Children & Education

Though she be fierce, she is but little: why mighty girls still need us to do our part

She had hoped he would stop and she could pretend that he had never said those things. Because she desperately wanted her math teacher, the teacher who teaches her very favorite subject, to be nice, to be a good person.

I hate unsolicited parenting tips. With a passion.

Yet, I will be offering you one before you get to the end of this post. Because I am told that it might kill my daughter some day if I don’t. Because my husband and I are, sometimes inadvertently– and sometimes purposefully– sometimes by getting things right, and sometimes despite sinking in a sandpit of epic parenting fails, raising a fierce little girl who, in a blink of an eye, turned into a teenage social justice activist.

And social justice fatigue is real.

Social justice fatigue can kill.

Let me start by asking you a question.

How old was your child when they heard the first racial slur directed at them or their family member?

My daughter Nabi was about four or five months old. She was startled out of her deep slumber in her carseat when a group of drunk college boys surrounded my parked car and, pounding their fists on the hood, windows, and side panels, yelled, “Hey, fucking chink bitch, move your fucking car.”

My car, my baby, and I were between them and their path to more drinking. Despite the warm summer evening, my palm firmly pressing down on the car horn while my heart pounded, and plenty of bar patrons on the nearby establishment’s outside patio, no one came to our rescue. Several drinkers glanced over and, surely, heard the racial slurs, but no one even lifted a drunken finger to press 3 numbers to call the police for us.

The men eventually left after trying to open a couple of doors that were locked. Who knows what they would have done in their booze-and-testosterone-filled drunken rage if they had gotten inside the car.

Now that Nabi is older, she laughs at that story and asks the most obvious and logical question, “Why didn’t they just walk around our car?”

And when I also note that 3 of those boys were white, but one of them was also Asian, and that the Asian boy was just as, if not more, loud, as his white counterparts, his face scrunched and contorted while his mouth spat out, “Fucking chink bitch, move your chink ass out of our way,” she wrinkles her nose and wonders out loud, “But he’s Asian, too. Doesn’t he know that people can say that to him, too?”

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When Nabi was just 13 months old, just learning to wobble-walk, we were walking around a strip mall fountain and a group of random white children who looked like they didn’t know each other decided to band together. Some of them mocked Nabi’s unsteady toddler gait, while a couple of the older boys– they looked about ten or eleven years old– squinted their eyes and started saying, “I can’t see, I can’t see,” and talking in singsong lai-ma-bah-wat-toc gibberish. I can only guess that they making attempts at mocking the Vietnamese language. Which makes sense since it was in a midwestern suburb that had a fairly large Vietnamese immigrant population.

I looked around at all the adults who were watching this spectacle. None of them stood up to claim their unkind child or children. We stuck around, mostly because I wanted to see which adults would eventually gather these children.

Because I was armed with Korean Death Stare, otherwise known as KDS. I’m petty like that, but sometimes petty is all you got.

At least one mom gave me an eye roll as she collected her little girl, about 3 or 4 years old, who had flinched in disgust and said, “Ew,” when Nabi reached out to touch her arm. The mom leaned down to her daughter and said, loudly enough so I would hear, “I’m so proud of you, honey.”

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If I were to recount every other racial micro- and macroaggressions Nabi had to endure in the short 13 years of her life so far? How much time do you have?

Instead, let me tell you about who she is. Our daughter attends a middle school that has about 1400 students and only 5% are Asian, Pacific Islander, or Native American students. Children here self-segregate by race. The 5% do what they can to survive, assimilate, and have someone who will sit with them during lunch or pick them for group project partners.

Last year, she came home to tell us that she is pretty sure that the Dr. Seuss’ World War II propaganda cartoons, that her 7th grade history teacher handed out for an in-class group exercise without context, were racist. The exercise involved looking at the cartoons and jotting down what various elements represent. For example, the alley cats represent the Japanese because of the prominent teeth and the slits for eyes, and so on and so forth. The teacher did not address the racism that spawned cartoons like these that further fueled xenophobic fear, which led to the Japanese American internment camps. Nabi was the only one in her group who thought these were problematic; her peers did not.

When this same teacher moved on to the Korean War, she showed footage and photos of North and South Koreans. A handful of student in this class giggled and nudged each other at various images, some of them pulled their eyelids up and back, making that ever-so-tiresome slant-eye gesture, while some mocked how Koreans spoke. They were having a riot, apparently. Except for Nabi. She couldn’t understand why her peers or the teacher who smiled and laughed along with the students did not know this was wrong, offensive, and hurtful.

Our daughter’s spirit has been crushed and rejected so often that, every few years, she will ask if we are ready to move again to a new city because she wants to start over at a new school where the kids might decide to give her a fighting chance at having a friend. She does have one friend, and when that friend is out sick, she either skips or sits alone during lunch. She is so quiet and painfully shy that it’s not unusual for most of her classmates to never hear her voice unless she has to do an oral presentation.

Our daughter unabashedly loves math. Before y’all go down the deep end and come back with An Asian kid loving math? That checks out stereotype, I would like to inform you that my husband and I have our degrees in English, and we don’t necessarily LOVE math; we tolerate it and use it when life requires us to do so.

She has always loved her math teachers. Not because they are especially nice people or give her preferential treatment, or even all that great of educators– she loves them simply because these are her people. People who love math so much that they would be willing to teach it in middle school. 

However, of all the luck, Nabi’s math teacher this year happens to be a lover of telling racist and racial stereotyping jokes.

“Asians are bad drivers.”

“If the student is Asian, I just hand them an automatic A.” You know, hyuck hyuck, because they are ASIANS!

“If an Asian students picks an A as an answer to a multiple choice question, I tell them, no, C. Get it? C? S. E. E. See? Because Asian eyes are too little to see?” And so on.

This had been going on for the past 4 months. He apparently brags that he “loves to tell Asian jokes,” because, you know, he is a math teacher.

She did not tell us because she had hoped that he would stop and she could pretend that he had never said those things. Because she desperately wanted her math teacher, the teacher who teaches her very favorite subject, to be nice, to be a good person. Because she tried to– on her own– figure out why he would say those things when there are four Asian kids in the class.

It only came up as we prepared to buy thank you cards and gift cards for all her teachers. When she quietly, but firmly, said, “No, not for my math teacher.”

She did not want to tell us because this work, social justice work, is something we do. Her dad is the diversity, equity, and inclusion person for his institution, and– well, I think it should be everyone’s job to incorporate social justice mindset in everything we do. She knew the pretending nothing is wrong would have to end, and she would have to watch us gear up to rip this math teacher a new one. I ask: what teenager would want that?

Yes, we can get a bit preachy at home, but we want Nabi to face the world with her eyes wide open (no, not in the racial stereotype way), her heart ready to feel, empathize, and be shared, and her mind trained to recognize injustices small and big, so that, when she is ready to navigate the world on her own, she will be an ally to others, and to herself.

You know, a little bit of hippy love, little bit Malcolm X the earlier years, little bit Princess Leia, some Princess Mononoke, maybe some Star Trek, and a whole lot of Grace Lee Boggs.

She asked that she be allowed to handle this one herself. She wanted to be the one to tell this teacher who destroyed the joy she used to feel every time she walked into a math classroom that he failed as a role model. She thought since she let it go for so long, she should take on some of the burden of informing him that he is wrong.

Let me tell you about my daughter whose hand I had to hold as I drove her to school that morning because she was nervous and distraught that she would have to tell an adult that he did something wrong. She worried that she could hurt his feelings. She worried that it would be embarrassing for him to be told by a student that racial stereotyping and racist jokes do not belong in a classroom. She was also scared that the other kids in the class who like to say, “Mr. Math Teacher is so chill” or “He’s so funny, and he’s not afraid to say things that all the other teachers don’t say because people get too sensitive,” would ostracize her even more than they already do.

I gave her shaking hand a gentle squeeze. “You are doing the right thing. They are wrong.”

With tears pooling in her eyes, she said, “I know that, but how come no one else seems to know?”

 

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My daughter did this amazing and courageous thing last week. At 3:11pm, four minutes before her math class was about the end, she texted me: Mother. I am scared. 

I frantically texted her back: Appa and I are both here. Do you want me to come in and stand with you?

She texted back: No.
Then, I can do it. 

She walked right up to the teacher’s desk and told him that the Asian jokes that he likes to tell are actually racist and racial stereotypes. And that they are inappropriate and do not belong in any classroom. They are very hurtful, and she would like him to stop telling them. Can you please stop making jokes that minimize my existence to a handful of racial stereotypes that you tell to impress a bunch of middle school boys?

To his credit, he did say, “Oh, I’m sorry you felt hurt.” Then he proceeded to tell her that she is wrong, that he tells those jokes to teach the class about stereotypes. He said he would, “try to do it less,” but that he really enjoys telling the jokes, and the other kids seem to find them enjoyable, too.

Oh, you magnanimous ignorant fuckcurrant. You pissant sorry excuse for an educator. You are so fucking lucky that my husband believes in teachers, especially public school teachers whose schools do not have the kind of funding needed to provide professional development, being given training to be better and do better rather than the nut-kicking I had planned for you. 

Last week, my daughter did something amazing and courageous. She did it all alone. She stood by herself. She had no allies. But she spoke on behalf of the three other Asian kids in the class, who sat silently. She also spoke on behalf of all the other kids who are not being taught about right and wrong in the matters of race, racism, and racial stereotypes at home.

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Dear parents:

Here’s the dreaded unsolicited parenting tip. Well, more like a parenting suggestion. A plea, if that’d make it more palatable.

Unless you want a douchecanoe of a math teacher teaching your children how to douchecanoe their way into unemployment (or, in this case, mandatory training and eventual humble pie that comes with a dollop of having to apologize to a bunch of barely-pubescent children for being a racist douchecanoe), you may want to talk to your children about race and tolerance.

Yes, Nabi has had the good fortune of having real-life experiential learning. I am willing to bet that so have most of your children. Sure, for some of you, the experience may not have been directed at your children, but they have certainly been in the presence of intolerance and bigotry.

Are you trying to protect your children (or perhaps, even yourself?) from the horrible yucky-ness that comes from having to talk about race? Do your hopes and dreams include having your child grow up colorblind?

Or, if you are parents to children of color, are you hoping against all hopes that your children will be immune to douchecanoes? (Here’s a spoiler – there is no vaccine against exposure to random acts of racism and bigotry.)

Children are never too young to learn about race. And some children simply don’t have the privilege of being allowed to avoid learning about race until the “right” age. If you feel uncomfortable talking about racial injustices lest the historical and institutional racism, that would shine an unflattering light on your child’s race, might give your children an emotional owwie, you are choosing to protect your own feelings of discomfort over raising a child who might know why, when, and how to do the right thing.

And children are never too young to mimic racist behavior. They don’t do it out of malice. At least not when they start. Gradually, unless someone teaches them otherwise, they will begin to think that a little racism is not a bad thing. Except, there is no such thing as just a little racism; racism is racism, and it’s never a character trait of a decent person.

Parents to children of color: Please, when you talk to your children about racial injustices, and I know that we don’t do this because it is so much fun to teach our children how many ways other people will try to oppress them, but because it can be literally the difference between life and death – let us begin to teach them about intersectionality, too, so that, even if we are not doing all that of a great job standing up for each other, our children will grow up to stand together, to march together, to know in their hearts that an injustice against one of us is an injustice against all of us marginalized folks.

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This saga of our mighty little girl who, in the end, needed us to hold her hand a little longer to complete her mission is almost over.

There was one more thing. Once I sent a scathing letter to the teacher and cc’ed the principal, the principal of her school was appropriately mortified, especially once he learned what my husband does for his job. He made a comment that, “if it had happened to black students, there would have certainly been an uproar about this” and was going to make sure this gets proper attention.

(Folks, why is it that racial injustice can be so invisible unless you see it in the context of black and white? For example, the football team Redskins – so it’s not offensive? How about if there was a profile of a black man wearing a, say, plantation style straw hat or a Maasai headdress and you call that football team Blackskins? Yeah, thought so.)

Nabi overheard my husband and I discussing this. Next day, during her discussion with school administrators, she added one more thing to the list of the math teacher’s wrongdoings. She told them she was initially reluctant to mention it since she did not witness this herself, but that she has heard it from multiple kids who are in this math teacher’s other sections: he also likes to say things about black students and “teases” them by saying, “You know, black people just don’t look smart.”

Because she realized that 1) no one may ever come forward from the other classes, 2) she did not have confidence in the system to teach the math teacher that, if it’s wrong to be racist toward Asians, it’s also wrong to be racist toward black people and 3) it would not be equitable for just the Asian kids to get that apology.

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It has been a difficult week in our household. My daughter is anxious about math class each day. The school has offered to see if she could be switched out to another section without too much disruption to her schedule. She wants to stay; she is afraid that should she leave the classroom, the teacher will revert back to his old ways. He is supposedly getting some diversity, equity, and inclusion training, but who knows how much will stick. Being in the same room with him makes her feel uncomfortable, but she knows her discomfort is smaller than the damage he might cause in his position as a well-liked teacher.

Last week, our daughter did something amazing, courageous, and fierce.

But she is still our little girl who needs us to keep doing the right things for her and her generation. She needs her parents– and she needs you to do your part so that she does not stand up alone. Maybe your kid could stand with her. Maybe your kid could have stood up before she had to take it all upon herself to do it.

Be better. Do better.

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Here are some links to get you started:

How to talk to kids about racism: An age-by-age guide
Raising Race Conscious Children
The Heavy Burden of Teaching My Son About American Racism
A How-To from Buzzfeed
Teaching Tolerance – great resource for teachers, educators, and even parents