Saturday, February 26, 2011

Race in America -- A Microcosm

OK, this is going to be one of those posts where I'm not quite sure what I'm saying or whether I have a point to make.  I'm trying to process something, and I'm hoping that writing it out will help, and if not, maybe your comments can help. . . .

This evening we went to McDonald's after Chinese School with another family -- it's become a bit of a tradition after Chinese School.  It gives the kids a chance to run off steam after 3 hours of hard learning, and it gives the parents a chance to talk.  Sometimes it's more than one other family, but this time it was just Zoe and Maya and our friend M. and her parents.

It wasn't very crowded when we got there, and then a large group, all African-American (yes, that's going to become relevant later), came in for a birthday party.  Zoe and Maya and M. were playing well together, and then suddenly M. came to her parents, upset and crying that she wanted to go home.  All three girls complained that it was crowded in the play area and that some kids had been mean to them.  It was near our usual departure time, so we picked up and left.

Driving home, Zoe said, "Those African-American kids were really mean to us, but they said we were being mean to them, but we weren't." I was formulating an answer, to basically ask her whether race was relevant here, when Maya chimed in, "Yeah, one of the girls called me a 'white girl,' and I told her I wasn't white!  Why did she call me white?"

Hmmm, maybe race was implicated in this "mean kids" encounter. Or maybe not.  Maybe it's just one group of kids who know each other wanting to play in the play place without interference by another group of kids they don't know -- and that can go both ways.  Zoe and Maya admitted they sometimes get irritated when they are playing and another group of kids comes along to play in the same place.

How to address the "white girl" comment?  I said I didn't know why the little girl called Maya white -- maybe she didn't know very many Asian people, and just thought since Maya wasn't black, she must be white. But what about the other racial overtones, if any?

I encouraged the girls to  talk about every way these kids were mean, including the fact that they used "the sh- word" (that would be "shut up," not that other word you're thinking of!), with Zoe sheepishly admitting that maybe she used "the sh- word" first.  But I made them tease out what each individual kid did;  instead of "THEY took a toy that Maya had found and dropped," I asked, "OK, WHICH kid took it?"  I wanted them to start thinking of individuals acting badly instead of a group acting badly.  We then talked about all our African-American friends, and how they are not mean, so it isn't right to think that these kids were mean BECAUSE they were African-American; just like it wouldn't be right for the other group of kids to think Zoe and Maya and M. were mean BECAUSE they were Asian American.

I left it at that, but admittedly feel unsettled about how I handled it.  I keep reminding myself that I can always have a "do-over," a chance to talk more about it with my kids.  But I'm not sure what I'd say differently in that do-over. 

Any advice?


thewonderfulhappens said...

I can't think of anything else you could have done! I think you handled it very well!

Jane Katch said...

I am a kindergarten teacher and I like the way you handled this! The only thing I would add would be to ask the kids, "what do you think you might want to do if this happens again?". They will probably come up with a range of ideas, from "get a grown-up" to "walk away" to i'll tell the kids I don't like being talked to that way." This helps them realize that they have options, depending on how they feel and how important it seems at the time. I believe this is very empowering!

a Tonggu Momma said...

Taking notes here... I like how you asked them specifics to help them separate "they" from individuals in their minds.