Racism I’ll have to explain to my daughter

She’s asked to wear her mother’s hanbok for months now. And now it’s her chance to wear this, the traditional ceremonial clothing of Koreans. Sure it’s mostly a costume, made of nylon fabric. But so what? Look how happy she is as she sits there, posing for the camera, wearing the clothes of a country she’s never seen, the clothing of a country her mother doesn’t remember.

Meet my multi-ethnic family.

My wife was born in Korea, adopted by a U.S. family when she was only one. Now we have children, and they’re officially multi-ethnic. I know this because the government told us so. She’s not white. She’s not Asian. She’s multi-ethnic.

I’m not sure what the importance of this label is. Certainly it’s not something I think about on a daily basis. But I know that it’s still important to others.

In Korea, my daughter would likely be subject to more prejudice than here in the U.S. So her interest in her mom’s hanbok has an interesting subtext.

But I suspect the United States isn’t a perfectly safe zone for her.

My mother made this point quite clear once. “You know, there were places you wouldn’t have been accepted,” she said.

Was she referring to my own relatives, perhaps? It’s interesting to think about how my father’s family, who can trace their ancestry through the 17th century Great Migration back to England, would have reacted to their grandson marrying an… They probably would have used the “O-word.” Perhaps I’m being unfair, but I know enough about my grandfather to suspect he would have had trouble with this.

Or was she really talking about today? When she said there “were” places, did she mean “there are” places?

These are the things I think about sometimes when I think about my daughter.  We’ve managed to create a life for her where racism doesn’t intrude.  I don’t think this is out of any particularly deliberate effort on our part.  We live, work, and socialize in a relatively diverse community of people.  Race doesn’t even seem to be an issue.

But some day, I suspect, it will. And I’m not certain I’ll be ready when that day comes.

Handling racism in the literature class

Talking about race is a difficult thing for a white male.

Every time I gear up to teach Huckleberry Finn, I go through this mildly awkward self-reflection. It’s impossible to teach the novel without in some way addressing Twain’s use of the “N-word” and dealing with the question of whether or not Huckleberry Finn is a racist novel. The answer isn’t a short one, and leads to provocative discussions.

Rather than skirt the issues, I confront them head on. We discuss the controversy of the word. We look at Langston Hughes’ description of the word as “a red rag to an angry bull,” and we consider arguments for re-appropriating the word and thus defanging it. We don’t spend a ton of time on the word itself. If you want to discuss the issue of racism in Huckleberry Finn, you need in any case to get beyond this word, and prepare to analyze the end of the novel.

We do a decent job. I’m always happy in the end.

But every time I’m preparing the material, I get a bit nervous. I’ve taught this several times, but there’s always the moment when we’re opening up the books to Chapter 2 and getting ready to read quietly. I wonder what’s going to happen. And I wonder how I’ll deal with it.

What business do I have, talking about race as a white, middle-aged man from a privileged background?

Someone has to address it. If it’s not me, then who? At this particular moment, I’m the person who can best engage my students on the issue of racism.

I can handle these discussions in my own class. But I wonder how I will deal with it when it comes up in my own home.

Racism, as handled by childrens’ books

Like the hanbok, one of my daughter’s favorite books belonged to her mother as a child. Chinese Eyes tells the story of a third-grader who is called “little Chinese Eyes” by another kid. While the child doesn’t understand, she’s clearly bothered by the insult, and proceeds to act out in class, coming to a climax when she pinches a kid who makes fun of her clothes:

Miss Sager saw her. “Becky,” she said. “what seems to be the trouble?
She couldn’t answer. She wanted to kick and scream…

The end of the book resolves simply, with the child’s adoptive mother and Becky identifying the essential similarities between their eyes and noses. They can both see and smell.

This is the same approach to racism in another one of her books. In We’re Different, We’re The Same, the Sesame Street characters all cavort around a park with each other, posing for a great big multicultural photo:

That’s what makes the world such fun.
Many kinds of people, not just one.
A rainbow would be boring if it were only green or blue.
What makes a rainbow special is that it has every hue.
So aren’t you glad you look like you?

She likes both these books. She likes them because they’re her mom’s books, and because I read them to her. But she doesn’t understand them. Yet.

I’d like to think that my daughter will live her life in a world where racism simply isn’t an issue. But I suspect that’s dangerously naïve. Some day, some one will say something to her. And then she’ll understand why Becky was so mad in Chinese Eyes.

Why are your eyes different than your parents’ eyes?

And I hope I’ll have a better answer than telling her that we both use them to see.

Note: The title of this post is a play on the title of the fascinating book Racism Explained to My Daughter by Tahar Ben Jelloun.

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