The Chinese Food Email (Part III)

Written by Love Isn’t Enough guest contributor Tonggu Momma; originally published at Our Little Tongginator

[Note: This is the third part of a three-part series. See Part I & Part II.]

I’ll just come right out and say it, y’all… I am terrified to talk with the Tongginator about race and racism. TERRIFIED, I tell you! And although I think ALL parents should talk to their children about race (yes, even white parents of white children), I feel I have an even greater responsibility to do so because I am a Caucasian woman parenting an Asian-American child.

But just because I know I should doesn’t mean I know where to start.

I mostly don’t know what the heck I’m doing, but the events of this week taught me a few valuable lessons. The first, and most important, is that I need to force myself to use the word “racism” with the Tongginator, even when I’m talking specifics and not just in general terms. When I held her as she cried on Wednesday morning… when I listened to her describe how she felt when M1 and M2 labeled and then criticized her food while targeting the way she looks… I knew I needed to do more than just empathize and help her problem solve. I needed to use the word racism.

I’ll be honest, y’all… I had to force the word out of my mouth.

Because it felt uncomfortable. And it felt awkward. And because I’ve spent most of my life defining racism as something evil and horrible, as something that calls to mind men wearing white sheets, standing in front of burning crosses. When I hear the word racism, I think of others making judgmental comments using the phrase “those people” or peppering their speech with well-known racial slurs. When I hear the word racism, I don’t immediately think of very young children making insensitive remarks about physical and cultural differences.

But I need to.

Because if we don’t talk with young children specifically about race and race relations, they just might go down that road. Oh, I understand that the vast majority of children will not grow up to don white sheets and march with others beside burning crosses, but it’s easy to imagine them making the occasional snide comment about “those people,” chuckling over a stereotypical joke or unknowingly engaging in countless microinequities.

It’s easy to imagine because racism is still alive and well in the United States.

Now if y’all don’t believe that, I challenge you to attend a school board redistricting meeting in any moderately diverse, suburban area. Go ahead. I dare you. I promise it will open your eyes. (It did mine.) Or you could just watch the news… and pay close attention to stories such as the one where African-American kids got kicked out of a public pool or when Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. was arrested because he tried to enter his own home or when, in 2007, a group of students on the grounds of Gallaudet University held another teen against his will, scrawling swastikas all over his body.

But racism isn’t just these horrifying events that you absolutely! cannot! believe! happen in this day and age… it’s not just about overtly hateful comments, intended to demean and degrade another race… it’s also about assuming that the “normal” way of looking or behaving – the way that one may be accustomed to – is the only or best way of looking or behaving. THAT is the racist behavior we often see in young children.

And THAT is what happened to the Tongginator earlier this week.

The second thing I learned this week is that I have a choice when the Tongginator encounters racism such as that. I can look the other way, tell myself to not make a mountain out of a molehill, avoid rocking the boat and allow discomfort to guide my choices… in fact, that’s the easy road to take. Especially since, in the day-to-day happenings of life, two children telling the Tongginator that her lunch is “Chinese food and looks like throw-up” doesn’t seem like that big of a deal. Because, you know, kids do that. And kindergartners are notorious for their lack of tact.

But what is the long-term impact of allowing that comment to slide?

If M1 and M2 weren’t called on their behavior (and the attitude behind it), a teachable moment would have been lost… a moment that tells the girls that the food they consider normal is not the only or best food out there. And the Tongginator would not have learned that it’s okay to stand up for yourself, to tell others that it’s unacceptable to stereotypically tease others. And I would not have learned that sometimes it’s important to overcome my discomfort and make mountains out of molehills.

And do you know why?

Because all parents, especially those who’ve adopted transracially, need to stop looking at the day-to-day and start looking at the long-term, cumulative effect of “little” comments and actions that whisper with racism. How will our children feel after 20 years of their parents looking the other way when people say those things? Even more terrifying, what will they believe? How will our children think and feel when they learn – through our actions and inaction – that avoiding conflict is more important than insisting upon equality and fairness? Even more terrifying, what will they do in response to that belief?

Yeah.

The little things don’t seem so little when we look at the long-term, do they?

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