Last week I observed Ethan pulling at the outer corners of his eyes. Later, I also overheard him ask Connor the title question above. I knew that he had most likely seen and heard these things at school. So I asked him about it. We talked again about how Asians eyes are different and how I think his eyes and entire face are beautiful. We talked about how some kids may not be used to seeing Asian eyes and may be curious about them. We talked again about how differences are good and without them life would be much more boring and dull.
Last week, my mom, friend Alexandria and I went to the Goodman Theatre and saw the David Mamet play, “Race.” It was incredibly well-written and provided much conversation fodder for our car ride home together. Alex and I both said we needed to get our hands on the actual script because there were so many insightful and blunt takes on the multiple layers of how race affects us as a society. I wanted to write a glowing review on here about it, but honestly, I also wondered how many people would really be interested. Not everyone shares my inherent love of issues pertaining to race. I know that some might be tired of the topic. To be honest, I even get tired of it at times.
Here’s the thing though. I can get tired of it, but I can’t escape it. It goes with me everywhere I am. Some of you have the luxury of ignoring and forgetting about race. Not so with others. Today I took Ethan and a classmate of his to Starbucks for an after-school snack. Another kid commented on how our table (the classmate is also Korean American) all had eyes like Chinese. I told him almost warily that we were Korean American. And yes, a part of me is tired of it, too. But I can’t escape it. I don’t have the luxury of forgetting.
Last week when I volunteered for Connor’s preschool class, the teacher read a book by Karen Katz called, “The Colors of Us.” The students are working on self-portraits and were going to start adding color to them. This book had me enthralled as I listened to the story of an artist’s daughter describe the different colors of herself (cinnamon) and the people around her neighborhood. The artist mother mixed different paints to get the variety of colors seen. I specifically remember when one of the darkest women pictured was described as a princess with bronze and amber skin because I heard a couple of children “oohhh” and “ahhh” and say how beautiful she was. My heart melted at that moment. After the book was over, the children turned to their partners to talk about their skin, and I heard one boy say matter-of-factly that he was the color of wood.
In my limited time as a mother, I have noticed the innocence of childhood exist throughout the preschool years. Each class in the past 3 years at that preschool (first with Ethan and now with Connor) has been diverse in every way. All 20 children consider themselves friends. The loveliness of children believing a dark amber and bronze-colored woman to be princess-beautiful is there.
Somewhere in the advancement into kindergarten that realm of innocence starts to fade. Children are sponges and mirrors. They absorb and reflect. Thankfully, most of these questions that Ethan has encountered are purely curious as children start to make natural observations. I think the children at school who pulled their eyes were simply trying to make their own more like Ethan’s. And that the kid at Starbucks was simply observing a difference. There was probably no malicious intent. However, I know from experience that despite the lack of ill-will, there is still the result of an uncomfortable self-consciousness that starts to threaten even the most secure senses of self. Ethan is a well-loved child. But all of our love cannot stop the discomforts to come. He can tell the Starbucks kid that he is Asian and that’s how Asian eyes are. But will he feel the need to make up for the difference? Will he start to associate with the rest of the world that European/Caucasian features are the most desirable making his small eyes undesirable (hundreds of thousands of Asians get eye surgery for those coveted creases each year!)? Will the children still “oohhh” and “aahhh” or will they eventually think relaxed hair, lighter skin and thinner lips are the truly beautiful? Will that boy always be able to think of his wood-colored skin matter-of-factly or will it be a source of slight shame? I don’t know, but I do know that Ethan is learning that he cannot escape his race, nor does he have the luxury of forgetting it.
The book I mentioned above had great reviews on Amazon. However, there were some that critiqued it as reinforcing stereotypes. If there had been a Korean person in the book as the neighborhood dry cleaner, would I have been offended? No, I don’t think so. But I don’t take lightly when a reviewer did take offense that one of the darker women was a babysitter. Sure, the author’s intent was to encourage acceptance, and she did not mean to offend, but in this one case she did. Some may think, “Oh, get over it! At least there is this book and the intent was good.” I pray I never discount another’s thoughts. Behind every person’s thought is her experience, her experience that I cannot fully understand unless I have shared them as well.
Someone with no harmful intent almost offended me when they turned their nose up on dduk (rice cake). I know this person had no exposure and no intention to offend, so I let it slide. But that is just it. Many do not have the experience of having to explain what is “normal” to them, but so abnormal to others all the time. You have the luxury of forgetting that one of your hailed foods is ground up pieces of leftover meat, tissues, fat, blood, and random animal parts encased in sheep intestine. You don’t have to explain why putting that in a bun or with scrambled eggs is normal. But some of us have to explain why all the time. And you think you’re tired of it?
If you become wary of race talks and race issues, do me a favor. Talk to the children around you whether they are yours or not, whether they are surrounded by diversity or not. And don’t just talk to them about race. Talk to them about religion, body shapes, languages, class, sexual orientation, disabilities and all the variety in the human species there is. Show them a better way to live and love and learn, keeping in mind that even if many are like them, there are some who are not. Challenge whatever hierarchy of beauty that exists and may make my children and some of their friends feel like they fell on the ugly end. Expose them to other definitions of “normal.” And reinforce that being different is truly beautiful. It is a reflection of the Creator and creation. Discussions can come regardless of a kid asking about his eyes. They can come while at the Field Museum and seeing about 50 different types of beetles on display. That was my opportunity to talk to Ethan about diversity last weekend. I have no doubt there will be plenty of ways for you to do so, too. Maybe the more we talk about it with our children, the less we will have to become tired of it in the future. Maybe. Or maybe more of us will discover that we cannot escape it and do not have the luxury of forgetting.