Teaching Tolerance

August 21, 2007

This week marks the start of the school year. Noah is thrilled be in Junior Kindergarten. Camille will also be starting "school" this week by spending a few mornings each week as a "Busy Bee". Yesterday I went to school with them to spend the morning meeting their teachers and exploring their classrooms. It was a fun and exciting morning for all of us until I suddenly found myself in a parenting moment I have been dreading. As a parent to two Jewish children, as a parent to an Asian child, and just as a plain ole mama I knew there would be moments like this but it didn't make it any easier.

I was speaking with the teaching assistant in Camille's classroom. The conversation started out as many do with general questions about her and quickly spiraled into a murky and uncomfortable place when the assistant said "yes, we have some other girls here like that". I assumed she meant other girls adopted from China and as I was stepping in to clarify that Camille was adopted from Taiwan she barreled over my words to say "yes, they are all so aggressive, pushy, and mean to the other children". She continued by saying "I was so surprised by their behavior because I always thought Chinese people were so nice and quiet". So now instead of talking about Camille's daily schedule I was engaged in a very disturbing discussion of racial profiling. I felt so flustered and confused by the turn of the conversation that I found myself babbling in twenty different directions...one of which was to explain that children who have spent their first years of life in institutional care are amazing survivors, to explaining Camille (like all nearly two year olds) does have moments of assertive behavior (thanks to some additional training by having a big brother), to pointing out that all children are individuals with their own histories and temperaments. One of the hardest parts of this "discussion" was the fact that this woman is an older grandmotherly woman who I know did not say these things with malicious intent. I know they come from lack of training/education, lack of exposure, and just plain ignorance. But none the less it was insulting and disturbing to hear her make an assumption about "girls like that" and to worry that any of Camille's "aggressive" behavior would continue to confirm her belief that all adopted Asian children are bullies.

I spoke with the director of the preschool to express my concerns about the recent conversation and request that the staff (especially this specific assistant) receive some diversity training. She was very apologetic and agreed that something would be done to address the need for additional education.

Needless to say this has not helped to ease my anxiety about bringing Camille to her first official day of school tomorrow. I know that she will receive excellent care (this is the first and only negative experience we have ever had) and I know that she will love being around the other kids. It will be hard for her when I first leave, but I think it will be even harder for me to leave her. It will mark a big change for us and a big step towards letting her venture out in the world. It sounds dramatic but after this recent incident it feels a little scarier since that was such a clear reminder that the world is not color blind. Although I rarely look at Camille and think she looks different from me, others do. And others make assumptions about her and they will continue to do so. Growing up white in a predominantly white, rural area I never really experienced what it feels like to be different until moving to Japan for the first time and being one of only a handful of foreigners in a small town.I know that it won't always be easy or comfortable for Camille to be in a world that doesn't always look like her.

I did my best (although I wish I had done better... after getting home I thought of a million better things to say!) to protect Camille by trying to make a change in this woman's stereotype of adopted Asian children, but the reality is there will continue to be other situations like this down the road. I won't always be there to "protect" her. I can't wipe out racism with a magic wand. I can't pretend it doesn't exist. But I hope that taking the time to change one woman's view of "those girls" will make a difference.
shelley said...

Good job mama. It is hard not to want to completely put them in a plastic bubble to prevent this from happening.

Anonymous said...

Yikes, yikes, yikes! I can't believe she said that! I think you handled it well and you're right to try to make things better one person at a time. While we've overwhelmingly had positive responses when people learn Dominic was adopted, I still hesitate to say anything because of misguided, ignorant remarks from people who just don't think. ((HUGS)) to you...this situation must be so frustrating!!


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