Saturday, November 19, 2011

Ignorance is taught

I do not normally post things that happen to me on this blog because I like my privacy. However, I encountered a situation recently that made me step back and wonder just what is happening to the world today and whether I am missing something or perhaps there is more I should do to prevent such situations in the future. So, first, a little background. I have a wonderful wife who means the world to me and a son who is no less important. My wife is not of the same ethnicity nor language and, while it has sometimes given itself over to troubles in our life together, it has also forced us to work harder to overcome those differences. As anyone in a multi-cultural relationship can attest, there are difficulties that are not always obvious nor easily resolved - beyond the means of a monocultural relationship. However, I support my wife completely and she the same. So, enough background and onto the situation.

While with my son and several other boys his age, some of whom I was not immediately familiar with (and who were not familiar with us), one of the boys kept referring to me as "Don's" dad. After it was pointed out to him that I was not Don's dad but my son's dad on several occasions, he finally looked at me and my son and stated, "I see 'Mike' (my son) has darker skin but you have really white skin. How can you be 'Mike's' dad?"

Ok, I think to myself, I can see past this as an innocent mistake, though not one that we've encountered in his near 12 years. "'Mike's' mom is from China. He has his mom's skin."

"Oh, is she black?"

Say what?! This is an 11-year old boy and he's just been told that someone is from China and his first question is whether she is black?! Frankly, my nerves were beginning to be plucked at that point but I persevered with patient responses. After all, he's only 11 and I don't know if perhaps he has some issues with his intellect. Though, it would be very hard to imagine my son as having any black ancestry from his appearance. Frankly, most people have assumed he is white though they have wondered about perhaps some Hispanic or Asian roots in his background based on his appearance. So, again, I respond, "No, she is Chinese."

That was not enough for him. "Oh. Does she have a green card?"

Taken as a single statement, this would probably not have been too bad. On top of the already ignorant questions this child had asked, I could only wonder if he was not either deliberately obtuse or profoundly mentally deficient. Mentally, my first response was, "Oh, so all Chinese must be immigrants and therefore need a green card?! Only white people are able to be native-born Americans?! Seriously?!" Instead, I answered with as much patience as I could muster, "No, she is a US citizen." I could have gone further and pointed out that she is a first-generation immigrant who came to a brand-new country, has worked hard to learn its language and its customs and has tried very hard to fit in to what, at times, has been a very alien culture to her, but it would have been wasted effort on my part. In the end, it was just as well I didn't for this boy's final statement answered the questions that had been building up in my own mind about his mental acuity.

"Oh, so she's like President Obama. He was born in Africa, y'know."

This boy was simply parroting what he had heard at home. At that moment, I almost felt sorry for him. Almost... He is a product of his environment - and his environment is his home. But this child will likely grow up to be as ignorant as I feel his parents to be. To him and them, non-whites are all foreigners (and apparently all black) and America's first black president is illegitimate despite significant evidence to the contrary. (I do not intend to argue for or against the "birther" discussion, I simply state that there is significant evidence that the president is a native-born American from Hawaii.) It is an attitude from an uglier time in America and one that I had hoped had faded to the background - I am not so naive as to believe that racism has been erased. But I had hope that it had receded and was less acceptable. Instead, it seems that it has been thrust into a new paradigm using code words and phrases to delegitimize people based on something they cannot control - the color of their skin. I only hope that the recent situation described here is the aberration.


  1. Damn, I had a nice long post here, but I was refused upon clicking "post comment." Trying again...

  2. Anyway, what I was saying, chopstick, is that this post hits very close to home here. Not because I've had this exact experience in my home city in Canada, but because I feel like at some point that I might. To be honest, where I live, mixed families like yours have become incredibly common, even more so because I work in a university. All of this only means that the kind of attitudes you describe manifest themselves more subtly, although there is hope that things are changing.

    As to the birthers, it happens that I attended a talk yesterday about what the speaker called "xenoracism in multicultural societies." He didn't mention birthers, but I would think that they are a perfect representative of what he was getting at. A long discussion of pedagogy and schooling to counter this problem followed the talk. Of course home influences was part of this talk, but what was left unsaid were discussions about how efforts at anti-racism pedagogy typically runs up against the wall of parental authority. No big thoughts by way of far. :)

  3. Unfortunately, racism is still a problem in America and throughout the world for that fact. People just aren't comfortable with others who are different than them because of their own insecurities. The best thing you can do is teach your child (and anyone else willing to listen) to adopt tolerance into their way of thinking. Kudos to you for exuding patience and understanding during that most trying situation you refer to in this post.

  4. Wow. I'm stunned. Although my community DOES have kids that would say the same things (and do--ad nauseum), racism is less of a problem than the whole conservative/liberal debate. There is very little critical thinking going on in the heads of children that age. Hopefully, his experience with you will bring about a deeper reflection as he gets older. Sometimes we simply must put our thoughts out there to gather nourishment and hopefully they will bloom later on. I'm sorry this happened. You've a lovely family...which I would like to see soon!

  5. Thanks for the comments. Vocation of the Heart, when we visited Toronto a few years ago, it was the first and, so far, only place where we felt like we fit in because of the large number of mixed race couples. I know that is not near where you are but simply an observation.

    qwestore, this was a learning opportunity and we did have some discussion with 'Mike' about it but he apparently hadn't heard the whole conversation and I didn't feel like rehashing it again so we kept it short to just say that not all people see things and other people the same way so that he should always keep an open mind. Fortunately, that is part of his normal make-up so he's good.

    Heather, we can only hope that kid learns more and is willing to think for himself as he grows older. Maybe, as he becomes a teenager, he will automatically take the opposite of his parents - not to say that will be significantly better if he can't think more than he has to this point but still... And yes, we need to find time to get together - after the new year. :-)