One of the most crushing experiences a parent can have is when you learn of your child’s first experience with racism. For my son, it was at 5 years old when we were discussing the Astros’ Yuli Gurriel and the 2017 World Series when he hit a home run off of the Dodgers’ Yu Darvish and proceeded to pull his eyes back to mock the pitcher.
I found that one of my son’s classmates had done the same to him earlier that school year, but he hadn’t realized the malicious intent, and likely, the other student at the time didn’t either.
With the onset of COVID, and the accompanying vitriol of some people toward Asian Americans, we are seeing this even more frequently.
Two high-profile incidents, in particular, recently involved Japanese American families. One was confronted in a Torrance, Calif., parking lot and the other while hiking in Northern California. In both cases, young children were exposed to the ugliness that has reared its head against our community.
What makes this most painful for many of us as parents is the memory of our own experiences as children. I remember as a first grade student walking to school and being taunted by high school students waiting for their bus and other students throughout elementary school doing the same to me, as my own son experienced.
As a parent, it is always our hope that our children will have a better childhood than we did. Unfortunately, that dream has come crashing to an end.
COVID has disrupted our children’s school experience. They are unable to even play with their closest friends, other than Zoom playdates and now maybe a socially distanced joint bike ride in the neighborhood. Add onto this the experience of seeing their parents, or maybe even themselves, being attacked for the irrational reason of anti-Asian animus because of the very disease that is disrupting their own lives.
Add on to all of this the light being shined on anti-Blackness in our society, whether it be the senseless killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor or the harassment of Chris Cooper in New York’s Central Park while birdwatching. Our kids are aware that all of this is happening, and likely, they have questions.
Take the time to talk about all of this.
These may not be easy questions to answer, but the discussions will help you as parents to think through your own perspective, and maybe even bring some change to how you see things.
You will find that a child’s perspective is much different from our own. Often, theirs is untainted by years of outside influence from the media or our friends, coworkers and others. They will have genuinely inquisitive questions about why people have prejudices, with a certain degree of incredulity as to how it could even be possible.
Often, you can actually let them lead the conversation. Ask them what questions they have about a situation that might be in the news. Most importantly, ask them what they think. You can often frame incidents within the framework of their own perceptions and understanding. You may not want to go beyond that either, as sometimes, it is possible to go too far into a discussion where they are not ready emotionally or intellectually to go so deep.
I often find the hardest part is to withhold my own judgments as much as possible. Many of my own opinions are very strongly held, and for a child, the opinion and perceptions of a parent can be seen as absolute fact. They need to also recognize that our experience is not the only one.
I write this column with the hope that parents, grandparents and other mentors to our youth, our children, will take the time to have difficult conversations about what is happening in the world now.
Kids need to know what is happening, but also understand why. For many Black families, especially for those with boys, there is a discussion that must take place about how to respond to the police, known as “the talk.” That is just one of many discussions on how to respond to racism in society that take place in their households.
Asian American families need to be having the same discussions in our families about racism — how it impacts our families, and others, especially Black and Brown families. Perhaps the current climate is forcing more of us to have these conversations as well.
As the recent increase of incidents of anti-Asian hate have shown, racism has not improved from when I was a kid, and we now need to prepare our children to better understand and address the racism they will also face. Maybe together with our children we can make sure they and their children may never need to have “the talk.”
David Inoue is executive director of the JACL. He is based in the organization’s Washington, D.C., office.