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“Mom! Want to see something?” my eight-year old asks. She gets off the counter stool and stands, waiting.
I finish unscrewing the vitamin lid, “Okay, what?”
“It goes, ‘I went to a Chinese restaurant to buy a loaf of bread, bread, bread . . .’”
Her hands clap and pat her legs as she continues singing.
“’. . . punch you in the body, oops I’m sorry, don’t tell my mommy, Chinese, Japanese.’”
She stops for a second. “This is the part I can’t really do. You’re supposed to do this to your eyes,” she explains as she pulls the skin at the outside corner of her eyes. She looks at me expectantly.
I’m stunned.What the heck do I say?
“Umm . . .,” I say, stalling for time.
More silence. Be calm. Do not get mad. Breathe.
I try a question. “So, what do you think about that eye thing? What if you were a Chinese or Japanese person? What would you think about that?”
My daughter looks confused. “Uh, . . . it’s mean?” she asks.
“Well, probably,” I answer. “I think you’re right about that. So, what do you think about that song?”
She looks away and mumbles, “It’s not nice” and sits down to finish breakfast.
After she leaves for school, I still have the image of my white daughter trying to make her eyes slanty, singing a song she learned at school.
Honestly, I thought we were good on this – I mean we have tons of friends from other countries and other ethnic groups.
But, no excuses.
And, no we aren’t “good” – like we could ever be complacent when it comes to educating our children to be sensitive, compassionate and kind.
And no way is a child of mine growing up singing this song, thinking it’s okay.
. . .
I easily find the rhyme on YouTube and numerous websites, including a homeschool website. Little white girls from all over the United States singing “I Went to a Chinese Restaurant” without any mention of what a child of Asian descent might think, or might feel.
Surely I’m not the only person who thinks this song is unkind?
How will I teach them to recognize this unkindness before I point it out?
I email my friend, YA author Mitali Perkins http://mitaliblog.com in my panic, “I am so troubled, and I don’t know what to do. I’m thinking about books, dolls, movies, field trips . . . all the ways we learn about others. What do you think I should do?”
Perkins wisely writes, “Melissa, develop intentional relationships with your kids along cultural / class lines.” She shares how she drove her kids to play dates with friends in different neighborhoods, invited international students into her home, and visited homeless shelters, hanging out to listen and talk to the people there.”
Perkins adds, “These days refugees and immigrant communities are within driving distance almost anywhere in the US these days, but the bottom line is that it’s relationships across borders is the key to keeping suburban kids’ hearts open to diversity.”
Of course she’s right. But, what really strikes me is that somehow with our relationships (her best friend for four years was Ethiopian), I must, must, must have lots of intentional dialogs with her about prejudice, diversity, and stereotypes.
For example, “Honey, we just had dinner at Shin and Aik’s house – they are from Malaysia, you would not ever want to hurt their feelings by making fun of the shape of their eyes!”
It was my mistake to think that at eight, she would automatically recognize stereotyping without my facilitation, without conversation.
That is sad.
Brice agrees with Perkins, “Relationships are key. Dolls and books will only do so much.”
I have smart friends.
. . .
I think my work is cut out for me.
What about you?
. . .
Do you think this is a racist song?
What do you talk about at home with your kids when it comes to stereotypes and racism?
What intentional relationships to you have with people who are different than you?