Anti-Asian racism and young children
A decade ago, I was in a car with my husband and two Argentine friends in downtown Manhattan. We slowed down to stop at a red light and saw two pedestrians waiting to cross the street, both of whom happened to be Asian. One of the friends began talking in gibberish Chinese, gesturing to the pedestrians. The traffic light turned to “walk” and as they crossed the street, we could hear the couple speaking English through our car’s open window, without any trace of an accent (unlike my husband’s Argentine friends!).“Que racista!” (How racist!) I admonished at the time. “Here you are judging this couple, assuming they don’t speak English based on how they look—and they are probably native English speakers who speak English a thousand times better than you!”
Anti-Asian racism is so tolerated that Argentina’a ex-president Christina Kirchner famously tweeted a “joke” about what she perceives as a “Chinese accent” during her visit to China.
But (of course), I don’t have to visit Argentina to experience negativity regarding people of Asian descent.
In my work with New York City public schools, a White teacher—who taught at a school with a 99% Chinese student population—shared a story that has really stuck with me. When she took her class on field trips, children from other schools routinely spoke “gibberish Chinese” in front of her students, resulting in expressions of hurt feelings and questions from her students.
In my own teaching at majority White independent (private) schools in New York City, it is not an uncommon occurrence to see students making “Asian eyes” with their fingers—and for students of Asian descent to be understandably upset by such behavior.
I have explained to all of my students:
“In our school, we don’t make fun of other people—and when we pretend to change the way our eyes look or laugh about other friends’ eyes, we are making fun of friends who are Asian for being different. It is a beautiful thing that all of us have differences in our school—with how we look, the languages we speak, and where we are from—so I really don’t like when I hear friends laughing about something like this.”
The other day my daughter was talking in gibberish—which she has done before in her play. But this time we were outside on the sidewalk and I was unclear if the gibberish was an imaginary language or if she was making fun of another language. I clarified:
“Is this an imaginary language or pretending to be another real language?”
“OK. That’s good because I wouldn’t want someone else to hear us speaking Spanish and then pretend to speak like us using made-up words because that would feel like they were laughing or making fun of the fact that we speak Spanish.”
It is way too easy to be complicit in accepting racism, in this case, anti-Asian racism. Gibberish Chinese and “Asian eyes” are all too common in a child’s life.
As always we can make a choice as parents and educators to challenge these moments.
Sachi Feris is a blogger at Raising Race Conscious Children, an online a resource to support adults who are trying to talk about race with young children. Sachi also co-facilitates interactive workshops/webinars and small group workshop series on how to talk about race with young children. Sachi currently teaches Spanish to Kindergarten and 1st grade at an independent school in Brooklyn. Sachi identifies as White and is a mother to an almost four-year-old daughter and six-month-old son.