Friday, January 15, 2010

A Poor Black Child

OK, here's an oddity. Maybe you can help me figure this one out.My little girl doesn't like talking about her pre-adoption life. She does the three-year-old version of sticking her fingers in her ears and singing "la-la-la-la-la!" when you bring the subject up. She violently objected when I tried to talk about her birth mommy in China, pointing at Mojo and declaring "That's my mommy!".

So the other night, we were coming home from the Nickel Arcade after giving Mojo Mommy's Night Off and talking about what the Peeper is learning about Dr. King. The conversation turned to how people who come from different places look different, and upon being informed that she was Asian, Missy said:"I was born a poor black child am NOT Asian!"

Her brother - cartoon Scotsman as he is all red hair and freckles - insisted that she IS. Is NOT! Is!

I had to shut down the Peep before the tears arrived.The thing I can't figure out about this is:

Is Missy saying this because she hears "Asian" as "not like my mommy and daddy and brother" and is saying this just to insist that she is - i.e., she doesn't understand the entire concept of race and is just demanding her place in the family?

Or does she understand, and is she doing a Steve Martin and insisting she is TOO Caucasian like mommy and daddy and brother?I want Little Girl to like herself and be happy with who she is. And if what she's saying means the first expression then it's just a question of development and understanding. But the second argues a degree of dissatisfaction with her own appearance and ethnicity, which makes me a little saddened and a little worried, and I'm not quite sure which it is...


Linda Dove said...

This might shed some light on what's going on:

It doesn't work to teach colorblindness. Or "equality." One must talk about race to kids as one talks about gender to kids--very plainly and assertively.

Fascinating stuff.

Lisa said...

Well, the predominant girl image is still Disney's Cinderella or Snow White, though that is changing. Surely as one matures one now sees every ethnicity as beautiful. And I know you've been exposing her to other cultures via different media.

So I would think it would just be a matter of not wanting to be a "label". I know I hated that growing up. When one is a child, one does not cherish difference, as one may later.

Right now, she wants to be part of "y'all". If your son emphasized anything that put her out of the ballpark, that would be noxious, I would think. She will be reckoning with "boy power" (patriarchy), misogyny and all the rest soon enough.

Right now, I doubt she wants to be anything other than mommy's little girl.

Pluto said...

I'd say you're discussing the topic too early.

Babies and toddlers naturally bond very tightly with their parents. Any discussion of difference at this stage in her life probably feels like abandonment to your little girl, which she resists furiously because of her background.

I'd suggest just going with the flow for now and monitor her self-image as time goes on. Perhaps you can bring the topic back up again when it seems more likely to be of use to her.

Every child is different and they need different things at different times. Obviously she just needs to be part of your family for now, cherish the moment.

Lisa said...

Pluto says, "

Any discussion of difference at this stage in her life probably feels like abandonment to your little girl, which she resists furiously because of her background"

I'd go further, and say she's not wrestling with her background. It is simply a matter of resisting any alterity. If your son had called her any label that made her Other, she would protest.

She does not want to be "that"; she is "you". Ostracism is a wound that runs deep in our collective psyche.

Lisa said...

Oh -- and The Jerk was brilliant.

"I made yer favorite, son -- egg salad on white bread."

Linda Dove said...

It's important to note that the evidence from this recent study suggests that waiting to discuss issues of race and alterity until you believe your child is more comfortable with them is TOO LATE: "So why does Bigler think it's important to talk to children about race as early as the age of 3?

Her reasoning is that kids are developmentally prone to in-group favoritism; they're going to form these preferences on their own. Children naturally try to categorize everything, and the attribute they rely on is that which is the most clearly visible."

Sorry my link wasn't live in my first comment. I'll try again: Even Babies Discriminate from Newsweek.

Maia said...

Yes, I would respectfully disagree with previous comments (excluding Linda's). Talk about her being Asian-American (or more specifically, Chinese-American) early and often. Find other people of Asian descent for her to hang out with and point out to her that they are Asian, too. You can still foster her sense of being part of your family - of inclusion, without denying (or burying) her race. Don't let her identity come as a surprise to her later. I personally know some adult adoptees, (and this is not an uncommon story) who really did not know that they were something other than Caucasian until they were basically adults.

Race needs to be talked about in a matter of fact way, early, and often. The more you talk to her about it now, the more you bring it up casually, and listen for cues from her to talk about it, the easier it will be for her to talk to you about it later.

rangeragainstwar said...


"the more you bring it up casually, and listen for cues from her to talk about it, the easier it will be for her to talk to you about it later"

But, she doesn't want to talk about it. For adults, immersion therapy works great. For kids, it can traumatize.

When she's ready to talk, that's the time.

rangeragainstwar said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lisa said...


"the more you bring it up casually, and listen for cues from her to talk about it, the easier it will be for her to talk to you about it later"

But, she doesn't want to talk about it. For adults, immersion therapy works great. For young kids, it can traumatize.

When she's ready to talk, that's the time.

Lisa said...

I don't know why this double-posted :(

Maia said...

Not wanting to talk about her life pre-adoption is different than not wanting to talk about race, though. She is Asian-American and there's a lot of room to talk about that without having to talk about her time in China. There are ways to approach talking about race without ever having to touch upon her time in China if she's not ready for that.

My daughter (who is roughly the same age) likes to talk about what the same and what is different about herself and others. She is a girl like her mother, she has "dark black" hair and beige skin like her aunt (who is Asian) not "dark brown" hair and "pink" skin like her mama's. She has dark eyes like her brother etc etc. She notices race - no doubt. And likes to have the vocabulary to describe what differences she notices. I work with kids this age, and I can say that they are far from color blind. I think you can approach this kind of conversation with your kids in a casual way, even if she is resistant to being specifically called Asian at first.

You can even approach it in terms of the idea that maybe (like our family) we are all American, but Daddy is also Norwegian and Irish, Mama is Italian, brother is Norwegian, Irish and Italian, Auntie and Grandma are Japanese and you are Chinese (like, in our case, her cousins and some friends we have). Truly, this doesn't have to be a big deal - it's just getting used to talking about race in a general way, so that when she's ready to be specific, she will be used to talking about it, and have a vocabulary. It's about giving her an early start with this stuff, and making it easier for her to navigate this stuff in the long run.

FDChief said...

I step away from the computer for a day and y'all have thrashed this out already! Wow, that'll teach me.

There's a lot of good comments here, on both sides of the issue, so let me try and sort out what you're saying, what we're doing and where I think this is going.

First of all, from getting your tiddly bits caught in your zipper and why that's Nature's way of talking you out of going commando to why black people are NOT dirty and that color WON'T wash off...there is no topic to out there for us to discuss. Freedom of speech is not an issue in the Fire Direction shack.

We've been talking about race and ethnicity all this month and especially this week since it's the MLK holiday. Yesterday we talked about the "Gentleman's Agreement" and the Chinese Exclusion Acts (not in those technical terms, natch - I think we talked about how some white people in the old days didn't want Asian people to live with us and made laws to keep them out).

That's WHY Missy's comments took me by surprise and upset me a little. We've talked about how her hair is so pretty and black but a different black from Daddy's (what of Daddy's that isn't freaking white, of course) and not like mommy's brown hair or the Peep's red, and how that makes a unique family, one that looks different on the outside.

She DOES think she's pretty, loves her long, straight black hair and is no more self-concious of her features than she is of her stinky feet (and she's inappropriately proud of her feet and their ability to reek).

And then we give her big hugs and tell her we love her, of course.

No, I tend to agree that it's more likely an "I-don't-want-to-be-Asian-because-I-don't-want-to-different-from-my-family". But it's disturbing to hear all the same.

The adoption is a different deal entirely. Try as we might - and we do try - she just won't go there. So we have learned to back off and try again later. We've talked to her enough that I think she has some sort of fundamental understanding of her origins. I've read the Korean adoptee horror stories too, Maia, but many of those people are relicts of a much earlier time and a different ethic. The entire culture stressed "assimilation". At the Peep's school (that will be Missy's soon, too) they have LOTS of activities that work in the subject of race, background, can snark about "diversity", but we have a very diverse student body there; they'd be crazy not to ensure a wide perspective on human experience.

One thing that I had and have trouble with; "Find other people of Asian descent for her to hang out with..."

We're looking at getting her started in Mandarin this year. Hopefully we'll find some Chinese teachers or students there. But I REALLY dislike the idea of "finding people of Asian descent" to use as wind-dummies for little Miss. I know how I'd feel if a Chinese couple came up to me and announced "Hello, Caucasian fellow! We'd like to hang with you so our little adopted American boy will have a role model!" Gives on a rather agricultural sensation. Hopefully we can make a Chinese friend or two because they're Timbers fans or like Suzanne Vega or something. Y'know, as friends rather than as "resources".

Remember what I said about being blunt...

Maia said...

Well, as you can imagine, I have a long drawn out reply about this. But for some reason your blog keeps rejecting it - so I sent it to you via a message on FB. Look for it via other channels. Heh.

Linda Dove said...

Wow. Didn't realize this had sort of exploded over here--well, you wanted commenters!! Heh.

I do have to say, J, and I've known you a while now so you know my story, that the tokenism thing is just something you have to get over when you're raising a child of another race. You might remember that I went to see Jane Brown, the international adoption expert on race, speak in Phoenix a few years back. Here's what she says on the issue: Racial Identity Development. She's uncompromising on this; she just doesn't buy the tokenism argument as anything other than our own white privilege speaking about our own discomfort at being challenged to leave our comfort zone. You know that one of the main reasons we moved to L.A. was because of this issue. It's just not hard to surround Em with both peers and mentors of color here; it isn't awkward, it isn't strained. Most of the time, I don't have to seek it out. And I imagine you have similar opportunities in Portland (and I know you have other ALT kids there, and I envy you that situation!).

As for Em's pre-adoption life, we started with the Lifebook I wrote, which she liked b/c it was a BOOK about HER. And now we incorporate a lot of that discussion into play, which I think is so important as a conduit for these sorts of conversations. Non-threatening and so forth. Em is obsessed, as many of her friends are right now, with babies in the tummy. They stuff their shirts, etc. She wants to talk about which stuffed animal or doll is in her tummy. An obvious chance to talk about her birth mother and the night she was born. We tell it like a story, and weave it in and out, so that it doesn't amount to an academic exercise.

Anonymous said...

This is from Maia - she couldn't post it here for some reason, but I think it's an important part of the discussion, so I'm reposting it for her.

This is the first of three parts:

From Maia (Part 1)

"Well, maybe it would help to think of it like when you first had a kid - and maybe you didn't know any other people with kids your age. So you (or your wife) signed up for a Mommy and Me class (or hauled out a phone number or two from that Lamaze class you took) and met some kids the Peepers age so he'd have someone to play with. It doesn't mean you accosted whatever parent on the street you saw who was pushing around another baby - but you probably changed up your social circle a little in order to find some appropriately aged children for your son (and to find some other parents who could identify with the parentshock you were maybe going through). Because finding some kids the Peepers same age was important to his social development..."

(I should interject here that we DIDN'T do this for Peep...and he's having issues (I think) making friends. But Maia's point is valid all the same...)

Anonymous said...

Maia's comment continued (2 of 3)

"Now take that idea and apply it to race. It doesn't mean you need (or should) walk up to the first Asian American you see and demand that they mentor your daughter. It means, yes, do take a Mandarin class, and yes, take a dance class where the teacher is Chinese, or if you have a choice between two dentists you like for your kids, and one happens to be Korean, choose him - go to some FCC events (they're not my favorite thing, but they are full of families that probably look a lot like ours, which is something that will be a big deal to Missy) and then, make a playdate with a parent who seems to get your sense of humor and who you think you can stand being in the room with for more than five minutes and also is either Asian his/herself or has an Asian child. And then the next time you guys are talking to Missy about race, you can say, "You are Chinese" (or Asian) "just like Jenny your friend. Or Margaret your teacher. Or Joe your dentist" or whoever whoever, and that will be one more person your daughter can see herself reflected in. It might feel a little weird, I suppose, to search out people using race as a factor, but that doesn't mean you won't like some of them once you find them. And that they won't like you. And it doesn't mean it's wrong. It means you're identifying a need that really important for your kid and being proactive about it. When we made the commitment to parent our girls, when we became an interracial family, we also took on the responsibility of making sure that race is a daily issue in our lives, and that might mean going outside our comfort zone. And if having some people of Asian background in your day to day lives is not happening naturally, if they are not already there, then yeah, you do need to seek out opportunities to make it happen. However strange that feels. Because it can't be about what makes you comfortable - it has to be about Missy."

Anonymous said...

Maia's comment (3 of 3):

"It's not about tokenism. It's about filling a very real need for your daughter. You're right in saying that the accepted wisdom around adoption was different back in the day, but this is one of the lessons we learned. Do not allow your child to be the only Asian person she knows. We can talk the talk (and that's important. I don't think race is ever anything we should wait to talk about or tiptoe around with our kids like it's something shameful. It's something to be both appreciated and talked about in a totally matter of fact way, the same way we talk about gender - which, obviously, you guys seem to be doing) but for our girls, we have to step outside of our safety zone and walk the walk too. Even if it feels a little socially weird. Portland's a big diverse town - I'm sure there are some Asian or interracial families out there that you guys could get along with fabulously. It's just a matter of making a point of finding them. And you do need to make a point. I think it's okay to acknowledge that you are doing something based on your daughter's race. Race is life or death stuff for your little girl, and if you want her to grow up feeling okay about who she is - then you need to give her the opportunity to see herself reflected in other people. No matter how weird it makes you feel."

OK...whew! Thanks Maia! My reply below.

FDChief said...

MmmmmmOK. It sounds like I need to get back to Shorin Ryu again, then, although I think we lost our FCC privileges when I suggested that exposing the kidlets to Hong Kong hip-hop was more useful than lion dancing at the last CNY do.

One thing to keep in mind here is the incredible whiteness of Portland. We're something like 89% Caucasian here - remember the thing I said about the Chinese exclusion laws? So it's not just a question of finding a Korean's finding a Korean family, period!

Plus one thing that I grew in 20 years of Army time was a real deep, visceral hatred for phoniness, using people and being used. That happens when you get used by phonies! It grates on me, the idea of associating with people because of their race to use them like tools.

And what REALLY grates on me is that you're right, and it makes me very frustrated knowing that I'll be coldbloodedly seeking these unsuspecting Asian people out to use them for my daughter's benefit.

We're really some callous bastards, we parents, aren't we? Were our children are concerned we have no scruple. Explains a lot of history, when you think about it, doesn't it?