Thursday, February 11, 2010

A Conversation about Racism with My Daughter

Oldest is 10, nearly 11 and as much as I'd like to protect her from the ugliness of racism, she has not been immune. In fact, all 3 of my girls have had kids pull chinky eyes at them or make up sing songy Ching Chong words, not unlike Rosie O'Donnell's sensitive use of the Chinese language.

I tell my kids to stand their ground and to let these kids know that they are acting in an inappropriate and hurtful manner. And then I ask my kids not to let these actions hurt them, but to be proud of who they are and where they came from. But no matter what I say, it is unrealistic to believe that there will be no impact to them. I can see it even now. When we go somewhere and they notice that they are the only minority present, they are reluctant to bring attention to themselves, aware that they are different. Small, subtle things that bother me because I know why they do it. Because I did the same when I was young.

So yesterday, Oldest came over to me and asked me if we could speak in private.

Oldest - I read your blog post today and it made me cry.

Me - I'm sorry honey.

Oldest - You said that as long as I study hard and get a good education, then I can be anything I want, but that's not true is it.

Me - It is true, why would you say otherwise?

Oldest - Because when I grow up I want to be an actor, but how can I when they won't give me a chance? If they'd rather have whites be Asian characters then what is left for me?

Me - (speechless for a moment)This can change. If enough of us believe it's wrong and are willing to speak up, then we can change this.

Oldest - But you said to make it more relatable, they chose whites instead of Asians. I don't understand. What does that mean?

Me - It means they think the audience will be more sympathetic to and like the characters better if they are portrayed by whites instead of Asians.

Oldest - That's stupid. I watch Wizards of Waverly Place and iCarly and they are all white but I like them just fine. And True Jackson has a black girl as the main character and I like her too. Why would they think people wouldn't like Asians especially when the setting is all Asian?

Me - It's because they don't realize that what they are doing is racist.

Oldest - But some people are saying it's not racist and that it's stupid to be upset about this. My friend said who cares if there aren't any Asian actors in the leads, she's going to see it anyway.

Me - What do you think?

Oldest - I think its wrong. There aren't a lot of movies with Asians in them and I was really looking forward to this. Ever since Miley Cyrus did that bad chinky eye picture, I've realized that there aren't any famous Asian kids in movies and television. That's why I want to be an actor, so there can be more of us out there. But this makes me think it was just a stupid dream.

Me - No honey, never think that. You have to believe that the world can change and you have to believe that you can make a difference. Every single little thing a person does can make a difference. When people shrug their shoulders and say "what's the big deal" or "who cares" or "we can't do anything about it" their non-action has consequences. They are helping to continue racism. But every time someone speaks up and says "Hey that's not right," they are a ripple that reaches out to another and another until finally there are too many waves and people have to stand up and make a change.

Oldest - So you don't think it's a stupid dream?

Me - Absolutely not.

Oldest - Ok Mom, I believe you. I won't give up on my dream then.

Me - And I won't let you.


Jenn Reese said...

This post made me cry. And curse. And want to strangle everyone in Hollywood.

We will definitely find a way to fix this. We will.

Jenn Reese said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
fairyhedgehog said...

Oh my goodness. How painful to see your children suffering from racism like this. Do the schools take a stand on it? They do in the UK but of course there's a limit to how effective they can be.

You're right about what we do making a difference. Things are changing but always too slowly.

Thank goodness your children have got you.

Unknown said...

Your daughter is going to be a great actress.

She's already moved me to tears.

Thank God she won't give up her dream.

pacatrue said...

Thank you for the post.

Kelly Polark said...

I feel ashamed that there are still people that act that way. And I really, really think it stems with the parents who are ignorant and say stuff in front of their kids that are totally inappropriate.
My kids have grown up in a school with a fair mix of ethnicities and I'm thankful for it (I on the other hand grew up with 99% white). I sub and volunteer in their school and haven't seen any racism (though I realize that doesn't mean it doesn't happen, but I haven't seen it). I've even thought (probably naively) that their generation will grow up with no or less prejudices. I see that it is naive, but let's hope that this country can strive for that! I just find it maddening that people are like that!
And based on your past posts, I am sure your daughter can be a famous actress, especially a comedic actress! You go, Oldest!!

Kathleen MacIver said...

Tell your daughter that there are LOTS of white people who LOVE seeing racial diversity in movies. Frankly, I'm a lot more likely to watch a movie if it's not boring Americans living what I've seen a million times. My husband and I always think it's ridiculous when a movie has a white person playing an Asian part (or any other race for that matter). There's enough beautiful diversity in the world, especially in our country... Why not celebrate it!

So tell your daughter to GO FOR IT! There are lots of us who would love to see her make it big!

Lily Cate said...

Oh Ello, you just reminded me of a conversation I had with another new mother right after my son was born. She was very nervous about taking care of a newborn, and I had the exact opposite reaction. I wasn't worried about how to take care of a baby- a baby's needs I could always meet. As "Mom" I could always fix it, or make it better.
It's the stuff that comes later, from the mean kids at school, or the ignorant adults he's sure to meet, that I can't fix. That gives me ulcers.

As far as the acting goes, well I'm in a unique position. I write books, in which none of my casts are all white, and I also work on independent films with my husband. We're actually casting a movie right now, and I would Love, Love, Love to see some minority actors show up to audition.
It seems like I have to do a lot more scouting to find them.
So please, get into acting! And give us casting directors the diversity we're searching for!

Deva Fagan said...

This breaks my heart. I hope your daughter will never give up on her dreams.

*curses the makers of The Last Airbender for screwing up such a wonderful opportunity*

Has your family ever watched the Nickolodean show "Flight 29 Down"? It's not the best show ever, but I was pleased to see that it featured a young Asian-American actress (Kristy Wu) with a prominent role. And she was the character *I* related to the best!

sruble said...

I wish that you didn't have to have conversations like these with your daughter and that they wouldn't white-wash movies and books. Since we haven't come that far yet, I'm glad that you can have the conversation with your daughter so she doesn't give up her dreams. I am always disheartened when they change a POC role to a white person in the movies or on a book cover. Things are starting to change, and will only continue if we keep talking about it.

I still can not believe the casting for The Last Airbender. It is just plain WRONG. There is so much wonderful Asian history, stories and culture that would be great to see in the movies and read in books, but not at the expense of losing the Asian part of it. I don't understand that at all.

Sending big cyber hugs your way and hoping that your oldest follows her dream to be an actress!

Vivian Mahoney said...

Beautiful post, Ello. This saddens me to see not much has changed in the 30 and so years since I was a child. I'm so glad Oldest will not give up on her dream and you will help her keep going.

Tere Kirkland said...

Thanks for sharing this moment with your daughter with us. It really does move me to tears when I think of the frustration she must be feeling. But I'm pretty sure with a mother like you, Oldest will grow up to do whatever she sets her heart on.

moonrat said...

tell Oldest congratulations for being brave and involved--she's already 2/3 of the way there.

Rebecca Knight said...

Thank you for sharing this with us, Ello! We'll keep bringing awareness to the issue, and hopefully Oldest's dream will come true sooner than we think :).

writtenwyrdd said...

That made me cry. Please tell your daughter that things will change, are changing, and never to give up her dream.

And, fyi, I'm white and I always wanted to be Asian. Many of my friends growing up were Phillipino, Chinese, Japanese, Indian, or Pacific Islander, and I was enamored of their cultures, their Chinese calligraphy lessons (which they hated), their family ties, their religions that made so much SENSE to me, etc. etc. etc. There is so much to envy about Asian cultures! And I've always wanted to see more Asian actors in movies, especially when Hollywood is using Asian martial arts forms.

Sage Ravenwood said...

I'm so sorry she felt she needed to give up her dream. She has so much empathy and understanding.

I grew up with a different type of stereotypical typecasting. I was hearing disabled (now deaf). The cruelty that people harbor for something or someone who is different is unfounded.

The year before last my heart was touched seeing a commercial with a man clumsily trying to sign to a deaf woman. Finally I thought I'm someone in a world of hearing. You wouldn't believe the snide comments that were made about that commercial.

These days I'm constantly breaking out of the box people insist I belong in because I'm deaf. Your oldest will continue to break out of those boxes as well. One by one, changes have to made - if only we believe. (Hugs)Indigo

John Kauffman said...

It's a heck of a lot easier for me to be an optimist on the issue of racism (overt, passive, or in any form). It's rarely (if ever) directed at me. But I want to believe things are getting better - albeit too slow. I know that doesn't give me a free pass though. It may not mean much - a drop in a very large bucket - but there's a shy white guy out there who won't let it pass silently in his presence... who's raising his kids not to let it pass in theirs.

Travis Erwin said...

You rock as a Mom! I'm proud to call you a friend and when your oldest is a star I'll be first in line at the movies to watch her.

Anonymous said...

:( I think what surprises me (though it probably shouldn't) is how pervasive subtle racism is even today. My kiddos are 1/4 Japanese. My son has my coloring (hair color), so it's not obvious, but when his 1st grade teacher learned that he was part Asian last year, she said, "Oh, no wonder he's so good in math." I didn't even know what to say to that. I still don't.

Lana Gramlich said...

It seems to be human nature to put people in the "outsider" catagory in whatever way they can. For example, even though I'm a legal citizen of both the US & Canada, my Canadian friends consider me American & Americans consider me Canadian.

Patti said...

sweet bunny girl. i can't wait to see her success, with her fierce momma standing behind her.

Ruth Donnelly said...

Painful, yes. But how wonderful that she knows she can talk to you about it, and that you won't let her give up her dream.

Merry Monteleone said...

First, Give oldest a hug for me. And I would definitely pay to see her in a movie.

There are always going to be people who think this way, in small or large ways. If it's not about race it's about religion or sex or the amount of money you make. That doesn't mean we can't change the thinking overall - we have changed the thinking in many areas, but because human nature likes to put people beneath us to feel superior, we will always have to fight it, for ourselves and for others.

Natalie Whipple said...

Crying here too. We will change this. We have to.

AvDB said...

What a beautiful little girl your daughter is. It sickens me she has to think these thoughts. But, it is thoughtful, smart children like her who experience such trials and end up enacting change and being the heroes of a whole generation.

Tell her to get a move on, though. I want to be around to see it.

Anonymous said...

It doesn't help to know that we've come so far in the last forty years when you are the one still struggling. Just let her know that there are "whites" who don't condone this and are behind her all the way. She's a brave young lady and so is her mother.

susan said...

You realize this makes me wanna take off the rings and grab some vaseline, right?

And there are people in this world who don't get why this is a big deal?!

susan said...

The reality is there are young people like the commenters in this thread who simply don't get it.

It's not simply the industry. The comments in this thread will make you cry, too.

Ello - Ellen Oh said...

Thanks to everyone for your support. It is never easy having a conversation like this with your kid. But I do agree that we've come a long way - it isn't as bad as when I was growing up. And I pray and hope that each generation after me gets better and better. And people like all of you are gonna make that happen so bless you all.

And Susan - I read that comment thread. The people who shrugged broke my heart. The people who got defensive - well at least they can see there is an issue, even if they are defensive about it. But the ones that shrugged - I feel like we will never reach them.

laughingwolf said...

hang on to that dream, wee one!

and momma el, you rock!

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