Sunday, December 23, 2012

Resisting Racism: Children's Toys

 © Sharon Chang and MultiAsian Families Blog, Dec 23 2012.

About a week ago, my son and I went to see a friend's new apartment. Also visiting was the friend's 9 year old step son. Kazuo was mesmerized by this kid's big boy toys. He picked them up. Looked them over. Put them down. Picked them up again. Over and over, finally settling on a big ziplock full of collectible figurines. From a distance, I approved. My 3 year old has stumbled into a developmental stage which has him obsessed with categorizing and organizing. Bunch of little people he could sort and line up? Seemed like a perfect fit to me.

Seriously. I should have known better.

5 minutes later I squat down with him. Start rummaging through the collection. And this is what I see:

My lower jaw fell open in shock. The entire bag was full of these types of caricatures. That is, mocking and stereotypical images of poor Latino / Hispanic people doing things like selling oranges on the street. Or sitting fat and lazy in an armchair, wearing a wife-beater, drinking beer and watching TV. Or decked out in sagging pants, toting a gun or a knife. I turned to my son with wide eyes. He looked at me expectantly. For a couple minutes I was totally tongue-tied. Then I shook myself out of it and clumsily spit out a few words about how the toys weren't okay. Something about how they were mean or whatever. I took them away, but was left with feeling (a) totally gross and (b) like the damage had already been done.

Lest you think Asians are exempt from this type of caricature stereotyping,  check this out. A few years ago, a friend of my husband gave him this toy as a joke:

I have no idea where this came from, or what type of toy / novelty store would think it acceptable to carry this product. My husband didn't want me to include it on my list because he couldn't conceive of it as a real. First he claimed it wasn't American and must be from China (though that certainly doesn't improve anything). Then when he saw English all over the packaging, he thought it must be a joke. "I don't even understand what this is," he finally ended. I agree. Nevertheless. There it is. The scary, communist Chinese soldier, emasculated while riding a silly carousel horse, on his mission to dismantle American Democracy. All right so maybe not for kids. But okay for grownups??

If now you are perhaps thinking these are just cheap toys sold in cheap shops (shops you would never go to), take a look at this:

These are Playmobil figurines that I found in a fashionable, small toy store in my community. My neighborhood, as I have mentioned, is very diverse. There is much social work done in the area and many educated, middle upper income folk who live here consider themselves liberal as well as progressive. This toy store is very popular and prides itself on the quality of its product. It has a huge Playmobil section that represents, surprise!  Predominantly White people. These were two of very few people of color represented. Possibly the only two with very dark skin. Please note the portrayal of dark people as different,  primitive, backwards, or scary and dangerous. I was particularly impressed by the use of the word "special" on the first, and the juxtaposition of the scary dark pirate to the "friendly" white pirate just below.

Here's more. In attempting to buy my son diverse play people for Christmas, for lack of anything better, I resorted to Lego's Duplo World People Set:

Not bad considering what's out there (which is basically very little). But when it was delivered to our door, I excitedly tore open the packaging to peak inside. I pulled out the Lego box. And then - my husband and I sat there scratching our heads. Which people were the Asian ones? Aside from White, what were the other people supposed to be? My husband pointed to the lower left, "Well this is clearly the Asian family." "Why?" I asked. He was stumped, "I don't know." Did they simply make a bunch of the same dolls with the same European features and vary the skin tone? Why does that make me feel strange and maybe a little sick to my stomach?

As if to answer my question, walking into Toys R Us a couple days ago, I was greeted by this image:

As a multiracial woman growing up in Los Angeles, I found myself assaulted constantly (and with great strength) by mainstream images of beauty that I didn't fit. A standard of beauty that to this day celebrates slight tall frames, light skin, pointy thin noses, big blue eyes, wide smiles, and blond hair. These images continue to be perpetuated unselfconsciously and dangerously by American media, especially Hollywood, around the globe. Think I'm overreacting? There is a growing trend among ethnic minorities in the U.S., particularly Asian Americans, to get plastic surgery. In 2005, plastic surgeons saw a dramatic increase in the number of non-White patients, according to a survey by the American Society of Plastic Surgeons. Asian Americans had 437,000 cosmetic surgeries that year, a 58% jump from the previous year. The 3 most common surgeries for Asian Americans were (1) rhinoplasty (nose reshaping), (2) eyelid surgery, and (3) breast augmentation. Doesn't take a rocket scientist to know what portion of those patients were women. Wonder how they might've gotten the idea they weren't beautiful? So I cringed outwardly, crumpling inside a little, when this larger-than-life Barbie silently wished me Merry Christmas. And thought I was possibly in hell.

This is a really uncomfortable post to write (and I'm sure a very uncomfortable post to read). But I hope we can all sit with the discomfort for a while. The more I look, the more I see. Our children are indoctrinated into a racial framework from Day 1 in so many ways. I consider it our job to be as vigilant as possible in screening what they are exposed to, and when that fails, in providing them a counter-narrative to the negative messages they receive daily. Negative messages not only about themselves, but others as well. I found a beautiful quote this morning in Beverly Daniel Tatum's pivotal book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?
"All of us want a better, more peaceful world for our children," she writes. "If we want peace, we must work for justice."

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Picking A Preschool

 © Sharon Chang and MultiAsian Families Blog, Dec 8 2012.

I can't even begin to tell you what a hard time I had finding a preschool for my child. One that was not only diverse but included a foundation for anti-bias learning. One that put into effect daily a practice of inclusivity and strategies for resisting racism. One where my child would feel supported in the development of his multiracial identity. One where he would see himself reflected in the classroom and in the faces of his peers. One where he would feel celebrated. Not strange or different. One where he would feel invited to talk about race openly. Not a need to discover it secretly behind adult's backs. As the director of his current school said to me, "It's not enough for us to just be diverse. If we aren't talking about it - doing something about it - nothing changes." Amen.

I taught young children for over 6 years before I became a mother myself. I believe passionately in the importance of anti-bias curriculum in early learning. Particularly the approach pioneered by Louise Derman-Sparks and the A.B.C. Task Force in their book Anti-Bias Curriculum: Tools for Empowering Young Children. That is, exploring race and racism, and teaching strategies for resistance during the formative years. Considering these are the years that set the stage for who we are to become later in life, I consider race learning at this time very critical early intervention work. Indeed research over the last decade increasingly shows this to be  true.

Despite the fact that I live in one of the most diverse zip codes in the nation however, I was dismayed to find that many preschools professing an anti-bias approach were not practicing what they preached. Attempts on my part to raise awareness or effect change were either moderately successful or completely dismissed. At one supposed "anti-bias" preschool I taught, I noticed only light beige, "flesh colored" bandaids. How would a dark-skinned child feel putting such a thing on? Seeing it scream out like a flashing neon sign against their beautiful brownness. It's one of the many ways people of color, every day, are made to feel outside, unimportant, or different in our society. I pointed out to the White director that the light beige bandaids were not a good idea and that we should remove them. They do make flesh-colored bandaids of varying skin tones now (in response to backlash provoked by the monoracial ones) - though you would be hard pressed to find them. I suggested we buy those. Or at the very least offer alternatives. Non-brown colors. Or cartoon characters.

His response? He told me it wasn't a big deal.
Then I had my son. I started looking at preschools in a different way, and struggled again. I know the preschool culture in this city well and myself am trained in early childhood education. I knew where to look and what to look for, and still felt like I was swimming upstream. When my son was about 15 mo I looked at a program down the street. It was walking distance. Had a good reputation. Beautiful classroom. Highly educated teachers who'd been there for years. It was affordable. Everything about it seemed promising. But when I went on a tour, I noticed very few families of color. I mentioned this to our White tour guide, a school parent and board member. "I know!" she exclaimed. "We've noticed that too, and want to do something about it." Comforted, I submitted our application. The school is popular. It receives more applicants than it can accommodate. To be fair, new students are selected by lottery. But consider this. The predominant number of applicants are White. It's simple math. A lottery inherently favors those White applicants. Indeed, we did not get in. I knew two other Asian families who applied. They also did not get in. A few months later, walking by the space, I looked in the window and saw the new class. Almost all White. I was livid. I emailed the registrar. Suggested to her that if the school really cared about diversifying their student body, perhaps a lottery system was not serving them well.

Though she had always been prompt about responding to my other emails, she ignored this one. I didn't get any response other than the sound of my protest echoing against an indifferent silence. In the years since, I have heard many disparaging remarks about this particular school by families of color. It is notorious for being White. I have heard it called "White-bred." In the most diverse zip code in the nation - it is not only embarrassing, but shameful.

I will say at last we did find a school that was almost everything we were looking for. But it was very hard. And it seems to be one of very few. Sometimes we feel alone in the the race education we are attempting to give our son. We don't know other multiethnic Asian families who are comfortably discussing race with their young children every day. Others seem surprised or even disapproving when they find out we do. Statistics show that multiracial is one of the fastest growing demographics in our nation. If I live in a major urban area that is "liberal and progressive," and still can't find much support for the blended cultures of my multiethnic Asian family - what is it like for other parents trying to raise multiethnic Asian children in this nation?

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Children's Booklist

 © Sharon Chang and MultiAsian Families Blog, Dec 1 2012.

And this is where I need your help. Below are some children's books that I find really adhere to the anti-bias parameters discussed. I would like this to be a working list. Books on it should be ones that particularly appeal to the multiethnic multiracial Asian children in our group. For example, perhaps they represent Asian heritage, multiethnic multiracial peoples or the struggles of people of color for social justice. Are there any anti-bias children's books you would like to add to our list? I will continue to add or remove suggestions based on your comments. Your feedback is greatly needed. I can't even pretend to assemble something comprehensive on my own. Let's get a substantial collection going here!

Part Asian 100% Hapa by Kip Fulbeck

Mixed: Portraits of Multiracial Kids by Kip Fulbeck
Shades of People by Shelley Rotner and Sheila M. Kelly
The Skin You Live In 
Michael Tyler (Author) David Lee Csicsko (Illustrator)

Peek! A Thai Hide and Seek 
Minfong Ho (Author) Holly Meade (Illustrator)

Hush: A Thai Lullaby
Minfong Ho (Author) Holly Meade (Illustrator)

Chaat and Sweets by Amy Wilson Sanger

Yum Yum Dim Sum by Amy Wilson Sanger

Bee-bim Bop by Ho Baek Lee

First Book of Sushi by Amy Wilson Sanger

* Contributed by Blog Reader *  
A to Z Picture Book by Gyo Fujikawa

  "Hey Sharon...Gyo Fujikawa was a Japanese American illustrator who's family was interned during WWII, she became one of the first women to illustrate for Disney, and she was one of the first children's book illustrators to include children of many races (before it was politically correct to do so).  I thought her story was inspiring, thought you might appreciate it too!"

Say Hello! by Rachel Isadora

Happy Belly, Happy Smile by Rachel Isadora

see more! go to Multiasian Families Blog page  Books for Kids