“Am I Black or White?”

August 19th–I was sitting at my laptop when Elanor came over, dressed in her gymnastics uniform.  I glanced up, half hoping I could finish my tweet or my facebook comment–or whatever it was I was doing–before she was ready to leave.

“Am I black or white?”

I looked up at her.  “What?”

“Am I black or white?”

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I’m not ready for this conversation.  I thought it would be years from now.   Fuck.  I have to talk about racism.  How do I–as a white parent–explain race and racism to a five year old biracial child?  Shouldn’t Ravi be the one to do this?  Why isn’t Ravi here?  Do I mention Ferguson?   If we were in the US I’d have taken her to Ferguson rallies.  What about the “no indians/no prcs” in the rental market in Singapore?  The Little India riot?  I don’t know what to say.  I’m not ready.

All of this flashes through my mind as I try to come up with an answer.

“Well, you’re not black.  Your dad is Indian and I’m White–so you’re biracial.”

“So am I Indian or am I White?”

“You’re both.”

Please let that be enough.  Let her be happy with that answer.  Give me time to figure out what to say next.  To talk to Ravi, to P, to other non-white friends and ask for help.

I’ll spare you the full conversation.  But it was deep, and it was hard, and I was brutally aware of my white privilege for every last second.

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I read Nurture Shock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman at some point in the last year.   They discuss (among other things) research that has been done into how white parents do and don’t talk about race.   The following quotes are all from Chapter 3.

 

“…Hardly any of these white parents had ever talked to their children directly about race.  They might have asserted vague principles in the home–like “Everybody’s equal” or “God made all of us” or “Under the skin we’re all the same”–but they had almost never called attention to racial differences.

They wanted their children to grow up color-blind.  But Vittrup could also see from her first test of the kids that they weren’t color-blind at all.

*******

More disturbingly, Vittrup had also asked all the kinds a very blunt question: “Do your parents like black people.” If the white parents never talked about race explicitly, did the kids knwo that their parents liked black people?  Apparently not: 14% said, outright, “No, my parents don’t like black people”; 38% of the kids answered “I don’t know.”

In this supposed race-free vacuum being created by parents, kids were left to improvise their own conclusions–many of which would be abhorrent to their parents.

******

Combing through the parents’ study diaries, Vittrup noticed an aberration.  When she’d given the parents the checklist of race topics to discuss with their kindergartners, she had also asked them to record whether this had been a meaningful interaction.  Did the parents merely mention the item on the checklist?  Did they expand on the checklist item?  Did it lead to true discussion?

Almost all the parents reported merely mentioning the checklist items, briefly, in passing.  Many just couldn’t talk about race, and they quickly reverted to the vague “Everybody’s equal” phrasing.

*****

The other deeply held assumption modern parents have is what Ashley and I have come to call the Diverse Environment theory.  If you raise a child with a fair amount of exposure to people of other races and cultures, the environment becomes the message.  You don’t have to talk about race–in fact it’s better not to talk about race.  Just expose the child to diverse environments and he’ll think it’s entirely normal.

 

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I have talked to Elanor about racism before.  But the more I thought about it, the more I realize I’ve presented it as something that was in the past.  It used to be against the law for Mommy and Daddy to be married because we have different skin colors.  Before Martin Luther King, black kids couldn’t go to school with white kids.  A really long time ago white people thought it was okay to own black people.  Our interracial marriage is legal.  Kids of different colors go to school together.  Slavery is over.

I don’t believe we–the US, Singapore, the world–are post racial.  But I haven’t been ready to tell that to my five year old.

Recently I said to a friend that before I could talk about privilege, I need to point out the ‘isms.  I’m comfortable talking with Elanor about sexism and heterosexism.  Unintentionally, I’ve not brought racism to her attention.  I never mentioned the Little India riot last December because we were in the US and I could shelter her from it.  I haven’t talked about what’s happening in Ferguson, Missouri because we’re in Singapore and I can shelter her from it.  Racism has been the elephant in the room.

Fortunately (?) I had two examples to share with Elanor about how people make assumptions based on race from the finalization of our PR status at the ICA.

When we got the paperwork with the details that will appear on our identification, we found two errors.

Ravi’s language was listed as Gujurati.He doesn’t speak it, at all.

My religion was listed as Christian.—I am an Atheist.

Both errors were clearly the attendant’s assumptions.  The paperwork that was sitting right in front of them clearly stated that Ravi’s primary and only language is English and that I am an atheist.  I know this because I’m the person who has filled it out.  The file is over an inch thick, and every last line about language specifies English and religion specifies Atheist.

I looked at everyone’s paperwork.  Ravi–Free Thinker (closest thing to Atheist here, apparently).  Elanor–Free Thinker.  Rhiannon–Free Thinker.  Me–Christian.

I look again to see if Ravi’s was the only error in language..  Me-English.  Elanor-English.  Rhiannon-English.  Ravi–Gujarati.

I pointed out the errors to the attendant and had her fix the paperwork before I signed for myself and the girls, and called Ravi over to sign his form.  End of story.  I never thought that the attendant was pursuing a negative agenda–they just filled out the forms without thinking.  White person?  Christian–after all, most are.  Indian of Gujarati heritage–must obviously speak Gujurati because most do.

Ravi and I discussed the incident quietly while the girls were singing along to Frozen in the backseat after our appointment.  But it was a very short conversation that can be boiled down to “Well, that was racist on their part.  Shrug.  Sigh.”  Then we moved on to what was I going to cook for dinner, and what was the game plan for the upcoming weekend–did we have plans yet?  Neither of us mentioned it to the girls.

Today I shared those microagresions with Elanor–an illustration that even though we want to live in a world where everyone is treated the same, people still make assumptions based on skin color.  Sometimes those assumptions are irritating but not dangerous, and other times they can hurt people–a lot.  I didn’t get into Ferguson, although if the drive had been longer, I might have.

I taught Elanor one of the most important lessons I feel I can impart to her–to answer the question “Where are you from?” or “What are you?” with Why do you want to know?

I told her that people will want to ask her this question because they can’t immediately put her in a racial box.  That sometimes it will be a relevant question–maybe if she’s talking to someone about India or she’s talking about her family’s history or something like that–and if she’s comfortable, she’s free to share.  But that other times–MOST OF THE TIME–it will be totally irrelevant to the conversation, and she should ask them that.  That she is allowed to say “I’m not going to discuss that with you,” or “I don’t think you need to know that,” or to keep asking Why do you want to know?

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Ellie kept asking about colors–about what she was.

I showed her a picture of President Obama.  I told her that like her–his mom is white.  That his dad is black, and hers is Indian.  Her response was “He’s so cute!” which is Elanor-speak for “I like him because I can identify with him.”

She asked again if her dad was black.  I reluctantly used the word brown, but said that we don’t use that word–we identify with ethnicity.  That Latinos, Indians, and many South-East Asians are similarly shades of brown.  That her dad is Indian.

“What am I?”

I give her options–that she can identify as biracial, as white, as indian, as eurasian (explaining what eurasian means), as mixed.  That it’s partially up to her.

“I’m going to say I’m Indian,” she tells me.  I’m not shocked, as she has a strong connection to her Indian heritage.

In that moment, though,  I was thinking about Rhiannon, who is so light skinned she is assumed to be white.  While Rhi has the option of identifying as Indian, I wonder if she will.  As Paula commented on the National Identity post “I can relate to R and her potential issues of being half Indian (for me Native American) but looking more Caucasian and how that can make you feel a bit of a disconnect from the rest of the family who are “darker”. Its insulting and disheartening when you are viewed as “not native enough” by those outside of the family because of it.”

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I am very lucky to have a supportive network of friends that cross all sorts of lines–class, religion, education, background, sexuality, and race.  I try to be aware of my privilege.  I try to address racism when I encounter it.  I consider myself an activist (although more in the realm of feminist and LGBT issues).  Yet, like those parents in Nuture Shock, I am uncomfortable talking about these issues with a five year old.  If she were a 10/11/12 year old like the ones I used to teach, or older, I could do this so much more easily.  My five year old who is currently asleep and eager to check her tooth box in the morning to see if the tooth fairy came?  I wish I could fall back on “Everybody’s equal.”  But I don’t have that luxury.

Much like national identity this will also be an ongoing journey of identity and discovery for Elanor, racial identity will be a long term journey for Elanor.  How will she identify?  How will she handle all those inquests about her racial background because she looks exotic?  What sort of racism will she encounter in Singapore?  What sort of racism will she encounter in the US?  How will she deal with it?  How different a journey through these identity issues will her sister have?  What will these conversations look like in a year, in five, in ten?

In the end, all the discussions I have had/continue to have about race, the reading, the listening, the learning?  I still feel unprepared and lacking confidence when talking about race/racism with Elanor.  But I’m going to have the conversations anyway.

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10 Responses to “Am I Black or White?”

  1. Mummy Ed says:

    I recently read a article (or rant?) where a mother said she was shocked that the kindergarten had worksheets that asked for kids to draw a corresponding line between a Chinese person to noodles, an Indian person to chapati, etc (I forgot what the Malay one was). What do you think of that? I am perfectly ok with it because I think embracing our differences is the best way to achieve racial harmony. It might be quite stereotypical, but they *are* only kindergarteners! If we have nasi briyani, I try to tell them that it’s an Indian dish. If we eat Korean, Japanese, etc, I do the same.
    Apparently in K2 my son has also learnt about racial riots. I was rather impressed!

    • I don’t think that such a worksheet, teaching kids to relate Chinese people to noodles, Indian people to chapati, etc., is helpful at all. It doesn’t actually teach racial harmony, much less achieve it. All it does is embed stereotypes in a child’s mind – stereotypes that completely break down the moment the child steps out of the classroom and into the real world!

      In fact, such stereotypes completely ignore the diversity within ethnicities as well. Even within countries there is a variety of cuisine and customs. Not everyone will identify with that particular food, and why should they? Do they become less Chinese if they don’t eat noodles?

      The fact that I might eat roti prata as a Chinese woman doesn’t mean I am post-racial or not racist. The fact that I can wear a cheongsam and eat nasi padang at the same time doesn’t mean there is racial harmony. True racial harmony and understanding needs to go far, far beyond stereotypes and symbols. And in that context teaching kids to match Chinese to noodles and Indian to chapati is pretty pointless, no?

    • My reaction was that my mouth fell open in horror as I read the description of the worksheets. I’d be pretty horrified and ranty, myself.

      When Ravi and I were looking for apartments, our agent always carefully billed us as “American” and not “Indian” because many landlords don’t want to rent to Indians. One of the reasons I’ve seen cited most? Because they cook smelly curries and will stink up your house. So I think that what seems like a small thing (or what would be termed a microagression) actually becomes part of a much larger, more dangerous thing.

      Because with Indians in particular in Singapore, it’s not just smelly food. It’s the portrayal of the Indian male as sexual predator. It’s the Indian child as less worthy student than a Chinese student. There are lots of stereotypes that do become harmful in the long run.

      I think there are plenty of ways to teach diversity and race, but drawing a line between noodles and a chinese person isn’t a good one. If you are teaching about food, maybe actually bring in noodles etc for kids to eat. Talk about their being Chinese in origin, but just as American Chinese food isn’t exactly pure chinese food, I’m guessing that Chinese food in Singapore has also been influenced–at least a bit–by peranakan culture? How did it change over the decades in Singapore? Be very explicit that just because a food is Chinese or Indian or Malay in origin doesn’t mean that only those people like it. I know very people in SG who don’t love Roti Paratha, for one.

      It’s impressive that your son has learned about the riots, but I’m curious what was taught explicitly versus implicitly. Because what is and isn’t said is often really important. The riots that happened in Missouri following the death of Michael Brown (a black unarmed teen) at the hands of a white police officer are being portrayed very differently based on who’s doing the reporting.

      I think teaching stereotypes doesn’t really achieve anything beyond the perpetuation of stereotypes.

    • Carolynn says:

      Crystal, I’mma hafta disagree with you on ‘American Chinese food isn’t exactly pure Chinese food’, because, really, what IS ‘pure Chinese food’? I dislike the implication that authenticity is lost the further through time and space one moves from the ‘motherland’.

      Ed, as a Singaporean Chinese I’m really tired of worksheets like the one you describe! I’m not ‘perfectly ok with it’ because I don’t think these worksheets do anything for ‘embracing our differences’. These differences are often artificially created and engineered through our socially constructed racial categories; for example, just yesterday I read a blogger’s profile where she described herself as ‘ethnically Javanese, politically Malay’ because of how the state has imposed ‘CMIO’ on its population.

      In fact, the danger, I feel, with teaching Chinese children especially about ‘racial harmony’ is what Crystal has written in this blog post: it gives the sense that Singapore is postracial and everything is fine, e.g. ‘Our interracial marriage is legal. Kids of different colors go to school together. Slavery is over.’ Pero like, NO. This allows children with racial privilege to go through life ignorant of the societal and structural race-based discrimination that is deeply entrenched in Singapore. The absence of riots does not make for harmony, and in fact the statal narrative pertaining to race riots only heightens awareness of race and perpetuates colourist stereotypes of ‘angry brown men’.

      I want to quote very heavily from the essay “Multiculturalism’s narratives in Singapore and Canada” by Wendy Bokhorst-Heng:

      To this end, Singapore has pursued a form of multiculturalism that discursively places all ethnic groups on parity with one another under the motto of ‘unity in diversity’. Policies concerned with housing, national service, community development programmes, and so forth, have all been framed by the rhetoric of national cohesion. … Every year, Singapore celebrates ‘racial harmony week’, which reinstates and re‐imagines these components of its multiracial nation: on the one hand, it reminds Singaporeans of the vulnerabilities associated with its racial diversity, and at the same time, it crystallizes its racial quadric population.

      …This view of ‘multiculturalism’ involves what Weaver (2000) calls ‘surface culture’, illustrated by the one‐tenth part of an iceberg that is above the surface. This would entail such matters as art, music, drama, dance, dress, cooking, and other cultural artifacts, and stands in contrast to the nine‐tenths of the iceberg below the surface, or ‘deep culture’—the often unconscious assumptions, values, and understandings that people hold. In education, a deployment of surface culture is manifested in what Banks (2001), Nieto (2000), and others call a ‘food and festival’ or ‘heroes and holidays’ approach to multicultural education. Typically, these areas are non‐threatening and often readily shared and celebrated by others, but do not get at the heart of cultural meanings; in fact, they often perpetuate stereotypes and water down the real issues in cultural meanings, difference, and inequality.

      In some respects, Singapore’s education policies reinforce this ‘iceberg’ model in the schools. Whereas the different language/race schools characteristic of pre‐ and early‐independence were replaced by English medium of instruction for all, leading to more integrated classrooms, students are still required to attend separate ‘mother‐tongue’ classes. Moral education is taught in these separate language classes as well. As a result, multiculturalism has actually concretized ethnic differences and widened the gap among races (Lai 2004), rather than encouraging integration and shared understandings.…

      Leaders frequently evoke the racial riots of the 1960s as a way to legitimize present‐day policies regarding race. … This suggests a multicultural model that is reductive and accomplished through a homogenization that is achieved through two distinct semiotic processes in ideology formation (Gal and Irvine 1995, Gal 1998): erasure and recursiveness. Erasure refers to a process in which ‘references to peoples or activities [or relationships] may be omitted in the course of ideological construction’ (Wee and Bokhorst‐Heng 2005: 162). For example, in his speech at the launch of the 1991 Speak Mandarin Campaign (an annual campaign since 1979 to promote the use and status of the Chinese language), Goh summarized his speech by saying: ‘The Chinese community should aim to be a single people with Mandarin as its common language and sharing a distinct culture, a shared past and a common destiny for the future’ (Gohn Chock Tong 1991), erasing Singapore’s divergent immigrant past. Recursiveness ‘involves the projection of a distinction made at one level onto some other level(s)’. Leaders frequently evoke a straw‐man argument, using a widely debunked definition of the nation‐state—‘a group of people having a common origin and common institutions, including language’—to equate unity with homogeneity. In so doing they (like Goh) are able to problematize racial diversity and to re‐inscribe vulnerability into the national narrative, as well as lay the groundwork for their solution to the ‘problem’. The net result is the reduction of Singapore’s rich multicultural diversity into a tidy quadrant package: Chinese, Malay, Indian, and ‘Other’ (CMIO), diminishing (and managing) the rich diversity within these categories. This quadrant also presents the four racial categories as neutral and equal, and, through erasure, minimizing the minority–majority relationships among them.

      Ultimately, like Crystal said, ‘teaching stereotypes doesn’t really achieve anything beyond the perpetuation of stereotypes’. I want to go further than that, though, and say that teaching stereotypes also prepares children for the internalisation of—and, for Chinese children, complicity in—a system of Chinese dominance/supremacy.

      • Carolynn says:

        Just to follow up: I don’t know when is ‘too young’ to talk about race in the household or classroom, neither having nor being a small child myself; but if you are Chinese in Singapore or white in the USA, you have to always remember that for minority children, learning about race is not a curricular privilege but a fact of everyday life. Because every day already they are learning that their skin and hair are ugly, that there are words that can be weaponised against them, that their food is smelly, and that people who look and act like them are erased from media and/or exist only as caricatures. I am worried about imported Western media teaching anti-East Asian stereotypes to Singaporean Chinese children, yes, but global whiteness doesn’t absolve us of our own cultural wickedness.

      • That’s absolutely the truth that slapped me in the face here. My whiteness doesn’t “protect” my children–or at least my visibily non-white child…because the one-drop rule is still very much in effect (at least if you can see it). I’ve read some research that says that biracial children overwhelming identify as the minority parent’s race because of this (making Elanor’s self-identification as Indian unsurprising).

        Something deeply screwed up? Elanor is complimented on her tan skin by my white friends and on her lightness by Indians. Mostly, though, she’s just called exotic–she’s not dark enough to be threatening, but not so white as to pass so everyone wants to ask intrusive questions so they can slot her into the correct box. Hence why she needs the language of “Why do you want to know?”

        I’m also worried about Western Media teaching my Asian kids that Asian means Chinese, and that yellow face is totally hilarious and/or appropriate (Katy Perry, I’m looking at you among others).

      • Excellent point about the Chinese food. I stand corrected. I think perhaps I should have said that Chinese food in the US, SG and China are different cuisines at this point? But it’s also probably true if I traveled through China that the dish with the same name would be different regionally.

        And you are very right about the idea that the further you move in time and space from the motherland=less authenticity is problematic. I need to re-examine my own assumptions there.

        Is that a book or an essay? I’d be really interested to read it in full. The “heroes and holidays” is also well in effect in the US. Which makes me nuts when people get all pissy about women’s history month and black history month and say ignorant bullshit like “what about white history month?” as if every day weren’t white male history month! Women’s history month, latino history month, etc are problematic, but not because they exist per se–but rather than because they exist, we get to erase them from the everyday history and merrily proceed with our white male history without questioning the narrative we’re selling our kids.

  2. This is both really interesting and really tough. I have no idea how one would broach such a subject with a five-year-old; I’m 26 and still find so many nuances and complications and double standards that I have troubling wrapping my own head around it, much less trying to explain it in simple terms to a child.

    I’ve never had to deal with this as a child. I’ve always been very clear and sure about my race, and honestly, the Singaporean education system would have made it clear for me even if I had been conflicted. But I think that in itself is problematic, because it meant that I never actually questioned or thought about this issue, nor did I realise until much later that my experience has been steeped in assumptions and privilege and prejudice. It’s something that I’ve only started to think harder about in recent years, and looking back I wish I had my eyes opened earlier.

    So kudos to you for thinking about this now and making sure that E and Rhi grow up aware!

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