Friday, October 16, 2009

Racial Insults: "I'm Used To It"

At ballet on Wednesday, a little girl asked Zoe why her skin was brown, told her it looked dirty, like it was covered with mud, called her "Blackie," and accused her of "sneaking around" the ballet studio. Zoe didn't say anything in response, and none of her friends in the dressing room stood up for her.

It's all so ugly, it even hurts to type it. I can only imagine how much it hurt Zoe to hear it. She was upset, but even worse, when I offered sympathy, she tried to make me feel better, saying, "I'm used to it." She's used to it, not because anyone has said that about her skin before, but because of the "Chinese eyes" incidents. How awful to be 8 years old and used to racial teasing and racial insults.

When kids make comments about race I don't automatically assume they've learned racism from their racist parents. But this one? The "mud" reference makes me think of white supremacists who call all non-whites "mud people." Am I overreacting? Maybe. But the "sneaking around" comment also seems too . . . I don't know the right word -- sophisticated?advanced? for a 6-year-old insulting an Asian-American.

Sneaky, sly, devious -- this part of the Asian-American stereotype exists, even with the prevalence of the "model minority" myths. But would a 6-year-old see Asian-Americans as sneaky? Has she been reading news accounts of Chinese spies? Watching Fu Manchu movies? Catching up on the justifications for internment camps for Japanese-Americans during World War II? Somehow I doubt it. So where does it come from at this age?!

I don't know what else to say. Enough intellectualizing.

My child claims to be "used to it." It just sucks.


Love for Lilly Yin said...

This makes my heart hurt. I know this time is coming for us as well. I am so sorry this happened to your daughter.

Anonymous said...

This is terrible. I just read something similarly ugly written by another single mom (US) of a child from China and she said her daughter experienced kids teasing her constantly, pulling back their eyes and talking gibberish intended to be Chinese. I can only think that this results from the relative lack of diversity in some US communities.

This is a presumptuous question to ask, but have you thought of moving? I know you teach and you need to stay in the orbit of your academic institution, but is there another neighbourhood you could investigate? This is so hurtful to Zoe and every child who experiences this. I guess this is the story of every immigrant family coming to a mostly white community, though. Obviously the little girl in question has not been educated in diversity at all, in fact, the opposite. Racial stereotypes in which darker-skinned people are bad, sneaky, and criminal have been passed on to her. Wouldn't it be nice if you could wave a magic wand. Meanwhile, hugs to you and Zoe. And may the stupid whitefolk get theirs one day.

Victoria said...

This is so awful. I'm so sorry that your daughter had to endure that. We have had mostly the flip side of racism, e.g. "Why are Asian kids just so adorable?" and "She must be so smart". Easier perhaps but the root is the same. I am indeed thinking of doing what osolomama suggests, moving to a more diverse community. Not an easy decision but this is one of those issues that keeps me awake at night.

Mei-Ling said...

You can prepare her for the teasing, but it's still gonna hurt. It also doesn't take much to lower a child's self-esteem.

You're white. She's not. This type of situation is likely to happen throughout her life.

I've actually never heard of the mud labeling before... is that a common racial insult where you live?

M3 said...

She's used to it?! Oh that just breaks my heart.

Mom2Isabel said...

I had a similar experience last spring.

Though I have prepared myself (or so I thought) for the inevitable racist comments, I was totally caught off guard when I overheard a child commenting on Chinese. Months later, I am still processing what happened. That this child's comments were a reflection of what she has heard at home is obvious. I don't even know where to direct my emotions which I am STILL trying to identify.

Anonymous said...

We've had a few incidents over the years with the teasing and my daughter is only now 6. First in preK, then Kindergarten, then with a child in the neighborhood, then summer camp before she entered first grade and recently in the aftercare program she attends after 1st grade. In every case, I went to the teacher or adult in charge and asked them to speak to the child and their parent and "take care of it so it does not happen again." I was very "matter of fact" about it; saying I know these are young children who don't realize what they are saying but nevertheless, take care of it. Our school district has a zero tolerance to bullying policy, which the camp and aftercare program also follow. All the teachers/adults were very sympathetic and promised to talk to the other children involved and their parents. In every case, I followed up with the teacher/adult, to learn of the parents' response. In every case, the parent was upset to learn what their child had said and we never had another problem with that child. In fact, my daughter later became good friends with the child in Kindergarten, as well as the child in the neighborhood. I would advise you to follow up each and every incident with the appropraite adult in charge.

travelmom and more said...

My guess is this little girl learned this at home. A child pulling “Asian Eyes” may come from TV or observations of differences, but telling a child her skin looks like mud, and questioning “sneaking” around sounds like things she might have learned from her environment. My students parrot what their parents say and they are in high school. I have also noticed that unapologetic racism is sneaking into more and more my student's vocabulary recently, and my colleagues and I are questioning if the radicalism gaining momentum against Obama is not fueling racial fires. Our children can not be protected from this type of teasing and kids can be very mean, but how do we give our children the tools they need to respond to, and to have the confidence to navigate a sometimes mean world? We often coach our kids about what they can say when people question their adoption, how do we coach them to respond to racism directed toward them or others?

madduchess said...

Poor Zoe. It sucks that 8 years old she has to learn that the world is full of douche bags. It sucks even more than she is "used to it." I agree, that the words that little brat used probably came verbatim from her douche bag parents. Pathetic.

Raina said...

Yes, she is definitely used to it. She'll be fine.

As an interesting and strange note: my (half Korean) daughter did the eye-pulling thing with her classmates last year. It kind of hurt me.

Lisa said...

Oh Malinda. The thought of this exchange makes me sad and sick to my stomach. How devastating. I'm so sorry.

I realize Osolomama's suggestion is a fairly drastic solution, but I do wonder if your kids are the only or just one of a very small number of Asians (or, other-than- caucasian kids) in your community. That's not to say these exchanges don't still happen in more diverse communities, but... its hard for a child to bear the brunt of being the one that stands out or is different. I recently watched the documentary "Adopted" and wrote about it in my blog. While I know the film is controversial, Jen Fero, the 32 year old adult adoptee featured in the film, speaks to the issue of growing up as the only Asian in a white family and white community -- and how hard this was for her. She talks too about how she was reluctant to tell her parents about incidents of teasing or worse -- because she felt both responsible and ashamed. She describes feeling lonely and the sense she never truly belonged. Hard stuff for any parent to hear.

Having a community of Asian friends, role models and mentors, I think, can make a big difference. My daughter and I are fairly lucky because we live in a relatively diverse community. She truly has a mix of friends from a mix of backgrounds... race, religion, ethnicity. I've also, just recently, begun consciously seeking out movies with Asian heros and heroines. We watched two last weekend. My daughter's reaction (she's 9) has really been something. She's still talking about these movies -- and the characters -- a week later.

Don't know if that helps. My heart aches for your girl.


Anonymous said...

Whenever I was bullied on the playground in elementary school, my mother always told me that I'd be fine also.

I can't remember if that was before, after, or in-between her reciting that old "sticks and stones" line and telling me that I shouldn't care about what "mean" people say about me.

Unfortunately, none of those things turned out to be true.

malinda said...

Thanks for all the comments, expressions of sympathy, and suggestions. I really appreciate all the input!

We live in a fairly diverse area --about 35% non-white. Only about 5%Asian, though interestingly under age 18 Asian is 29%.

The ballet school is not as diverse, though Zoe and Maya are not the only Asians or the only minority children by a long shot. They each have at least one other child of color in their classes.

We work a lot at role-play and coming up with responses, and other self-empowerment strategies, and Zoe has responded pretty sharply to other incidents in the past, though she didn't this time.

But it isn't her job to deal with it alone, so I've already talked to the folks at ballet, and they'll be talking to the child and the child's parents. They were horrified to hear about it and want to be proactive, which I appreciate. But we may be looking at another ballet school, run by a Taiwan-born Chinese man and his Italian wife.

No, "mud people" is not a common insult, but there is the lunatic fringe white supremacists who see all non-whites as soulless "mud people," and Jewish people as the "spawn of Satan (literally, the result of the union of Satan and Eve)." That's why the mud comment really scared me.

Yes, the movie "Adopted" is a real wake-up call to adoptive parents that we can't just be color-blind and ignore racism and bias that will definitely affect our kids.

We do the same kind of talk and role-play about dealing with racism and dealing with adoption questions. Zoe has decided what she's going to say if this particular child gets out of line again -- "You're ignorant, absurd and ridiculous!"

Lisa said...

Wow Malinda. First of all, hats off to you. You're a fabulous mom and your kids are lucky to have you in their court. (No pun intended.) Secondly, its a wake up call to me (and other adoptive parents perhaps?) that comments as offensive as this happen in a community that IS diverse. I role play with my daughter as well and I think it does help empower her at least a little. We use the same expression as well... its ignorance... amazing, appalling ignorance. Good luck to you.

Anonymous said...

What Not so Calm said about "sticks and stones" is so true, and former generations have often dismissed children's feelings (when they have the guts to articulate them) with this silly expression. I am so glad you talked to the teacher. I had a feeling, in thinking about it later, that it was probably the ballet school that was more of an issue than anything else.

AChineseDad said...

Malinda, I am so sorry that Zoe had to experience that terrible racial teasing. So glad you take racial teasing seriously. Even just for once if you don't take it seriously, your daughters will not want to talk to you about this sort of incident ever again. I am friends with some adoptees from China who confided in me that they never wanted to talk to their parents about racial teasing while growing up because their parents never understood their feelings nor took racial teasing incidents seriously. Your daughters will not only continue to experience overt racial teasing, but also covert and subtle alienation by other kids. Your daughters need to be continously praised for their talent, their accomplishments, and yes, their unique heritage (whatever you think that might be) to boost their self-esteem. Somehow I feel Zoe and Maya will do just fine when they grow up.

Anonymous said...

My mom taught me rhetorical comments back. I was very petite when growing up. Short but perfect.The best things come in little packages. Sadly Texas is one of those states that has not gotten past its racial slurs.

One of the people on the ranch had relationship with someone from Vietnam. She eventually married one of the cowboys. His brother was overheard using the most famous racial slur, the n word in front of his nephew. I have never liked the man since. I have to hold my tongue when they talk this way because it could hurt my husband's job. I have even told my husband that I may be half black. We do not know. What is going to happen when our children have a dark skinned child? When my daughters finally get old enough to settle down, I am going to have to tell these young men that I am adopted. I am going to have to tell them that I do not know what my background contains.

Antinette said...

I've been thinking about this for days and so sorry that your little girl was subjected to that kind of abuse. I wondered too if you were in a largely "white" area and then I stopped myself. Regardless of where you are or the diversity of the area, there is absolutely no excuse for this type of behavior.

Wendy said...

I am sorry Malinda and mostly, Zoe. I know you know what to do and that you have taught her what to do and that it is them and not her, but it does not take away the sting.
The saddest thing is that she is "used to it", we (the people) have to continue to make change and fight those who hate just to hate and dismiss to make themselves feel as if racism is dead. There is no other solution--it is a global problem and no amount of diversity changes that. Yes, diversity is better but does not shield on from insults or racial hatred; it is not the solution, but a band aid.

Anonymous said...

Wendy, diversity is not a bandaid. Unfortunately, to most whites diversity means a few people of colour thrown in to make the place look multicultural. It's only when you live in a place where whites are the MINORITY in a huge number of settings (on the subway, in restaurants, at school, in a store) and when they are, in fact, the minority (less than 50% of the population) that a huge switch is thrown for whites and for everyone else around them. It amuses me to no end when Americans claim that the big "diversity" thing not only started with them and in the same breath claim that it has nothing to do with racism. HUH? The more diverse the neighbourhood, the better it is for our kids. This does not eliminate racism--I am not so naive to believe that. But it has a huge impact on the way kids live their lives.

Wendy said...

I agree it does make a huge impact is the BEST possible scenerio; however, it does not eliminate racial hatred and it does not shield them from what is to come in the larger world.
My point is too many people claim their children do not deal with racial issues or it just doesn't happen where they live because their area is diverse--not true. I think it is easier to close your (not you specifically) eyes to what is happening as it may be more subtle, not always, or one may think they have solved the problem. It can be a band-aid IF it is not properly discussed, addressed, and recognized that racism is an issue no matter where you live.

Anonymous said...

Wendy, exactly--in the real world, 70% of the population is Asian or African. I would define diversity as something that begins to approach that.

I have DD's old Grade 2 pic in front of me. Six out of 24 kids are white (that 25%). This ratio is in line with the K - 6 demographic in our city. Yes, I live in an unusual community, but that is not my point. (We can't always pick where we live, after all.) My point is that the more diversity, the better. Seek it, find it, cultivate it, make decisions based on it.

Call me jaded but I suspect the people who were arguing with you about race and diversity might have been thinking that 6 visible minorities out of 24 whites was diversity. Maybe?

Anonymous said...

Sorry--did not make one other point. I have not had to deal with racial incidents thus far, probably because there are so many ethnicities and languages represented here. Nobody in the classroom would get away with saying, "Speak Indian" (a racial incident recounted on another blog) because at least five children in the class would know that means Urdu, Punjabi, Gujarati, etc. I do NOT say any of this with the conviction that DD will never have to deal with racism. Simply saying that the impact of deep diversity is not to be discounted.

Dee said...

Malinda, I am so glad your girls are open with you and talk about what is going on w.r.t. racial "teasing." Looking into another other ballet school sounds like a great idea. Also, I see you're in Ft. Worth. Have you explored whether there are any Chinese dance possibilities in your area? I pulled up Jaiping Shi Dance School via Google

Hard to tell where the school is located, so it could be a bit of a hike from FW. The photos section mentions performances being held at a Garland location. Fom my own experience as a white mom to a Chinese-born daughter, I know that sometimes as parents of transracially adopted kids, we have drive long distances to give our kids what they need.

All my best to you.