Yesterday while we were driving home from her BMX practice, my 6-year old led me into a very important conversation about who she is in the world: what it means to be Hmong, Asian, Other. Her willingness to talk with me about her experiences with race and identity is a lesson to all of us in openness and truth-telling.
Lola: Mom, remember that man we saw at the dog park? The one with black skin?
Me: Yes. He was also wearing overalls.
L: Yeah! Yellow overalls. He also had a white wife. So they were mixed up like our family.
Me: It’s true. They also had 3 dogs.
L: They are mixed up with 3 dogs. We are mixed up with 1 dog.
L: Mom, everyone at school thinks I’m white.
Me: Who says that to you?
L: (Lists off the names of about 10 friends. I observe that only one of the friends listed is a child of color.)
Me: What do you tell people when they say you are white?
L: I say, “No, I’m not! I’m an Asian girl! With a white dad!” But no one ever believes me.
Me: How does that make you feel?
L: It makes me angry because I’m not white. And they just keep trying to be in charge to tell me that I am white. But they are wrong.
Me: That must be really frustrating. But you can keep telling them that you are an Asian girl if that’s what’s important to you. Eventually your friends will learn that about you.
L: Well, sometimes some people believe I am Asian, but they think I am Chinese Asian. Even when I tell them I am a Hmong Asian girl!
L: They might think I am Chinese Asian because Chinese people have eyes that are farther apart.
P: What do you mean their “eyes are farther apart?”
L: Like this. (Pulls the corners of her eyes back into a look of ching-chong mockery)
Me: Oh, honey. Did you know that doing that isn’t actually a nice thing? Usually people do that when they are making fun of Asian people.
L: What?! Really?!
Me: Yes. When I was a little girl, people used to do that to me and it really hurt my feelings. They thought it was funny, but really it made me sad and angry and confused. Sometimes I even see adults doing it, not just kids. I want you to know that this isn’t a nice thing to do at all – to yourself or to other people.
L: Oh my God, Moooooom! I really wish you told me this before because I have been doing that to my eyes for, like, my whole life. Why didn’t you tell me it was a mean thing to do?
Me: Well, you were still really little. But now you are a big kid and you can understand that this is a mean way to tease Asian people.
L: Geez, I really wish you told me it was mean to do that. Now I have to think of the people I need to say sorry to.
MORAL OF THE STORY: Talk to kids about race. Because even if you don’t, they’re trying desperately to figure out how to navigate the world around them. Help them.
PaKou Her is Executive Director at 18MR.org.