Friday, February 27, 2009

Me, a Role Model?

When I think about what my future kids might be like - in terms of their racial identity - if I were to marry a white woman, I often think back to a student of mine:

Three years ago, this student joined my school as a 6th grader, we'll call him "S." From appearances alone, he seemed white - light skin, blue-grey eyes, general "white" features. He hung out with all white kids, and he identified as white when it came up (which was seldom, because it seemed so obvious). However, I was surprised to learn that he was a quarter Japanese when he mentioned that his mother was half-Japanese during a conversation when students were talking about my racial/ethnic background.

S. and I established a pretty good relationship over the year, one of mutual respect (as far as that goes in middle school), and he seemed to trust me. So, one day, he comes up to me at the beginning of the school day to ask me what a word meant. I didn't understand when he said it, but it was clearly a vaguely Asian-sounding word, so I asked him where he had heard it. He said, "some gook said it to me on my way to school."

I had a little record-scratch moment, and I said, "Do you know what you just said?" And I saw this look of confusion on his face, as he realized that I wasn't so happy about it. But he didn't understand - he thought I was referring to the "Chinese" word he had asked me to translate. And so I found myself explaining to a quarter-Asian kid why he shouldn't refer to other Asian folks as "gooks."

And I thought to myself: that's how disconnected from his Asian identity this kid is. And that is how it would be for my kid. I thought this story would end there.

But it didn't. It's three years later now. S. still goes to my school, but he's an 8th grader now, about to head on to high school. We've know each other for three years, and I have watched him grow, and we have established a really positive relationship (he recently said he's going to be a math teacher when he's older). He's often been in classes where I've talked about race, and my own background, etc.

So - the other day, he's sitting at a table playing dominoes with a bunch of kids in class (dominoes is probably one of the best games for having kids practice basic math skills without the kids realizing it), and he jokes with one of his friends, "Hey - are you lonely at this table because you're the only black kid?"

The other kid laughs it off and S. says, "I'm just kidding. Besides, I'm the only Asian kid at the table. But I'm not alone, because - insert the CVT's real name - is here."

I didn't say anything. I was caught too off guard. At this point, I always have something to say when race comes up in class, but this time - nothing. I just looked at S. And thought back to three years ago. And smiled.

Because S. claimed his identity so casually - yet clearly - right in front of my eyes. He claimed an identity that is an overwhelming minority at the school I teach (and in the area where these kids live). He claimed the identity of a race that is commonly ridiculed and mocked by the kids and adults that he is exposed to regularly. And he did it proudly.

And I can't help but feel an extreme sense of satisfaction about that. I definitely can't claim sole responsibility for this change (I'd hope his mom played a major part), but I don't really think it's a coincidence, either. I feel that my presence and way of being in the classroom and willingness to talk about my own identity must have had some influence on him. I'd like to think that the respect I've earned from the kids I teach - while simultaneously proclaiming my Asian-ness - has made "Asian" less foreign to them. A little bit less "other." More acceptable.

Maybe even something for those few with Asian blood to be proud of.

I've tried my best to be a positive, conscious racial (and otherwise) role model for the kids, and I think I mostly achieve that.

But I never saw this coming. I never expected to see S. identify himself as "Asian." And I never would have expected those around him to accept that so easily (not one kid said, "no you aren't" or "what are you talking about?").

Which makes me have to ask the question: if that's what happened with one of my students, what would it be like for my own kid?

Sometimes the world changes, and it starts like any other day.

Of course, this is by no means the end-all, be-all moment. He might change his mind in the future. He might never claim his Asian-ness outside of my classroom. My students probably think of me as "the exception" to the "Asian rules." Or maybe I reinforce them, somehow.

Be that as it may - I got to see a kid and his relationship to his own racial identity change (in what I believe to be a positive way). And I played a role in it. And no matter what else happens, that fact remains.

And it feels good.

And it gives me some hope for my kids (if they ever exist) - no matter the background of their mother.

And that's kind of reassuring.


ansel said...

I think you were a great role model. That's a heartwarming story - though disturbing that he was calling Asian-Americans gooks in the first place.

Also, I wonder if in the long run it'd be right for S. to identify himself as Asian or Asian-American. From your description, he looks like a white kid. There's nothing wrong with being proud of quarter-part of his heritage, as long he's conscious of his white skin privilege at the same time doesn't somehow mis-represent himself to folks as a person of color.

A while ago I mentioned to some friends, with pride, that I'm a quarter-Iraqi (on my mom's side). A little later one of those friends nudged me and said, "That's cool about your Iraqi-heritage - but you know you're still a white guy, right?" And yeah, I totally knew that, but I thanked her for pointing it out anyway.

Anonymous said...

I'm half-Chinese, and my husband is white -- but we're making a conscious choice to raise our kids with knowledge and appreciation of their Asian heritage and identity -- regardless of whether they look white or look Asian. I don't think that marrying white has to mean whitewashing your descendants, although it might be the result if you don't choose to do anything to prevent it (e.g. teaching kids specifically about Chinese traditions, teaching them the language, having them grow up for a while in an Asian country). We've decided to give the kids a Chinese surname from my side of the family, rather than their dad's name, so at least if they look white (which you can never predict in advance), they might not be automatically considered as such by others.

I have a few friends who are from Western countries (US, UK, Australia), but who are ethnically quarter Asian. I met them all in Asia, where they'd chosen to live in order to get a better understanding of their heritage. I presume what their parents gave them was the respect for their heritage, and a curiosity to learn more.

To the above commenter, who wonders "if in the long run it'd be right for S. to identify himself as Asian or Asian-American" -- I always find it problematic when people tell bi- or multi-racial people what they should and shouldn't (or can and can't) identify as. The commenter correctly points out that the kid has white skin privilege, and so he should acknowledge that having it differentiates his experience from other Asians. But I believe that's a separate issue from the kid identifying as Asian or Asian-American. The way I understand it, identifying as Asian is acknowledging that the way you interact with the world is affected and influenced by your Asianness -- your morals, values, cultural traditions. I pass as white most of the time, unless people look closely, but I have just as much right to identify myself as Asian as my darker-skinned sister does.

Lxy said...

It's disturbing that kids can use the racist term "gook" so casually these days.

Anti-Asian racism is "acceptable racism" and indeed normalized as simply a part of everyday life--even becoming a matter of humor (aka Miley Cyrus and the Spanish Olympic basketball team slant eye gestures).

Anonymous said...

what's so bad about him identifying as white?

why are you happy if he's asian rather than white?

i think you have internalized racism against white people. if you're going to blog about racism, you should face and solve your own.

CVT said...

@ansel - Overall, I would find it a bit odd if he claimed a fully "Asian" identity - because, due to his mix, his appearance, etc., that wouldn't be fully true (no more than it is with me). So yeah, in most ways, he's still white (and knows that), but the pride and comfort he had in his Asian blood - compared to where he started - was nice to see.

@tevere - I appreciate the efforts you're putting in to connect your children to their Chinese culture; it reminds me that it's not all about appearances and percents.

@LXY - I don't even think most kids understand that "gook" is racist, or even what it means on a general level most of the time.

@anonymous - Oh, dear. I keep thinking that your comment may have been a joke by somebody who knows me well.

But, if it isn't:
Please read my blogs and my posts before you attach your agenda and "reverse-racism" opinions to them. If I ever wrote that it was bad that the kid is white, I'd see your point, but I didn't. I am glad that a kid with Asian blood, who used to call Asian folks "gooks," is now proud of that Asian blood and connected to it. If that's something I shouldn't be "happy" about, then please tell me what is.

Why is it that folks who want to throw ridiculous ish out there always do it as "anonymous" without reading anything thoroughly or being willing to have a dialogue?

And how did somebody that's going to jump to that kind of conclusion about a piece that's celebrating a kid's connection to an aspect of himself even find this blog in the first place?

Anonymous said...

i'm a long time lurker and this is the first time i've decided to comment because your attitude is bothersome.

in your posts, you say that you prefer any woman (be it black, latino, asian) rather than a white woman.

how do you think that a black woman will keep your future kid connected to asia? or a latina?

this also implies that you believe that white women do not have any culture, well, not any that's worth passing on to your kid, and that asian culture is the best.

Anonymous said...

as well, not only is your post racist, but it's also sexist.

why is it the woman's job to pass on your culture and educate your kid?

you could pass it on yourself, regardless of your wife's background.

CVT said...

@Anonymous -
I'm still confused about where you are getting your assumptions, but I'll do my best to answer.

First, my "preference" in regards to the race of a future mother of my kids is solely about my kids living the experience of a person of color - or not. As it is most likely (not a given, however), that my kids would appear to be white if the mother was (I'm not sure how much you've read, but I'm mixed, if that hasn't been clear). And I used to hold the kid in this post as an example of how disconnected from race that that might make my child.

I also would like my kid to be able to connect to me on that level. And, although I know my kid would connect with me no matter what, being more clearly mixed would make that stronger (a lot of that based on my own small missed connections in my family). So - although in theory (and for my grandparents' sakes) a Chinese girl, specifically, would obviously connect more to my FAMILY blood, I'm talking more about the mixed experience.

This is all in theory. In reality - I'd prefer any woman (and be open to any) that I could connect with and just talk about EVERYTHING with. And one thing I know for sure (and have mentioned before in this blog), is that race guarantees NOTHING in regards to connection on a large level.

As for the "sexism" - again, nowhere did I say it was "a woman's job" to pass on culture. In fact, the whole point of this post was to point out how I was proud that I was able to do my little bit to connect this kid a bit to his Asian blood. I'm not talking about CULTURE here, anyway - as I am far away from a connection to Chinese culture on most levels. I'm talking about blood and racial identity.

Culture? I'd expect both sides to pass on whatever it is they have to pass on. Any connection (or lack thereof) to Chinese culture would be my job (barring my wife being Chinese, of course).

"Asian culture is the best"? I'm really not sure where you got that. Again - I'm as American as American can be in so many ways. And I enjoy that. Many times in this blog have I mentioned that no side has it figured out, no side is free from ignorance. And I most definitely agree with that.

So - all that said, I hope that clarifies some things. My guess is that you are personally triggered by some of the things I've said, which would then suggest you're not really going to change your mind that I'm "racist."

My final words on that:
I struggle with the views of white privilege. I get very frustrated by it. I think the way things go in this country (and the media) very successfully keep white folks on top, and people of color as "others" and "inferior" in the sub-conscious minds of the majority. I think it is much harder for a white person to break out of that, because they have no comparative experience of race to make them aware of it - at no fault of their own. It's hard to understand a perspective if you cannot stand in that place.

And it's not impossible. I know plenty of white folks who ARE aware. Through hard work and getting past their natural defensive reactions to presentations on race.

And I know plenty of folks of color who are NOT aware. Just less, statistically-speaking. It's harder to ignore when you're the target.

Those are my distinctions by race in this country. Nowhere do I talk about "all." Nowhere do I say that one group is inherently better than the others. I will complain about white folks - but in the context of certain situations; personal experiences that REALLY HAPPENED. But I will also do the same about folks of color. Let me know when/if I cross the line, by all means - but please don't go out of your way to "prove" that I'm "racist" (we'll talk about the misuse of that term another day) against white people.

Finally - if this all bothers you so much, I'd wonder why you read it regularly. My only guess is that you probably know me, personally, somehow. If that is the case, how 'bout you contact me, personally, so we can have a real discussion.

Lisa J said...

This is a wonderful post and you were very magnanimous, kind and understanding in your reply to Anonomouys. Much more so than I could be and I was mad just reading what s/he said and disagree completely, and I was just about to write something snarky in response, but you handled it beautifully. You walk the walk and talk the talk. Bless you (and I don't say that in a religious way but I don't have a better way to extend my wishes for grace for you and in appreciation of your big heart).

Lxy said...

"i think you have internalized racism against white people. if you're going to blog about racism, you should face and solve your own."

Anonymous is attempting to twist the very definition of racism itself so that the act of questioning an American culture that preaches "White is Right" is now deemed racist.

What s/he tries to obscure is the reality that American (and increasingly global) standards of beauty, attractiveness, and social status in general glorify White Eurocentric values.

To question this (globalizing) White racist system is now ... "racist," according to the upside down reality that anonymous lives in.

More importantly, anonymous' argument reflects a disturbing broader political trend: the invocation of White Racial Victimhood as a cynical means to tacitly uphold White dominance and power.

The most obvious examples of claiming that "White people are
the victims of racism" in order to advance White privilege are the anti-Affirmative Action campaigns waged since the Alan Bakke decision in the 1970s.

In this situation, White Rights crusaders claim that remedial programs like Affirmative Action are "racist" against Whites--while conveniently ignoring the broader reality that American socio-economic status and power are White dominated and *structurally* racist against people of color!

This is the MANIPULATION of anti-racism (even in terms of the rhetoric like anonymous' misuse of the term "internalized racism" above) ... to tacitly maintain White privilege and supremacy.

"this also implies that you believe that white women do not have any culture, well, not any that's worth passing on to your kid, and that asian culture is the best."

No, it implies that he would like his potential children to understand and appreciate their Asian heritage.

This is especially important given that they will likely be bombarded by and socialized in an American culture that routinely denigrates the culture of Asian Americans and other people of color--while UPHOLDING Eurocentric values and culture as universal "ideals" that everyone must assimilate into.

And Whiteness in fact is NOT a culture. White identity is essentially a system of racial dominance that grants privilege and power--however unevenly--to people of European American descent.

Noel Ignatiev puts it best:

"Whiteness is not a culture... Whiteness has nothing to do with culture and everything to do with social position. It is nothing but a reflection of privilege, and exists for no reason other than to defend it."