by Anti-Racist Parent columnist Liza Talusan
I guess I never really thought of myself as an anti-racist parent, but rather an educator about race and culture. As the Director of Intercultural Affairs at a small Catholic college in Massachusetts, much of my focus has been on raising awareness about the complexity of race, culture, power and privilege with college students. Until I was asked to write for Anti-Racist Parent, I never truly internalized the idea that the work I do in my “9-5″ life has a powerful impact on my Mom-life.
I’m a 32- year old mother of two young girls. I am an American born Filipina whose parents came to the United States a year prior to my birth. I am the middle child of 5 — my two older sisters were born in the Philippines, and my two younger brothers were born in the Boston area. During college, I met my husband, a New York born Puerto Rican, and we were married shortly after graduating from college. When we told our friends and family we were thinking of getting married, the first comments were always, “Wow! Your kids are going to be Filricans. Puerto Pinos. Filiriconos.” It’s amazing how quickly people already identified our children as being a combination of our ethnicities….
I was recently interviewed by the college newspaper for an article on Interracial Dating and Marriages, and was asked the question, “Have you ever been discriminated against because you are an interracial couple?” My first thought was, “I know the answer should be yes, but I can’t come up with anything concrete.” After talking it over with Jorge, we both agreed that we hadn’t really experienced anything overtly racist or offensive. If anything, though, just the opposite occurs. People quickly comment on the cafe’ colored skin/dark-curly hair/almond eyes of my children and how “the Asian/Latino combination is soooooo cute!” The emphasis on the “beautiful combination” probably disturbs us more than anything. It seems that no one can just stop with the typical, “Your children are cute” comment but need to extra-emphasize the fact that they are biracial.
I have to admit that I think Jorge and I get less attention as an interracial couple because we are both people of color. In the United States, there is a strong political history with a White/Brown (Caucasian/African American, Caucasian/Asian, Caucasian/Latino, etc) combinations of partners than with a Brown/Brown (combinations of people of color) pairings. For Jorge and me, aspects of both the Filipino and Puerto Rican cultures have traces of similar language, religious practices, and food, which made for an easier social transition. Yet, there were certainly comments within our own families like, “Are you sure there aren’t any Puerto Rican women you want to date, Jorge?” or “How about a nice Filipino man, Liza?” but all-in-all the cultural transitions have been fairly easy to navigate for us.
The most important learning process for my family was actually not tied to race, but to physical appearance. My daughter Joli learned some tough life lessons at an early age. At age 2, she was diagnosed with a cancer that forced surgeons to remove her right eye that had been home to more than 5 large cancerous tumors. After her emergency surgery, Joli quickly learned that she was different. Chemotherapy and her bald head made her different from other kids at day care. Her port-a-cath, used to administer chemotherapy, inserted into her chest made her different. And, her pink, hollow socket where there was once a beautiful, brown eye, made her different. Now, rather than people making unsolicited comments on her “beautiful race-mixed appearance”, they were no longer commenting at all. Rather, they would gasp, whisper, point, and look at me – as if I had done something to her. People were no longer smiling and stroking the loose curls on her head. Instead, they would quickly pull at their children and instruct them that “it was not nice to stare at people who are different!”
As a parent who was quickly thrust into this circus of sideshow attention, I learned the importance of not reacting the way people were reacting to Joli. Rather than pull their children away and run, I wish parents would have the decency to smile — not in a pitiful way, but in a way that told me, “Hey, I see you. You matter in this world. You do not need to hide.” Two years have passed since she was diagnosed, and her appearance is no longer as shocking. Her hair has come back into loose, black curls, and her prosthesis hides her pink socket. My naturally shy Joli doesn’t tend to start conversations with strangers, except for when those strangers are in a wheelchair, or with a walking cane, with a bald head, or just different. She easily engages in conversation with them, often approaching people with a simple smile that says, “Hi. I see you. You matter in this world. You don’t need to hide.”
I think her experience with the physical effects of cancer mirrors what I hope she is also learning about skin color and ethnicity. I hope she is learning that we may be different on the outside – whether it be the colors of our skin or visible differences in our abilities – and that we all matter in this world. I never really thought of myself as an anti-racist parent, but rather a person in this world who believes that we must be pro-culture — whether our culture is defined as our race, our families, our language, our geography, or our abilities. That through educating ourselves, communities, and especially our children, we can create and sustain our own culture of anti-racism.
Liza Talusan is the Director of Intercultural Affairs at a small Catholic college in Massachusetts. She is an active member of Asian Sisters Participating in Reaching Excellence (www.girlsaspire.org) and believes that mentoring is one of the best way to make changes in this world. She serves as an advisor and mentor to students of color as well as to organizations designed to educate and promote cultural competency. An avid fan of reality television (which, she refers to as “research”), Liza enjoys engaging in discussions that look critically at how pop culture influences the perception of reality in today’s society.