written by Anti-Racist Parent columnist Paula
About a month ago, I was substitute teaching for a multi-grade classroom of 2nd and 3rd grade students. Now I understand that it is not at all uncommon for children of this age to still be especially attached to their teacher. It took all of a nanosecond for the kids to realize that clearly, I was NOT their teacher. Some had faces of disappointment. One boy – who later proved to be a little on the mischievous side – appeared to be amused and almost delighted upon seeing my face. And still others were just caught dead in their tracks. I can’t say for certain why they seemed so shocked, but trust me – they were. I found out later from another teacher that this particular school identifies itself as 97% white, as does the city in which the school is located. Upon learning that fact, I couldn’t help but wonder if some of the kids had ever seen an Asian adult before – that may sound preposterous to some, but I honestly don’t think it’s totally out of the realm of possibility.
As I introduced myself and invited them to come in and start their daily morning writing exercise before our morning meeting, several kids were wandering aimlessly around the room. I went to gather a group of them when I looked over to see a few boys in a semi-circle. One boy had both of his pointer fingers positioned at the outer corner of each of his eyes, pulling the skin around his eyes as taut as could be. He was doing this while nodding his head slowly and making mock “ching-chong” noises. Another boy was trying to attempt some kind of martial arts move. The other boys were just laughing.
It’s amazing how a few actions from a group of 7 and 8 year-old boys can make one feel so vulnerable and small. I think for a few seconds my 37 year-old body reverted back to assuming the same exact physical sensations I used to experience when I was teased as a child. I was seriously surprised by the mini-pangs that shot briefly through my stomach.
In my heart, I honestly did not feel that these boys were maliciously trying to hurt me or that they had any deep, sinister motives to personally degrade me. Instead, I truly felt that they possessed no other means in which to express themselves and that their way of processing my physical differences was to innately recall whatever images or preconceived notions they may have held about Asians. In the absence of any real, contextual verbal ability to talk about race or ethnicity, I felt that it was only natural for them to resort back to the “easy”, juvenile behavior of simply making fun of one’s apparent differences.
I spoke at length with the aforementioned teacher who wholeheartedly agreed with me that I needed to address this incident with the class. Later that day, when I had the entire homeroom class back together, I took some time to talk about what I saw earlier that morning. I spoke gently, but very seriously about the many kinds of differences that exist amongst us and that it’s okay to ask questions, to be curious or to wonder why someone might look or do something different from what they’re used to seeing. I also talked about how our actions and reactions towards others can affect others, even without us realizing it. I spoke about how the “normal” way of looking, acting or doing things that we may be accustomed to seeing is not the only way of looking or acting, nor is it the best. I tried to keep it age-appropriate, simple, meaningful and relevant. Without getting too preachy, I simply spoke to them as I do with my own kids about race and race consciousness – honestly and to the point and in a way in which they can hopefully relate.
I left a detailed account of both the incident and the conversation I had with the students for the teacher I was standing in for and within 3 days, I received a letter from the principal as well as handwritten notes from each student. It was evident from their letters that the kids, their teacher and their principal had talked more at length about some of the same things that we spoke about together – which in my opinion, is definitely a good thing.
It was a tremendously valuable experience for me in that classroom that day. I was reminded about my own responsibility as a parent to ensure that my kids’ schools are walking the walk when it comes to the often overused buzzwords like “diversity”, “tolerance” and “acceptance” – words that appear on attractive posters that pepper the halls of so many learning institutions, but perhaps aren’t always practiced or enforced. It was a reminder to keep the conversation about race with my own children at the forefront of the many other topics that we discuss in hopes that they can and will both acquire and utilize the language to affirm and speak up for themselves at any given time, even when others are not.