“If you speak Chinese, you must be white.”
The other day, my son, age 6, my daughter, age 4, and my husband and I (age 30 something) were driving down a busy street on our way to drop me off to have lunch with a friend. On this street, there are a number of restaurants from many different cultures: Japanese, Chinese, Indian, American, Italian. For some reason still unbeknownst to me, my son noticed a Chinese restaurant and said the words that begin this post.
I don’t think my husband heard these words, but I sure did. I immediately responded, “Well, Big A, that doesn’t really make sense. Most people who speak Chinese are, well, Chinese. Not white.”
“Yes, they are. They are white.”
At this point, my husband says, “What? WHAT??” I put out my hand, meaning to signal, “SHUT UP.” Big A continues:
“This girl in my class, Benny*, she speaks Chinese. And she’s white.”
Now, I know Benny. Benny is certainly NOT white. But perhaps she is biracial, so I allow for this possibility. “Well, maybe Benny has a white parent and a Chinese parent. But she’s at least part Chinese. That shows that non-white people can speak Chinese.”
And then something really brilliant comes to me.
“And you know what, Big A? Ms. Arlene* speaks Chinese. Did you know that?” Ms. Arlene is a very close family friend, and she’s black. But she speaks fluent Chinese, and is teaching it to her (black) children.
Big A: “Well then she must be white.” Loving the 6-year-old logic.
Me: “But you know she’s not. She’s black, like us.”
Big A: “Ms. Arlene’s not black. She’s brown.” Ut-oh. Ms. Arlene is light-skinned, but only a little more so than Big A and his sister. At this point, I’m a little lost, especially because we have now pulled up to my lunch spot, on a busy street, with no time to sit and continue to chat. I’m torn between three interrelated issues that I’d like to address in my last words. So I chose what I consider to be the easiest.
“You know, Big A, Chinese is a language. Anyone can speak Chinese. Just like anyone can speak English. You can speak Chinese, Arabic, Spanish, Italian, Swahili – it doesn’t matter. Language is available to everyone.”
But this point, his eyes have glazed over and he’s on to some new distraction outside his window.
The other two issues, outside that of language specifically, was dealing with the “Chinese = white” racial confluence and the “light-skinned = brown not black” skin color conundrum. Several days later, however, these two kinda intercepted.
We’re watching Ni Hao, Kai-Lan. It dawns on me that this is a perfect time to address the “Chinese = white” issue. Kai-Lan is obviously Asian, right?
“Big A – look! Kai-Lan is speaking Chinese, and she is Chinese, right? Not white, right?”
Never looking away from the television: “She is white.” I suppose it’s not obvious.
“What do you mean? Kai-Lan is not white. Look at her!”
“Mommy. You look at her. She’s white.”
I thought I’d done well by “teaching” my kids that they were black. I wanted them to understand one of the social groups to which they belong, and to have a deep seated appreciation and love for their social group. I never wanted to reduce being black to skin color, but have definitely used skin color as a starting point for our conversations.
But now I realize that I must go deeper, even starting at such young ages. I somehow assumed that they would innately see and appreciate the difference among folks once I pointed out their blackness, but I now realize either (or both) one of two things is occurring: 1) they only see themselves (black) verses everyone else (non-black = white) or 2) they are utterly confused about themselves being “black” when their skin is not Crayola black and therefore are not able to tell the “difference” between other groups with similar skin colorings.
I’d thought that “teaching” them about race would be like “teaching” them about our religion, Christianity. I thought they’d hear the songs and the stories and the admonitions, “You should love God” and a love of the Lord and Jesus would just permeate their souls. And for a while, I thought that was what was happening. We started really “doing church” two years ago and since then, they will say on their own how much they love God and spout their knowledge of the Bible and prefer Bible songs over other songs and will talk about being like Jesus. And while I understand this is indoctrination in some form, it’s also been a full-court blast socialization, full of questioning and misunderstanding (“is God like magic?”). It hasn’t been one conversation here and there every few weeks. It’s been every day.
If I had to choose, I want my children to have a better understanding of Christ than I do them having an understanding of race. But now I know what I need to aim toward, at least somewhat. Race, ethnicity, culture, and language need to be a constant part of our conversations. Otherwise, one day they are going to misidentify the wrong person. Someone who ain’t playin’ “I don’t know the difference between White and Chinese because I don’t see race.” Yeah, that can’t happen.