Thursday, August 4, 2011

Nipping ethnocentrism in the bud

As I drop off Beanie at her day camp, a girl she knows from school detaches herself from a small group of kids playing with Legos, walks up, and asks, "Where were you born?"

"In Michigan," Beanie says proudly. She loves the stories that I tell her about "when she was a baby," and being born in Michigan is significant.

"Oh," the girl says. "We thought you were born in China."

Beanie seems either not to know what to say or just plain not to care. Her attention has been diverted to the table where a group of girls is drawing "Stay Out" signs. (She has been making them for her bedroom door.) I, however, feel mildly provoked. What does it mean that they thought she was born in China? There is a child in the group who had been adopted from abroad. Is this an attempt to make a connection? At least one other child in the group is biracial / bicultural. Is this just the kids trying to make sense of seeing Beanie with her Asian mother?

So, as casually as I can, I laugh and say, "Well, my parents were born in Korea. So, it would have been unlikely for Beanie to be born in China."


When I pick up Beanie from her day camp, another little girl - not the one from this morning - asks me, "Are you Chinese?"

What is with the questions about China today? Still, I manage a smile and look at her. "No," I say. "Are you?"

She looks surprised. "No. I'm not Chinese. I'm normal."

"Well, I'm not Chinese, but being Chinese is normal, too."


For the most part, Beanie has been sheltered from questions about what she is. Until now. I think that is what has me feeling a bit discouraged and to be honest, sad for her. I spent a good deal of my childhood having to explain what I was to other kids. It gets tiring and discouraging.

Nipping ethnocentrism in the bud is a job that is just too big for me or for Beanie or for the only non-white kid in a classroom, family in the neighborhood, or colleague in the workplace.

I want to remind the parents who might be reading this that we need to be mindful ourselves about the way that we talk about difference.

I am not against noticing difference, but I am against noting it in a way that casts difference as not normal. That little girl's question might be rooted in curiosity, but her response about being "normal" speaks volumes to me about a curiosity that is shaped by a particular cultural, social, political, and economic context. It is a curiosity that divides her from Beanie and me.

In contrast, I think about the power to connect that questions about who or what you are also can have. This is what manners help us do. We can forgive children for their imperfect attempts at politeness, and show them how to do better next time: This is what it means to be a civil society.

No comments:

Post a Comment