I have been told that all middle class Caucasian Americans are racist, and when someone claims not to pay much attention to race, I have heard that person accused all the more of racism. I try to think that I don’t buy into such cultural training, motivated as it is by self pity among some and thinly veiled noblesse oblige from others. I neither make racial commentary nor tend to be offended by anything but the most obviously inappropriate comments of others. There’s just not a racist demon under every rock.
But raising an Asian child has brought out new and intriguing experiences with race expectations. I don’t much mind when people assume that my youngest is smart because he’s Asian, but I do wonder what races the same people would therefore assume are natively dumb. After all, if one race is inherently smarter, others must be natural idiots, right? Darwin thought as much. I shake my head and wonder.
I have to chuckle and wonder a little also at the little boy in a kid-run “talent” show who decided that it would be a good idea, an amusing thing, to get up in front of everyone and scrunch up his face calling it his Chinese impersonation. Okay, kids have no brains. We did similar things growing up. I wonder a bit too at his poor mother, who having newly befriended our family, was clearly mortified. It’s okay, lady, just be aware that there is someone in the room who might be a little more realistic in that impersonation. We want our children to understand the difference between cluelessness and real malice, and to be able to be comfortable enough in themselves to laugh off the former. We don’t care to be easily offended. Really.
But I have to admit I was a bit speechless when speaking with a very new friend, a first generation Korean-Chinese immigrant. and she commented that Asian-American kids are “bananas; yellow on the outside and white on the inside.”
Why did I cringe a little inside? Why did her comment catch me flat-footed? She was simply making a reflection her own subculture; why, as an outsider, does that give me pause? My only answer is that, as a culture, we’ve lost a sense of casualness about our ethnicities. We’ve taken race so seriously for so long that we can no longer make honest reflections and casual comments. This woman was simply reflecting the same comfort in her Asian skin that I would hope my own Asian child would know as he grows up. And her reflection also revealed that many Asian kids don’t have that comfort and internal self-honesty. They want to fit in with the American mainstream, they want to become a culture of people who would take pause and cringe at her frank “banana” comment. The white inside cringes, the Asian outside takes it to heart.
And it makes me wonder, if much more has been lost than has been gained. While we should certainly be glad for the gains of equal access and the ability to befriend those whose backgrounds are different from ours, as a culture we’ve also lost our sense of humor amid a sense of self-importance. We’ve lost a casualness about who we are, a sense of comfort; and our discomfort stands in the way of real relationship.
My youngest is destined to be another cultural “banana” but I hope he’ll be comfortable enough in his Asian skin to have a sense of humor and humility about himself. Our family’s Celtic ancestry certainly informs his identity. On the inside, he’ll be as Scottish as his brothers in a lot of ways. His biases and world-view will likely reflect our own. Nature and nurture being what they are, he’ll no doubt always reflect his birth parents too, but his life experiences will be western. While his Korean ancestry forms our family as well, these things have shaped us by our choice; that’s not so for him. He is who he is, and nobody really has control over who their parents, by birth and adoption, are. The only question is what we will make of it.