|image credit: Ad Council, source: weknowmemes|
I want to tell you a simple story. And I don't think the first part of it is that unusual. The other night I was home with my 5-year-old and noticed him playing with his eye shape. That is, using his fingers to pull his eyes back/up/down/sideways etc. You know the drill. A lot of parents have relayed to me having this experience with their young children. It's not necessarily something the children learned from racist teasing and taunting (though it might be so definitely check). A lot of times it's just basic body exploration and experimentation. Like, "Look what I can do!" But of course when we see our Asian or mixed Asian children pulling their eyes into a slant for the first time, most parents of Asian/American descent have a quick, visceral, sick feeling in the pit of their stomachs. I certainly did. And rightfully so.
|image by Dr Seuss, source: "Dr Seuss's Racist Anti-Japanese Propoganda (And His Apology)" by Hashi|
Making fun of "Asian" eyes is part of a long history of anti-Asian anti-immigrant racism in the U.S. that works to frame Asians as suspicious sneaky foreigners who shouldn't be here. Even our beloved Dr. Seuss, author of timeless children's classics like Green Eggs and Ham and The Cat In the Hat, was once a devout racist who dedicated serious time to penning anti-Asian propaganda during WWII that centered "squinty" eyes and buck teeth to make his visual point (though he later apologized). If you think this derisive attitude toward Asian appearance is over, think again. It still happens all the time. Kids do it in school (though yours may not tell you). Adults do it front and backstage. Even celebrities, B and A-list, do it.
So we jump in quick. Or at least I did. I told my son it was okay to make "zombie eyes" by pulling down his lower lids but it wasn't a good idea to pull his eyes into a slant. Ever. I explained eye teasing as something that's been used to be mean to Asian folk, like us, for a long time; a way of saying we're "ugly", "different", or "don't belong." I told him he shouldn't do it in collusion, to other Asian friends, or even at home alone just to be silly, because it's self-damaging and hurtful to others. I warned despite this reality though it was still very likely he'd see kids or adults do it some day and that if he did, he should feel liberated to say something. I also instructed him to tell me or another trusted adult right away so we could take action.
In my head I was being proactive so my kid could be reactive. I've long known at some point he would face, or watch others face, racial teasing. This is an incredibly common experience particularly for Asian boys. More than one study has shown Asian/American teens are bullied at a rate alarmingly higher than any other racial group. As an Asian "looking" soon-to-be kindergartner about to enter public schooling for the first time, I was determined to equip my son so: (a) he wouldn't be blind-sided, (b) he'd be able to recognize/identify what was happening right away, and (c) he would have tools to do something about it when it did.
|image credit: #SONSANDBROTHERS|
But here's the second part of my story. And I think this part is unusual. My son ended up taking these lessons and running with them in a whole new direction that, frankly, kind of blew my mind. He came home from a play date the other day and said, "Mom you know what? I told my friend he should never make fun of my eyes like that." His friend is a white boy. I was stunned for a second, then quickly checked, "Has your friend made fun of you that way?" He answered simply, "No." And I was like, OH MY GOD. My son just told a white boy not to make fun of him for his race before anything ever happened. I tried to imagine a grown-up of color doing that. Like walking into a work meeting with white male leadership (it'll happen, whites still own almost everything) and stating, "Before we begin I would just like to let you know it is not okay to make fun of me or be mean to me because of my race. Now. Proceed."
And it didn't end there. A week later my son had a different friend over to our house. This friend is mixed race Asian like him. At one point he turned to her and said, "Do you know you should never make fun of people by making fun of their eyes?" His friend listened. "Cause that's mean to Asian people and you're Asian." His same aged friend suddenly protested, "I'm not Asian!" To which my son insisted, "Yes you are. Ask my mom." She turned to me, "Am I Asian?' And I replied, "Well you have family and ancestors from Asia. So, Yes. You are Asian. But you're also American. You're Asian American." The kids grew quiet for a moment and my husband (mixed race Asian too) turned wide eyes toward me, "Was that just an aha moment?" And I was like, "I think so??" We were both astounded.
Research shows our kids are savvy about race...But we don't give them the opportunity to vocalize what they see and know, or allow them agency in undoing the social injustices they witness happening every day.
I've said it before and I'll say it again a gazillion times till we all believe it. I think children (all children) hold incredible brilliance, that we underestimate them way too often, and a lot of times even get in their way. Research shows our kids are savvy about race from a very young age. But we don't give them the opportunity to vocalize what they see and know, or allow them agency in undoing the social injustices they witness happening every day. We don't talk to them about race. Instead, we stifle kids by insulating them in their supposed innocence and naivete. Further, we aren't willing to acknowledge how much we might learn from them. When it comes to racial learning we often operate from the assumption that as adults we know more and we know best. But the truth is research has demonstrated over and over us adults tend to be woefully inadequate when it comes to knowing or doing much about racism.
There isn't more to this story. It's pretty short, pretty simple. It's about, after years of working with kids and studying families, how I still continue to be surprised by children's enormous capacity to know, innovate, and create knowledge. It's about, after years of living, remembering humility and realizing one person can never really be an expert; that real expertise is in the listening. And it's about wondering - can we uplift and celebrate children too as central, as allies, even potential leaders, in our work for equity and change?