Wednesday, December 03, 2014

My Racist Kids

I've come to notice something rather troubling.

My kids sometimes talk in a very racist way.

Now, my background is in social work.  In fact, I studied and practiced social work in St. Louis and spent plenty of time in Ferguson.  My Facebook feed has been lit up with other social workers and community organizers and neighbors from St Louis - black and white, with black and white sons and daughters.  What happened in Ferugson is a tragedy through and through.  But I am energized by all of the conversations about race I have been reading.  All of the blog posts and editorials and so many people sustaining peaceful protests.  Reading and participating in these many conversations, I know I benefit from white privilege, and I know that I carry and sometimes propogate both learned and institutional racism.

Also, I am raising my children in foreign countries.

I expected that raising my children in foreign countries, where they consistently live as the minority, would make them more open to others, and slower to judge based on superficial things like skin color and language ability.


My children say things like...

I don't like people with brown skin.

Will there be English people there?  Because I don't like Indonesians.

See that garbage on the ground?  I bet someone with brown skin threw that on the floor.

It makes me sad.  What am I teaching my children that they would say these things?  The only benefit - and this silver lining is huge - is the opportunity their language provides for conversations.  And I find those conversations fascinating.

Child:  I don't like people with brown skin.
Me:  Thats not okay - what if someone didn't like you just because of your blonde hair?  And its not even true.  You like Aaliya, and she has brown skin.  You have plenty of friends with brown skin.

Child: I bet someone with brown skin threw that on the floor.
Me: Maybe.  Or maybe someone with light skin.  We are always careful not to throw garbage on the floor, but some people don't care, and that has very little to do with the color of their skin.

I was thinking about these conversations this morning, and I put a few things together. 

1 - At their international school, they do not seem to judge anyone based on skin color.
2 - Outside of school, their categories are racial but are rooted in language.

I've got to unpack these a bit, but my new theory is that these judgements are based on my kids' otherness.  They are keenly aware of the differences between them and the typical Indonesian - this is not their culture.  Just hold onto this thought - we will circle back to it.


1 - At their international school, they do not seem to judge anyone based on race or skin color.
I am thinking about my daughters' closest friends at school.  Lilly's best friend is probably Angeline.  Angeline last lived in New York City, but her mother is Cambodian and she looks a lot like her mom.  Angeline and Lilly became friends because they were the two new girls in class, and stayed friends because they like to read.  Lilly has since become friends with nearly every girl in her class.  I believe she and Angeline are the only girls with US passports.

Sophia's best friends are white.  This is no coincidence.  She is one of a small crew of 2nd grade girls from the embassy who moved here at the same time.  She met these girls before school started, and plays with them regularly.  She has since grown her social circle to include primarily other girls who arrived this summer.  She talks about the girls from India in exactly the same way she talks about the girls from Australia.  She may describe them by their country or their skin color, but she judges them based on their actions.

Annika will tell you that she has one friend at school.  Ella is from Germany, and she is Annika's only friend.  Ella is white - but is also the most outgoing in the class, and the closest in both age and height to Annika.  But when I watch, Annika plays with Kyoka and Aaliya from Japan and India.  She never describes them as brown skinned, and she clearly likes them very much.

The theory: Although their closest friends seem to be Western, my children do not judge their classmates based on skin color.  Their classmates are not other to them, but members of the same general tribe.

2 - Outside of school, their categories are racial but rooted in language.
No doubt, my kids say racist things.  Especially my youngest.   There is no defense for that.

However, when you listen to their categories, they often fall into speaking or not speaking English.  In China, they said they hated Chinese people.  And in Indonesia, they say they don't like Indonesian people.  But in Venezuela, they said they didn't like Spanish people.  And they never say they do like Americans - they always say they like English people.  That is, my kids strongly (perhaps viscerally) prefer people who speak their own language.  It is one thing for a stranger to stroke her hair and tell her she is beautiful.  It is another thing for a stranger to stroke her hair and then talk with a string of words that hold no meaning for her.

But this is where racism takes hold, isn't it?  We take a set of assumptions and place them on everyone who looks the same way.  The fewer people we know in that category, the more rigid our assumptions become.  And that is the same problem we have all over America, isn't it?  Many black families and many white families are talking about the police this season, but the black families are saying very different things than the white families.  And none of them are at the same table.  In fact, most of them aren't even on the same Facebook feeds

The theory:  My kids do not enjoy people who can't speak English - this is bad.  My kids assume that people who look Asian will not speak their language, and so they want nothing to do with them - this is racism.  Interestingly, they assume that people with dark brown skin - African, or African-American - probably will speak their language.  Those folks are cool.


Okay, I'm saying nothing groundbreaking when I tell you that my children's racism is based on otherness.  All racism is based on otherness.  I mean, its practically the definition of racism.

But I think that my kids' racism is based on my children's otherness.  My children live as the minority most of the time.  They live as a racial minority.  They speak a minority language (internationally dominant, yes - but minority in our greater neighborhood).  They carry a minority passport.  Each of our minority categories carries power, and provides my children with implicit advantages; but they make them minorities all the same.  Children are quick to notice differences, and my children know they are different from most of the people around them.

But they see themselves the same as the kids in their international school. 

Ruth Van Reken, who coined the term Third Culture Kids (TCK), explains that kids who grow up in cultures different from their own home culture end up assimilating aspects of each of their cultures into their lives;  but, "the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of the same background, other TCKs."

I am fascinated.

I am fascinated to see this play out so broadly in my kids' lives, that their sense of belonging is in relationship to others at their school.  At this point, they still feel they fit in at an American public school, but I doubt they will by the time they reach high school.  And they are keenly aware that they would not fit in at an Indonesian public school.  And that they fit in perfectly at their international school.

So, we need to continue talking about race in our house, and not judging people based on others who look like them. 
So, living abroad has not made my children less judgmental.
So, none of my comments on race or on Third Culture Kids are profound.  But watching race and TCK dynamics play out around our dinner table and on our school bus is fascinating.