Elias was four years old when he didn’t fully comprehend the racial slurs thrown at him across the hospital room.
The teenage boy in traction on the other side of the curtain was in pain but had refused to take his pain medication. How did I know? The curtain wasn’t soundproof. We could hear him complaining, arguing with his parents, moaning in pain, asking for candy but refusing to eat the hospital food (who could blame him). I learned from his mother that he had been in a horrible car accident. The young man was lucky to be alive after a bowling ball left in the passenger area of the car became a pinball upon impact.
Our families didn’t interact much except for exchanging knowing looks as we passed each other in the room or the hallways. They were focused on getting their teenager healthy and stable. We were doing the same with our four-year-old. We simply exchanged stories and then went to our sides of the room until the teenager decided to call my son a chink and suggest our family go back to where we came from.
I had asked the other mother if they would turn down the television that was on at the same volume it had been on all day long. Elias was exhausted having started fasting for a round of tests the next day, and Peter & I were spent.
“I’m sorry to bother you, but would you mind turning down the television volume a little bit? Our son is a bit restless tonight and the noise is making it difficult for all of us to rest.”
The other mother asked her son if it would be OK to turn down the volume as I walked to our side of the curtain. His response?
“No. I can’t sleep when that baby’s whining and crying. Tell that chink to shut up. They should all go back to where they came from. What are they doing here anyway?”
I waited for the other mother to correct her son, but she didn’t. She said nothing. Instead her son continued to raise his voice. She said nothing. Nothing.
So I did.
I don’t think Tiger Mother is what you think it means.
I walked over to the other side of the curtain and said to no one in particular, “I can’t believe this.” I left the room and headed to the nurses’ station where I
asked demanded to speak with the shift manager to request demand a room change. As I was explaining the situation, including the racist slurs, the other mother came down the hall asking me to understand her son was in pain and is tired and didn’t know what he was saying and that she didn’t know where he learned to say those things.
We are two days away from Halloween, and there are adults in blackface thinking Trayvon Martin is the perfect costume. They are posting photos of themselves dressed up like bloodied Asiana flight attendants and pilots. And when we see these adults doing stupid, racist things I know I am not the only one wondering ARE YOU FREAKING KIDDING ME?! Don’t these people have friends who pull them aside and tell them in no uncertain terms, “THAT is NOT a good idea”?!?!?!?!?
But it isn’t just in that moment because those adults didn’t just decide a week before Halloween that blackface or wearing a name badge reading “Ho Lee Fuk” would be HILARIOUS. No, those adults learned long ago that those racist acts were OK, even funny.
Which is why I, as an adult, hearing racist slurs come out of the mouths of children, especially this particular 14-year-old boy’s mouth, and then NOT hearing his parent correct him bothered me so. I did understand the young man was in pain, which is why I was hoping he would take his pain meds. I did understand he was tired because my son was tired, too. I wanted to go back to where we came from – Libertyville, Illinois! But we were stuck in Ann Arbor because my four-year-old baby almost seized to death. I did understand. But I told the other mother that what I didn’t understand was how she could hear her son say things like “chink” and not correct him. I told her this wasn’t about the noise. It was about the racist slurs.
Again, she said nothing. It broke my heart because the other mother could no longer claim ignorance. She knew and said nothing.
When your kids say something racist, you correct them or you stay silent and give them permission.
It’s not easy. Parenting isn’t easy. Talking about race and racism isn’t easy. But if parents and adults don’t say anything, don’t help lead and correct and answer questions, none of us should be surprised when adults show up at a Halloween party looking the part of a racist fool.