Five years ago, Ethan was being asked about his eyes from kids at school. I wrote about it here: Why Are Your Eyes Small? A couple weeks ago, the topic came up again this time from his younger brother. Connor is in 3rd grade. During a family dinner, he mentioned that he gets asked about his eyes at school probably much in the same way his older brother did. I wish I could remember exactly what he told me his response was to the question, but all I remember is that I gave him a high 5 over the salad bowl. In other words, he had a response, and I must have liked it. He had a response maybe because we have had these conversations before. He told me that another time he remembered something I had said about his eyes don’t NEED to be as big but can still see the same things. Again, I don’t remember exactly what I had said in past conversations, but I do know that my desire was for my boys to feel that the differences they have from the majority here are NOT deficits. And maybe in fact, some of those differences (counter to how they are made to feel) could actually be assets. To maybe make them feel less like freak shows and more like champions.
To that extent, I am less worried about my younger son needing to feel like a champion. This kid is abundantly blessed (blinded?) with an extremely high self-esteem. I seriously have no idea where he gets it because his father and I are not ones to coddle or inflate. In fact, we probably should praise our kids more. We are more likely to need to focus on positivity in our home because our default can be the opposite. Somehow, in the midst of this UN-lovey-dovey environment, Connor will tell us very matter-of-factly how great he is. “Mommy, I’m really good at (basketball, an iPad game, punting footballs, etc.).” He says it with a straight face, and no doubt believes it 100%. It cracks me up every time a new declaration is made. In last night’s dinner conversation, he calmly stated, “I’m really good at rock climbing.”
But still, our overly secure son brought up the small eyes comments again last night. This time he actually said that he gets “made fun of.” That slight change in description brought a barrage of questions from my husband and me. Is he SURE they are making fun of him? Are they just curious and simply asking honest questions? Does it sound like mean teasing, or they just aren’t used to having friends that look like you? I realized that in the questioning, I was hoping to be able to extend the benefit of the doubt. I was hoping like crazy that they were innocent questions of childhood. When cynicism overrode hope for a split second so that protective mama bear pictured her cub getting made fun, one question slid its way into the barrage at the end: do you want me to go beat them up for you? (Thankfully, he did not even humor that question with his attention because as he has matter-of-factly stated before, “I’m really mature for my age.”)
He instead says that when he described the school conversations to Ethan that his older brother told him that they were racist. Oh, dang. I hope my kids do not use that word lightly. They have seen movies like Selma (after which Connor especially asked me repeatedly why people were so racist). They know in that movie that racism involved blatant discrimination and horrific violence. I know they are not experiencing those latter things at school, but perhaps they recognize the roots of racism. It then suddenly feels like a lot of pressure to know how to tailor these dinner table conversations so that their responses can be catalysts to allow those roots to fizzle out and die rather than grow into full-blown nightmares. I know in my head that the responsibility should not be theirs or ours. And in fact that most likely the root results rest in the hands of the families of the questioners. But still…my kids and some of their friends are the ones that will be more effected by those results than the questioners, so I still feel the pressure a little. More than pressure though, I want the guidebook on effectively handling these conversations and situations as a mother who loves her children and wants the very best for them.
I hope and pray it is simple childhood curiosity and innocent questioning. Many Asians who are used to being tokens or one of many know that feeling and can often differentiate when it is ignorance versus malicious racism. Ironically, their current school is almost 10% Asian which is higher than I expected. I had thought with this higher percentage they would be around others like them and the student body would also be more familiar with those that looked like them. But Connor gets asked these questions a lot here regardless. And growing up in a city like Tucson, they will definitely be tokens who stand out.
Standing out doesn’t just mean that people mistake you for the other Asians in town. It also means you don’t get the benefit of blending in as much. So when you talk back to a speeding car in your neighborhood who felt the need to stop and chastise you for not wearing reflective clothing at dusk, you are aware that now you will be easily spotted as the mouthy Asian girl from that particular driver. I couldn’t tell you who that driver was if I ran into him face-to-face again (Jeff Gordon maybe judging by his speed around the corner), but he could possibly remember me as one of only a small handful of Asian ladies in the neighborhood. When I make a funny (smart aleck) comment on the subdivision’s Facebook page, I realize now everyone could have opinions about that Asian girl who will be easier to spot than most other random commenters on the page. Sorry to all other Asians who may now bear the burden of my talking back, smart aleck mouth as representative of ALL Asians.
One day after millions of family dinner conversations maybe Connor will add to his repertoire, “I’m really good at handling conflict, representing my ethnicity, educating ignorance, and combating racism.” My motherly hope is that he will not just be “really good” at it, but that he will be a true champion.