You Can’t Always Trust a Kid’s Reaction

by Luanne

The other day I had a discussion with a few people on our Facebook page about an article in Adoption Voices Magazine that guest blogger Lisa posted.

But this blog post isn’t about that article—it’s about where my mind ended up.

As the conversation went on, the mention of race in adoption came up, and as my mind usually works, I was soon off on my own mental tangent.

I remembered a story our case worker had shared with us during our first home study. She was very good about bringing up issues, such as race and forming a transracial (called interracial in those days) family. The story went that a Korean boy was adopted by a white couple in the Midwest. They raised him in an area which happened to have very few Asians—so few, in fact, that the boy grew to be seven or eight and he had never seen another Asian. One day he watched a television show about the Japanese, and he laughed and made a derogatory comment about their looks. That’s when his parents understood that he didn’t realize he was Asian.

Her story made an impression on me and on my husband, and we knew that our children needed to be helped to understand and develop their own identities.

However, when our son Marc was in 4th grade, my analysis of the case worker’s story added a new layer of complexity.

I believe that it’s possible that the child did know at some level what he looked like and that he was “different” from those around him.

Here’s what happened. One night Marc was reading his homework on the floor of the family room and started laughing. I asked him what was so funny.

He kept laughing and pointed to a passage in the book. I read it and . . . you know that expression, my blood ran cold? It did.

Marc was reading an assigned book, The Story of Doctor Doolittle. Have you read this book? If you’re white, have you read an original version in recent years, with an enlightened view of race, or as a kid “back in the day”? If you’re not white, what did you think or feel when you read it?

There is a character in the book called Bumpo, the African prince. The way he is portrayed—both in text and illustration is clearly racist. In fact, Bumpo wishes to be white so he can marry Sleeping Beauty.

Marc’s school, the best private school in our town, was literature-based and founded on principles developed by Mae Carden in the thirties. The school hadn’t veered much from the decades-old curriculum and this book was on that curriculum.

I was more upset upon discovering what Marc was reading than anything that had happened up to that point about my kids. I felt betrayed by the school. When Marc started at the school there weren’t many minorities there, although each year more and more attended and by the time he was in the middle school grades, there were many Asian and Latino and some African-American children at the school.

I felt sad that Marc had to read something so racist, provided to him by adults he trusted.

I felt angry at the school.

I felt confused that, although Marc had been raised to respect people of all races and he knew he himself was of a minority race (in his community), he was laughing.

Although I’m dead set against book censorship, there is a big difference between banning books from libraries and choosing the best possible selections for curriculum.

So I called the school, of course, to complain. I met with immediate resistance and deflection. They had me speak to the teacher who assured me that Marc had not had a problem with it at all when they read it in class.  It was a humorous passage, the class had found it funny, and they had all laughed. I was making a mountain out of a molehill.

Think about that a minute. OK, think about it after you get around that pissed off feeling you’re experiencing right now.  He had already read that passage in school. So why was he reading it at home and laughing at it?

When I asked him why he was laughing and expressed my dismay at the overt racism, he gave me the “it’s no big deal” reaction and indicated I was over-reacting.

I concluded that he wanted to draw my attention to the passage to help him sort out his own feelings, but he was unable to be direct about it because he himself was confused and disturbed deep inside.

Later, I further concluded that as one of the only minority kids in his class at that time, he was embarrassed and wanted to show the other kids that he wasn’t different from them. That he wasn’t, in fact, the African prince.  That he didn’t have to wish he was white to marry Sleeping Beauty because he was already white, just like them.

That’s why I think that the story about the Korean boy responding negatively upon seeing his first Asians is more complex than on first thought.  On one level, the boy identified so strongly with his Caucasian family and community that he didn’t understand what he was seeing. But on some other level, he did know he was different and that being different was a very uncomfortable place for him to be.  A way to get around thinking of himself as different was to make other non-Caucasians the “Other.” (If you wonder why somebody could have knowledge and not have knowledge at the same time, you haven’t met anybody in denial ;)!)

What happened with the school and the book?  Because the school was sensitive to attempts at book banning, they made me fight them on the issue. But a compromise was effected when I presented them with a fully researched alternative list of books which had some of the same positive characteristics as the book in question and none of the racism.

One last thing. I want to make clear that even as this incident was happening, the school had already begun to change in positive ways as the administration and some teachers were replaced and the demographics of the city changed.  Although it had always been the best choice for my kids in our town, it became a much stronger and more inclusive school than it had been originally. I don’t want you to think I’m writing this to bash the school that caused my children much happiness.

Comments

  1. Absolutely wonderful post…and your ability to go there always makes me smile.

  2. Childhood literature has a significant impact on one’s perspectives. See, Roth, S. N. (2005). The mind of a child. Journal of the Early Republic, 25(1), 79-109.

  3. We’ve been talking about this frequently because of the peer who frequently asks my child, ‘What are you?’ When I thought this was coming from a white child with white parents, I was furious! Come to find out that the kid doing the racial audit is mixed, parents don’t discuss race at home and she’s looking for her tribe. Interesting prompt for my kid, who is racially ambiguous and has been read as everything from Mayan to Nepalese. But her first response was to laugh at the kid who doesn’t even know what she is. Ouch! Glad to have that conversation at my dinner table, not in the head of school’s office…

    • Alex, that’s exactly! Wow, shows you how much we make assumptions, too. But kids can be subtle. I’m so glad you could have that conversation at your dinner table! Thanks for joining the discussion!

  4. Lisa Ercolano says:

    Great column, Luanne. My Asian daughter has told me that, from time to time growing up, she was surprised to see a Chinese girl looking back at her, instead of a white girl, when she looked in the mirror.
    On this topic, did anyone catch the “60 Minutes” segment last weekend about the child studies at Yale? A prominent researcher there is working with very young infants (three months old!) and is beginning to conclude that we are hardwired to want to quickly categorize other humans as “like me/not like me.” This seems to have been the result of evolution/natural selection, to help us identify those who are “on our side/part of our tribes” and those who may threaten us. Thus, the researcher has concluded, a certain amount of racism/bias (in that, “That person doesn’t look like me.”) may be built in and must be overcome by what we call “civilization” and education. Interesting work, and if it is true, it explains a lot and shows us we have a lot of work to do.

    • Lisa, thanks for reading and commenting! I didn’t see that 60 Minutes segment, but I did just read a good article about babies and ethics, so it sounds similar. Here’s the link you posted on our FB page of the 60 Min http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=50151800n. It is true that in order to survive humans need to be able to categorize quickly–that has been known for a long time. Maybe they didn’t realize it came innate and wasn’t learned. This sounds like it makes it very clearcut though, which is good. And, yes, lots of work to do!
      But there are good things about identifying with groups, too. It’s not just a negative thing. Right?

  5. I know you don’t want to bash the school, but it’s crazy that the teacher found it amusing and that everyone laughed.

    • Although she was a very nice lady and her daughter and my son were good friends, I was shocked at her reaction, quite honestly. It was a private school, and I don’t think her training was adequate. Right after this event, though, the school made big improvements and many of the “original” faculty and administration left. The kids had a generally good experience in those early days, but an even better experience from then on.

  6. Jennifer says:

    great piece, thanks. you have beautifully articulated thoughts I have been having on a very similar issue, really appreciate this post.

  7. Good for you standing up to the school. We need more people like you. Thanks for sharing.

  8. Interesting and thought provoking blog. Thank you.

  9. I bought Jackson a storybook version of Dr. Doolittle at the last library book sale. I’ve never read it. I saw the movie when I was a kid. I do not recall an African prince in the movie. Really, all I remember is the PushMe/PullYou and Rex Harrison. I should probably read the book and check it out before he does.
    Did you know that a character in Freaky Friday is racist? The housekeeper. Annabel (as her mother) fires her for being racist. FF was my favorite book as a kid, and I didn’t remember that part. It was great fun reading it to Jackson. We had a good talk about it afterward, though.
    OK, enough babbling – this is a great post!

    • I’d love to know what the talk was behind the scenes about what to include in that Rex Harrison movie. Did they consider that character too racist a depiction even then? Or was their decision to exclude him racist?
      It’s interesting that you repressed or something that part of FF. I remember reading old books that belonged to my mom when I was a kid and they had racist anti-Asian stuff in there because of the war. I remember feeling torn between loving the book and feeling something was “wrong.” So part of me swallowed it and part of me was uncomfortable.

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