As many of you know, I’m writing a YA novel that deals with race.
In fact, I’m also in the middle of a blog series (you can find the first post here) about how to write sensitive, empowering stories that include marginalized groups—even groups I’m not personally part of.
As the author, Debby Irving, states in her introduction, “No one alive today created this mess, but everyone alive today has the power to work on undoing it….[T]here’s a loophole: people are not born racist. Racism is taught, and racism is learned. Understanding how and why our beliefs developed along racial lines holds the promise of healing….”
Irving, claims that in order to eradicate racism within myself and to combat it in the world at large, I need to uncover my own hidden racist roots. To that end, she asks questions at the end of each chapter that I’ll be answering here. I’m also going to be linking to my friends’ blogs—other humanity-loving writers who are in this too.
This week’s question from Chapter 1 “What Wasn’t Said”
What stereotypes about people of another race do you remember hearing and believing as a child? Were you ever encouraged to question stereotypes?
I don’t want to write about this. I don’t want it in print. I’ve shared these stories with my children, and we’ve all gasped aloud at the innocent callousness of my childhood, but it’s different putting it here. More gross, somehow.
Words and Phrases from My Small Years
“Chinese, Japanese, dirty knees, look at these”
“Me Chinese, me play joke, me go pee-pee in your Coke”
“Eenie meenie miney moe, catch a n- by the toe” [except we said the word]
My father referred to brazil nuts as n- toes (my mom learned this today, reading a rough draft of this post, and was horrified)
In my memory, no adult ever told me not to say any of these. In fact, I remember when I was little, kindergarten at most, asking about why we say “Indian giver”, and being told that it was because if an Indian ever gave you something, they’d just ask for it back. But despite it all, somehow, at some point in early elementary school, I decided to delete these kinds of phrases from my vocabulary.
I’m not sure why.
I mean, in third and fourth grade my best friends in our apartment complex were Native Americans. I loved it at their house! They had a baby who slept in a hammock hung from the four ceiling corners above the parents’ bed [the very best thing I’d ever seen]. When I was in fourth grade we ate a bunch of nuts we’d found, shared them with all the kids in the neighborhood, and a few adults too. Turns out they were poisonous and we all had to drink ipecac and run around outside till we barfed. I remember my native friends rolling on the ground laughing at me—but I laughed too: they were next. So, did their friendship—the constant snowball fights and Star Wars battles and hunting for daddy longlegs—turn things around for me?
Growing up in Montana, we’d often have assemblies where all the native students would dress in their regalia and dance, chant, and drum. I loved it. Growing up barefoot and poor, one of many kids crammed into trailer parks all over the US, my family didn’t have any kind of culture that we celebrated. I was always part awestruck, part jealous while watching the kids in their beautiful beaded outfits, with their rhythmic melodies and dancing feet.
Anyway, at some point I intentionally dropped racially offensive language when I knew it to be racist. [I didn’t learn until I was student teaching that it’s rude to say “I got gypped”. I just never made the connection. Now, I have friends who are Roma, often referred to as Gypsies, and I can’t believe they had to grow up hearing this. What must that do to a person?] I traded the N-word for tiger in “Eenie Meenie”. I didn’t care for brazil nuts because of their flavor, not their name. If someone gave me something but then asked for it back, I called them a jerk.
I was in maybe third grade and at my grandma’s house when Jesse Jackson came on TV in his bid for the White House. My grandma said, “A black man president? Over my dead body!” I fled the room. The disgust and anger in her voice told me more about her than it did about Mr. Jackson.
My first boyfriend, when I was a fifth grader, was black. We built forts and tunneled under the earth and played basketball on the cracked asphalt court. [That’s what it meant to “go out” in the fifth grade of my youth]. My crush in seventh grade, on the other hand, moved to Seattle from the South. He challenged me with his long sexy drawl: You went out with a black boy? This didn’t make me like him any less.
I don’t remember ever being explicitly taught to challenge stereotypes (read my previous sentence for proof), but I did have divorced parents on opposite sides of religion and while I longed for God and capital-T Truth, I feared being duped. This earned me my own special spot in the hall each week for harassing the church teachers.
I’m too uneducated, and too close to the subject [myself], to tease apart why exactly I made the choices I did when I was young. Was it early friendships? My parents’ messy divorce? Growing up poor? The Lord’s hand on my life? How could I almost simultaneously reject racist language but long for an avowed racist? Looking back, I can take neither credit nor blame—I was a kid. Even so, it’s difficult to excise the guilt I feel rereading that list of terms I naively tossed around when I was young.
Meanwhile, I recommend this book (among others). And I recommend answering the questions at the end of each chapter, privately or publicly. As a dear friend recently reminded me, only some of us have the option of ignoring race. I’m one of those. And I want to follow my King, who says, “To those who are given much, much is expected.”