MY STORY: ASIAN-AMERICAN DAUGHTER AND NON-BLACK MOTHER
My mother immigrated to the U.S. from South Korea before I was born. My biological father is white, and my own features are fair so often people don't realize I am Korean-American. When I was younger, my Asian features were more pronounced. I was teased and embarrassed because I often had different lunch foods, different eyes, and my mother had a different accent than everyone around us. I remember vividly when I was 6, asking her to stop singing songs in Korean around the house when my friends were over, because they would make fun of her. When I was 9, I punched that same friend in the arm because she wouldn't stop dropping her "r's" and pulling the corner of her eyes when mocking me.
Things are different for me now. I grew up to later embrace those differences and went on to complete a major in East Asian Studies in college, spending my junior year abroad in Asia. I married a white man who I met in China. He comes from a family that has a long history of accepting and embracing diversity, and he was raised right too. We still live in Lancaster County, but the diversity that has long been present in Lancaster City (the Refugee Capital of America) has started leaking out to the surrounding areas as well. I have any number of friends who frequently request that I make batches of kimchi or host Korean meals for them (and I'll be happy to do so once this pandemic is passed).
I know that I'm fortunate. My experiences with racism were short-lived. I developed a tough skin and have basically forgotten and moved on. Most people, especially black and/or Muslim Americans do not have the luxury of this. My friends say that it's just a way of life.
As a parent, it's difficult to know when to address these issues with a child who is basically white. My daughter (8 years old) IS privileged. I know this - because she doesn't have any knowledge or basis for understanding what racism is. From a young age, she and I have had what we call "car talks" (yes, old school NPR fans here) where we speak openly about the hard issues while I'm driving us somewhere. We've addressed LGBTQ+ issues, same sex marriage, feminism, equality, religion and faith, family dynamics, why we can't really be wizards, cancer and death. Yet, race was something we hadn't really broached, for two reasons:
I let her choose the topics based on what she's curious about and what's going on around us.
I wasn't sure what to say.
Obviously, her father and I want her to understand (to her best ability) the history and current state of the issue. At the same time, we didn't really want her to start seeing people as different because of the color of their skin, or highlighting that as a difference, or perhaps even just as basic as tarnishing her view of the world. Also, we haven't experienced black America. Who am I to speak to someone else's experience?
Then I realized - I speak to her about LGBTQ+ issues. I speak to her about cancer. I speak to her about Alzheimer's and aging. I speak to her about terrorism and war. Yet, I'm completely straight. I've never had cancer. I'm not old. I'm not a soldier. What I AM is her MOTHER. That means that it's MY job to break down what's going on in the world around us and teach her. All I can do is my best to make her the best citizen, advocate, ally and steward possible. That means addressing the hard stuff and doing the research. Why does it feel harder to discuss the Black Lives Matter movement than it does to discuss trans rights? I have the same 0 level of first-hand experience in the issues. What's important is that I'm honest about my lack of experience, and clear about my stance.
So, my daughter and I recently had a conversation about race and racism. She was genuinely confused and befuddled. I can understand that. She was born in Alexandria, VA and went to a fantastic daycare run by two accomplished, strong black women. Her best friend was black. Her best friend right now is Latina American. She herself often proudly proclaims that she's a quarter Korean, but poor, poor daddy isn't any Korean. But when it comes down to it, she looks white. She's never personally experienced bullying or racism for any reason. Which to my mind, is all the more reason to explain it to her now.
Her biggest sticking point came when we talked about slavery (her school recently did some homeschooling assignments on Harriet Tubman).
But Mommy, why would white people want to own black people? Why would anyone want to own anyone? And then why wouldn't white people just try to own other white people?
I didn't have great answers to the usual "WHY???" train that kids get on. You can only get so far down that line of questioning before you get to the "some people just suck" response, especially when you're talking to an 8 year old. Obviously, our "car talk" on race isn't over. It probably never will be, and I hope that's the case. What that means is that I need to do more research. I need to read more books, educate myself better. I need to let myself be uncomfortable.
When it comes to racism, there really are no shades of gray: by which I mean, there's no way to say "I believe this, but..." There is right, and there is wrong. Human or inhumane. Period. I truly believe that children innately understand this, and then adults screw up the moral compass. I have faith that as we continue to advocate for equality for all, our children will raise that banner ever higher.