Not always a holly, jolly good time

by Anti-Racist Parent columnist Paula, originally published at Heart, Mind and Seoul

I love this time of year.  Truly I do. I have so many fond memories of the extra special little things that my parents did to make sure Christmas always seemed like such a magical time of year.  Like my dad using our cross-country skis to make the tracks from Santa’s sled.  Or the times we’d come home from Christmas Eve mass, only to see the perimeter of the tree peppered with Santa’s perfectly timed bounty. The dozens and dozens of cookies my mom would let me and my brothers cut out, frost, sprinkle and eat.  The list goes on. . .and now with two young children in our home, it’s been especially fun creating our family’s own special traditions which I hope will become treasured memories for both our son and daughter.

But the holiday season was not without several cringe-worthy moments for me.  Not in my immediate family or within the circle of close friends, but rather when the extended family would gather, or when we’d be in large groups of friends of friends, or friends of relatives.  It was in these particular settings where I knew I had to be especially on guard. Ignorant remarks about me being an adoptee were not out of the norm.  I remember being at a huge holiday party with my family when I was about 10 years old.   We were in a private residence and I was getting something to eat.  I don’t know where my parents were – probably somewhere throughout the home enjoying good food, a drink and adult conversation.  A man who I had never seen before came up to me and said, “You’re a pretty young lady.  Where are you from?”  Sensing what he really wanted to know was my country of birth, I told him that I was Korean.  “Adopted?”  “Mmm hmmm”, I replied.  “Wow.  Just think of how lucky you are.  Instead of being at a Christmas party right now, you could be living God knows where, doing who knows what.  Well, you take care now and be sure to count your blessings a little more this year, okay?”

And inevitably, each holiday season, some ignorant person would spout off some racist remark, recite a not-so-hilarious ”joke” with an offensive stereotype as the punchline or just flat out admit a personal ethnic or racial prejudice that they held.  That is, until their eyes would meet with mine and the major backpedaling would start. . . “Oh, Paula, you know that I don’t mean you (or the further insulting “your kind”).”  or “Man, this is what happens I start drinking so much – sorry about that, Paula.  Hope you don’t take any offense.”

Obviously as an adult now, I feel infinitely more capable and confident (though I admit, not necessarily more comfortable, especially depending on the situation) about calling people out when I hear something offensive – regardless if it pertains to me or not.  But I’m especially on alert in these large group-type gatherings for the benefit of my children, ages 4 and 6 1/2, who are already of an age where they’re old enough to know when something unacceptable has been said, especially if it pertains to adoption or race.  My daughter has become quite adept at responding with “Why do you want to know?” and “I don’t feel like discussing that” when she feels that someone is being too intrusive or has crossed the boundary of her personal comfort.  It’s my hope that eventually both of my kids will know that just because someone they don’t know has said something that is hurtful or insensitive to them as a person, doesn’t mean they can’t have a response.  And I’ve found in many circumstances, that those instances are actually the easier situations to confront.  Often, it’s when the disparaging remark is said by someone that you do know that it can be the most difficult and uncomfortable to address.

At the risk of sounding like a pessimist, I guess a part of me is always on-guard – even if just a teeny-tiny bit – whenever I’m in a large group of people who I don’t know, regardless of the time of year.  And yet, I remember so many holiday seasons where I’ve been blindsided by a conversation-stopping remark made at my expense.  It’s probably easier to say, “Hey, lighten up, it’s Christmastime – laugh a little!”  or “It’s just all in the name of good, holiday fun” or “Where’s your Christmas spirit?” when you’re not ALWAYS the only person of color or adoptee in the room. 

Unfortunately, ignorant and racist marks don’t take a vacation over the holiday season.  I can’t eliminate them and I can’t always tell when they’re going to make an appearance, but I can do my best to teach my children how to deal with them and talk about them without being made to feel like a Scrooge who just ruined Christmas. 

Image courtesy of miltydotcom at Flickr

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About Tami

Tami Winfrey Harris writes about race, feminism, politics and pop culture at the blog What Tami Said. Her work has also appeared online at The Guardian’s Comment is Free, Ms. Magazine blog, Newsweek,, Huffington Post and Racialicious. She is a graduate of the Iowa State University Greenlee School of Journalism. She is mom to two awesome stepkids and spends her spare time researching her family history and cultivating a righteous 'fro.
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