Tag Archives: racism

My First Racist Comment?

15 Oct

Yesterday was a comedy of errors. The kids’ (Texas public) school was closed for Columbus Day, so I figured they’d attend the full-day program they usually go to for school closures. We showed up at the school that hosted this program last year, and there was no one there. We went to the main YMCA office, and they said they knew nothing. I was on my way out the door when the woman I’d spoken to called me back, saying that they had a $5-an-hour program after all, but on-site at the main location, not out at a school. I enrolled the kids and paid. When I walked them over to the childcare location, the person there told me that the full-day program was only available on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I just handed her my receipt and asked her to arrange for reimbursement. I’d rather conserve my energy for my kids than spend it on bureaucracy. I called into work and let them know I wouldn’t be coming in.

The girls and I had a nice morning. It was a rare rainy day in Texas, and we were happy for our yard and the relief from our ongoing drought. The kids helped me cook oatmeal with raisins, apples and brown sugar for morning snack. We went to the local optician to have the broken nose piece on my glasses fixed. I managed to talk my 7-year-old twin girls, M and J, into trying an Indian restaurant for lunch. Misses Picky and Pickier (J and M, respectively) enjoyed their meals, which was a pleasant surprise after all the years of their rejecting all efforts on my part to introduce them to Bangladeshi cuisine.

While I was paying for our meal, I noticed a couple of women at a nearby table eating with a brood of kids. Included among the children were two infants who looked around the same age. I smiled at them and asked if the kids were twins, quickly adding that mine were, so I have a tendency to think I see twins everywhere. They said they weren’t, and I smiled and waved.

whaI quickly lost my smile when their friend, who had just emerged from the bathroom, grinned at me and said, “I guess all we white people look the same to you.”

I recognize that people unfamiliar with twins often have an unexamined assumptions that all twins are identical, so perhaps she thought I thought the babies looked alike. Really, though, I just noticed the babies’ ages. I’ve been known to ask if kids who look to be of different races are twins; after all, I have multi-racial children and know that the same two parents can have very different-looking kids.

MSJI’ve never encountered racism in the US. Never. I’ve been known to joke that people assume that I’m good at math because I’m “Indian” (actually, Bangladeshi), and that I am, in fact, good at math. In all seriousness, though, I really haven’t encountered racism beyond people mistaking me for my kids’ nanny since we don’t look to be the same race.

I was a South Asian in an Indian restaurant. Maybe I’ve avoided racially-tinged comments by avoiding being in “Indian” contexts. Perhaps this wasn’t a racist comment, as the woman insisted was true after I called her on it. Maybe she was “just jokey.” Perhaps I overreacted.

I went out to the car, buckled the girls in, and waited for them to get engrossed in their books because I allowed myself to cry. I guess there’s one good thing about the complete oblivion that overcomes J and M when they’re reading.

So, did I overreact? Is there a non-racist interpretation of this woman’s comment that I’m missing?

This post was originally published on the mothers of multiples blog How Do You Do It?

Teaching My Son to Write

29 Feb

I’m a graduate student in educational theory (Master of Arts, Integrated Studies, to be precise).  For several weeks, I’ve been immersed in feminist theory, race theory, Marxist theory, the birth of sociology, the jargonistic musings of Judith Butler on the intentionally difficult to comprehend Foucault….  And I have the kind of cold that kept me awake until 4am last night with fever chills and has left me giddy and directionless, today.

Forgive me if this post is somewhat less than concise.

Kwame Anthony Appiah has written and spoken often about his reasoned disavowal of race.  He doesn’t believe there are any races, and deconstructs both the original concept – as defined in North America with the African slave trade – and the current relevance of this sort of cultural leftover in his Tanner Lecture on Human Values (1994), among other papers, interviews and speeches.  I mean, we’ve established that people of all ethnicities are equally capable, moral, feeling, loving, hurting people….  Right?

So, why do we need to talk about it anymore?

Well, because race is socially determined.  Our culture tells us what race we are, establishing visible majorities and visible minorities and an increasingly difficult-to-determine mix of bi-racial, multi-racial, multi-ethnic, mixed-race, erm… people.  Black and white, gorgeous and beige, my kids fall into that last category.  And while I’m hoping hard that the strident voice of bell hooks and the educated bluesman musings of Cornel West remain sources of profound pride for American black people; here in Canada – in multicultural Canada – I’d like to see my kids’ generation drop their divisions, deny racial solidarity, and embrace something more like Appiah’s cosmopolitanism.  There is something so calmly appropriate about a theory of philosophy that refuses race, encourages knowledge of other cultures, and denies cultural relativism.  You don’t have to be just like me to be my brother.  I will love you, just the same.  And through my love I’m committed to learning more about you.  But I will NOT stand by and let you hurt people.  We have a human responsibility to protect each other from harm, even if it’s you – my brother – who is doing the harming.

To me, that sounds just about perfect.  Multiculturalism without assimilation.  Globally situated learning and citizenship.  And the outright refusal to allow nations to commit crimes against humanity just because their culture or their religion says that they can.  Does it GET better?

And so it was from this warm, fuzzy, I’d-Like-To-Teach-The-World-to-Sing perspective that I sat down with my kids and a bowl of popcorn to watch Discovery Atlas’s China Revealed.

Now, this film was done in 2006.  China was going crazy with preparation for the 2008 Olympics, and aside from a few ethnic Chinese family members, extra kids, students and friends, I really don’t know very much about Chinese culture.  I am NOT an educated observer, here – let me make that very clear.  But it was hard not to stare at the sheer focus demanded of children, in that film.  It was hard not to cover my mouth when a father spoke of beating his young daughter because she didn’t want to return to gymnastics boarding school, in that film.  It was hard not to just stare in fascination at Wushu city, and at thousands of workers performing calisthenics together to ensure an injury-free day at the factory; at adult children with the same single-minded focus to please their parents, to serve their parents, as appears on the faces of elementary school kids.  At the drive.  At the SOLIDARITY – in that film.  (I’m repeating this phrase because I do know that one film cannot adequately capture the depth and nuance of any culture.  There is so much more I need to learn!)

But, HOW can one deny the existence of race in the face of that?  Even while considering the vast differences of language and tradition within China’s borders.  Do we relabel it “culture”, and continue to reach out, hold hands and sing Kumbaya?  My kids will be competing with children from families with similar cultural influences for scholarships, jobs and promotions.  My kids, who have been raised without corporal punishment, who have been encouraged to cooperate before competing, who walked early, talked early, and were reading by age three….  They can’t do simple multiplication, like some of their first generation Chinese Canadian friends can.  My kids have always been given the option to work on reading, work on writing, work on language study, science or do anything else we come up with together in our afterschooling home.  (It really is up to them.)  And they have always been rewarded for their efforts in these areas.  Not punished for their shortcomings.

I’m a little worried that they won’t be prepared for their global reality, fifteen years from now.

Anyway, this post was about teaching my son to write.  I’d decided to post about that before diving into race theory and watching that documentary, and now our little writing exercises read with a decidedly different flavour.  I do apologize.

My Bug asked to learn how to write his name, so I told him I would help him.  I wrote out his name for him to copy, and that was difficult for him.  Frustrating.  I wrote out a letter for him to copy.  Still frustrating.  I printed out a preschoolers’ letter-tracing page from some website we found together.  Didn’t like it.  The dots were overwhelming and made no sense to him.  So, I wrote a letter, just one, with a highlighter and asked him to keep his pencil on the green line.  He took the pencil with some hesitation.  Standard pencils are small and awkward for his three-year-old hand; fat round or triangular pencils are too big and clumsy.  (He’s always preferred paintbrushes.)  But then?  He did it!  HE DID IT!  And asked for a page more.  And then I gave him the parts of the other letters in his name, not all together, just a page of lines, a page of curves, a page of initial connections, all written with electric green highlighter….

And I watched him light up with the joy of his own success.

I don’t know if my kids will be able to compete at the global level.  In many ways, I hope they won’t have to.  But, mostly?  I hope this light, this spark they have – that we can keep it going for as long as possible.  I’m hoping hard for forever 🙂

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I’m a mother, corporate refugee, grad student, quiet activist and child care provider.  I live in Canada and write about grace, joy, hilarity, leg hair, living healthy, and learning with kids over at The Valentine 4: Living Each Day.

Lei La the Lao Wai

16 Feb

This evening my children and I spent a couple of hours running and playing at a neighbouring housing complex. A friend joined us. While the children were playing on the slides and mini monkey bars my friend stayed close to them, allowing me to respond to a text message on my phone.

A little girl accompanied by two men came over to play. Through the chatter, I heard Rahul say, “Ni hao shu shu,” (hello uncle), as he typically does when a Chinese man engages in some form of communication with him, or if he instigates the conversation himself.

Leila chimed in with her Ni hao!

One of the men asked how old the children are. My friend responded with the whole “They’re two and three months old, they know mandarin, yes they’re twins, not only that, they’re dragon / phoenix twins,” spiel.

“These foreign kids are the same age as you. Why don’t you play with them?” the man asked the little girl. He was beaming, bouncing internally, and obviously over-excited by the situation.

The little girl joined Rahul and Leila.

At one point the man shared the bars with Leila to stretch is his hamstrings; still smiling, he asked her, “Ni shi bu shi lao wai?” (Are you a foreigner?)

I was stunned.

“Lei-la,” she responded.

My daughter’s dignified response, albeit due to her ignorance impressed me.

Should I intervene? I wondered.

“Ni shi bus hi lao wai?” he repeated.

I couldn’t believe it.

“Lei –la,” she enunciated.

My friend, who is of Chinese heritage and fluent in the language explained that she is called Leila.

I wanted to say something; at least ask how he expects a two-year- old without the slightest notion of this concept or of the word at all, to respond. I mean he insisted.

But his “blissful” demeanor made me think that he obviously didn’t think it strange at all to ask this of a two year old, let alone ask it.

Or was he making fun of us because he thought I had no idea what he was saying? I have no idea.

I joined the group and a few minutes later Rahul and Leila were chasing me around the play area. The man told the little girl to join in, to chase “the two little foreigners, and the big foreigner.”

We ran and played.

———————————-
I’m Zambian; I live in Chengdu, China with my Lebanese husband Maher and our two-year-old twins Leila and Rahul. I was an Ashtanga Yoga teacher until our little yogis became the teachers.
Our Little Yogis:(http://natashadevalia.com)

My Daughter’s Faces

29 Jan

Ethnicity is a nebulous topic, for me.  I grew up black in a very white community.  My mother is second generation Canadian caucasian (half German; plus a bit of Irish, a bit of Scottish, and some other pieces of the great UK).  My father was a Nigerian here on a student permit when they met, loved, and made me.  Looking through the photos, I can see that there were black people in my life, as an infant.  But my father must’ve taken them with him when he left during my toddlerhood, as I don’t remember them.

I do remember being different.

I remember being the only person of colour in my family, in my neighbourhood, and one of only a handful of people with brown skin in all of my years of grade school.  But I don’t remember being particularly upset by it.  I mean, we were poor, for sure, and recognizing that was hurtful for me.  The long list of things I couldn’t have loomed large in my life.  The way that people looked at us when I wasn’t clean, or when I didn’t have my lunch, or when our always aging always rusting always breaking car broke down again….  I learned all the ways those events impacted the community’s perception of my family, of our single-parent household, and I got better at hiding them.  And from them.  But racial discrimination?  That wasn’t a part of my life, as far as I could see.  Holding the torturous position of “Smart Kid” in a tiny rural school?  THAT was a part of my life.

So, I was sort of blind, at the time, to the racism my mother saw.  But looking back, I remember her rage very clearly.  When we left parties abruptly, because someone had made a n*gger joke and Mum’s face glowed a furious blazing fuschia while that room full of acquaintances laughed and laughed.  Or when strangers told me how cute I was, and then asked my Mum how long she had been looking after me.  At that time, for me, these things were sort of inconsequential, you know?  At the time, she kept these bits of darkness carefully and intentionally away from the light of her life.

I am so grateful.

Danica, my baby girl, was born into an established suburban community.  We have fences and mature trees and neighbours who look after their yards.  Everyone we know has a newish and well-maintained car.  Or two.  When she wants something, she asks for it, and the “can’t” is only limited to how many things I think she should have.  Not how many things I can’t afford to give her.  My kids have no relationship to the cracked asphalt and gravelly pavers of the Low Rentals.  They’ve never had to move away because of bad luck and worse money.  They’ve never been hungry.  They have a pack of friends whose parents watch them carefully, and they don’t know what it’s like to be out of eyesight with the neighbourhood kids until way past bedtime on a summer night.  They were born into a different lifestyle and a different time.

I’m not entirely sure that’s good for them.

My skin is coffee brown, the amount of cream added strongly dependent on the season and time spent playing outside.  My husband, the son of a light-skinned Jamaican and a caucasian Canadian, could pass as white.  And so my children’s complexions are much lighter than mine.  They have medium-beige skin, chocolate brown eyes, and reddish-brown nappy hair.  My daughter can pass.  My son looks enough like me that people wonder, but don’t ask – and perhaps that is one of the blessings we bought with this comfortable home and this comfortable life.

When Danica was not quite two, she and I would bus home from work and daycare, together.  Buses in Edmonton, Alberta, are usually multi-ethnic, even while many communities here are not.  Black people, white people, Asian people, Indian people, Russian people, Fijian people, Aboriginal people, Filipino people, and more, all sitting shoulder to shoulder with their iPods or novels or newspapers or raucous conversations in a musical cacophony of language….  It was not an intentional thing, at the time, to take my daughter on the bus with me.  It was not a careful or self-conscious decision, to expose my almost-white child to the texture of the world.

One afternoon, a black woman hefted her daughter, about the same age, onto the bus beside us, labouriously planted her stroller brakes, and arranged her mess of bags.  We were waiting at the Jasper Place terminal in a very multi-ethnic neighbourhood.  And, yes, incomes are low there, as too often is the case.  Her daughter’s stroller cost maybe thirty bucks and looked very well used, possibly second or third hand.  Mine cost over a hundred.

Both were equally well-smeared with fruit-snack bits and teething-biscuit paste.

She looked at me, at my daughter, then smiled that angry smile.  She said to her baby, slowly and carefully:  “Look, honey.  A yellow baby!”  That woman – who might have called me “sister” in another context, in another place – she called my daughter high yellow and then grinned at me to make sure I understood.

I would like to think I’m above that kind of bullshit, but I’m not.  I’d like to think that I’m educated enough, experienced enough, well-read enough, to view racists as the hurting, ignorant, broken human beings that I know them to be.  And, if anyone had asked me before that moment what I would have done if someone called my baby girl yellow – with that look, with that voice – I probably would have replied with something compassionate and healing.  A teaching moment, if you will.

Right.

But what I did?  What I did was glare at that woman with her flat, angry, eyes.  And then I smiled at her daughter who was just as beautiful as my own.  Heartbreaking and happy in layers of pink and dirty ribbons.  I said, “Yes, honey, she does have a yellow hat on, today.  And just look at your pretty dress!  You’re like a little flower there, sweet girl.”

I didn’t say it to educate.  I didn’t say it to make it better.  I said it to make that tired, angry, struggling black mother feel like total shit.  I said it to protect my daughter.

Danica is almost six, now.  She has dayhome friends who are Ukrainian, Irish, Italian, Portuguese, and Chinese.  All of them Canadian.  She has cousins who are every different colour of brown, every variation of beige, and who celebrate traditions from Germany, Belgium, Ireland, Jamaica, Fiji, India and China.  She speaks English, is learning French, and has been begging to learn Cantonese.  She has no concept of race.  She has no understanding of ethnic features, beyond the way that her Jamaican grandfather has blue eyes, her dad has hazel eyes, her brother’s eyes are nearly black, and so are her beige grandmother’s and brown mum’s.  There is no geographic attachment to facial features, for her.

I celebrate that.

My daughter loves to draw.  LOVES it.  She has been drawing and writing since she was two, and has sketchbooks and notebooks and bits of paper, and vats of markers and crayons and pencils, all around her all the time.  She loves to draw.

Here is one of her first family portraits:

And here are the two of us, together.  I’m wearing a black shirt and jeans, and she’s wearing a yellow hat (her description) and some optimistically dangly “pierced-ear earings”.  I guess a girl can dream, if she wants to 🙂

“Danica, what’s this picture about?”

She looked at me drily (though, to her credit, she did not say ‘Duh‘).  “We’re celebrating.  See?  There’s CAKE!”

“Why, though?  What do we have to celebrate?”

World-weary sigh.  “Well, everything, Mum.  We have SO MUCH to celebrate.”

Oh, honey.  Yes.  We really, really do.

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I’m a corporate refugee, grad student, quiet activist and child care provider.  I live in Canada and write about grace, joy, hilarity, leg hair, and life looking after other people’s kids, over at The Valentine 4: Living Each Day.