I just read a wonderful essay, Different Racism: On Jeremy Lin and How the Rules of Racism are Different for Asian Americans, written by an adult Korean adoptee, Matthew Salesses, that set my mind to racing. He talked about so many issues that make this a must-read for adoptive parents: growing up Asian in a white family and white community (“I was afraid, back then, of myself, as if there were a little Asian person living within me that was corrupting my being, taking me away from the white person I thought I was”) and the impact of going back to Korea as an adult (“[A]fter some time, not like the sudden realization in the mirror but a gradual process, I began to see myself as a person from this country”). But what really got me to thinking was his discussion about racism in the US (and other countries) against Asians.
Most discussions about race and racism in the US tend to be limited to racisms expressed by whites against blacks. Racism, overt or subtle, against other races is often overlooked and seldom discussed. That changed a few weeks ago with the blaring “Chink in the Armor” headline and subsequent firing of the journalist responsible.
Asian Americans have long been considered the “model minority”, and any racism against them seen as inconsequential as compared to racism against other minorities—a high class problem, so to speak. The shock over the Chink headline has brought to attention the prevalence of outright discrimination against Asians. As Salesses points out:
The truth is, racism toward Asians is treated differently in America than racism toward other ethnic groups. This is a truth all Asian Americans know. While the same racist may hold back terms he sees as off-limits toward other minorities, he will often not hesitate to call an Asian person a chink, as Jeremy Lin was referred to, or talk about that Asian person as if he must know karate, or call him Bruce Lee, or consider him weak or effeminate, or so on. Bullying against Asian Americans continues at the highest rate of any ethnic group. I remember, when I was taking the Asian American literature course, an article in a major magazine that ran pictures of (male) Asian models above the tagline, “Gay or Asian?” I remember a video that went viral last year in which people explained why men prefer Asian women and why women dislike Asian men. Some of the women on the video were Asian American.
Salesses discussed the overwhelming prevalence of bigotry and racism against Asian Americans. Our Asian children are likely experiencing some version of this, and I suspect it is harder on Asian boys than girls. Asian girls are often considered pretty and exotic, while Asian boys are sometimes seen as smaller, weaker, and effeminate. I think either stereotype is limiting and wrong, but can understand that boys may have it worse. Again, from Salesses’s article:
There are still incidents from [my childhood] that I cannot get out of my mind. I remember watching, in one middle school class, a video meant to teach us that blackface and sculptures of big-lipped black people and stereotypes of watermelon and fried chicken were wrong. Later that same year, one of my best friends drew a picture of a square with a nose poking off of one side. I knew this was me even before he said it. Sometimes my friends would ask me to do the trick where I put my face against the table, touching both my forehead and my chin to the wood. I thought of this as a special ability, but underneath, I knew I should be ashamed.
I would bet that this friend does not remember drawing me in that one science class. We often drew together. He was in all of my classes that year, as we were allowed two friends to share a similar schedule, and I was the only one who requested him. That he wouldn’t remember this drawing is part of the problem, I know now. He thought of the picture as a joke, though I had never seen him draw caricatures or draw anyone else so simply. Surely a part of him knew what he was doing but didn’t stop him. There was no video to tell him not to—there was no one to tell him not to, even me. I pretended it didn’t bother me.
And then there are the positive stereotypes which have earned Asians the label of “model minority”. All Asians are smart, industrious, hardworking, respectful and on and on. Salesses says, “It is hard to call someone who thinks he is complimenting you a racist. But the positive stereotypes people think they can use because of their “positivity” continue (and worsen) the problem.”
Where does this leave us as parents of Asian children? How do we prepare them and protect them? I don’t have all the answers, but I firmly believe educating ourselves is the first step.
Image credit: Asia Society