When Your Kid Says Something Racist

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.

Full stop.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Beauty Pageants & Bible Stories

A former Navy reservist killed 12 and then turned the gun on himself yesterday, so why on earth am I still  blogging about racist comments directed at Miss America 2013 Nina Davuluri?

Because even things that don’t seem to matter can give me an opportunity to pause, learn, reflect, and apply to life. And everything I learned about beauty pageants I learned from the Bible before I watched my first Miss America pageant.

Felt-board Queen Esther became queen because her predecessor, Queen Vashti, refused her very drunk husband’s order to display her beauty to all the people, despite the fact that she was busy doing her own thing (Esther 1:11). King Xerxes and his wingmen/wise men decide she must be punished because if the queen can refuse to prance around in front of his drunk highness and his drunk friends then all women in the kingdom would assume they too could refuse their drunk husband’s requests. In order to put all women back in their place, a proclamation announcing the queen would be replaced and that every man should be ruler over his household (Esther 1:22) is sent to the entire kingdom “to each province in its own script and to each people in their own language”.

Esther becomes queen because she is beautiful and because she keeps her family background and nationality a secret. I don’t know what the Persian beauty standards were at the time, but Esther isn’t Persian. She is Jewish, and she hides it. And because she is beautiful she is rewarded. Sort of.

She wasn’t crowned Miss America. Miss America gets scholarship money, a national platform for a year for the cause of her choice, and the support and scorn of a country that worships and destroys all forms of beauty. Esther was crowned queen in title with no power, no platform. Would it be too crude to say she was a sex slave who was called into the king’s presence whenever it pleased him to see her? Or should I write “see” her? The kind had a type – beautiful virgins – and he liked to keep several around and name one queen. One day it’s Vashti, and then the next it’s Esther. It’s a man’s world, and it’s rolling with  beautiful women.

And that was part of the lesson I learned growing up – Queen Esther and Queen Vashti were beautiful, and there is a great deal of power and danger in that. You are set apart if you are beautiful. You are desirable if you are beautiful. And sometimes you have to hide who you really are to be considered beautiful. And then I learned all of that from the world around me, except that there were too many things I couldn’t hide. I couldn’t hide my “almond eyes” or flat nose. I couldn’t hide my un-American last name or the smells from my home. I couldn’t hide my brown hair and brown eyes. And as a little girl I played with dolls and watched beauty pageants – faces that never, ever looked like me or my mother or sister or aunt or anyone in my family. I was a chink and a gook and a jap. I was told to back to China, Japan, Viet Nam, but never Korea because most of my classmates had not yet learned of the Korean conflict. Even in high school I heard those words coupled with other profanity and saw words written on posters when I ran for class president. Some things you never forget because it’s important to remember. Kids are kids, but kids grow up to be adults to are examples to others…

Fortunately God does a lot of redeeming in my story and in Esther’s story. For Esther to find real power in her God-given identity she has to claim what she has hidden and denied. Her uncle, who once told her to hide her identity as a Jew asks Esther to use whatever power and access she has to speak out for her people, to speak out for what is right. Her uncle never says he was wrong, but he is asking to behave differently. She has to side with her people who are under threat of genocide, by defying the rules. She must risk death by approaching the king without being invited and hope he welcomes her, recognizes her (because it’s been more than a month since the king has seen this particular queen). She finds her voice, her identity, her power, and she speaks out against genocide, against the racist hate mongering, and she does it with strength and conviction and grace.

I’m still writing about the racist comments that may have disappeared in the constant flow of tweets, FB statuses and 24-7 news outlets because the Miss America pageant, as outdated, bizarre and sexist as it seems, the idea is as old as time. It’s as irrelevant and sexist as it relevant and sexist, which is to say I have no idea how God might redeem the Miss America pageant, but it’s not beyond God to do such a crazy thing. I’m not particularly fond of nor a fan of the pageant, but honestly if I could have won thousands of dollars in scholarship money because of my beauty I would not have thumbed my nose at that chance. And according to a PBS documentary on the Miss America pageant, someone like me or Ms. Davuluri or Vanessa Williams couldn’t have participated in the pageant in its heyday anyway.

But now we are a post-racial society with a lame duck, second term African American president and a Miss America of Indian descent.

The racist comments thrown at a beauty pageant winner matter because even if the laws say we belong, our neighbors, the ones I as a Christian am supposed to love, are spewing hate. My neighbors, who may even claim faith in the same God and Jesus I do, are the brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, friends and neighbors, of people who are using violent, ugly, racist language to remind me and millions of other Americans we don’t belong, are not welcome, are less than. Some of my neighbors are wondering why I’m spending so much time on Miss America when 12 people lost their lives in a shooting in Washington, DC.

It’s not either or.

You may not be on Twitter, but that doesn’t mean racism doesn’t exist. There are racist tweets about the shooting in DC just like there were about the new Miss America. Did you hold your breath when you heard about the shooting and hope, “Please, don’t let the gunman be White.”? (If you don’t understand the question, just trust me. There were plenty of Americans, Christian and not, who were hoping that the gunman wasn’t Black, Brown or Yellow.) The gunman, the murderer? He was Black. Did you hold your breath when you heard about the new Miss America and think, “It won’t be long before the racist comments hit the airwaves.”? (Are you thinking, “Why would anyone think that?” Trust me. There were plenty of Americans, Christian and not, who knew this racist stuff was going to happen.) The pageant winner? She is Brown. You can be the beauty or the beast but in America neither is safe from the vicious words and hearts of some of my racist neighbors. You can’t win.

But this isn’t about winning anymore than Esther’s story is about winning. What I also learned in the Bible is that God invites the most unlikely people in the most unlikely circumstances to do the most unlikely things. So who knows what is to become of the Miss America pageant or Twitter or who will be the heroes and the villains in the next tragedy. Esther’s story is about speaking truth, stepping out in faith, fighting for justice, finding your voice, leaning on others, owning your power and space, even if you think it’s crazy, or not your place, or something you’re really not interested in getting involved in right now because it isn’t your thing like risking your life or your reputation or your time on something as little as few hateful, vicious words written in English about someone who is my neighbor.