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.

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