My evening conversations with my children consist of the usual: How was your day? How are you doing? A few weeks ago, while we’re sitting on my bed, Little Mermaid told me that Aiden made fun of her at school.
“Mommy, Aiden called me Chinese today,” she broke into tears. “I told him that I’m Hmong and he said, ‘No, you’re Chinese. Ha! Ha!’ It really hurt my feelings.”
She climbed into my arms and I hugged and comforted her.
This is the second time this has happened. The first time was last year when a student from another class made fun of her because she is “Chinese.”
Both times, the teachers didn’t seem to take it seriously. The first teacher said that the student probably thought Little Mermaid was Chinese because they had just discussed about how diverse the classroom was. Little Mermaid’s current teacher punished the student by having him pull a card with no conversations around why it’s not okay to call someone “Chinese” when they’re not.
How would microaggressions as this transgress as a child grows older? What would happen if no one had conversations with said child that it’s not okay to disregard or invalidate a person’s experience based on their race? Some would argue that it’s no big deal, that children don’t know what they’re saying, that it was a joke, or that they didn’t intend to offend or hurt anyone.
Kids used to call me and my friends “Chinese,” “Chink,” “Ching Chong,” and other racial slurs growing up. It wasn’t just White kids, but kids of color as well. We would insult them back, “You’re stupid! We’re not Chinese!” or “Are you deaf? That’s not how we talk.”
For a very short time when I was 10 years old, we had a Black family as our neighbor. We lived in a duplex and the two master bedrooms shared a wall. My sisters and I shared the master and it seemed the children next door shared the master bedroom on the other side as well. It started with the other kids making fun of the way we talk. Whenever we had our bedroom window open, we would hear them shouting out their bedroom window, “Ching chong ching chong! You guys talk funny,” followed by a burst of laughter.
When we told our mom about it, she simply said as she always did, “Just ignore them. We don’t want to have any problems with anyone.” And so, we ignored them as much as we could and it escalated to include name-calling. My sisters and I started telling them they’re stupid and that their words don’t hurt us. “Sticks and stones can break our bones, but words will never hurt us!” we would chant back to them every time they said something mean to us.
This continued on for months. And then one day, I couldn’t take it anymore. So when I heard someone say, “You suck Chinese dick, you dog-eating chink,” from next door, I ran to the window and said, “Shut the fuck up, N-word!”
Yes, I did. That was the first and last time I ever called someone that name. I didn’t feel any remorse at that time. I do now, but at that time, I was proud of myself because the name-calling from next door stopped.
Later that evening, we were visited by the mother next door. She confronted my limited-English speaking mother about one of us calling her children the N-word. I spoke for my mother and told our neighbor that her children started it and they had been calling us names for a few months. Our neighbor said she didn’t appreciate us using that word and left. They moved out shortly after that. And that was when I started to understand the deep negative impact that that particular word has on Black people. It was not okay for the kids next door to make fun of us or call us names based on our skin color, but that didn’t justify me calling them a derogatory name in return.
My kids haven’t fully grasp the concept of racism. We have had conversations and teaching moments about race and diversity. They know that it’s wrong to dislike, judge, or discriminate someone solely on the color of their skin, their gender, the way they speak, their sexual orientation/identity, religious beliefs, socioeconomic status, or their abilities/disabilities. They’re not perfect and I don’t expect them to be. It will continue to be a learning process for all of us, but I feel better just knowing that we’re having conversations around race, appreciation of diversity, and racism.
Even though my children do not have a deep understanding of racism, microagressions or even blatant racism, they are still impacted by these every day.