I’ve twice had the most profound and awe-inspiring life experience: giving birth to a child. Now ages 3 and 5, my bizarre, amusing, remarkable daughters have spent their entire lives teaching me innumerable lessons on patience, love, deep breathing, and truth-telling. Their father and I do our best to speak honestly with our girls about life (in developmentally appropriate ways, of course), believing our task is not simply to nurture children but also to raise adults whose personal and social compasses will serve them well in the world.
More than a decade of anti-racism activism combined with a nearly 4 year journey to the conception of my first child gave me a lot of time to mentally flip flop through the acrobatics of combining parenting and critical race consciousness. I cooked up all kinds of plans for keeping it racially real with my half-White, half-Asian kid. I bought children’s books with characters of color in every shade, speaking myriad languages, rocking all body shapes, and sporting various hair textures. I swore off Disney and amassed a cache of Hayao Miyazaki films peppered with videos of talking animals free of racially suggestive attributes. I pored over eBay auctions for baby dolls of color that seemed “ethnic,” but not so much that they’d come with a miniature wardrobe of nothing but kimonos or dashikis. (Because, c’mon – people of color also occasionally wear jeans and tee shirts.) And in a deliberate effort to combat the effects of “pregnancy brain,” I kept my racial analysis razor sharp by framing my natural, drug-free labor and delivery as a revolutionary act – the ultimate opportunity to huff, puff, and push my child to liberation.
As our girls grow, my husband and I are choosing to talk about race head-on because if we don’t do it the world will do it for us – and probably in a way we don’t like. Sure, my girls have a white daddy, but both my spouse and I know that the racial construct is unforgiving and uncompromising in its categorization. Self-definition, while perfectly lovely in our mixed-race home, ain’t the name of the game when race is concerned: you’re either white or you’re not – and our mixed kids are not. We’ve spent a lot of time openly observing and commenting on our own family’s coloring: us girls are light brown, Dad is pink. (Interestingly, this color consciousness has evolved quickly into racial consciousness, with “light brown” becoming “Asian,” and “pink” changing to “White.”) Our older daughter’s racial identity formation grew relative to our parental coaching, and by 2 ½ years old she made plans to start a “brown skin girls” soccer team and gleefully claimed her “Hapa POWER!” with tiny raised fists and a loud, squeaky voice.
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I was feeling pretty good about the caliber of my racially-focused child rearing until one run-of-the-mill spring day at the park when my child announced loudly for all to hear, “Mommy! There are A LOT of Black people here!” I froze. I looked around and caught the stone-faced stare of an African American mom, lips pursed and awaiting my response to this loud-mouthed Asian kid.
“Shit!” I thought to myself. My knee jerked and I had a silent, rapid fire mental throwdown: “Be quiet, child! Why do you have to be so damn loud? All of the Black people are going to think we’re racist because, well … because you noticed that they’re Black! And then we’ll be seen as the Asians perpetuating anti-Black racism! Gaaahhh! Why me??? Why now???”
Thankfully, none of those deliberations escaped my lips. Instead, I paused and took a second to dig deeper. In that moment, I realized that my daughter’s observation was less about the Black people there and more about the absence of all the white people who usually frequent this particular park. The lack of Whites at a playground where they generally make up about 75% of the families was so stark that it made our presence as People of Color that much more pronounced. This was what my child saw, and I heartbreakingly realized that her tiny world is already forming around the normativity of whiteness.
I also stumbled upon something else in this contemplative moment. I discovered that inside of me lurks the powerful, deeply socialized desire to meet race – even in the most harmless of observations – with silence, especially the liberal silence rooted in the fear of being called racist simply for commenting on racial difference. As a Person of Color, this ingrained silence is made all the more complicated by internalized oppression and my battle to prove to other People of Color that I may be Asian, but I’m not White.
So on that sunny spring day at the park – after I dragged my own racial socialization through the gauntlet and sweat bullets over my fear of having Black people assume I was “just like white folk” – I turned to my daughter and said, “You’re right, honey, there are Black families here. And we’re brown and we’re here, too. And it looks like Daddy is the only white guy here today.” She turned to me, smiled, and simply replied, “Yup! Will you push me on the swing now?”