Written February 1, 2012, after I was essentially told that I and my children should get used to racism:
I will NOT get used to this “reality.”
I will NOT allow my children to get used to this “reality.”
Where in the world did that come from?
Alright, long story, even longer…in the hopes that it will help me find some clarity in this. And, seriously, get ready, because this is going to be a long one. Go get yourself a coffee, a tea, a stiff drink, whatever you need and settle in. If you can stand it, we’ll be here a while.
I am a 36-year-old mom of the two most fantastic children on the planet. On the maternal side of my family, I am the 15th or 16th generation to be born and raised in Canada. On the paternal side of my family, I am (I believe) the third generation. My mother’s side of the family is from Germany and were United Empire Loyalists. My father’s side of the family is from England.
J is the son of parents who both came to Canada before he was born. His mother from the Philippines, his father from China. J, along with his sister and two brothers, was born and raised in Canada.
Therefore, my children are of Chinese, English, Filipino and German descent. Z is (the way he tells it) 6 and 2/3, and M is just about 4 1/2.
Z is inquisitive, active, bright, talkative, and he’s great at negotiating what he wants, especially if he can catch you in a loophole.
M is thoughtful, feisty, funny, creative, and knows her mind…and she’ll make sure you do too, if you’re not careful.
They are, without question, the two best things I’ve done in my life.
Here’s what I wasn’t prepared for…
Defending my relationship to them, dealing with racism, being interrupted at the restaurant/in the grocery store/at the coffee shop to answer questions about my family.
Canada has a reputation for being tolerant (I hate that word), multicultural, etc., but I find a lot of people also use that as an “in comparison to the U.S.” excuse for how “well” we’re doing.
Before the kids were born, I heard some racist remarks directed at me and J. I had never dealt with racism before, so I took my lead from him. We mostly ignored it. Often just sat there, walked by, etc. and took it in stride. He always wrote it off to people being stupid/ignorant (they are).
Occasionally, when not with J, I would encounter racist remarks. Things to the effect of I should not be “ruining our bloodlines,” like we’re pure bred dogs or thorough bred horses or something. Mostly, I chalked their remarks up to ignorance.
And then Z was born, and my reality changed, and my understanding of my husband’s reality changed.
One night, when Z was only a few days old, I was heading down the hall to go to bed when I heard J talking to Z. I stopped in the hall to listen before going into the bedroom and heard all of the fabulous stuff you expect to hear a new father saying to his new son. Just as I was about to turn to go into the room, I heard one of the most heart-wrenching things I think I had ever heard. He said, “thank goodness you don’t look too much like me.” I stood there. Frozen. Not sure what to do. I wasn’t meant to hear that. I turned and went back to my office and cried.
It was upon Z’s birth and then hearing that that I stopped being able to just ignore comments and behaviour.
In addition to people commenting on what a beautiful baby he was, I also started getting questions about his background and if I had adopted him. People would approach me in the grocery store and ask where I got him from. As he got older, I would hear this more and more, and I found myself constantly affirming that I was, in fact, his mother.
(Let me just say, right now, that I give no more privilege to biological mothers than I do to adoptive mothers. In fact, I think adoptive mothers deserve a lot more credit for going into childrearing, because they, often, go in with their eyes open much wider, have to endure invasive interviews, monitoring, etc. and, still, they choose to have children. Being a parent is the toughest, most demanding job there is.)
When my daughter was born, the questions continued. I would hear compliments about what a good babysitter I was and have to affirm that I was, in fact, their mother. Often, I would still be challenged with a “really?” as if I would lie and have to assure them that, yes, I was telling the truth.
I’ve been told I should be ashamed of myself, and I’ve been told how beautiful, smart, even polite they are *because* they’re Asian. Polite? Yes, polite. My most common response to that one, which doesn’t go over as well with the person who makes the comment as it does with my friends and family, is, “Hmmm…I don’t know if that’s genetic. They didn’t come out and say, ‘thank you.’”
The range of comments I am confronted with is vast. What bubbles beneath the surface of all of them is racism.
Back in June of 2011, I did a radio interview on “Mistaken Identity” on a show called Definitely Not The Opera. It covers some of what we’ve been confronted with and how I feel about it. I’m about 1:04:50 into the show.
With all of the comments about where they’re from, me being the babysitter/nanny, commending me for having adopted “two little Asian kids” is the implication that Z and M do not look like they could be my biological children. As a white woman, I could not possibly have given birth to two children who have Asian characteristics. However, it was not until I was in the dentist office just a couple of months ago that someone actually came right out and said it.
Just as we were leaving, the receptionist whispered, “Did you get them when they were babies?” I didn’t hear her at first, so I had her repeat it twice. When I did hear her, I looked at her and said, “Well, yes, they come out that way.” She looked confused. With a sweeping gesture of my hand from my torso down and out into the air in front of me, I said, “They’re mine.” She followed it up with what no one before her had been willing/daring enough to say, “Oh, they don’t look like they could be yours.” It hit me like a fist in the stomach. No one had ever said it before. I didn’t think – as far as people had gone with their comments and questions – that anyone would ever actually say it.
So, I’ve been dealing with this for nearly seven years. What prompted me to blog about this today?
Well, for the last four years, I’ve also been pursuing a Sociology degree. My concentration has been on Social Justice and Equity Studies, with courses focused on racism/anti-racism, gender, etc.
I’ve had some challenges listening to the other students in my classes (who are quite a bit younger than me, generally), as they sit in a class like Racism/Anti-Racism and perpetuate the exact kind of behaviour to which they say they are opposed.
This morning, I arrived at class early and listened to several of them talk about a teaching assistant who has a very thick accent (she’s Polish) and how people with accents like that shouldn’t be allowed to be teaching assistants. During class discussion, the issue of accents and knowing English came up again, and I suggested that maybe it wasn’t that many newcomers don’t know English so much as it was about many of us being lazy and not willing to listen through an accent for what the person is saying. Several people nodded their heads, but that was the extent of the discussion on the matter.
Then, before getting into a discussion about the history of racism, we watched the 20-minute film For Angela. It is an excellent film for this type of class. However, given that I have recently had conversations with my son about the meaning of racism and with my daughter, more specifically, about skin colour (not to mention what I’ve described above), the film hit a nerve with me.
I wish the professor had given me a heads up about the film’s content, as I had a discussion with him last week about my frustration with the class and inquiring as to how much he wanted me to contribute (he had said in an earlier class that he was looking forward to my contributions). However, my reason for wishing I had known a little about the film beforehand was because I had also told him that I wasn’t sure how comfortable I was with putting personal stuff on the table for discussion. And I didn’t feel this gave me much choice.
There are a couple of points in the film when I had to fight back tears, and when the film was over, the professor asked me if I thought the mother had handled the situation well (again, basically forcing me to get into personal examples). Still shaken from the film, I essentially said that I didn’t think there was a right answer to that; that I have both addressed and not addressed racist comments/behaviour, and it depends on the situation.
During the discussion, a couple of students indicated that this was “reality,” and that people had to “get used” to it. When this was implied for a third time, I spoke up and said something like:
“A few of you have mentioned that racism is reality and that people have to get used to it and learn how to deal with it. In fact, my children’s father has told me that he is ‘used to it’ and that’s why he’s able to not let it bother him anymore. Well, I think it’s gut-wrenching that anyone has to get used to it. I will not let my children ‘get used to it.’”
You could have heard a pin drop. I didn’t say it aggressively. A couple of heads nodded while I was speaking. Most people were silent.
After a few seconds, one student said, “I feel so sorry for [L] and what she and other parents like her have to go through.” Now, I know she was trying to be thoughtful, but her ‘sympathy’ is also very telling, particularly given the fact that she was the instigator of the discussion about teaching assistants with thick accents.
After class, I ran into the professor in the hall and he asked me what I thought of today’s class. I told him it was good but also rough. The film and discussion were rough. He said, “I saw that the film got to you; I knew it would get to you.” I told him that I was upset by the hypocrisy in the classroom, when so many of them said that they would have intervened in the situation with the mother and child on the bus (watch the film, if you haven’t), but I know that every single one of them would have just sat there. While walking away from me, he agreed, said he had made notes about it and that we would discuss it in other classes.
Again, given that he knew it would get to me, I think he should have given me a heads up. I also don’t know how responsible it was of him, as an educator, to show a film that he knew would have an impact on at least one of his students and then not allow for an opportunity to discuss it more in-depth, particularly after re-opening the discussion outside of class.
I’m still upset about the film and the discussion that followed it, but – mostly – I’m angry that we, as a society, seem to think that racism isn’t that big of an issue here; that, somehow, it’s getting better with each generation, and then I sit in a classroom with 20 students who talk about how we can’t socialize kids out of racism; white women shouldn’t marry black men; teaching assistants with thick accents shouldn’t be teaching assistants; they’re uncomfortable with all of the Asian students on campus, etc., etc., etc.
I know that this has been a long and rambling blog post. I had a lot to get off my chest today.
Racism is still alive and well in Canada.
My children will never get used to racism. I will empower them to confront it.
Someone once said that racism is like cancer. It’s never totally wiped out, it’s just in remission.