“Yoh-roh-bun-dul, ahn-nyung-ha-shim-nee-ka.” I open many of my school presentations with this photo and a greeting in Korean: “Hello, everyone. This is my picture. When I was seven years old, I moved to Korea. From then I learned two languages and two cultures. This is my eighth birthday.”
After I’ve translated the introduction, I go on to share a little about my childhood: how conspicuous I was as a tall, light-skinned, light-haired, large-nosed, round-eyed American, growing up in South Korea in the 1960s when few foreigners lived in the country. When I went to the market, a crowd of people would gather around me, marveling at how different I looked. It was kind of like being a princess, I tell the children.
This early experience provides an ideal segue for a discussion of difference. “I was treated as if I was special. What do you think I learned about being different? That it was fabulous! It was certainly working well for me. But is this how we always treat people who are different?”
I ask the students how many of them have ever been “the different one” – because of skin color, body size, learning style, language, the only boy, the only girl, and so on. Usually most children in the classroom raise their hands. “How did that feel? What happened to you?” I ask. We talk about being left out, being teased, being called names. I’ve had this discussion with children as young as first and second grade.
With older children, I then go on to share a simple explanation of Racial Identity Development – how each of us comes to understand race and to think about our own race:
“As we grow, each one of us gets ideas of who we are by the mirrors that are held up for us, including mirrors about race. You’re having this experience right now. If you’re one of many, like one of the boys on a soccer team, you don’t think much about being a boy. But if you’re one of a few, like the only girl on the soccer team, you think about it all the time, because everybody tells you you’re a girl, you’re different.
“Race is like that, too. In the United States, if you’re white, you usually don’t notice it because the majority of people are white. But if you’re a person of color, you tend to notice it a lot more. Everyone reminds you all the time that you’re the different one. So our different experiences of race give us different ideas and different ways of thinking about race.
“When I was young, the mirror of responses of other people to my difference – ‘You’re American! You’re American!’ – made me notice that I was white. Do you think that my friend Ok-soon, on my left in the photo, thought much about being Korean? No, because everyone around her had similar hair, skin color, and features. She blended in.”
Any racial experience in the lives of older children can be an opportunity to introduce the concept of racial identity development, individually or with a group, with lead-in questions such as:
– Do you notice skin color? When do you notice skin color? Why do you think certain skin colors stand out more? (Usually when a person is different from the group.)
– Do people with majority skin color stand out? Do they think about their skin color much? Why or why not? (When you blend in with the group, your skin color is taken for granted. It’s the norm.)
– How do people get treated when they are seen as different?
Racial Identity Development has much to recommend it as an introduction for young people to the topic of racism:
1. It’s a non-threatening approach that doesn’t automatically provoke defensiveness.
2. It sets up a level playing field by including everyone in the discussion and the groups that are being examined.
3. It offers a way to get white kids thinking about themselves racially, to counteract the silence and invisibility of race in the white community.
4. It’s a natural segue into the concept of socialization, including in-groups and out-groups.
For an in-depth explanation of racial identity development, see Beverly Daniel Tatum’s book, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?
When our Korean-born daughter was four or five, one of her favorite adults was Hyo-Jung, a young Korean-American friend.
At some point during each visit with our daughter, Hyo-Jung would lift a strand of her glossy, straight black hair, then a similar strand of Yunhee’s, and sing, “Same hair!” The game never failed to delight Yunhee and I’m sure helped forge a deep bond with this lovely woman who looked like her, as none of her immediate family members did.
Hyo-Jung was simply pointing out the obvious, in a relaxed, playful, affirming tone. For people who’ve been dealing with race every day of their lives, as many people of color do in the U.S., this might not be a difficult feat; it’s an everyday topic.
But research shows that, by some counts, “75% of white families never or almost never talk about race with their children.” Obviously, if statistics like that cover your experience, breaching the topic may not come out relaxed, playful, and affirming the first few times. But it’s a good standard to reach for.
Here are some first steps for talking about race with very young children:
Start with the assumption that our children DO notice race. Just because they don’t appear to based on what they say doesn’t mean they’re not categorizing. Many studies have documented that children – and even infants as young as four months – detect differences in skin color.
Where in the world did we get the idea that they don’t see it? Children are natural sorters. They see, and we teach them, the “green car, pink pig, yellow flower, red ball, brown shirt …” but all of a sudden when the color is on skin, it’s invisible?
Of course, one of the reasons that children don’t voice their observations is that the adults around them have given them implicit but clear messages that it’s not to be talked about.
Include colors of skin and shapes of features in sorting games, as naturally as referring to the grass, the cat or the ball. Color identification, comparing and contrasting, alike and different (“Same hair!”). That’s all that very young children are seeing. Those categorizations don’t yet come with the charged complexity or value judgments that older people bring to the topic.Tailor the conversation to children’s ages and developmental stages. As with so many other topics, adjust the amount and type of information as children mature, and as needed in response to their questions and comments.
And, picture books are a great way to introduce the topic.
Next up, six titles that can start the conversation.
Here’s a terrific short article, “5 Tips for Talking About Racism with Kids,” including a Q&A with Dr. Beverly Tatum, president of Spelman College and author of Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations about Race, one of the nation’s foremost authorities on racial identity development and race conversations. (My only quibble is that to accurately reflect the content of the piece, the title should say “Race,” not “Racism.” Talking about racism, though it can overlap, is another topic for another post.)
A few of our daughter Yunhee’s thoughts (comment #11) in response to the same clip (see previous post) on not discussing race with transracially adopted children:
I struggled with identity, and the idea of why I was put up for adoption. I went through phases of sadness, anger, and every other emotion along the way. The idea of my parents telling me not to worry about it, because no one cares about race anymore is unfathomable! That would have destroyed me.
My parents were understanding, supportive and ALWAYS willing to talk about what I was feeling. That is how I moved through each phase into something healthier and happier. Not by them ignoring my questions, emotions, and pain. They nurtured both cultures in my life, and let me explore both. I have since found a happy balance between my two cultures, and I claim both.
…Children are very observant. It is why we watch our language and behaviors around them, because they will pick it up. Children are curious, observant and very, very, blunt. A child will notice if they are not the same race as their family, and even if they don’t notice, some other person will, and then that becomes the mirror for the child. And the people in the world are not always the kindest.
At one point I was at a holiday party with my parents and a woman saw me, and then stated to her friend loudly, “Yes, you have to be white to be American.” Those mirrors are there, they are real, and they are painful.
At the website, Love Isn’t Enough, there’s a post entitled “Race Is Not an Issue for the Young?”, in response to a CNN news story discussing transracial adoption and the public reaction to Sandra Bullock’s adoption of an African-American baby. The commentator at one point observes that transracial adoptees may experience confusion as children but grow up to say, “Thank goodness someone saved me!”, and the white psychologist being interviewed made statements that “adoption is colorblind,” “I think race should really only be examined if you’re over 40,” and that “I happen to have biracial children; they don’t self-identify as black or white.”
Here’s the comment I posted:
Although I could only get my laptop to stream part of this clip, I found the first half of it infuriating, on so many levels. I feel anger as I struggle to find the clarity to express what feels so wrong about several statements in the clip.
My husband and I are white. Our daughter, now 24, is Korean. (We also have a white son by birth.) If our daughter, as the commentator suggested an adult adoptee would, ever uttered the phrase “Oh, thank goodness, someone *saved* me!” I would be appalled, and convinced that I had done something wrong as a parent.
Our daughter’s adoption was not a “rescue” of some poor thing in need of being “saved.” It was a complicated negotiation to make the best of a tragic human situation by placing an infant whose young mother could not care for her and whose father didn’t know she’d been conceived with parents who dreamed of adopting her. The result is a family in which all of us are deeply blessed and enriched by having each other.
But all of us also recognize that our daughter’s adoption represents tremendous losses: of the family, culture, language, and country that should have been her birthright. We have all done well at holding onto all we can of her ethnic and cultural heritage (I grew up in South Korea and speak fluent Korean). We have supported her through stages of grieving and exploration. But none of this is the same as being raised Korean by her Korean family.
We have understood connection to Korea and education about racism – our own and our daughter’s as well as her white brother’s – to be as essential to her health and wellbeing as a vaccination or teaching her to brush her teeth. She is simply our *daughter* – not our “Korean daughter” – but we celebrate her Koreanness as we do all of the particular aspects of her singular personhood; to overlook it would be to deny one of the gifts of who she is, a disrespectful diminishment of the complexity of her whole self. It would also represent abdication of one of our chief responsibilities as parents: to equip our children to live and thrive in the larger world – as it is, not as we wish it would be.
The white psychologist’s characterization that adoption is “colorblind” and that “race should only examined if you’re over 40” is chilling. Imagine what happened every time her biracial children noticed race: their mother, who didn’t think it was a necessary topic for children, must have deflected, denied, and suppressed their curiosity, their questions and their confusion. (Given young children’s intuitive ability to pick up unspoken cues, the curiosity, questions and confusions may have never even been voiced.) Of course her children don’t identify as either white or black – racial identity is formed by the mirrors that people hold up for you when you are young. If their mother’s statements are indicative of how she raised them, the mirror in which her children saw themselves reflected rendered their race invisible.
The ignorance represented by this approach is an expression of unconscious white supremacy. (It’s also a handy dodge: avoiding the examination of race spares us the discomfort and sometimes real pain of acknowledging white racism and white privilege.) Race invisibility is an aspect of white conditioning; because we are the majority and the dominant group, we see ourselves as the norm, essentially as raceless. One way white supremacy operates is when we assume that what is true for us – the racial “pass” – applies to everyone else as well.
Because this psychologist, as a white woman, has the privilege of ignoring race without cost to herself, she presumes the same for her children, as if her willful obtuseness could give them a cloak of invisibility.
But whiteness with all its power can’t erase the race of transracially adopted children. Just because their mother refuses to acknowledge the reality of her children’s skin color and racially-defined features doesn’t mean society will be so blind. And her children have been given no tools to stand strong in their knowledge of who they truly are, no connection to the black people from whom they were birthed, no claim to that part of their cultural and racial legacy. With no affirmation of the beauty and significance of their blackness and their whiteness, as well as every other aspect of their identities, they will face uninformed and undefended a world that is all too quick to label and diminish them based on race alone.
In 1960, our family moved to South Korea, a country struggling to recover from a war that had devastated and divided the peninsula just seven years before.
Every time I walked the city streets or went to the market, I saw children my age, dressed in rags, begging. Some families, refugees from the north, were still living in mountain caves on the outskirts of the city. Nearly everyone I met had less than our family did. (Over the next twenty years, we witnessed South Korea’s rise, like a phoenix from the ashes of war, to become one of the world’s economic superpowers, but that’s another story.)
My parents were actively engaged in trying to relieve suffering through delivering medical care and supporting women’s groups. In fifth and sixth grade, I spent many after-school hours playing with the orphan babies who were patients at the hospital where my father worked.
Fast forward to my arrival at an American college campus, straight from the rural health care project my father directed on a remote Korean island. Though I wasn’t aware of it at the time, I was carrying some extra baggage along with my trunks.
I had deep and loving relationships with many individual Koreans and by then knew many who were well-to-do, but my early childhood experiences had ingrained within me the idea that the task of a privileged white American was to be a helper. The little I’d been exposed to of the experiences of African-Americans – mostly slavery, civil rights, and Martin Luther King – only confirmed my unconscious impulse to respond to people of color by trying to help.
It wasn’t hostile, it wasn’t hateful, but it was still a way of viewing people of color as less than. It made me see Them primarily as victims and myself as some kind of caretaker, which is a “benign” form of white supremacy. It caused me to behave oddly, especially around African-Americans: self-conscious, careful, effortful, earnest, overcompensating – twisting myself into a pretzel instead of just being myself. (Because of my comfort level and sense of belonging with Koreans, I was much more relaxed with Asian Americans.) I spent a great deal of time earnestly trying to prove how good I was, that I wasn’t one of those white people. None of this was any help at all in developing equitable, authentic bonds across race.
Fortunately, I had also gained some strengths from my upbringing, including awareness of race and knowing that cross-racial relationships were essential to me. So in spite of all the baggage, I developed friendships with black students and began learning. Watching myself repeatedly behaving in peculiar ways gradually brought me to awareness of the unconscious stuff, how it was in my way, and what I could do about it.
I share all this only as an illustration: In a similar manner to the work done by Adult Children of Alcoholics and other groups, we can examine the experiences of our upbringing to uncover the patterns we have formed around race. We can become witnesses of our own implicit attitudes, behaviors and actions, without judging ourselves, and ask, “Why in the world do I think/feel/do that?”
Once we see the patterns, we are freed to make conscious choices.
Forty years ago this summer, between my junior and senior years of high school, our family and our Korean colleagues embarked on an extraordinary adventure.
Carpenters and cooks, nurses and nurses’ aides, and visiting doctors and volunteers, both Korean and foreign, together built a community health project
directed by my father on Kojedo
, a remote rural island
off the southern coast. The model we developed there influenced the design of South Korea’s rural health care delivery system. The boldness and difficulty of what we attempted forged deep and abiding relationships
, like those of war buddies.
I spent the year after high school and a year and a half after college as a volunteer with the project. My social peers were the nurses’ aides, island girls who were trained to deliver basic public health care to the subsistence-level farmers and fishermen of their villages.
In addition to creating posters for health education, my assistant Kun-sun and I ran the Mu-ji-gae Tabang (Rainbow Tearoom), where the aides gathered on their breaks for a snack of instant coffee and homemade cookies.
Last week, thirty-two years since I left Kojedo, I returned (with my daughter, Yunhee, and her fiance, Josh) for three days of reunions with former staff members, including many of the nurses’ aides. What a joy it was to see their faces again, unchanged despite our transformation from unmarried girls into middle-aged mothers, wives and professional women.
The island itself has been trans-formed by the presence of two of the world’s largest shipyards. Unpaved roads and walking paths among villages with straw- and tile-roofed houses have been replaced with a network of highways connecting busy towns and cities with clusters of high-rise apartments. The peninsula site of our project has returned to nature and is preserved as a city park, with a monument to my father and a soaring bridge connecting to the island across the channel.
But the island still has fresh air and ocean breezes; gorgeous vistas along a shoreline of steep hills, inlets and bays; fresh seafood cooked in spicy broths; and lovely people speaking the island dialect, warmly welcoming us home.