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WHEN A CHILD ENCOUNTERS RACISM

Communication is not the easy way out, it’s the only way forward

20 March 2021 12:57 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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When my son was five years old, a fellow camper said to him that he “wasn’t any colour on the rainbow.” According to his little friend, this meant that he was an alien.  Apparently, his friend was “peach” (translation: white) and my son was not. The fact that my son had a strong Sri Lankan accent probably did not help his chance of fitting it at this predominantly white summer camp in suburban New York. My heart broke because I, his American mother, was the one who wanted this camp experience for him. 

My parents, like many first-generation immigrants of the 1980s, would have just brushed off the comment and asked me to ignore it. It was a different time then. But I was determined to have a more evolved - “conscious” - parenting style and decided to sit my son down to talk through his feelings.  We discussed the particulars of this interaction. He shrugged his shoulders and said, “You know, I think it’s because he has never met someone from the other side of the world before.”

His empathy had me beaming with pride. I asked him if he wanted to continue with camp, and he looked at me incredulously and said, “Of course I do!”I patted myself on the back for my “modern boymom” heart-to-heart success. However, in retrospect, I couldn’t help but question my approach.

Should I have had that uncomfortable conversation about race with the camp?  Perhaps.  I promised myself this much: If it came up again, I would speak to the camp. But it did not, and, quite frankly, I was relieved.  Easy way out! 

The next time overt prejudice invaded their young lives was in April of 2019, when there were devastating terror attacks in Sri Lanka.  They heard terms such as “terrorists” and “Islamic extremism” for the first time. Unfortunately, a child told them that all terrorists are Muslims. My boys were heartbroken, as some of their closest friends are of the Islamic faith.

 

The next time overt prejudice invaded their young lives was in April of 2019, when there were devastating terror attacks in Sri Lanka.  They heard terms such as “terrorists” and “Islamic extremism” for the first time. Unfortunately, a child told them that all terrorists are Muslims. My boys were heartbroken, as some of their closest friends are of the Islamic faith.

Of course, we explained that this notion was categorically false and that there are good and bad people in every religion, including ours. They seemed to understand, but I hated that I had to clarify this at all, especially at such a tender age.  I questioned myself again about how to address this, but took the easy way out.

After the coronavirus outbreak in 2020, my children suddenly began to hear many disparaging comments about Chinese people made in passing. There is a prominent Chinese presence in Sri Lanka, and we noticed that some residents started avoiding anybody who “appeared to be” Chinese in the supermarkets and on the roads.  

Our Filipino friend relayed, in front of the boys, that it was impossible for her to hail a “tuk tuk” (rickshaw) because the drivers thought she was Chinese and would hurl Xenophobic comments at her. We had to have another talk with the boys about racism. Another talk, another easy way out.

Once the summer came, they saw on television their birthplace of New York City erupt in protests supporting the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement. I subsequently made them watch the Sesame Street Racism Town Hall; my husband and I told them the PG-version of stories from our childhood, of honorable cops, bad cops, racist bullying, and diverse friendships. We saw value in showing them both sides of the proverbial coin.

During our discussion, I realized that one son saw me as “pinkish-brown,” his brother as “white,” his father as “brown,” and himself as “brown-black.” All these naïve, confused, yet very consequential thoughts running around in his head, and we had no idea.  When I asked what he thought about all these colors, he did his usual shrug and said, “They’re all nice, Mama.”  Phew. 

 

My parents, like many first-generation immigrants of the 1980s, would have just brushed off the comment and asked me to ignore it. It was a different time then. But I was determined to have a more evolved - “conscious” - parenting style and decided to sit my son down to talk through his feelings.

 

I finally realised that communication is not the easy way out; it is the only way forward. It is one of the most impactful ways to change the consciousness of younger generations, and even our generation, as we continue to learn, progress, and evolve.  When we feel safe enough to communicate and share with each other, we engender a greater understanding for children and adults alike; black, white, and every color in between.

Credit:  Reprinted with Permission from Moms Don’t Have Time To Write (medium.com)


(The writer had a career in Finance and Entertainment before pivoting to personal investing and non-profit work after her move from New York to Sri Lanka, where she currently resides with her husband and two young sons. She is a graduate of Columbia University and also completed a Harvard University Graduate Proseminar in Journalism.)


 

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