The other day, I overheard a conversation between my daughter and another child. He asked, “Why do you say Baba?” My 2.5 year old proudly smiled and said, “Because…Baba is how you say Daddy in Chinese.”
My heart skipped a beat. I am not sure when children fully develop self-awareness of race and ethnicity according to Piaget or Erikson or whatever child development theorist, but I realized with a startling revelation that my little girl knew that she was somehow different from the white kids. This caused all kinds of anxiety to start stirring inside me and brought up some not-so-pleasant memories.
I spent the majority of my K-12 years living in a very small town in the midwest. According to a quick wikipedia search, the town is almost 90% White, and 0.04% Asian. I was very acutely aware of this fact, being one of 2 Asian people in my elementary school (the other one being my sister). One of my most painful encounters with racism occurred in this town, and more than 20 years later, it is still freshly embedded in my mind. On the first day of sixth grade, I was very excited because I had recently tested into the “Talented and Gifted” class. I remember walking into the class and sitting down next to my friends. As the teacher rattled off the roll call, she reached my name and paused. She mispronounced my name. Then she peered at me over her glasses and uttered a sentence that made my heart drop, “Are you sure you are in the right class?” I shyly nodded, and in response, she repeated slower and louder, “Are you sure you are in the right class? This is the talented and gifted class. This is not the ESL class (English as Second Language).” My face burning hot, I choked out a small “Yes.”. The rest is a blur but I distinctly remember feeling painfully embarrassed and shamed and yet feeling so angry because I knew, even at the age of 11, that there was something wrong with what had just happened.
I never told my parents about that day. I don’t know if that teacher was intentionally being cruel or just ignorant. My husband and I have talked about this issue countless times. The problem is that racism, however subtle and accidental, is still racism. I have lost track of the number of times that my abilities have been questioned because of the way I look, or people telling me that they are “pleasantly surprised” because I don’t speak with an accent, or being greeted mockingly, “konichiwa! when are you going back to your country?” 20+ years later, I still sometimes have trouble always speaking up and confronting these lines of racism, but I know that if I don’t start doing it more, how do I expect my children to grow up in a world that is better?
The reality is that I know I can’t shield my kids from racism forever, but I pray that my children will never feel embarrassed that they look different from their white/black counterparts or be ashamed that they are fluent in another language. I hope that if my children are ever in that situation when some ignorant person makes a comment about their their slanty eyes or make an off-hand comment about their “lack of accent”, my son and daughter will stand up straight, smile proudly, and have the courage to speak up to confront racism.
Dear Mrs. Crago: I wished I had the courage to speak up that day in class. I wished I had been able to tell you that you should know better. Just because I am not blond-haired and blue eyed, it doesn’t mean that I don’t belong in your class. You may not have meant it to be hurtful, but the fact is that I still often think about that day. I hope that as a teacher, as someone who is suppose to be there to guide children, that your realize how your words have a lot of impact on young minds, both in a positive and negative way.