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Archive for September 10th, 2010

The following is a re-blog from Claudia over at My fascinating life.  Claudia is an Aussie mom living in the UK who adopted Ethopian children.   She’s testament to the fact that if you provide us with insightful commentary on our posts, we might go over to your blog and find things we’d like to bring home with us.

I’ve made a decision – the next person to ask me whether I need to put suncream on the babies is getting a punch in the mouth. I’m not quite sure why this is every white person’s ‘go-to’ question about raising black children, but that seems to be the case. Like if they suddenly found themselves in my shoes, it wouldn’t matter if the child grew up totally unsure about their identity, where to fit in, lacking any positive black role models and looking down the barrel of casual racism every day; that would be fine, but heaven forfend the baby should get sunburned.

I know I’m overreacting about that particular question, and if anybody I know in real life is reading this then they are definitely going to be offended, because I’m pretty sure that every single white person I know has asked me this question since the sun came out here, about two weeks ago. And I do take sun safety very seriously. And on one level, it’s fine that people ask me this. It’s sunny, we’re at the park, they’re slapping the suncream on their kids, it’s a reasonable question. And I prefer curiosity to someone saying ‘oh, seriously, your child isn’t white? I didn’t notice! Because we’re all the same on the inside!’ But sometimes, this question, and others like it, (‘what do you do with their hair?‘) can make me feel really uncomfortable, and I don’t quite know what to do.

I think I’ve almost figured out how to deal with conversations that are openly racist, or, more commonly, just plain ignorant. No matter who, no matter where, don’t let it slide, ever. Challenge. Disagree. Not just when it’s a conversation about people who share the same colour skin as my children, but anything racist, all the time. Zero tolerance. There’s a lot of stuff that I used to let slip by me, but now – no way. I’m acutely aware that many adult adoptees say their parents weren’t active enough as their anti-racist advocates, particularly with extended family, and those of us who have had the opportunity to learn from their experience have NO excuse if the same is said about us.

But I find this kind of thing much harder. It’s not a racist question. It’s not even a particularly stupid question. But it makes me prickle. I think that what upsets me is this. I get the distinct impression that some of my white friends ask me questions about my black babies that they would never ask if I was a black mother. Or at least, ask them in a way that they wouldn’t ask a black mother. This is difficult to articulate, but I feel like there is an unspoken assumption that we belong to the same club, they and I, a club to which my children do not belong. And that our sameness means that it’s okay – indeed, expected – for us to share information and experiences about our encounters with those who are not the same. Even, in my case, if those who aren’t the same are also my children. We all know that the first rule of White Club is YOU DO NOT TALK ABOUT WHITE CLUB, so none of this would ever be said out loud. But honestly, in some conversations it is palpable.

It feels similar to what I experienced when I moved to the UK from Australia. When I came across other Australians, we would always form a huddle and complain about the same things – usually the price of food, how cold it was, how long it was since we’d seen the sun and the impossibility of really getting to know anyone properly. Then we would tell stories about Rude English People I Have Met, and What They Said To Me. It was comforting. But time went on, and something changed. I began to feel at home here. I worked out how to navigate the supermarket, bought a decent coat, resigned myself to a lifetime of Seasonal Affective Disorder and made some friends. My accent was Australian (and it still is) but I didn’t feel quite so partisan anymore. I began to feel that at least part of me was becoming British. And then the moaning sessions weren’t quite so welcome. When people would hear my voice, and then want to talk about what was wrong with the UK, I kept finding myself thinking ‘what makes you think I’m on YOUR side in this conversation?’

And that’s how I keep feeling now. White people see my skin, and I think it makes them think that I’m on their side. I’m not going to go down the ‘now that I have Ethiopian children, I consider myself to be Ethiopian too’, road, because I think that’s a pile of horse manure. I’m still white, I’ll always be white, and there’s nothing I can do about that. But that doesn’t mean I’m on their side.

It does feel, sometimes, like people view my children as educational toys. They’re a safe, easy way to learn about black people. You know, without actually having to talk to a black person. And I get frustrated, because my children are not a bridge. They do not have a responsibility to my friends to link all the colours of the world into a complacent little circle. And they are not objects; curiosities to be examined. They are their own selves, with their own complicated histories, and neither they nor I owe my friends any information about their skincare regime. I think that sometimes people are wanting some kind of inside scoop – for me to go into detail about how hard it is to care for such ‘difficult’ hair or skin, but it’s just not going to happen. They aren’t entitled to that information, even if it was the case. I am not on their side.

But sometimes it’s a hard balance. Because sometimes I ask myself – are these the opportunities I’ve been waiting for? Is the problem not too many questions about their skin, but too few? I think most of us can agree that a fake-o ‘colourblind’ approach to life doesn’t do our children any favours. And I wish that I could have more frank discussions with my white friends about race, not fewer. But I want them to be real. Surely the really important issues around skin are privilege and prejudice, not, well, skin. I want to talk about how we approach our own whiteness, before talking about anybody else’s blackness. I don’t really know how those conversations would sound, but I’m sure they wouldn’t just be about sun safety or hair products. I hate that I am still so bad at making those conversations happen.

So, back to the sun cream. Mostly, when sun cream comes up, I say ‘Well! The babies take longer to burn than a very pale baby, but they will still burn. I do put sun cream on them, but we don’t need it if they’re only going to be outside for a little while. We have suncream that smells like coconut. Doesn’t their skin smell delicious? What type of suncream do YOU use?’ And questions about hair get ‘isn’t their hair BEAUTIFUL? I just can’t wait until her hair is long enough to braid. Do you think your little Susie’s hair is going to stay blonde?’ And none of this is going to set the world on fire, and sometimes I wish I could have the courage to be a lot ruder, but for now, for questions that aren’t outright impolite, I’ve decided to stick with simple answers that affirm my children and then move swiftly on.

All of this feels almost impossible to write about, because I’m so painfully aware of how little I know. And maybe my approach is wrong – maybe I’m reading too much into comments that are totally innocent, or maybe the reverse is happening and I’m ignoring something really big, and I should be… well, I don’t know. And of course some of my friends don’t do anything like this, and I need to remember that I never used to care about race until I realised that it was going to affect my family. So I’d better not climb too high onto my high horse, or I’m liable to fall off. This is all really hard. I know I’m making mistakes. I hope I’ll be willing to learn from them. But whatever happens, I hope the babies always know that I am on their side.

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There is an ostensibly positive stereotype of Asian Americans so ubiquitous that I do not question whether American (and many other) readers have heard or seen some version of it:

Asians are intelligent, studious and hardworking, family-oriented, polite and law-abiding and, through the diligent practice of these virtues in the face of challenges and obstacles, successful. They’ve pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps and attained the American Dream.

Major media outlets, sociologists, and politicians have lauded Asian Americans as a “model minority” or “superminority,” a “trophy population” that has moved “from pariahs to paragons” to become “exemplars of hope.” Television shows and movies feature Asian nerds; even portrayals of Asian criminals tend to be unusually intelligent and disciplined.

Who wouldn’t want to be considered intelligent, hardworking, and successful? Isn’t this stereotype complimentary? So what’s the problem? In reality, this “model minority” myth misrepresents the truth, and it’s harmful to both Asians and non-Asians.

For the sake of brevity, I will focus on one of the many ways this racial stereotype misrepresents the truth: income. Those who tout Asian Americans’ “success” often cite, for example, comparable average household incomes of Asian and non-Hispanic white Americans. Frank Wu has pointed out that upon further examination, however, the appearance of parity falls apart. Asian Americans live, on average, in larger households than white Americans, so household income is often shared among more people in an Asian household than a white one. There’s a difference between $45K shared among 3 people and the same amount shared among 4 or 5 people. An Asian American household is also more likely than a white one to include more people capable of and actually contributing to household income—a higher percentage of Asian American women work, a higher percentage of Asian households include non-nuclear family members over the age of 15. The life of a family that earns $45K by pooling the incomes of 3 people is not really comparable to a family that receives the same amount through a single breadwinner. Asian Americans are also more likely than whites to be self-employed, which usually means working longer hours with fewer benefits and greater risk of setbacks like bankruptcy. $45K eked from the family shop is not like $45K with benefits from the corporate job. Asian Americans are also more urbanized than any other racial group, geographically concentrated in states with higher-than-average costs of living. The Smiths’ $45K goes much further in Smallville than the Kims’ $45K does in Metropolis. Wu further points out that “the figures for Asian Americans are rendered unreliable by the careless inclusion of [upper-management] Asians who reside in the United States [for a few years] but who are not Asian American at all.” The income of a Japanese executive living in the United States is counted in the Asian American average even though the transnational executive is not representative of Asian Americans.

Despite the stereotype, Asian Americans have not attained economic parity with white Americans. Asian Americans are still more likely to live in poverty than whites. Some ethnic groups, like Cambodians and Hmong, have poverty rates 3 or 4 times higher. Racial inequalities persist.

And this apparently “positive” stereotype has negative uses and consequences. For a white person who wants to defend the status quo, this popular and widely-believed stereotype is a handy weapon. In conversations about racism, he throws out “Asians have overcome racism through hard work” and the stereotype allows him to achieve, among any who buy into it, three goals at once: he denies that Asians are still harmed by racism, he suggests that any person of color who has not attained similar success just isn’t working hard enough, and he absolves white people like himself of responsibility to work for racial justice. In a stroke, he’s shifted all the work necessary to overcome racism to those who suffer white racism.

A committed white supremacist might deliberately play on this stereotype not to praise Asians but to use them as a tool to denigrate other people of color, promoting his racist agenda and attempting to sow disunity among the marginalized. This has been done in the past, as Wu documents.

But a white person who believes this stereotype need not be mean-spirited to harm people. I recently read a study showing that non-Hispanic white people who believe Asians are smarter than other minorities (70%) and harder working than other minorities (more than 40%) are also more likely to believe that Asian Americans experience no racial discrimination in the job market. Believing that Asians don’t face such discrimination, whites are unlikely to make any effort to remedy it. This is a problem, of course, because Asian Americans do experience job discrimination. They are underrepresented in management, for example, and when they do receive management positions they are paid less than whites in comparable positions. This is not due to their own preference. Research has shown that Asian Americans do not differ from whites in desiring career advancement and management positions. And as I was writing this, Tim Wise called attention to the fact that when Asian Americans lose their jobs, they have a harder time finding work than whites, so their unemployment lasts longer. Yes, Asian Americans experience racial discrimination, and “positive” stereotypes are part of the problem.

We need become more conscious of the racial stereotypes and prejudices we harbor and take the time to examine them more carefully. It’s not just the obviously negative ones that help perpetuate racism and injustice.

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