“Do you hear what he’s saying?” asked our 10-year-old neighbor to my husband about our 6-year-old.
“No,” replied my husband, thinking that our son was swearing or saying other inappropriate things he sometimes uses to get our attention.
“He’s singing that song about [sotto voce] picking cotton.”
He was referencing the children’s song: “Pick a bale of cotton,” sung by the popular kids’ artist Raffi. Some have criticized this song as being racist and promoting slavery; others think it represents African-Americans’ stoicism of overcoming their plight through music.
Whatever the case, it seemed poignant that a fourth-grader is aware of race and its implications but a kindergarten-age kid isn’t.
It put me at a crossroads of thinking about race awareness and how to go about creating a healthy way of talking about it to my son while also being respectful of histories and differences.
Growing up in a biracial household, I know the feeling of not belonging in a predominantly white world and not liking that I was a different color than my parents.
Pointing out or talking about race weren’t things that were really brought up during my childhood. But looking back, I think it would’ve been helpful to my whole identity if I could’ve embraced my Asian-ness early on as opposed to pushing it away and trying to ignore it.
I never really was confronted with my race until I was 9 years old. We lived in a small university town prior to that. All my parents’ friends knew about my adoption history, so there was no need to bring up the fact that I wasn’t white.
We were living in a race-neutral household. Race didn’t matter, only love. Which sounds good until inevitably people were curious and straightforward on the delicate subject of my ethnicity. This happened when we moved Brisbane, Australia where my parents were taking a sabbatical year.
Miss Ma, my new teacher, asked me on my first day: “Are you Chinese, like me?” Shaking my head, looking down, and feeling embarrassed, I mumbled back, “No.”
I was thinking: “I’m American, not Chinese. Why is she singling me out for what I look like?” But that was just the first of many direct questions as well as ridicules about being Asian (“Ching, chong, Chinaman,” etc.) and I had to learn how to deal with it.
My mom’s advice was to reply to these insults with reciprocation; see how the taunters like being called their race: “Well… you are… Caucasian.”
This, I learned, wasn’t a good retort. It took me years to put these insults in perspective and to feel comfortable identifying as an Asian person. If my family had been more forthright from the beginning with who I was externally, my upbringing probably would’ve been a lot easier to deal with.
I never wanted to be Asian then, but now I’m finally proud of it. That’s why I want my son to be happy with himself now, not in 20 years.
So we talk about his race. He knows he’s Korean. He has a Korean name and a Korean face, and he can be proud of it. We talk about kids in his class who are black, Latino, white, Asian, and Muslim. He knows our neighbors are Native American and what that means.
We talk about slavery, wars, and some people not liking others because of whom they worship or look like. He hears things on the news about refugees, immigrants, and border walls. He can’t quite grasp the vast implications of all these things about race, but he can identify many of the ethnicities surrounding him, and he respects them.
This I feel is the most important thing. Instead of ignoring the differences, let’s embrace them and talk about them in a respectful way. It’s armoring kids and giving them defenses against the ugliness of racism that will inevitably rear its head.
Lisa Schroeder of Tacoma is a retired journalist, a full-time parent and part-time writer. She’s one of six News Tribune reader columnists for 2019. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @schroedli.