorry for the blog post in your comments section....As parents of kiddos who are not white it is our responsibility to challenge our classroom teachers and schools to be culturally responsive educators...and sadly most are not even aware of the term:(

Mama.The.Dragon said...

Hugs and Love to you, TM!

Mountain out of a molehill... oh, I hear am I making a mountain out of a molehill? in my head DAILY... about so many things. This week it was extortion; yep, dealing with extortion at the age of 5. However, it wasn't until I was recapping the incident with an adult friend that I heard the actual word extortion used.

And now as I read your post, I realize that I, too, have a problem using what is considered 'ugly' words. I mean: if I can spend 20 minutes talking about and explaining such things a Force Field, which is SO IMPORTANT for my daughter to thrive and succeed as a pre-schooler, and have no qualms about using the term Force Field, why can’t I do the same for Racism, Extortion, and other ugly things?

I suppose I will be adding a line to My Morning Mama Mantra: There are no ugly words, just ugly actions.

Parenting is by far the hardest job I've ever had.

day by day said...

GREAT post and very important topic!! You are right, it is a very hard subject to address with our kids and I have not done so, yet...terrifies me too! But I know the need is there and the girls will be in K next year, so.....

I am wondering how you addressed it?

~michelle

Sharie said...

I KNOW there is still racism in the world; I am probably still guilty of unknowingly saying things that are racist; however if someone doesn't speak up like you've been doing this week and speak up to let kids and adults alike know what is and isn't right and hurtful how will anyone ever learn.
Thank you. I try to do the same whenever possible, but I am still learning myself and have a long way to go.

Kristen {RAGE against the MINIVAN} said...

Big, fat standing ovation to this post!

Patricia/NYC said...

3 words:

YOU. ARE. AWESOME!!!!!

Aus said...

TM - another bullseye! You may have had a tough week - but you've been shooting nothing but X's all during it!

You know how I feel on the subject - and I don't want to blog here - but....

Marie asked me to read one of 'those books' about how to be a better parent to your daughter (aimed at Dad's - and surprising myself - not a bad read). The short version - a Dad is a 'hero' by any young daughter's definition - now all he has to do is man up and act like one!

When racist things are encountered by parents who are as 'white' as we are - they have to 'man up' as well! What makes racisim so effective is the way it strips dignity and power from the victim - and as a parent we MUST return that power to our kids (BTW - that applies to the victims of a bully as well). You did that - and you have had the guts to tell the world that they need to do that to - great work mom!

hugs - aus and co.

Donna said...

We live in a very diverse community where people of all skin color are everywhere. Caucasians are actually the minority in our neighborhood and at our school. My kids only have one white child in their class. Because they see so many people of all races, I'm not surprised that ethnic differences don't stand out to them (yet). They know they're Chinese but can't recognize any Asian features on other people. But they certainly DO notice other differences.

For example, Gwen almost fell over her own feet when she attempted to do a double take after noticing an incredibly overweight man in the restaurant we visited this morning. I was so afraid that she would loudly announce something insensitive about how fat (a word I hate!) he is. Thankfully she held her tongue and I thanked her for being sensitive and not hurting his feelings when we were alone in the car a few minutes later.

Then there was the time she saw the man with the eye patch and pointed at him and shrieked "Pirate!" at the top of her 3 year old lungs.

Kids notice differences and I'm really nervous and confused about how to teach my kids what is okay to notice and what isn't. She has a friend who only has one hand and she's very curious about it but also very protective of her when she's out in public because she senses that her friend is uncomfortable when other people notice her difference.

St Patrick's Day is around the corner and my local Target store is starting to stock green merchandise including many different "Irish" t-shirts with the common theme of drunkenness. I know it's supposed to be all in fun but I have a very hard time figuring out why it's acceptable to do that. No Irish Americans are complaining?

I'm just going to teach my kids to be nice and not take it too much to heart when other people aren't nice back. Hopefully that will hold them for a few more years until I figure it out better.

Donna
Our Blog: Double Happiness!

lin said...

Dear TM. I've been reading your blog for a while, and really should let you know how much I enjoy it. I myself am an adopted child to Dutch parents, but was born in Korea. I only wish my parents had been as sensitive to my needs as you are to the Tonginator. I grew up with regular taunts of "poep-chinees" (poop-chinese, in case that wasn't obvious) and whenever I annoyed someone they would take it out on me by calling me names related to my looks. I was never just a "insert normal swear word", I was always a "dirty Jap" or a "such and such Chinese" or told to go back to my country. I remember that in a way the thing that hurt me most then was that they couldn't even get my heritage right.

Unfortunately even though I am an adult now I still occassionally come accross remarks in relation to my foreign looks. A few years back I was on the tube (in London, which is extremely diverse) and a young child looked at me and then pulled his eyes into slits. The child's mother ignored it for a bit, and then she said... of all things... xxx don't do that, you'll hurt your eyes. I was determined that when I had a child I would bring it up better than that. I now have that child, and hope that he, as a mixed-race child, doesn't have to live through attacks on his "foreign" looks like I used to. When he does, I shall think about your post and try to navigate through that as best as I can.

A Chinese Dad said...

"...because I am a Caucasian woman parenting an Asian-American child."

I am so sorry for what Miss T encountered at school. It's a case of blatant racism. It would be a different story, albeit an unkind one, if your daughter were actually bringing some sort of Chinese dish that is so different from American diet. It made me mad. But I must also point out that I personally find it offensive when people call me Asian American or Asian, although you didn't offend me because I know you meant well. You probably should start using Chinese American, Chinese, or American when referring to your daughter. Asian is neither a language nor a race. IMO, it's a politically correct way to say Chinaman. I know I am not the only Chinese, Korean or Japanese who find this term offensive. I have read that the terms Latino American and African American are more acceptable than Asian American because one at least has the common language of Spanish and the other has the same race. Asia has white, black and yellow people with hundreds of different languages and cultures. You don't hear the term European American, either. I know you dislike the term Oriental when referring to your daughter. But at least Oriental is a race consisting of Chinese, Korean and Japanese. IMO, it's fine to identify people by their race as long as there is no malicious intent. A neighbor who doesn't know our last name but know all of our first names refer us as "so-and-so, they have an Oriental last name". It's sounds a lot better than "the Asian family."

Sadly this is not the last time that your daughter encounters racial teasing. There is so little you can do to protect her. I bet in the future M1 and M2 will stay clear of Miss T. Chances are their parents will coach them to do so. Similar incidents happened to our daughter at school. We took action and nipped it at the bud. Our daughter felt empowered, but the girls involved have since stayed away from our daughter. I have learned that the key is to help our kids to be proud of their heritage by actually inheriting and doing the positive things of their heritage. In our case, we all work hard, save lots of money and teach our kids business acumen through investments and starting businesses.

The real racial discrimination against Chinese, Korean and Japanese American is the affirmative quote on college admission. In the 90's there was a study on racial quota for college admission. I remember some numbers from this study. It's like if it were up to academic qualifications, 50% of Chinese, Japanese and Korean Americans are qualified for tier 2 colleges (namely colleges ranked from No. 51 to 100 in the annual U.S. News and World Reports ranking). In actuality, only 15% of us are accepted at tier 2 colleges. That is institutionalized racism. That's something that I would like to see change for my kids. I really can't control what others think or say about my kids.

a Tonggu Momma said...

Thanks so much, everyone, for sharing your thoughts. Lin, I wanted to thank you specifically, too, because your words really touched my heart. Thank you.