My first memory of racism directed at me was the summer between Kindergarten and 1st Grade. I was flying alone to Hawai’i or returning to Seattle from Hawai’i. An older woman, who I remember as having short curly brown hair and was probably in her 40s, was seated next to me on the flight. At some point in her talking to me she complimented my English. “You speak English so well. Where did you learn to speak it?”
I knew, even at my young age, that she assumed because I’m Asian I wasn’t born here—this is a racist trope that BIPOC have to deal with, particularly Asian-Americans as we’re treated as perpetual foreigners in our own country. “I was born here.” [insert 5-year-old eye roll]
I thought that would end the conversation but she kept going, calling me “exotic.”
Pro-tip: don’t call anyone exotic. We’re not objects. I don’t even like calling places exotic. People call my home state exotic but the tropical climate, the plants and flowers and trees and fruit, and the brilliant green of the mountains in contrast to the red dirt are all normal to me. Exotic, to me, has always mean unusual, not normal. But the things (and people) that get called exotic are entirely usual and normal for those who live with them daily. The other problem with “exotic” is it sexualizes and objectifies the women it’s being used to describe. No five-year-old should ever be called exotic and for BIPOC women, it feeds into the stereotypes that lead to the increased violence against, kidnapping, trafficking, and deaths of our sisters.
“What nationality are you?” she asked as a follow up to the exotic comment.
Again, at 5, I knew the difference between nationality and ethnicity. I thought she was stupid for asking me that when I had just told her I was born here. “I’m American.”
“No. What’s your ethnicity?” Understand that this is just another form of “Where are you really from?”
“Filipino.” [insert another eye roll] I don’t remember exactly how the conversation ended but I do remember being done with her at this point.
I’m pretty sure this experience is the basis for my dislike of conversing with strangers on planes, buses, trains, and out in public in general. I have a friend who I think is fearless in striking up conversations with people she comes across in public.
The same summer or the summer after, I was in California visiting my maternal grandparents and my mother’s late younger sister (Auntie Boogie, if you’ve read previous blogs). While I identify as Filipinx, I also identify as hapa (mixed-race for those of you unfamiliar with the term). My mother’s side is predominantly European and we can trace Papa’s lineage back to Mary Queen of Scots. Papa was a locksmith with his own business in Tustin. I loved going into the shop with him. I would sweep up the metal shavings for him and as I got older I would clean the bathroom, make grilled cheese sandwiches for lunch in the toaster over like he taught me, and cut keys for customers. One day, his good friend came into the shop and they were both leaning on the glass counter, each on opposite sides, as I was sitting on it. They were telling jokes that I didn’t understand and Papa stopped to explain one. Pointedly, he taught me the N-word and what it meant to him. I didn’t understand at the time that the meaning was bad, so when they told another joke, I laughed. Now imagine all the overt racists, comfortable with slinging slurs around doing this with the next generation. This is one of the ways kids learn overt bigotry, through jokes because jokes are easily accessible and also a way to tell if someone is part of your in-group or open to being part of your in-group. I learned soon enough what the N-word really meant after returning home and telling my parents the joke. I’ve never used it since.
We are often exposed to racism at a young age and these memories become indelible. I often see comments from White parents either about not knowing how to talk to their kids about racism and/or not wanting to “expose” them because they want them to keep their innocence. For the most part, BIPOC kids don’t get to keep their innocence. Once we have that first experience, it’s gone. Our world is now informed by knowing people are going to treat us that way for the rest of our lives. Not to mention, Black parents have to have The Talk with their children about how to interact with police so they come home alive at an age in which White kids get to remain innocent. My parents weren’t there to intervene with the woman asking me racist questions. The flight attendants didn’t intervene either. I was on my own and I was lucky enough to have been taught the difference between nationality and ethnicity so I knew how to respond to the woman. Kids are smarter than we give them credit for.
For those of us who are hapa, who have extended family from different races, particularly European, there’s the additional trauma of dealing with the bigotry within the family. There was no question Papa loved me, but I often wondered how when he would spew such awful, racist things about Asians and Black people in front of us, as well as using racial slurs. How had he done the mental gymnastics to keep himself from directing that racist venom at us (me, my dad, and siblings) but still be okay with saying those things in front of us? How could he say he loves us and show that he loves us while still holding so much hatred for people who looked like us? There’s trauma in that, in coming to terms with and dealing with the racism or bigotry of someone who loves you. I was the one who confronted him every time he started the racist comments and slurs. I was the one who made it clear, while still a kid, that what he was saying was unacceptable when others would not. Deep inside, while he was making those statements about others, it felt like they were directed at me because I cannot separate myself from being Asian. It’s why now when I call a friend on using Asian stereotypes and they say, “I didn’t mean you” I respond with “Yes, you did.”
While we don’t get to opt-out of these experiences as BIPOC children, it’s also important to understand that children as young as 5-years-old are already forming racial biases whether we recognize it or not. They already recognize that some groups have higher status or more value than other groups by the time they start Kindergarten. “But I taught my children to love people for who they are!” Please refer back to my first post in this series where I defined colorblind as an ideal and not a reality. It’s important to talk to your kids about the reality of world, not just Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream for us. Opt-in on these conversations so they understand why we can’t opt-out of the experience.
- Be honest with your kids and don’t sugarcoat the reality that BIPOC live with. You know your child(ren) the best so I’m not going to tell you exactly what to say or how to adapt what has largely been considered “adult conversation” to their learning level. Truthfulness is going to be the key in every conversation you have with them on race, racism, and antiracism.
- Give them the basic vocabulary to understand that racism isn’t just slurs and hate speech, but includes excluding us based on our race, judging us by stereotypes and treating us as if we are those stereotypes. They need to know that acts of racism aren’t just between individuals but can be perpetuated by their schools in how they discipline their BIPOC peers at disproportionately higher rates than White peers, even for things as small as dress code violations which then feeds these peers into the school-to-prison pipeline. Make sure they know what creates skin color and that it has no bearing on our intelligence, skills, or temperament as has been taught by racists for generations. Talk with them about how these harmful myths were used to set up harmful systems to oppress BIPOC. Discuss colorism and White beauty/speech standards that affect BIPOC from treating lighter-skinned BIPOC as more valuable and beautiful to conforming to White beauty/dress standards to standard English being the default demand with use of vernacular languages being seen as uneducated rather than a first language or just another method of communication. One thing you and your kid(s) need to understand is that like racism, colorism isn’t unique to the United States. It’s a global issue.
- Teach them that while you don’t have to have The Talk with them, Black parents have to do this with their children, often at a young age and doing so is never a guarantee they’ll return home alive. Tamir Rice was killed immediately upon the arrival of police who pulled up on the playground he was playing at alone. It was less than 2 seconds. He was never given a chance to “comply.” Let your kids know that compliance is a narrative of victim blaming. We’ve seen too many videos of Black people killed while “complying.” Instead, they need to understand that police shouldn’t be killing people at all. Don’t get mired in the hypocrisy of taking armed mass murderers alive or allowing a group of men to takeover and occupy a federal building for over a month, but Black people aren’t afforded that courtesy, armed or unarmed. Valuing the life of the young White man who took the lives of 9 Black Emmanuel AME Church members in Charleston, S.C. over the life of the Black veteran, Micah Johnson, who took the life of 5 Dallas police officers after recent deaths of Black people by police officers is the point. A White mass murderer will be taken alive because he has more value than the Black one who was killed by a bomb that police sent in on a robot. Black children are also not afforded the luxury of maintaining their “innocence” by police when their parents are stopped by them or are refusing to let them in their home: Philando Castile and Korryn Gaines are two examples of parents who were killed by police in front of their child; Korryn’s son was shot as well. The Hate U Give is an excellent resource to help you teach this. You can either read it with them, watch it with them, or both. An extension of this is that Black children are more likely to be treated as and charged as adults by the legal system than White children; they are old enough to know right from wrong versus the defense used by many White defendants that their brain isn’t developed enough to know better. When They See Us, Time: The Kalief Browder Story, 13th, and Murder to Mercy: The Cyntoia Brown Story are resources you can either watch to help yourself understand the subject matter better to teach your kid(s) or to watch with them.
- Teach them how they can use their privilege when they witness a peer experiencing racism. I think this can make a huge difference. While it’s not strictly about racism, remember the story about the 11-year-old boy who told his substitute teacher last year that he was thankful that he was being adopted by his two dads? That teacher faced consequences because three of his peers walked out of class and went straight to principal’s office when efforts to intervene as the teacher berated the student were unsuccessful. This is why teaching them the vocabulary is necessary, so they can identify acts of racism that aren’t overt slurs/hate speech that are happening right in front of them and can help squash any gaslighting that occurs when the person is confronted—sometimes BIPOC won’t say anything because we know we’ll be gaslighted and no one will back us up. I’ve been in that position many times.
- Know their educational materials and if they are lacking in diversity, supplement them with primary sources and texts that provide BIPOC narratives. While this will mostly apply to social studies/history materials, it can include English and literature. I know younger teachers are working to diversify their materials so BIPOC are more represented but there are going to be teachers who are entrenched in their way of doing things and refuse/are reluctant to change. To piggyback on this, diversify their bookshelves and their screens. Make sure they’re reading stories that center kids NOT like them, this builds empathy and helps fight stereotypes. While you’re doing this for your kid(s), make sure you’re doing it for yourself too. Don’t just read those non-fiction antiracism books, read fictional stories by BIPOC authors that feature BIPOC characters. I post the books I’ve read for the month at the end of the month/beginning of the following month on Instagram. You can build a list from that or my Goodreads bookshelf (links to both are on the sidebar). The books range from Young Reader (7-12) to Young Adult to various fiction genres and non-fiction. I also tend to focus on a specific group for the corresponding history month: i.e. Black authors or stories about Black people during Black History Month and LGBTQIA+ authors/stories during Pride Month. One thing I do want to point out is my fondness for the YA “history” books. Not texts, but books written for teenagers (sometimes younger) like Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You or An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States for Young People. They’ve made history a bit more digestible than the boring social studies and history textbooks we’re used to in school. Learning doesn’t have to be a drag and you, as the adult, don’t have to slog through Non-fiction history books that are so dry you find yourself re-reading the same page 10 times because your eyes started glossing over. These books are for us too. Take advantage of that.
- Make space for your child(ren) to ask questions, even if those questions are uncomfortable for you or challenge an implicit bias that they’ve observed in you. Kids notice our actions, especially when what we say and what we do do not align. This might mean you need to also be more aware of your own actions and whether or not they are antiracist. If something comes up that exposes an implicit or explicit bias of yours in the process of teaching your kid(s) you will likely need to pause the lesson and sit with it alone as you confront it. You know your kid(s) the best and should know if it’s something that can be processed through with them or not. I think the most important part is to ensure you come back to them and acknowledge that bias and how it’s wrong (based on stereotypes, based on a bad experience that doesn’t represent the race, etc.). One of the best things I think we can do for kids is show them we’re not perfect and we all have room to grow and learn. Prepare yourself for that uncomfortableness. Will you be able to explain why most of their classmates are White like them? Why your neighbors are White like you? Where are all the BIPOC in your life? Why you’re pushing for diversity when your social circles aren’t diverse? It’s okay that you aren’t living a perfectly antiracist life, but you have to be honest (back to #1) about why. Don’t make stuff up because it will make you look better in their eyes. It’s okay to tell them, “I didn’t know…” or “It wasn’t a priority when we moved here…” Again, show them there is room for growth.
- Acknowledge when you don’t know something. Don’t make stuff up when your kid(s) ask a question and you don’t know. It’s okay to tell them that you don’t know. Make it an opportunity to learn together, to teach them that it’s okay to not know everything there is to know, to go learn something you may not have thought about but they did and return to them with an answer.
- Costumes for Halloween or other activities (school dress-up days, community festivals) is one thing friends ask me every year as Halloween rolls around. What’s appropriate? What isn’t? If a group of people are discriminated against or killed for wearing their traditional clothing then a “costume” is inappropriate. If there’s a bodysuit your kid(s) can take off or makeup they can take off but it’s akin someone else’s skin that they cannot take off–think the Maui full-body costume or the girl dressed up as a Geisha giving a tea party in full makeup. Plus kids should not be dressing up as sex workers. It’s not an inherently bad profession, that’s a different story. Sexualizing kids is just plain inappropriate. G*psy costumes are a no because g*psy is a slur (the group should be referred to as Romani) and they are an oppressed group. There are plenty of professions and characters and things kids can dress up as. Taking away options that appropriate oppressed groups is not the end of the world. If kids can dress up as a Princess Darth Vader and go viral on social media for it we’ll all be just fine.
Teaching Tolerance (Note: I’ve used this organization as a resource for almost 20 years & they have a Facebook page you can follow)