A little over a week ago, I received a phone call from a woman who happens to work with my mom. This woman, K., is only a few years older than I am and has three children; her youngest child is in the same grade (Kindergarten) as our daughter.
Apparently, my mom has been doing some grandmotherly boasting about her granddaughter, which led to various conversations between my mom and K. about the school where K’s children attend. It’s a relatively small preparatory academy that is highly regarded by several fellow educators and parents that I know. Before our daughter started Kindergarten, I actually did a fair amount of research on this school and though I strongly believe that its academic rigor would have been well suited for our daughter, I ultimately was looking for a more diverse student body than this school had to offer. (According to the school’s website, almost 93% of the student body identifies themselves as White.)
One of the reasons K. called was to tell me more about the school in case I was interested in applying for the next academic school year. I told her that my main concern was the lack of racial and ethnic diversity amongst the student body.
“Well, it’s true that most of the students are White, but we do have some diversity. Our school has plenty of Orientals,” she said proudly.
I literally cringed, grateful that she couldn’t see my face. I don’t think I’ve heard the “O” word to describe Asians since my grandmother’s 90 year-old friend referred to me as such. And even that was over 10 years ago. And the way she talked about the school “having plenty of Orientals” was unsettling to me. It was as if she was noting how many Bunsen burners each science class had in its possession.
“If you don’t mind me asking, how many Asians would you say there are in each grade level?” I asked. I knew immediately that her interpretation of “plenty” and my own definition of the word would vary greatly.
“Let’s see,” she said. “There are about 35 students in each grade level and probably two Orientals in each grade. Some grades might have as many as three.”
She went on.
“One of the things I love about the school is how they expose the kids to different cultures. My son learned about Kuonzie (I’m fairly certain that she meant Kwanzaa, but it came out phonetically as Koo-On-Zee) and my other son did a special project for Chinese New Year.”
I know she meant well. I know she was trying to share some of her children’s experiences in hopes that I would see how culturally diverse the curriculum was, even if the student body wasn’t. It wasn’t that my concerns about the school held any more merit than her thoughts about all of its positive attributes. But I just couldn’t help get the feeling that if our children were to attend that school, that she might be the mom to proudly announce to other White parents, “Great news, everyone! I just recruited two more Orientals for our kids to be around!”
Not so long ago, I followed a thread on an adoption forum where many APs (mostly White) expressed no hesitation whatsoever about sending their children (adopted transracially) off to a school that had little to no racial or ethnic diversity. Moving just wasn’t an option, some said. Driving to a school that had a larger ethnic and racial demographic was just too time consuming or too inconvenient, said others. Still others proclaimed that a racially and ethnically diverse student body wouldn’t necessarily have any positive impact on their child, so why not just keep them in a school where they are the diversity? Someone has to be the pioneer, they said. Why should it not be their child?
Sometimes it makes me wonder. . .for every person that has told me that I’m making too big of deal of race in the classroom and that it shouldn’t matter if more than 90% of the student body is White, would those same people be willing to send their kids to a school where more than 90% of the student body identifies as non-White? What about even 50%?
Why not? Their answers might be telling. They may reveal some insights about their own discomfort about being amongst the minority, even if just as a parent.
So why would our kids feel any differently? More importantly, why aren’t more of us listening?
Paula was born in Seoul, South Korea and adopted as an infant into her family in 1971. She and her husband, Sean, have two children; a five year-old daughter and a son who is almost three. Paula currently is a full-time mom, part-time volunteer for various social justice organizations and is also a licensed elementary and middle school math teacher. She blogs about her experiences as a transracial adoptee and adoptive parent at Heart, Mind and Seoul.