Thoughts about racist humor and racism

racism eggs

I have been feeling particularly blue because of an interaction I experienced on Saturday. I was driving Alyssa and one of her friends in my car when her friend started to tell racist jokes. She thought they were hilariously funny. They were not, and I was offended, but I waited to see if Alyssa would say anything first. After all, it was her friend, and I feel like I have raised my children to be anti-racist. I wanted to give her the opportunity to take a stand.

I will give Alyssa credit that she didn’t laugh at any of them, and she appeared a bit uncomfortable, but as her friend continued on telling at least 6 jokes about a variety of races, I finally could not contain myself any longer and told her “That is not only not funny, it is disgusting.” She momentarily was taken aback, but then decided to continue on in a different vein of telling a couple of “dead baby” jokes until Alyssa changed the subject. Chalk it up to incredible immaturity for her age, but what puzzled me most, is this friend self-identifies as Filipina and has experienced comments about her appearance and race from others. She knows what it is like to look different from the rest of the crowd, and yet here she was, denigrating others based on the color of their skin or their ethnicity. What is it about people that causes them to separate into an “us vs. them” mentality?

All I could think of was “Does she think these comments are OK because no one in our car right now is African American or Mexican or Jewish?” Is she truly that ignorant that a family with 3 dearly loved children who were born in China and Haiti would think her jokes were funny? She prefaced the black joke by saying it was OK to tell because “A black guy told me this one.”

Would she have told the same joke had Micheline been sitting in the car? I know if she had, I would have pounced on her by the first few words of the joke and not let it continue. As I pondered that thought, I guess I am disappointed in myself. I was waiting for Alyssa to tell her friend to stop. I wanted her to take that step even though it might have been uncomfortable, but at the same time I feel that I betrayed my own youngest daughter by not squelching the joke at the first words.

As I have thought about what happened today, I read a wonderful blog called Anti-Racist Parent. It made me realize that I have not prepared Micheline as well as I should have by now for the comments she will face in the world. Sure, we have lightly skimmed the topics of slavery, civil rights, Rosa Parks, Ruby Bridges, and other famous African Americans through reading children’s books or watching movies. As two of her brothers are from China we have also read and discussed books such as Coolies which describes how Chinese Americans were treated while building the transcontinental railroad.

Though poignant, our discussions have been painful. How do you tell a kindergartener that people with my skin color refused to let people with her skin color drink from the same water fountain or eat at the same restaurant? How do you tell your sons that merely because Chinese Americans looked and dressed differently and perhaps ate different foods they were denigrated and not invited to attend the celebration of the joining of the railroads even though they did a large portion of the work? You do it with a lump in your throat and an ache in your gut that these topics even have to be discussed, and you explain that somehow, someway, these people were ignorant and didn’t know any better. I guess what hurts the most is that I can’t say, “I know how you feel because I have experienced it too”. I can empathize, but I can’t walk in their skin, and that hurts. I wish I could say, “Sweetie, I know what it’s like to be called the N word”, but I can’t. Sure, I can share my own experiences with discrimination, but they just aren’t the same.

I saw the pained expression in Micheline’s eyes as she watched the Disney version of the movie Ruby Bridges. Anyone with a heart feels the pain that Ruby did when she was shouted at and threatened by parents of other students. To watch Micheline’s face, however, and know that in her mind she was processing that Ruby looked just like her when it came to hair and skin color, almost knocked the wind out of me.

To be honest, I hate that aspect of American history. Slavery, segregation, and the necessary fight for civil rights for all are not pretty parts of our heritage. And yet, racism is sadly alive and well and to not prepare my children to deal with it, is sending them out into the world without tools to protect themselves.

Caleb and Micheline currently attend our neighborhood elementary school that is 16% Hispanic, 6% Asian and 4% Black. That leaves a whopping 74% of students who identify as white. It is an excellent school, but am I doing them a disservice by not moving them to a school that is more racially diverse? They both love school, but they have mentioned comments that other students have made that have labeled them as “different.”

Black History Month came and went last month without so much as a mention in Micheline’s class, nor in the rest of the school that I could see. I didn’t push the issue because Micheline is already sensitive about looking different from most of the people around her and I feared that it might bring those issues to a head. Now I feel like I was wrong. I should have asked the teacher to discuss it in light of the great achievements that some African Americans have contributed to our society. What better way to introduce this subject, than with a kind and loving kindergarten teacher who would not have allowed any racist remarks in her classroom?

I have visited other schools in our city where Black History Month is celebrated. Admittedly those schools have a higher AA population, but just because our school only has 4% of students who are identified as black –whether African, AA or Caribbean–does that mean that we just ignore BHM? They already face the world as a minority each and every day at school; shouldn’t we be giving them something of which to feel proud?

Lots of hard questions, with no easy answers. I ask God daily and sometimes hourly to guide my thoughts and actions when it comes to raising my children who were transracially adopted. He knows them better than I and I know He loves them.

Just today, Micheline asked to read My Brother Martin. It was written by Martin Luther King’s older sister, Christine King Farris, and shares what he was like as a young boy, and the discrimination their family faced. Interestingly, it was beautifully illustrated by Chris Soentpiet, the same illustrator for Coolies. In the book, she says they were treated poorly because they were Negroes. Micheline wanted to know what that word meant. I explained it, and after taking a deep breath, also told her that as she grows up she might someday hear the word ni**er. It pained me to even say it and I almost choked on the word. I felt sick inside even having to expose such a young child to such a hate-filled word. I explained to her that if she ever hears it from another child, that she needs to tell a teacher or a parent because it is not a word that anyone at her school should ever be using. She listened intently and then wanted me to turn the page of the book and move on. As she looked at pictures in the book, she proudly held her arm up to the illustrations and said, “Look Mom! All of these people have skin just like mine!” “Yes they do,” I replied, “and they are very beautiful, just like you.” She smiled, leaned back into me, and asked if I would join her in a nap on her bed.

As she dozed, I realized that I did it. I introduced a concept that she needed to hear about and we made it through it. It wasn’t pleasant, but she took it in stride. As uncomfortable as it was, I wanted her to learn about it from me in a place where she felt safe and loved; a place where she can also be given tools to work with when racist remarks are flung her way. This, however, cannot be a one-time event. Racism needs to be a topic we are both comfortable discussing.

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1 Comment

Filed under race, Transracial Adoption

One response to “Thoughts about racist humor and racism

  1. frodo441

    I’ve found the best approach to anti-racist (anti-sexist) strategy…is zero tolerance, the minute you hear it you must “quell it down”…or else unfortunately you become a party to it or you become a victim of it…whenever you here, the utterance of what you know is coming next…you must nip it in the bud immediately. Because of the incipient nature of the rhetoric, we tend to indulge it by rationalizing that it won’t be too bad…and indeed, just like back in the early to mid ’90’s many talk show hosts were indulging in the “race sink”…it is a bottomless pit…you must stand firm and let your disappointment of the utterance of the hate filled speech be known…or else you will become the victim of it.

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