“Why Are Your Eyes Small?”

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.

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17 Responses to “Why Are Your Eyes Small?”

  1. Daniel Mich says:

    This is powerful, Leslie. Thank you so much for sharing with such genuineness and authenticity!


    all the years t didn,t know to you as but leslie shannon , friend from kindergarten,grade school,jr, high,and HIGH SCHOOL LOVE VIVIAN

  3. James says:

    That was beautiful and thought-provoking. It’s difficult, as a white American living in the privileged life of higher education, to realize that just because I value my friends and acquaintances of all races does not mean everyone does. I think I should call my family and share this with them.

  4. Andy says:

    The good news is that most of us grew up with discrimination and we turned out to be healthy normal adults! That said, definitely want and should teach our children not to be bullies or discriminatory. Great post Coffee Dealer!

  5. Stef says:

    Love this Leslie! Hope I’ll be able to handle these things as well as you one day w/our daughter:)

  6. ksdksdksd says:

    This is terrific! I am glad you are able to discuss this openly. Thanks.

  7. Michelle says:

    So well said! Thank you for sharing this Leslie.

  8. Andrea says:

    Hi, I’ve never read anything by you before…I appreciate what you had to say. I’m glad that you say you don’t hold it against people when they inadvertently do something that could be construed as offensive to a minority – especially against children who have not experienced minority issues much and are just curious. What bothers me is that so many people don’t seem to share your view. I’ve heard many people SAY the same thing, but they are quick to lash out at anyone who they think might possibly be thinking something offensive about them! One example I can think of is when I was in college, we had watched the movie “Hotel Rwanda” and were discussing it. I was trying to explain how upset it made me when the American leaders were so racist and used the “n-word”, and since I am not a person who swears, and also to be mindful of others, I just called it the “n-word”. Then a young black guy who who was in our group got mad because I would not say the word! He said, “Go ahead – just say it. You know you want to say it.” Well, no I didn’t want to say it; I wasn’t thinking it, except in relation to the movie script, and HIS offense offended me! This is how some people respond when they’re expecting to be stereotyped…I hope no matter what ethnicity, family background, etc. we are we can teach our kids to have enough confidence to not over-analyze and try to “guess” what someone might be thinking about us. Anyway, thanks for your thoughts!

    • Thanks for reading and commenting, Andrea. If only talking and dealing with race were as easy as holding hands and singing, “It’s a small world after all.” However as you’ve already discovered, it is hard, emotional and requires so much work, mutual understanding and patience. I am sorry for your offensive experience. Like I said in the post, each person comes with their own experiences that shape what they say and think. You have that college memory and maybe a handful of others that have already affected you and perhaps your thoughts on talking about race. My guess is that the young man had such experiences not just a handful of times but repeatedly and even more outrageous and to the point that trying to count would be futile. My guess is that his feelings towards whites not saying the “n” word is taking your feelings about minorities who seemingly take offense at everything and multiplying it exponentially based I on repeated offenses against him. Who knows? It is all conjecture. I am not trying to justify him because we all deserve respect. I am just trying to promote understanding. Please don’t give up on these issues but rather find those different than you with whom you have an established trusting relationship and can go to those hard places together with mutual respect.

  9. Katelin says:

    This post was recommended to me by a friend, because it was a long the lines of some discussions we have been having at By Their Strange Fruit. This was was said and gets at some really important points~! Thank you for putting it out there!

  10. Chong W. Kim says:

    Leslie: I am very proud of your excellent comments. As you know, you and your brother were raised in an environment where all (if it not the most) of your friends and people in the community were caucasian,. Since both of you turned out to be fine person, I do not worry about much about how those things will imporact to Ethan and Connor. At the same time, I expect you to educate your children what might be encoutered in their future life. love, dad..

  11. Jenn Lister says:

    Leslie, your blog is truly moving and I hope more people take time to read and absorb your message.

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  14. Being a person who looks very white, I remember my ONE experience of feeling like “the other”. Coincedentally, it centers aroundy eyes as well.

    When we were living in Iowa, we went on an outing with the staff from our church and their families. Altogether, there were about 35 of us. At one point, I noticed that my kids and I were the only people with brown eyes. It was the strangest feeling. It’s a silly, stupid parallel, but even in that small incident of “otherness” I still felt a bit disconcerted. It really drove home the The fact that I am in a position of privilege, even though I am a minority woman. I have always been very sensitive to racial issues. And I realize that I have grown up with the luxury of choosing to learn and educate myself and my children about the issues, because I haven’t had to deal with the issues in a first hand manner.

    A quote from a wonderful article about race and privilege . . .“That’s how privilege works. Privilege is invisible to those who have it. It’s a luxury.” She added, “The white people sitting in this room do not to have to think about race every split-second of their lives.” http://www.faithstreet.com/onfaith/2015/07/16/its-not-what-you-think/37459

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