Saturday, August 06, 2011

Race and 7 / 8 Year Olds and Their Parents

Well, this post could very well get me in hot water with some people. But it's been on my heart the last couple days and I'm just going to say it anyway.

Racism exits today. Here, right where you are. And not talking about it doesn't make it go away. And I'm kind of naive I guess, because my kids are still young. So I haven't seen racism in them or their friends. (maybe others have, but I haven't). No, I've seen curiosity about race, and kids trying to understand race. But I haven't seen what I would consider racism. And maybe as a white person that doesn't face racism in my daily life, I'm not qualified to judge what is racism. But I'm just saying..I don't see it in the kids..much. (There was once..but the little girl was young. And even though it sounded mean-spirited, she was lucky to have people who cared about her and others enough to set her straight on some things. And the adults around her used the opportunity to teach respect for all people. And so I choose to believe it was just not knowing and understanding). I do see it in the parents. (Thankfully not in most parents..but in just enough that's it's made me sit up and notice). Let me try to explain, using my own kids, well one of them anyway. I kind of get a weird window into the world..because my kids and I are a different race from each other.

When Hannah was little, she explained race by skin color, but not in the terms we adults use. It was more like "your skin is light brown, well not even brown. My skin is medium brown. My friend so and so's skin is dark brown. It's not black though, even though someone said it was black". See, innocent. One day she came home from after-school care in kindergarten and asked me "mom, what team am I on?". (I said Alabama - roll tide! just kidding!). I asked what she meant. She said "am I on the white team or the black team?". I was a little concerned - and was ready to head down to her school (that I LOVE) and ask why on earth they were dividing kids into teams for games based on race!! But because I know her school and know that would not be tolerated, I figured I must be missing something. So, I asked a few more questions first. (always a wise choice where my kids are involved) And it turns out - there were no teams. Hannah was just trying to figure out where she fit in in a world where it seemed like everyone else was either white or black. There were no organized teams..but she was asking "am I supposed to play with the white kids or the black kids? Where do I belong?". And I've learned that - kids categorize. It's a developmental skill..not meanness. Kids with curly hair / straight hair, boys / girls, 2nd grader / 1st graders, black / white. I asked "are you trying to figure out if you're white or black?". She said yes. So I responded "neither". And then I tried to explain that she was Asian..and that was it's own race and she wasn't white or black and she should play with whoever she wanted or whoever looked like they needed a friend.

It's taken a long time for Hannah to understand there are many races and nationalities and ethnicities in the world. She tried for a while to put everyone into: white, black, asian. (because kids categorize. And honestly, I think a great many kids do this - though most probably leave out the asian. But Hannah's just more verbal about it than most). Well, asian = chinese to her for a while. And slowly, as she occassionally met people that were Korean or Vietnamese or Indian (from India) she began to understand that "Asian" incorporated more than "Chinese". (And the reason we met people who were all these other ethnicities was simply that when Hannah saw someone who looked asian, she marched up and said "hey, are you Chinese?". She still does actually..but now she's starting to say "you look asian..are you Chinese or another kind of asian?".

Another thing Hannah did for a long time is group Hispanic people into the category "Asian". Their skin color was often more similar to hers than it was to a person who was black or white. The earliest I remember this is when Hannah was 4 (before we travelled to get Sadie), a lady who looked hispanic was jogging down our street. Hannah glanced at her and said very matter-of-factly "I think that's my birth mother!". I was pretty much like "um, I'm quite sure it's not. For MULTIPLE reasons". And so we began talking about there were people that were hispanic and that was different from asian, even though skin color could be similar. Now actually, Hannah is learning that not all Hispanic people come from Mexico..but from other places as well. When Hannah plays at the park, she will often walk up to a child there that looks hispanic and say "Hey..I speak Chinese, do you speak Spanish?". Kind of funny in that she actually doesn't speak Chinese (at least not above the level she could learn from watching Nihao Kai-lan cartoon! And she probably knows as many Spanish words as Chinese). But she shows no hesitation in asking about race or ethnicity. She's proud to be Chinese and she figures everyone else should be proud to be whatever they are and be ready to talk about it.

It may seem like we talk about race a lot - and well I guess we do. Not just strictly race..but race, ethnicitity and nationality. Not an everyday conversation..but it comes up. Hannah drives a lot of that..she's interested and has questions. (Sadie on the other hand never brings it up.). I think some of it comes from the fact that Hannah doesn't see her race reflected as the majority hardly ever. And unlike some other minorities, she doesn't even see her race reflected as the majority in her church, or her family. That's not a bad just is. (But it's also why I liked her being a part of Camp China last weekend - scroll down). And Hannah seems comfortable with that..but she's also observant and has questions. Hannah is also old enough that she's studied Martin Luther King, Jr.and a little bit about civil rights in school. She is completely outraged at the idea of segregation. (She also wanted to know if she lived in the United States during segregation where she would go to school.) She thinks Ruby Bridges is very cool (Black child who was the first to integrate her school after Brown vs. Board of Eduation). So, yeah. We talk about race a lot in our family. It's been a learning cuve for both of us in how to do that in ways that are respectful and honoring to everyone.

Contrast that with the way I've heard race talked about among adults in the past and this week. (and this is where I may step on some toes!) Last year Hannah was in a class that included some students who were hispanic. I don't know how many exactly..but more than a couple. And the same is true this year. And there are several classrooms in the school that have a significant number of hispanic children. Beautiful, bright children whose parents want them to learn and grow and develop and have fun and make friends. Kind of like what we all want for our kids. And sadly, I have heard more than one parent "grumble" about their child being placed in a room with those kids. Comments like "Did you see the list of names? I can't pronounce half of them. Great! (sarcastic great!)" or "Who is my child going to be friends with - I mean with the nationality of the other kids?". "There is no one my daughter can be friends with in this class" (based ONLY on the names of the kids. Not meeting them. Not even seeing them!! )Seriously. And I've heard other comments too. A couple comments were said directly to me. Because I was white and the other parent was white so I must agree, right? And actually at least two times that I know of (only once this year) I've said "well, my child is not white either" and the other parent looked at me like "oh, duh! I forgot!". So, okay.. this is not the majority of people I know. It's actually only a couple conversations I've had plus a couple relayed to me. But I've just heard a little "grumbling" on this topic over the years. And I have to think there's more going on..or at least being thought. So, if your child is in a class like's my experience / thoughts for what it's worth:

* Be glad! Your child will be enriched by it.

* The vast vast majority of the kids of other nationalities in our schools speak English. Really, they do. I've sat at the tables with them at lunch. I've visited their class. I've taught them. There may be one who doesn't here and there..but they learn "playground english" fast. (not a real term - my words). The kids who get ESL help especially after kindergarten,(for the most part) need help with academic language..langauge on tests, in textbooks, etc. But your child absolutely can play with them on the playground just fine. And even if there's a child who doesn't speak English - kids figure out how to communicate. Don't worry.

* Your child will not be the "only" white child in his / her class. At least at my school. Actually, far from it.

* Even IF your child were to end up being the only white child in his / her class - it would be fine. There are many children across the world who have survived being the only child of their race / nationality in a class. My child is one of them.

* Your child will learn in this class. The teacher will teach in English and will teach your child the same thing other kids of this age are learning in their classes. Your child's education will not be harmed, but will be enriched. And my secret observation here: In many schools (though not all I concede) the classrooms with kids who may need a little extra help (such as classrooms with kids who have disabilities or classrooms with kids who need ESL support) tend to have some of the strongest teachers. That will be a benefit to your child too.

* You might have to discuss race with your child. It's not so hard. But as kids begin categorizing, observing, and trying to make sense of the world - we definately have to model respect. But sometimes we have to verbalize it as well. For example: Hannah knows what racism is. We've explicity talked about it. It started when she was learning about civil rights at school, but also she had someone who wouldn't let her do something because she wasn't born in America. (but that was the young child mentioned earlier where it was actually used by the adults around as a teaching moment and I believe was handled well). She's young and still working on the understanding, but she can give you a very simple definition. "If someone doesn't want to play with you because you're not playing fair, or because they have someone else they're playing with, or because they want to do something else, or they just want to be alone - that's not racism. They just don't want to play. But if they won't play with you because of what you're skin looks like or where you're from - that's racism". She will also tell you that it's not okay to make fun of what people look like or where they are from, and that it's not okay to sing songs that make places other people are from sound bad because it might hurt someone's feelings.

* Your child's life will be enriched by having friends that are different, whether "different" in your child's case means white, black, hispanic, asian, child with disabilities, or what. One of Hannah's good friends in her class last year was hispanic. And it was that little girl that actually stood by Hannah when someone else wasn't being so nice. Hannah's friends have included kids with disabilities, especially in years she was in an inclusion class. (which is not about race..but it is about respect for everyone).

* Your child is looking and listening to you for help in figuring out this world. And when you are looking at class lists and dropping off school supplies this week, your child might just be noticing any grumbling, sighing, or whispered "do you see these names?" comments. In contrast, your child might also be paying attention to your genuine "wow - looks like a great class. I think you'll have a great year!" And if you teach your child respect for everyone..she might just learn to respect herself and stand up for herself when needed too - because she also is a person of great worth in this world.

I realize my perspective as a white parent with asian daughters may be a little unique. I honestly seek out diversity for her. But I'm thankful for that unique perspective and I *hope* I would feel the same way if my children were white. I honestly believe I would because this gets down to what I believe about my faith as well..belief that each person is a unique and valuable creation of God. You know "Jesus loves the Little Children" and "Love your neighbor as yourself" You can't love people you don't take the time to get to know. And by no means do we do this perfectly. Far from it actually. But what I know is this: For our family, we are enriched by all the people we do know, and particularly all the people my children know. In Hannah's girl scout troop, I think the black girls outnumber the white girls. At Camp China, Hannah gets to be the majority - a group of 17 girls in her age group..all Chinese. At school, probably 1/3 of the class is Hispanic. Her teacher has an Asian painted umbrella in her class, as well as Native American items (which is a culture that is an interest to her teacher). And you know what? It's going to be a great year!!

Monday, August 01, 2011

Camp China!

This past weekend we took a LONG drive to Black Mountain, NC for our first visit to Camp China. Camp China is a weekend family camp for families who have children from China.Those of you who know my children probably know that Hannah particularly is all about everything China. I'm very thankful she is proud to be from China and I want to encourage that in both girls. We hope to return to visit China one day, but in the meantime, we had "Camp China". The girls and I had a blast and hope to be able to go back next year.
We joined about 50+ other girls from China and their families for a fun weekend of games, Chinese dance, Chinese art, swimming, s'mores around a campfire, new friends, and more. Morning activities were split with the kids in their age-group classes with counselors and teachers while parents had workshops and a guest speaker. (And maybe even a nap!). Sunday featured Kay Bratt, author of Silent Tears: a Journey of Hope in a Chinese Orphanage, as the speaker for the adults. She was a great speaker with a very inspiring message. Then, after lunch, families had some free time for swimming, playing in the creek, resting,etc., folowed by family activities. Saturday we went to a cooking class and learned to make a cold noodle dish. Sunday we painted Chinese umbrellas and decorated picture frames. The evenings varied. Friday evening was the welcome campfire, s'mores, and games. Saturday evening was a movie for the kids with crafts for the adults. (Kids had crafts in their morning classes). I tried out calligraphy and Chinese knot tying. Sunday evening was the closing ceremony complete with a talent show, showing off what they learned in Chinese Dance class, and a dragon parade. Both my girls were in the talent show. Hannah did a dance she made it up - it was really beautiful! Sadie told knock-knock jokes. They were hilarious! Not because the jokes were funny, but actually because well, they weren't funny at all but she thought they were. And she was just too dang cute as she boldly marched to the stage, took the microphone, told her jokes, and then laughed at her own made-up jokes. Everyone else couldn't help laughing too. (so of course now she thinks her jokes are the best and she's going to be a comedian - or "joker" as she calls it - when she grows up!) All-in-all a very fun weekend. To me the value of the weekend was not in the kids learning about Chinese culture. The real value was in just hanging out with so many other kids just like them. And also in hanging out with the teenage and young adult counselors and the adult teachers. They were also Asian (mainly Chinese). All the girl counselors were adopted from China as well. (The guy counselors were asian, but not necessarily adopted). The counselors were awesome- even spending time hanging out with the kids during what was supposed to be their free time, giving piggy back rides, and more. It was neat to see how the little girls looked up to them. Sometime Saturday as we were headed to our room, Hannah said "mom, almost everyone here is Chinese! Except the parents!". Here's some pictures from our weekend.

This was a cooking class! The cooking instructor took some time out of teaching us to pose with some of the counselors who walked through after playing a game of counselor paint-tag.

Sadie and a new friend mixing up ink for calligraphy

Hannah painting her umbrella

Hannah dancing for talent show

Sadie takes the microphone for knock-knock jokes

Just hanging out with new friends

Closing Ceremony