When I told my mother we were adopting a baby from China, she said, “Honey, are you sure? People say such mean things.”

Not that I thought she was wrong, but I had no idea what Maggie would face in Whiteville–two white parents with white friends and relatives, living in white neighborhoods, attending mostly white schools.

My mother knew.

Still, the outlandishly racist remarks from relatives shocked me.

20200609_122337More awaited:

The art teacher who said Maggie wasn’t allowed to use the pale flesh crayon, even though she and her Asian doll had the same light skin.

The homeroom teacher who told Maggie that Asians had “inexpressive faces.”

The DMV clerk who looked at Maggie’s face, not her passport, and asked, “Are you a citizen?”

The grocery store clerk who thought Maggie was stealing from my shopping cart.

The writing center college assistant who looked up from his desk and immediately asked, “How good is your English?”

People of color face all kinds of overt racism, but there is another type that seems harmless because it’s masked as curiosity, but its effects are equally damaging.

Microaggression.

It refers to remarks, intentional or unintentional, that are rude, critical, demeaning and based on spotlighting a person’s racial or ethnic minority status. You might not know you’re doing it. It was a long time before I understood why she’d tense up, stand closer to me, grow silent, or seethe.

Once it had a label, my uncomfortable experiences beside her, moments that were skewed in a way I couldn’t comprehend, came clear.

Your English is so good.

No, I mean where are you REALLY from?

Can Asians tell each other apart?

Do you play the violin?

Is rice your favorite food?

Are you good at math?

Such remarks underscore that as an Asian, she is The Other–eroding her confidence, ignoring her intelligence, and questioning her validity in Whiteville.

Her experience forced me to accept white privilege. I never have to explain if I’m British White or German White. No one doubts my ability to speak English. No one asks about my “real” parents.

Maggie says it’s up to me to address microaggression. A white person is called to educate another white person. People of color shouldn’t be constantly expected to explain their own trauma. Challenging the status quo has never made me popular. Despite the difficulty, I try whenever I can to point out systematic racial oppression.

Some recognize their misguided assumptions about racial identity.

Some defend their motives.

Some change the subject.

Thinking beyond long-held beliefs is tough.

When I taught English, we read a poem about a cloud. The class called it weird. Realizing the problem, I climbed up on a chair. “Imagine the cloud’s point of view. See trees as fluffy dots. See houses as roof lines. See people as moving specks, not by genders or colors. Pretend a cloud wrote this.”

Aerial view of a typical suburb in Australia

As they re-read in silence, some looked up and smiled. They got it. They saw the power in a different point of view.

If you’re white, a flashing police light behind you doesn’t signal death.

It can happen for a person of color.

If you’re white, you’re unlikely to be followed by a clerk who assumes you’re stealing.

It can happen for a person of color.

If you’re white, someone won’t ask about your eyes or hair.

It can happen for a person of color.

Students used to say I was a tough teacher. When pressed, they’d admit it wasn’t about grades. It was how I’d push them to think beyond their safe mental boxes. I’d say, “The point of education is to become more than you are, more than you think you can be. It’s about thinking.

Question your assumptions about race. Not saying the wrong thing is a start, but take responsibility for doing the right thing. If you look at my daughter and only see China, you render her invisible. She is far more than almond eyes.

Take it one step at a time. Think beyond your Whiteville city limits.

Pretend you’re in my English class.

Be challenged.

Be a cloud.

cloud

 

 

15 thoughts on “A Cloud Above Whiteville

  1. The immediacy of this post is so meaningful and poignant, it’s almost unbelievable. Good for you in trying to educate your followers one reader at a time. There may be no other way.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Karen I wish the whole country could read this. It wouldn’t change many, but if even one person, it’s a start. Let me know if it’s okay to share this.

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    1. Yes, please share this or any of my posts if you like. Another follower has just done so because she thinks it explains with clear examples how to pay attention to ourselves. We think we mean well, but we do damage by not putting ourselves in others’ shoes. I believe Maya Angelou said that when we know better we do better. One drop of water causes a ripple.

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  3. Yes, yes, and yes, Karen! We cannot stand on the sidelines. When remarks are made we should speak. It truly is up to the white to teach the white, isn’t it?

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  4. Beautiful piece, Karen. And an eye-opener for anyone who assumes we as a nation have progressed beyond this sort of insensitivity, or basic cluelessness.

    I’m reminded of an occasion when I was a kid, and my parents took me to a store to buy shoes. The clerk was a dignified African-American woman. At one point my father, who was never entirely comfortable with non-white people, made a quip. I don’t think he meant to be offensive, I believe his intention was to relieve tension (i.e. the tension HE was experiencing). The woman grimaced, and my mother winced. Bad moment. I was too young at the time to make a contribution, but if it happened today I’d wait until we were in the car, heading home, and point out as politely as possible that since we already know we’re white, and she already knows she’s black, why bring it up? Why put it on the table? Can’t we just get past that?

    I’m not sure how he’d have reacted, but it would have been interesting (to say the least) to find out. But I can always save that response for any future occasion something like this happens, because sadly it’s not likely to fade away anytime soon.

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  5. I understand your point about the tension your dad felt. I’d bet the clerk knew what she was in for the minute your family entered. People of color have a sixth sense. I once parked beside a truck without giving it a second thought. Not Maggie. She saw the Dixie flag bumper sticker and knew what to avoid by asking if I would park somewhere else. I did. She’s learned the attitudes reflected in symbols. My heart clutches whenever I address microaggression. Despite the back-peddling I sometimes receive, I believe they wonder about my words, instead of dismissing them completely. I hold onto Maya Angelou’s statement: “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better. ” It’s worth the risk.

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  6. This is so simple and so, so clear. It is so hard to point out how insidious and pervasive racism is. And how easily one justifies it. Beautifully written. I am more aware than ever. Thank you!

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    1. It took me years to understand what was actually happening because it appears to be innocent. In reality it is seriously ignorant–when it isn’t downright racist. Maggie has learned to decipher the motives and bring me onboard.

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