Sunday, December 23, 2012

Resisting Racism: Children's Toys

 © Sharon Chang and MultiAsian Families Blog, Dec 23 2012.

About a week ago, my son and I went to see a friend's new apartment. Also visiting was the friend's 9 year old step son. Kazuo was mesmerized by this kid's big boy toys. He picked them up. Looked them over. Put them down. Picked them up again. Over and over, finally settling on a big ziplock full of collectible figurines. From a distance, I approved. My 3 year old has stumbled into a developmental stage which has him obsessed with categorizing and organizing. Bunch of little people he could sort and line up? Seemed like a perfect fit to me.

Seriously. I should have known better.

5 minutes later I squat down with him. Start rummaging through the collection. And this is what I see:

My lower jaw fell open in shock. The entire bag was full of these types of caricatures. That is, mocking and stereotypical images of poor Latino / Hispanic people doing things like selling oranges on the street. Or sitting fat and lazy in an armchair, wearing a wife-beater, drinking beer and watching TV. Or decked out in sagging pants, toting a gun or a knife. I turned to my son with wide eyes. He looked at me expectantly. For a couple minutes I was totally tongue-tied. Then I shook myself out of it and clumsily spit out a few words about how the toys weren't okay. Something about how they were mean or whatever. I took them away, but was left with feeling (a) totally gross and (b) like the damage had already been done.

Lest you think Asians are exempt from this type of caricature stereotyping,  check this out. A few years ago, a friend of my husband gave him this toy as a joke:

I have no idea where this came from, or what type of toy / novelty store would think it acceptable to carry this product. My husband didn't want me to include it on my list because he couldn't conceive of it as a real. First he claimed it wasn't American and must be from China (though that certainly doesn't improve anything). Then when he saw English all over the packaging, he thought it must be a joke. "I don't even understand what this is," he finally ended. I agree. Nevertheless. There it is. The scary, communist Chinese soldier, emasculated while riding a silly carousel horse, on his mission to dismantle American Democracy. All right so maybe not for kids. But okay for grownups??

If now you are perhaps thinking these are just cheap toys sold in cheap shops (shops you would never go to), take a look at this:
 

These are Playmobil figurines that I found in a fashionable, small toy store in my community. My neighborhood, as I have mentioned, is very diverse. There is much social work done in the area and many educated, middle upper income folk who live here consider themselves liberal as well as progressive. This toy store is very popular and prides itself on the quality of its product. It has a huge Playmobil section that represents, surprise!  Predominantly White people. These were two of very few people of color represented. Possibly the only two with very dark skin. Please note the portrayal of dark people as different,  primitive, backwards, or scary and dangerous. I was particularly impressed by the use of the word "special" on the first, and the juxtaposition of the scary dark pirate to the "friendly" white pirate just below.












Here's more. In attempting to buy my son diverse play people for Christmas, for lack of anything better, I resorted to Lego's Duplo World People Set:

Not bad considering what's out there (which is basically very little). But when it was delivered to our door, I excitedly tore open the packaging to peak inside. I pulled out the Lego box. And then - my husband and I sat there scratching our heads. Which people were the Asian ones? Aside from White, what were the other people supposed to be? My husband pointed to the lower left, "Well this is clearly the Asian family." "Why?" I asked. He was stumped, "I don't know." Did they simply make a bunch of the same dolls with the same European features and vary the skin tone? Why does that make me feel strange and maybe a little sick to my stomach?

As if to answer my question, walking into Toys R Us a couple days ago, I was greeted by this image:

As a multiracial woman growing up in Los Angeles, I found myself assaulted constantly (and with great strength) by mainstream images of beauty that I didn't fit. A standard of beauty that to this day celebrates slight tall frames, light skin, pointy thin noses, big blue eyes, wide smiles, and blond hair. These images continue to be perpetuated unselfconsciously and dangerously by American media, especially Hollywood, around the globe. Think I'm overreacting? There is a growing trend among ethnic minorities in the U.S., particularly Asian Americans, to get plastic surgery. In 2005, plastic surgeons saw a dramatic increase in the number of non-White patients, according to a survey by the American Society of Plastic Surgeons. Asian Americans had 437,000 cosmetic surgeries that year, a 58% jump from the previous year. The 3 most common surgeries for Asian Americans were (1) rhinoplasty (nose reshaping), (2) eyelid surgery, and (3) breast augmentation. Doesn't take a rocket scientist to know what portion of those patients were women. Wonder how they might've gotten the idea they weren't beautiful? So I cringed outwardly, crumpling inside a little, when this larger-than-life Barbie silently wished me Merry Christmas. And thought I was possibly in hell.

This is a really uncomfortable post to write (and I'm sure a very uncomfortable post to read). But I hope we can all sit with the discomfort for a while. The more I look, the more I see. Our children are indoctrinated into a racial framework from Day 1 in so many ways. I consider it our job to be as vigilant as possible in screening what they are exposed to, and when that fails, in providing them a counter-narrative to the negative messages they receive daily. Negative messages not only about themselves, but others as well. I found a beautiful quote this morning in Beverly Daniel Tatum's pivotal book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?
"All of us want a better, more peaceful world for our children," she writes. "If we want peace, we must work for justice."






Saturday, December 8, 2012

Picking A Preschool

 © Sharon Chang and MultiAsian Families Blog, Dec 8 2012.

I can't even begin to tell you what a hard time I had finding a preschool for my child. One that was not only diverse but included a foundation for anti-bias learning. One that put into effect daily a practice of inclusivity and strategies for resisting racism. One where my child would feel supported in the development of his multiracial identity. One where he would see himself reflected in the classroom and in the faces of his peers. One where he would feel celebrated. Not strange or different. One where he would feel invited to talk about race openly. Not a need to discover it secretly behind adult's backs. As the director of his current school said to me, "It's not enough for us to just be diverse. If we aren't talking about it - doing something about it - nothing changes." Amen.

I taught young children for over 6 years before I became a mother myself. I believe passionately in the importance of anti-bias curriculum in early learning. Particularly the approach pioneered by Louise Derman-Sparks and the A.B.C. Task Force in their book Anti-Bias Curriculum: Tools for Empowering Young Children. That is, exploring race and racism, and teaching strategies for resistance during the formative years. Considering these are the years that set the stage for who we are to become later in life, I consider race learning at this time very critical early intervention work. Indeed research over the last decade increasingly shows this to be  true.

Despite the fact that I live in one of the most diverse zip codes in the nation however, I was dismayed to find that many preschools professing an anti-bias approach were not practicing what they preached. Attempts on my part to raise awareness or effect change were either moderately successful or completely dismissed. At one supposed "anti-bias" preschool I taught, I noticed only light beige, "flesh colored" bandaids. How would a dark-skinned child feel putting such a thing on? Seeing it scream out like a flashing neon sign against their beautiful brownness. It's one of the many ways people of color, every day, are made to feel outside, unimportant, or different in our society. I pointed out to the White director that the light beige bandaids were not a good idea and that we should remove them. They do make flesh-colored bandaids of varying skin tones now (in response to backlash provoked by the monoracial ones) - though you would be hard pressed to find them. I suggested we buy those. Or at the very least offer alternatives. Non-brown colors. Or cartoon characters.

His response? He told me it wasn't a big deal.
 
Then I had my son. I started looking at preschools in a different way, and struggled again. I know the preschool culture in this city well and myself am trained in early childhood education. I knew where to look and what to look for, and still felt like I was swimming upstream. When my son was about 15 mo I looked at a program down the street. It was walking distance. Had a good reputation. Beautiful classroom. Highly educated teachers who'd been there for years. It was affordable. Everything about it seemed promising. But when I went on a tour, I noticed very few families of color. I mentioned this to our White tour guide, a school parent and board member. "I know!" she exclaimed. "We've noticed that too, and want to do something about it." Comforted, I submitted our application. The school is popular. It receives more applicants than it can accommodate. To be fair, new students are selected by lottery. But consider this. The predominant number of applicants are White. It's simple math. A lottery inherently favors those White applicants. Indeed, we did not get in. I knew two other Asian families who applied. They also did not get in. A few months later, walking by the space, I looked in the window and saw the new class. Almost all White. I was livid. I emailed the registrar. Suggested to her that if the school really cared about diversifying their student body, perhaps a lottery system was not serving them well.

Though she had always been prompt about responding to my other emails, she ignored this one. I didn't get any response other than the sound of my protest echoing against an indifferent silence. In the years since, I have heard many disparaging remarks about this particular school by families of color. It is notorious for being White. I have heard it called "White-bred." In the most diverse zip code in the nation - it is not only embarrassing, but shameful.

I will say at last we did find a school that was almost everything we were looking for. But it was very hard. And it seems to be one of very few. Sometimes we feel alone in the the race education we are attempting to give our son. We don't know other multiethnic Asian families who are comfortably discussing race with their young children every day. Others seem surprised or even disapproving when they find out we do. Statistics show that multiracial is one of the fastest growing demographics in our nation. If I live in a major urban area that is "liberal and progressive," and still can't find much support for the blended cultures of my multiethnic Asian family - what is it like for other parents trying to raise multiethnic Asian children in this nation?












Saturday, December 1, 2012

Children's Booklist

 © Sharon Chang and MultiAsian Families Blog, Dec 1 2012.

And this is where I need your help. Below are some children's books that I find really adhere to the anti-bias parameters discussed. I would like this to be a working list. Books on it should be ones that particularly appeal to the multiethnic multiracial Asian children in our group. For example, perhaps they represent Asian heritage, multiethnic multiracial peoples or the struggles of people of color for social justice. Are there any anti-bias children's books you would like to add to our list? I will continue to add or remove suggestions based on your comments. Your feedback is greatly needed. I can't even pretend to assemble something comprehensive on my own. Let's get a substantial collection going here!

Part Asian 100% Hapa by Kip Fulbeck


Mixed: Portraits of Multiracial Kids by Kip Fulbeck
Shades of People by Shelley Rotner and Sheila M. Kelly
The Skin You Live In 
Michael Tyler (Author) David Lee Csicsko (Illustrator)

Peek! A Thai Hide and Seek 
Minfong Ho (Author) Holly Meade (Illustrator)

Hush: A Thai Lullaby
Minfong Ho (Author) Holly Meade (Illustrator)

Chaat and Sweets by Amy Wilson Sanger

Yum Yum Dim Sum by Amy Wilson Sanger

Bee-bim Bop by Ho Baek Lee

First Book of Sushi by Amy Wilson Sanger


* Contributed by Blog Reader *  
A to Z Picture Book by Gyo Fujikawa

  "Hey Sharon...Gyo Fujikawa was a Japanese American illustrator who's family was interned during WWII, she became one of the first women to illustrate for Disney, and she was one of the first children's book illustrators to include children of many races (before it was politically correct to do so).  I thought her story was inspiring, thought you might appreciate it too!"

Say Hello! by Rachel Isadora

Happy Belly, Happy Smile by Rachel Isadora

see more! go to Multiasian Families Blog page  Books for Kids


Thursday, November 8, 2012

Resisting Racism: Evaluating Children's Books for Bias

 © Sharon Chang and MultiAsian Families Blog, Nov 8 2012.

Ok. In this blog I'm spending a good chunk of time identifying the salience of racism. And although it's essential to label it if you want to fight it, let's be honest - it's really depressing.  It's easy for me to get disheartened and feel like I want to give up. Hide my family in a remote desert cave for the rest of eternity. But that would obviously suck too in it's own ridiculous way. Begs the question  - what can we do about it? Well a lot, actually. And we don't have to be politicians, or CEOs, or the President to effect some change (although if you or your child aspire to positions of power that's AWESOME because the top of the hierarchy clearly needs awareness-infusion). So I have an intention to write posts that describe actions we can take. You'll know them by the prefix "Resisting Racism."

Let's talk about children's books for our multiethnic multiracial Asian kids. As you all know, I was an anti-bias preschool teacher. I spent a lot of time researching and locating anti-bias children's books, then reading and discussing them with my diverse students. I think this is one of the most central and positive ways we can impact our children's developing racial identity. First by providing them affirmation and a platform to discuss race with us. Second, and maybe more critically, by providing a counter-narrative for the larger social race messages pressing on them daily. For our children, seeing themselves accurately reflected in their environment is key. Especially for multiethnic multiracial children who easily feel invisible, divided, unblended or confused when they are primarily surrounded with monoracial images. And I need to point out importantly, monoracial images mean pictures not only of White, but of Asian, Latino, Native and Black peoples too. Of course it's healthy to see the faces of all types of people who live in this world, but if monoracial images dominate our particular environment, these images can become invalidating for us multiethnic multiracial families. Why? Because they don't represent us and our many blended ethnicities and races.

How do we evaluate children's books for bias? The following are adapted guidelines from a wonderful online article http://www.intime.uni.edu/multiculture/curriculum/children.htm.

1. Omission. In spite of the fact that many excellent multicultural books are finally being published, omission continues to be one of the biggest problems in literature for young readers today. Exclusion is one of the most insidious and painful forms of bias. The implicit message is that the group does not exist, is insignificant, or has made no contributions to society. Take a look at your child's books. Look at what they aren't saying. Make sure you have a prominent number of books that reflect your specific family make up as accurately as possible.

2. Illustrations. Are their characters of color in the story? What is the ratio of people of color to White people? A stereotype is an over-simplified generalization about a particular group which usually carries deragatory implications. Stereotypes may be blatant or subtle. Check for depictions that demean or ridicule characters because of their race, gender, age, ability, appearance, size, religion, sexual orientation, socioeconomic class, or native language. In illustrations, do people of color look just like Whites except for being tinted or colored in? Do all people from parallel cultures look stereotypically alike or are they depicted as genuine individuals with distinctive features? Who is doing what? Do the illustrations depict people of color in subservient and passive roles, or in leadership and action roles?

3. Check the Story Line. Bias may be expressed in blatant or subtle ways. Check for the following forms of subtle, implicit bias: Standards for Success. To gain acceptance and approval, do people of color have to exhibit extraordinary qualities? Resolution of Problems. Are the conditions facing oppressed groups represented as related to an unjust society? Does the story line encourage passive acceptance or active resistance?

4. Authenticity. Check for inaccuracy and inappropriateness in the depiction of cultures and lifestyles. Are they oversimplified or do they offer genuine insight into the character? Check for quaint, cutesy, or exotic depictions. Does the book portray diversity among Asian Americans or are they all lumped together, ignoring differences in ethnicity, time of immigration, generations of life in the United States, and location of origin?

5. Relationships Between People. Do the White males posses the power, take the leadership roles, and make the important decisions? Do people of color function in essentially supporting, subservient roles?

6. Heroines/Heroes. Whose interest is the hero and/or heroine serving? For many years, books showed only "safe" heroes - those who avoided serious conflict with the White, male, able-bodied, heterosexual establishment. Heroines and heroes should be defined according to the concepts of struggles for justice appropriate to their group. When heroes/heroines from parallel cultures do appear, are they admired for the same qualities that have made establishment heroes famous or because what they have done has benefited the establishment?

7. Consider the Effects on a Child's Self-Image. Are norms established that limit any child's aspirations and self-concept? For example, Asian Americans should not be portrayed as model minorities. Every person from every culture should be portrayed as an individual with unique strengths, weaknesses, interests, lifestyles, and beliefs.


Particularly look for portrayals of people of color as only ethnic or exotic (e.g. in traditional garb celebrating ethnic holidays). I have had many a person tell me they thought their preschool programming respected diversity because the children did a dragon dance on Chinese New Year. Though tradition, history and heritage are clearly important - when we only view ethnic peoples in this way, they continue to seem "foreign" or "other." This is known in early childhood anti-bias training as a "tourist" approach to multicultural learning and can lead children of color to feel outside, or that they don't belong. There is a little board book called Global Babies here in Seattle that has wide circulation amongst new parents. I've seen many copies at local libraries. I also know there are medical clinics and doctors offices (especially those catering to families of color) that hand it out for free at child wellness exams. Indeed I read this book to my son endlessly when he was a baby. I looked at it again recently however and had a total aha moment. Though the book predominantly portrays babies of color, they are almost all from other countries and wearing traditional garb. There are two American babies. One Native and the other White. While I appreciate the effort to at least include a Native American child - I was extremely annoyed by the fact that the Asian children weren't "from here" (and I believe most if not all the Black children are from Africa). To be fair the book is called "global" babies - but then why would my Pacific Northwest community back it so heavily as an affirmation for American families of color??? Make sure books show children of color being American too - wearing American clothing, doing American things, living every day American lives.

8. Author's or Illustrator's Background. Analyze the biographical data available about the author and illustrator. What qualifies the author or illustrator to deal with the subject? If they are not a member of the group they are depicting, is there anything in their background that would specifically recommend them as creators of the book? There has been considerable debate recently regarding what has been termed cultural thievery. Is it ethical for mainstream writers to appropriate the literature of parallel cultures? Many people think it is impossible to write authentically from a perspective one has never experienced personally. People who have been silenced in the past do not take kindly to someone else trying to tell their story now that those stories are finally being recognized as significant. If an established European American author submits a manuscript for a story representing another culture, will there be room for emerging writers from that culture to compete?

9. Author's or Illustrator's Perspective. In the past, children's books were written by authors who were White, members of the middle class, heterosexual, able-bodied, and Christian, with one result being that a narrow Eurocentric perspective has dominated children's literature in the UnitedStates.  For example, the abolitionists featured in the past were the White members of the Underground Railroad, when in actuality, most abolitionists were African Americans.  Watch for books that present multiple perspectives. Does the total collection present many world views? Are readers encouraged to consider a situation form several perspectives?

10. Language. Examples of offensive terms include: "savage,""primitive," "conniving," "lazy," "superstitious," "treacherous," "wily," "crafty," "inscrutable," "docile," "backward," "bitter," "barren," "squaw," "papoose," and "Indian givers."  Consider the effect of the use of the color white as the ultimate in beauty, cleanliness, or virtue (angel food); and the color black or use of"dark" as evil, dirty, or menacing (devil's food). 

11. Copyright Date.  Books on minority themes, often hastily conceived, suddenly began appearing in the mid-and late 1960s.  Most of these books were written by White authors, edited by White editors, and published by White publishers.  They often reflected a White, middle-class, mainstream point of view.  Not until the early 1970s did the children's book world begin to even remotely reflect the realities of a pluralistic society.  The copyright date may be one clue as to how likely the book is to be overtly biased, although a recent copyright date is not guarantee of the book's authenticity.  Conversely, do not throw out all the books with old copyright dates!  Use these guidelines to examine each one.

There's more! Please see the blog post "Resisting Racism: Children's Booklist" for a working list of anti-bias books to read with your little one.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

"I Don't Like His Brown Skin"

 © Sharon Chang and MultiAsian Families Blog, Nov 7 2012.

A few weeks ago, just before my son turned 3, he informed me he didn't like one of his teachers because of his "brown skin." My heart stopped. I was horrified and totally panicked. For 5 seconds I was completely tongue-tied. My son looked right into my eyes, waiting for a response. He was clearly testing. What happens when I say this thing? Eventually all I could muster was a, "Really?" (to which he answered firmly, "Yeah") And then frankly I don't remember what I said because I became completely overcome with shame and a feeling that I had failed as a parent.

Before I was ever a mother, I was an early music educator. After a half decade working with primarily middle upper income, White families I felt a growing dissatisfaction with my career trajectory. I wanted to be more involved with families of color. I transitioned into anti-bias preschool teaching and in so doing learned a lot of techniques for discussing and exploring race with young children. So of course when I had my own child, who is a child of color, I launched immediately into racial ethnic explorations with him. I have talked to him about skin, hair and eye color since he was a baby. This was not something I experienced growing up - so I've been flying blind a little bit. Other than the training and reading I've done, I have no role models for how to discuss race with my young child. Just going by the book, so to speak. And I guess I thought this radical, progressive approach would result in a son who would never think a racist thought.

But what happened instead is my little guy developed early a vocabulary to talk about the racial differences and inequalities he was seeing. He knows this subject is extremely important to me and my husband. He hears us talking about it all the time. So he folded what he was hearing and observing into to his thinking and experimenting. And here's the truth - at this particular facility where he interacts with this particular teacher, there are very few people of color. The few that there are, are mostly light-skinned Asian. People with very dark skin, like my son's teacher, stand out like a sore thumb. Watching class one day, I asked a White mother (of a multiracial Black/White child) which was her daughter. She described the girl and I pointed out the wrong child. In correcting me she said, "I know - my husband and I were like, great. The only other Black girl in the room is wearing the same outfit."  There were probably 50 children in the facility at the time. Indeed I later said to my son (referencing his teacher), "Well Mommy has brown skin and you like me." He agreed but then walked up to me, stroked my cheek and said something like, "But Mommy doesn't have brown skin here."

My feelings of failure overwhelmed me for a week. I stopped talking about race with my son. I started censoring myself in his presence. I was embarrassed to reach out for support because I didn't want to admit he had said this horrible thing. I didn't want him to be judged. I felt like everything I had done was wrong. But eventually, with the kind encouragement of my husband and my community, I stopped being so hard on myself and realized it was perfectly normal for a 3 year old to begin verbalizing and exploring these issues. That it was important, no matter how hard or painful, for us to keep talking.

And here is the mind-blowing research: Children actually begin noticing differences, and constructing classificatory and evaluative categories very early.  As young as 6 months, infants demonstrate that they notice differences in skin color. By age 2, children are learning color names, which they begin to apply to skin color. By age 3 (and sometimes earlier), children show signs of being influenced by societal norms and biases and may exhibit "pre-prejudice" toward others on the basis of race (i.e. discomfort with physical differences). They can have negative biases toward others of different racial groups, even if they have never personally met a person of another group. By 4 or 5 years of age, children can already be seen using racial reasons for refusing to interact with other children different from themselves. Studies have found that by age 5, children can attribute an individual's ability according to the racial grouping in which they are supposed to belong. Despite some progress since the 1960s, US society remains intensely segregated across color lines. Generally speaking, Whites and people of color do not occupy the same social space or social status, and this very visible fact of American life does not go unnoticed by children. Not surprisingly, all children in this society learn at an early age that whiteness is privileged and darkness is not.

Young children are not the unsophisticated, innocent beings we adults imagine them to be. So many of us think they are incapable of seriously understanding the implications of race and racism. The reality is that 3, 4, and 5 year olds often hold a solid and applied understanding of the dynamics of race. Ignoring racism - perpetuates it. It's so important for us parents to bring race to the table. To challenge it. To acknowledge how tangible and real it is, but also how unfair. To talk about strategies and techniques for coping, surviving and fighting. And so I keep trying to swim upstream. To have these deeply painful conversations with my sweet little man when all I really want him to do is be young and free.



Friday, October 26, 2012

Gangnam Style - Asian Role Models

Psy
 © Sharon Chang and MultiAsian Families Blog, Oct 26 2012.

I am excited, stunned, and nervous about the almost overnight rise to fame of South Korean rapper/ pop artist Psy and his hit "Gangnam Style." If you haven't seen the video yet, please YouTube it right away. Part of the huge appeal here comes from Psy's quirky, fun and catchy dance moves. My husband dances them. My Japanese immigrant mother-in-law dances them. My 3 year old son dances them. I'm sure, at this point, there is barely an Asian worldwide that doesn't know about this K-pop phenomenon.

It was the Internet that propelled Psy to musical fame unmatched by any Asian pop artist in history. And whether you like the song/video or not, that is exactly what's happening here. History is being made. Though it originally debuted on July 15 and went viral in August of this year, "Gangnam Style" is now also a chart success. In August, Psy became the first Korean artist to ever be number one on iTunes. At the beginning of October, he became the first South Korean to make it to number one in the UK. On October 11, he also became the first Korean artist to top China's Baidu Top 500 music chart. As of the time of writing, "Gangnam Style" is number two on the US Billboard Hot 100, edged minimally out of the number one spot by Maroon 5. It has held this spot for four consecutive weeks. It is currently the fourth most watched video of all time on YouTube with over half a billion views. And on October 23, it was announced that Psy will be the first Korean ever to perform at the MTV Europe Music Awards. Likely his fame will continue to grow until it fizzes out, like so many pop stars.

Asians have not yet had much prominence in the U.S. public eye. But as our world has grown, as technology continues to evolve our isolated regional cultures into a massive global culture, the invisibility of Asians in America was bound to change. I watch my son gleefully dance "Gangnam Style" and I know, whether I approve or not, he is looking up to this man who has features he recognizes and massive worldwide recognition.

I'm excited. because I can't remember, in my lifetime, ever seeing an Asian pop artist so highly decorated. I'm excited because now there's one more thing society will "let" my son be other than quiet, docile, good at math, and a doctor. I'm stunned because I turned on top 40 radio the other day and heard a language I didn't know. "Gangnam Style," other than having a few words in English, is entirely in Korean. Having grown up with an immigrant father who spoke English as a second language, I'm not used to America being anything other than annoyed at Asian languages. And I'm nervous. Because any time a person of color achieves national or global fame, it seems to open up entire races of people to attack.

Jeremy Lin
Take for instance, Jeremy Lin, a Taiwanese-American whose father immigrated here in 1977. A New York Knicks player, he went from barely known to one of the most famous athletes in America in a single game. There have been Asian players in the NBA before, but Lin is the first American in the league of Chinese or Taiwanese descent and this, it turns out, has been a difficult concept for some to grasp. At a game against the Sacramento Kings in February, MSG Network cameras aired a spectator-made poster. It depicted Jeremy Lin's face above a fortune cookie with the slogan "The Knicks Good Fortune." In the same month, Ben & Jerry's attempted to honor the athlete with a lychee fruit and fortune cookie "Lin-Sanity" flavor. When the Knicks lost a recent game, ESPN covered the loss twice with the catchphrase "Chink in the armor."

Indeed, the severity of racism against Asians is woefully underacknowledged in this country. I have run across statistics during my study that have made my heart stop. A survey last year found that Asian American teenagers suffered far more bullying at school than any other demographic: 54% of Asian American teenagers reported being bullied compared with 31.3% of White teens and 38.4% of Black ones. And what does that mean for our multiethnic multiracial Asian children? I'm afraid not the progressive acceptance many of us assumed they would inspire. At the turn of the century, the Bureau of National Crime Victimization Survey showed that multiracial women are significantly more likely to be victims of rape or attempted rape - at a rate nearly double that of Caucasian women and nearly five times that of monoracial Asian women.

I want my son to believe he can be anything he wants to be. Pop sensation, NBA star. Maybe even some day President of the United States. Right? It could happen. But I shudder when I see the outpouring of racial slurs and stereotypes. And then I don't know what to do. Then I want to protect him. Hold him close. Tell him, nevermind. Fly under the radar. Don't rock the boat. Don't get hurt.


Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Having A "Different" Name

© Sharon Chang and MultiAsian Families Blog, Oct 24 2012. 

My son and I went to his best friend's birthday party last weekend. Of six children, my son was the only child of color. Of nine adults, myself and one other man were the only grownups of color. He had a noticeable non-American accent so I feel fairly confident in writing that English is likely his second language. Other than this observation, I try to make no assumptions here about his heritage. He stopped me at one point and asked what my son's name is. "Kazuo," I answered. He was profoundly confused. He tried to repeat, "O Cosmo. That's cool." I sighed inwardly.

"Cosmo" is the most common mispronunciation of my son's name. My husband and I felt strongly about picking a Japanese name for our child before he was born. His middle and surnames are American English. We wanted his Asian heritage to be strongly present. Being very aware of the difficulties growing up with a non-English name in this society, we tried to pick a name we thought most native American English speakers would pronounce easily. To our surprise and deep frustration, "Kazuo" (pronounced KAH-zoo-oh), has confounded person after person after person. We both grew up with extensive exposure to Japanese. My husband, because he is half Japanese. Myself, because my father grew up in Taiwan during the Japanese occupation. The pronunciation of "Kazuo" seemed straightforward. To us. But we realized after the fact that "u-o" doesn't really occur in the English language. Strangers either repeat a name back that's familiar (like Cosmo), stumble and mumble over it trying to quickly find some convenient nickname, or avert their eyes and refuse to even try. Also because of the English word "kazoo," native English speakers - if they can even say the name at all - frequently default to placing the emphasis on the second syllable (kah-ZOO-oh) which sounds absurd to me and my husband.

I attempted to help the man, "No. It's KAH-zoo-oh." He tried to repeat again with no success. As I frequently need to do, I finally offered the spelling, "No Kazuo. K-A-Z-U-O." The man tried again, this time with limited success. Looking distressed, irritated and maybe even a little angry, he exclaimed loudly, "Jesus!" We then launched quickly into some stupid conversation about how Kazuo could go by nicknames if he "needed" to. The man offered me several unsolicited suggestions, like "Kaz" or "K." And in some attempt to make him feel better and more comfortable, I also shared Kazuo's common middle name, "James," explaining my son had an easy English alternative if he ever wanted it. The man seemed relieved to hear this.

Later in the party, the kids were all sitting around a table waiting to eat cake. The adults stood behind watching. A loud White woman (whom I had found out minutes before is an early childhood research psychologist with a PhD in Infant Psychology) tried to help Kazuo. "Cosmo, you're doing such a good job waiting," she encouraged him. "Cosmo needs a piece of cake," she turned loudly on the cake-cutter, "Cosmo's been waiting so patiently. He needs a piece of cake." Over and over and over she said his name wrong. Every mispronunciation felt like a gut punch to me. A loud voice resounded in my mind, you need to stop her. Just tap her on the shoulder and tell her excuse me you're saying my son's name wrong. But, completely intimidated by her volume, the size of her spiritual presence, her impressive academic credentials, and by a large audience - I said nothing. And, I might add, none of the other adults in the room who knew how to say my son's name (including the hosts of the party), said anything either. As far as I know, the woman still thinks my son's name is Cosmo.

Three days later, my shame, hurt and anger surrounding this incident are palpable and continue to grow. I could see my son sitting there across from me, looking in my eyes, absorbing every word. And I didn't defend him. I made excuses or didn't say anything at all. I wonder what he took away from that party. Does he already hate his Japanese name? Does he already feel different? None of the other White kids had non-English names. When he sees his own mother struggling to defend a personal, beautiful choice rooted in family heritage, does it make him want to reject being Asian? I shared the story with my husband and we have both been edgy and volcanic since. Why? Because it's not just about a name. It's about so much more. It's about a society that has never welcomed immigrants with open arms. It's about a society that still, to this day, expects everyone who lives here should speak English. Interestingly, in his Mandarin class earlier that morning, I heard a White mother say to her mixed race Asian child that the teacher was speaking Chinese and "English is the language we speak in this country." And unfortunately, yes, it continues to be about race. Let's be honest, it's hard - maybe impossible - to separate race and ethnicity. My son is English, Welsh, French Canadian, German, Slovakian, Taiwanese and Japanese. Within the walls of our home he is everything, he is gorgeous and he is perfect.

But at that party he was Asian, different and not White.