Careful the things we say – and don’t say

by Anti-Racist Parent columnist Ji In

How do you say to a child in the night,
‘Nothing’s all black, but then nothing’s all white’?
How do you say it will all be all right,
When you know that it mightn’t be true?
What do you do?

Careful the things you say, children will listen.
Careful the things you do, children will see
And learn.
Children may not obey, but children will listen.
Children will look to you for which way to turn,
To learn what to be.
Careful before you say, ‘Listen to me.’
Children will listen.

– from the lyrics for “Children Will Listen” by Stephen Sondheim, “Into the Woods”

OK. In quoting this song, I’m outing myself as a Broadway musical geek – though I wasn’t really ever a closeted Broadway musical geek, so go ahead. Point and laugh all you want. I’m used to it.

The song, however, says a great deal that is relevant to the topic at hand on this blog.

Children do listen. How many among us here can remember random things our parents said to us, or perhaps just near us, when we were very young? Although I couldn’t type a transcript, I certainly remember bits and pieces, and especially the parts that concerned race.

I remember the way I would wince – though not understanding why – when we referred to Asian people as Orientals. I remember the way I felt when I was told that in some ways, Orientals could pass as white. I felt relieved, and hopeful that maybe I could overcome my skin color after all.

I remember cringing and wanting to disappear into the woodwork when relatives would make a show of (or feign?) envy for my straight black hair, “almond-shaped” eyes, and amber skin that browned in the summer sun. But these things seemed to merely dance around the topic that we all avoided. That I was little, yellow, different. Korean. Adopted. Not of their ilk.

Candid conversations about my Korean heritage were very few and far between in my childhood, but not just because my parents were unequipped and uncomfortable talking about it with me. My aversion to all-things-Korean was well developed by the time I was old enough to know that my Korean-ness marked me as different. I would have no part in any talk of Korea, adoption, Korean adoption. Sex would have been a more welcome topic of discussion.

Being different was not good. Different was a source of shame and grounds for ridicule in my peer group. And even when I became a teen-ager and nonconformity was supposed to be cool, it was only very specific types of individuality that were sought after – Korean-ness not being among them.

In seventh grade, my language arts teacher included Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth in our syllabus. We read the novel and discussed it in class. After we finished the book, we viewed the movie. You know, the 1937, black-and-white, Oscar-winning movie in which the starring roles were all played by white actors in yellow-face (even in black-and-white, yellow-face is appalling).

My classmates went to town on it, guffawing at every squinted eye and flat-footed shuffle, mimicking every bow and exaggerated giggle. As the only Asian-American student in my Language Arts section, I was mortified, though I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what was making me feel sick to my stomach. I wasn’t Chinese, so their laughter wasn’t at my expense, was it? Still, I sank deeper and deeper down in my seat until my head was barely poking above the surface of my desk.

My esteem for my language arts teacher, for whom I previously had a great deal of respect, plummeted after that episode. It wasn’t because of something she had said or done, but because of what she had not said and not done.

Instead of halting the titters and ching-chongs, my teacher allowed the sniggering to continue until it died out, and only shushed the room when the noise drowned out the film audio. Instead of using the spectacle of the yellow-face to teach a lesson about outmoded racial stereotypes and portrayals in literature and cinema, she sat by while my peers aped the actors, pulling their own versions of Rosie O’Donnell on The View.

When the bell rang, signaling the end of the hour, I quickly stole out of the classroom so I would hit the hallway first, facing forward, away from the faces of my classmates, who were still chortling and having a good laugh over the film.

I learned a lot about my teacher’s character that day. It wasn’t a unique occurrence, in the bigger picture of my primary and secondary education. Even the most progressive teachers I had seemed to turn a blind eye to the jeers and racist jokes that kids uttered just barely under their breath – or even loud and clear, for all to hear and reward with high-fives and laughs of approval. According to their teaching methods, which seem now to reflect the general consensus among U.S. pop culture and American society, it’s acceptable to mock and deride Asians.

When a person stands by and does nothing in response to racism and derogatory actions, although it isn’t the same as committing that racist act oneself, isn’t it a way of enabling or allowing the racism to persist?

Saying nothing isn’t always simply about choosing one’s battles, especially when it’s not just a matter of sacrificing one’s own personal dignity in order to avoid controversy. When a person is responsible for setting an example for children and teaching them how to become respectable – and self-respecting – individuals, that responsibility calls for action. Whether it’s intervening and pointing out the wrongdoing when it occurs, or taking the opportunity to use it as a teaching point afterward, it’s important to keep in mind that being a role model is as much about what we don’t do as what we do.

At 30, I’m still teaching myself to unlearn what I learned in my youth. When we react to hurtful comments and racist actions with silence, we hurt ourselves. We reinforce shame in our heritage. We disrespect our children and their heritage.

Children will listen – they will listen to the things we say, and they will listen when we don’t say anything at all.

Ji In is a writer, editor and adult transracial adoptee living on the Hawaiian island of O’ahu. She was born in Seoul, South Korea, in 1976 and joined her adoptive family in the United States that same year. Ji In blogs about transracial and intercountry adoption, cultural identity and race consciousness at Twice the Rice.
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