I pulled at the corners of my eyes, slanting them until all I could see was light and distorted faces. Then, I strung together a long chain of “Chinese-Japanese” words, “Ching, ching, chong, chang, chong.” It got me some laughs. Other kids did it too, so I guessed it was no big thing. I was a nice little girl after all, who would never hurt a soul. There was rarely an Asian anywhere near my playground anyway.
I heard comments. Racists ones. I didn’t understand, but when the words landed, my gut recognized ugliness. Not at my house, but I heard them sometimes at extended family or neighborhood gatherings, stores or sporting events. I heard opinions about African Americans, Mexicans, Asians. Sometimes the voices were from people I knew to be hateful, but sometimes they came from people I knew to be nice. I’m not sure how I responded, but likely with silence.
One African American family lived in our middle-class suburban neighborhood. The daughter, Terri, was my fifth-grade class buddy. I liked her. She was smart and liked Scooby Doo and swinging high like me. I didn’t exclude her in my play at home, but we didn’t hang out like we did at school. She lived a few streets away. I don’t remember inviting her to my house, or she inviting me, more than a couple times. The kids I built forts with, the ones I have all the Lone Oak Drive memories with, well, they all looked just like me.
My sister and I were once travelling unaware into a small Kentucky town. When we got close to the town center, a frightening roar entered the car windows. Curious, we turned a corner. Before us was a gathering of angry men in pointed, white hoods. It took a minute to process, but the hate scorched our eyes and hearts on impact. The KKK was real. Though our turnaround was instant, the memory is vivid.
Was I a racist as a child? Even unintentionally?
Am I now?
I’d really rather not think on these things.
I am a white, middle class woman, and I have had experiences with racism. Some big, some small. I’ve heard it, seen it, and participated in it through my own ignorance and silence.
Now, as parent to three Asian-Americans, when I hear of kids slanting their eyes and speaking in “Chinese”, my heart hurts. Momma bear gets protective.
I am no longer passive about racism. I’ve allowed myself to wrestle with it. I’ve stood on the soil of Africa and Haiti and China, and considered how the place of my birth, the color of my skin, has altered the trajectory of my life for my benefit.
“Not being racist” doesn’t cut it anymore. I’ve seen too much, and three of my kids have beautiful, Asian, brown skin. They have silky, straight, black hair, almond eyes and differently shaped noses. I want them to see themselves represented in the world we’re planted in. They are watching, and collecting memories of their own. They’ve already experienced racism through stereotypes and their own encounters of kids “speaking Chinese-Japanese” with slanted eyes.
As they grow, I suspect they’ll wrestle and have more experiences with racism, and prejudices against differences, just as I have. If I want to honor and guide the full child, I get no free pass to not talk about racism and differences.
I want to raise up little allies, be an ally, to people who live and look differently. My husband and I want to raise our kids up with intention. We can’t assume that not saying racist things will be enough to protect them from even unintentional racist notions. The world is so ugly, but we can shed light into the darkness.
I have felt guilty, protective and angry, for how I’ve neglected to reconcile race in my world, but I don’t want to get stuck there. It isn’t helpful. We want to be better and do better. We want to open our hearts, home and table to more voices, friendships, and experiences. Not in the pounding my head guiltily against the wall, here’s another area this momma doesn’t measure up, way. That’s not sustainable. More in let’s get creative, mix things up and breathe the world more deeply in ways:
Prayer: I’m asking God to have His way with the ugly places in our hearts. I’m asking him to show me ways that racism might saturate my thinking. I’m asking for the words to talk to our kids. For the boldness to set an example on responding to racist comments and playground games. I am asking the Lord to continue to color our family’s world with people. I pray that He’ll stir our hearts and open our eyes to our neighborhood, community and world.
Voices We Listen To: The last racist protest in the news shed some light on a pattern that needed changing. Fired up and ready to use my voice, I was devouring blog posts. But I realized, other than some MLK quotes, everything I was sharing about race, was written by a white person. I love that my white-skinned sisters are trying to be allies, but in times of flared tension, I don’t want to only hear from them. So I went looking for what my black friends, Hispanic neighbors, or Muslim writers, were thinking. I admit my need to be enlightened, challenged.
Honest Talk: I really didn’t want to show my kids the news video of white hooded men gripping tiki-torches and chanting hate. I really didn’t want to tell my kids that the contractor daddy just talked to won’t be doing the painting he bid on because he added that he “never hires any of them Mexican workers” to his sales pitch. I really don’t want to explain to my kids that all races and cultures have racism. That though not everyone is racist, every group has pockets of racist people. None of us, regardless of our appearance, is protected from bigotry. I’d rather not talk to my kids about our country’s history of slave run plantations, “colored bathrooms”, Japanese internment camps or low pay of migrant workers. I’d rather not explain to my kid why people have swastikas on their parade banners.
But I need to if we want to be a family of difference makers.
What Voices Fill My Home?
We listen to podcasts, watch Netflix, play Spotify, have a basket of library books on the coffee table and scroll Instagram. How many of these voices, chefs, pastors, authors and characters are white? Too many.
Adding some new Pandora stations is such an easy way to raise up culturally tuned in kids. We have kitchen dance parties to Lecrae, “Latinos En La Casa”, and “Indian Vibes”. We do homework to “Chinese Traditional”.
I’ve widened my social media following to include the perspectives of Ravi Zacharias, Awesomely Luvvie, Francis Lam, ChihYu Smith, Nat Geo Travel, Jo Saxton, Khalida Brohi, Eugene Cho, Wynter Pitts, Preemptive Love, Esther Havens, Latasha Morrison, Confessions of a Muslim Mom, Tony Evans, Naptime is Sacred, and Grandpa Chan.
When roaming the library, I always try to grab a book or two with characters that don’t look just like us. Check out Here We Read, I Love Books and I Can Not Lie, and The Sweet Pea Girls on Instragram for globally minded suggestions.
What Toys Do the Kids Play With?
Diversifying toys is easy. Our Barbie and baby doll baskets are filled with plastic skin in all shades and eyes in all shapes.
Who Are We Friends With?
The honest answer? Mostly white people. Yes, thankfully, many of those white people have biracial, adoptive families. But, sadly, I’ve never had a deeper than casual friendship on a long-term basis with anyone who didn’t match the hue of my skin color. Lord, please change this.
Being around matching people is easier. You mostly agree, like mostly the same food, dress mostly the same. It’s comforting, until you begin to see others, all others, in all their creative shapes and forms, and realize you are missing out.
I want my kids’ worlds to be wider than mine was. Until college, I was mostly around white people. My interaction with Asians was limited to a couple exchange students.
We’ve been intentional to put our kids in a school with kids of all races and cultures, and thankfully their neighborhood friends are white, African-American and Hispanic. But we want them to see their parents connecting more and more widely, more deeply, to their friends’ parents. Neighbors have taught us to roll tamales and brought us El Salvadorian pupusa, and we have had so much fun. Our prayer is that the people we invite to our table continues to broaden.
Is it weird to pray for Chinese friends? Probably, but I am doing it anyway.
In full disclosure, I deleted this section ten times. This girl who has travelled the world, earned a degree in multicultural education, mothers three children born in China and is fascinated with cultures, is so not cool with my friend status.
What Food Are We Eating?
We love to take our kids to a truly authentic Chinese restaurant, where being white makes you stand out. We love this for our family. We want our taste buds to grow, in a fun way, with the foods we bring in and the eateries we seek out.
I had no idea how my eyes were closed before, though I thought them wide open. Skin color, races and cultures, I thought them fascinating, but it wasn’t personal to me. It is now.
I hope you’ll join me in self-reflection. Let’s consider how our world’s might be too small, what people we might be missing out on, what tastes await us, and what the books we read and the songs we hum might be teaching our kids.
Lord, make us change makers for our kids and our communities.
I’d love to learn from you. If there is a voice you listen to that I should add to my world, please share.