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.