Sunday, December 16, 2007

My Kids Experience Racism After All – Yippee!

Last year I lamented that because we lived in a predominantly white city, my children would never really learn anything useful about respecting diversity and how people can be at once very different, yet fundamentally the same. I compared their surroundings with where I grew up and felt saddened that they would only learn extremes about African-American culture from rappers on one side and pappy TV that pretends that everybody really does just get along on the other, instead of the way I did, by knowing regular black people who went to my school, whose parents worked with my parents, who we ran into at the grocery store and the movies and other regular places that people go.

I felt sad for them that they would never have the opportunity to hear someone say the N word and someone else call that person a bigot, so they could come home and sort those things out with me at the dinner table like I used to with my parents. I felt sorry that they only learn about Latino culture from Dora the Explorer and being read to and sung to in Spanish by their mother, whose Spanish-speaking ability is lame at best, instead of having friends who teach them about saladitos and palletas and how fifteen-year-olds can sneak bottles of Presidente brandy across the Mexican-American border. But little did I know, my children are receiving an education in diversity – it’s just so different from mine that I didn’t recognize it until now.

We moved from Eugene before J started kindergarten, and while the area we live in now is still predominantly white, there is a significant Chinese population at his school. Significant enough that they have a big Chinese New Year celebration every year and several of J’s friends are Chinese. Filed under "be careful what you wish for," one day out of the blue J said at the dinner table, “B says he can run faster than me because Chinese people run faster than English people.”

I was so caught off guard that I just sat there for a minute, thinking, Chinese people refer to us as “English?” Huh. I didn’t know that. And then the voices in my head started shouting, this might be an important moment, don’t fuck it up. And I came up with this nugget of wisdom, “Well – umm – we’re not English, we’re American – technically sort of German, I guess. Definitely not English.”

What was interesting to me is that my reflexive reaction was to respond in fierce mama bear fashion with – let’s be honest – racist comebacks based on stereotypes. Because, listen, don’t tell my kid he can’t do something as well as anyone else can. And then I took a breath and thought about B’s mom. I’ve only ever smiled and said hello to her, because she doesn’t speak English. In kindergarten I remember J telling me that B couldn’t talk very well, and now I realize that his English just wasn’t so good yet – he speaks perfectly fine now. And I imagined what his mother must go through knowing that B is a minority here, and that people will assume certain things about him because he’s Chinese. And maybe she just wants to take something he’s good at and help him feel proud of himself and secure. That doesn’t make it any less racist, but as a mother, I sympathize with her intent.

So I explained to J that everybody’s good at different things and it doesn’t have anything to do with being Chinese or not. I also told him that I see B’s mama running in our neighborhood all the time, so maybe B just comes from a family of good runners. And if he can’t catch B on the playground, he’ll just have to work harder at it or play something else.

Which I think was ok, but then sometimes I give answers that I later wish I’d never given. One day J told me that his friend V speaks Chinese at home and English at school and he asked me how to say “hi” in Chinese. As luck would have it, that happens to be one of the three (inedible) things that I know how to say. And then the next day he said, “I told V how to say 'hi' in Chinese.”

“Oh?” I cringed, “What did he say?”

“He asked me how to say ‘orange,’ do you know Mama?”

And then I imagined V’s parents seeing me at school, snickering at the dumb white lady who thinks she’s so smart. “I don’t,” I said.

What’s fascinating to me about all of this (if we could treat my kid as a sociological experiment for a minute) is that he seems to not notice that two of his friends have one African-American parent each. J’s very close to his grandfather who is African-American, so I was wondering if that’s why he doesn’t seem to think anything about how they look different from him, and yet he really takes notice that his Chinese friends are Chinese. But then I wondered if it’s his friends who tend to talk about it, and that’s why he mentions it at home – until I got this horrible vision of him embarrassing me when I’m not around. For all I know his friends might never bring these things up and he could be doing the first grade equivalent of the ignorance cliché, “So do you people eat eggs? Really? Just like we do? How about grapefruit? You eat grapefruit too? Huh. If I poke you with this pin is your blood red like mine, or yellow?”

Entirely distressed I told my Chinese hair stylist the “Chinese people run faster” story and he burst out laughing.

“It’s not funny,” I said, laughing with him.

And he made a serious face saying, “I know. It’s racist.”

“What should I do?”

He said, “You should tell him the truth at home - just like your parents did - and let them work those things out together as they grow up.”

At first I wasn’t crazy about this suggestion, and then I thought, well, at least they’re friends – I guess that’s a good start.


cce said...

I can totally relate to this...raising my kids in a predominately white town with little or no African American or hispanic influence but with healthy Asian and Indian communities. I'm so glad when they bring home these mind benders because it means there is a diversity within their school for them to recognize.

Anjali said...

That's so not fair. Chinese people are not only smarter than everyone else, but they're also faster, too?

(Ha Ha)

We have many many Chinese at our school, so much so that Mira feels out of place for not speaking the language, too. Maybe I should enroll her in Mandarin.

Great post.

Kit said...

He's quite right though - all we can do is give them the truth as we see it at home and let them have that as a foundation for their own experience. And being friends with someone from a different cultural background when young is the best possible start to growing up non-racist.

My children are a white minority at their school and my son uses the adjective 'brown' when he needs to differentiate - after all his friends are all different shades of brown, so it makes sense to him and is descriptive rather than racist. He's also getting an excellent Xhosa accent, which I will never do with all the difficult clicks that are used! Later on he'll probably encounter all the different social subtleties of a predominantly white middle-class high school, but at least he'll have had this experience to form his knowledge of the hugely complex make-up of South African society.