“Mommy, what year were you born?”
“Is that when there was segregation?”
“Actually, segregation was over by then.” (But thanks for making me feel old, kid.)
When I asked him if he knew what segregation was, he said proudly, “It’s when black and white people were separated and then white people had to drink from white water fountains and black people had to drink from black water fountains.”
“Wait, what are we?” Then he remembered, “Oh, wait, we’re brown.”
April may be around the corner, but the lessons of Black History Month have really stuck with Colin, our five-year-old.
When I was growing up, my brother and I were the the only two Asian Americans in our entire school, K-8. We went to parochial school, where I spent more time celebrating St. Patty’s Day than learning about any Asian American history. However, being one of the only non-Irish or non-Italian kids in class had its benefits. Our school was small; my eighth grade graduating class had only 28 students, and these same 28 students had been more or less together since 1st grade. When my family moved to the area when I was in 5th grade, it was the first time a new student had joined the class in years. A new student was novel enough, but a new student who was also a minority made my arrival even more exciting.
The school community was welcoming, and everyone seemed to go out of their way to include me in everything. I made friends quickly, got invited to sleepovers, rode bikes around the neighborhood, went to the local pool in the summers, went ice-skating in the winters, got elected to student council, joined the community softball team. I was also lucky to be in a community where doing well in school was admired, and since I was generally “good at school,” I fit right in.
Looking back, I realize how lucky I was. If it had been a different type of community—or if I had been born during a different time—my experience being one of only a handful of minorities could have been much more difficult. That said, I was always acutely aware of being different. And although my friends were some of the most accepting, kind, caring people I have ever known, there were moments that my “otherness” was something I couldn’t ignore—like when one of my best friends once imitated my grandparents’ broken English.
I compensated for being different by trying to fit in, by downplaying, whenever possible, anything that made me different. Maybe that’s why I rarely shared anything about my Filipino culture in school or with my friends, why I felt so strange about having my grandparents live with us while my friends’ grandparents lived in places like New Jersey or Florida. Whenever I did share anything that had to do with my family or my culture, I did so in as generic a way as possible. It wasn’t that I was ashamed; I just didn’t want to stand out.
The fact that I was introverted by nature only added to my insecurities. Sometimes I can’t help wonder if my love for reading—for escaping into other worlds, into other experiences—was another way I tried to fit in. I read the most “American tween” books you could at the time. Although I don’t think I was aware of my motives, I think reading the Babysitters Club and Sweet Valley High series was my way of learning what it meant to be a “typical” teenage girl. And while that motive might apply to most readers of these series, I wasn’t just learning how to be a “typical” teenage girl, but also a “typical American” one.
Sometimes I wonder if my boys ever feel different in terms of race. I’m sure that they do, but not in the same ways. After all, their elementary school is far more diverse than the mine was; instead of being one of the only minorities in the building, they are one of several Asian American students in their class, not to mention other minorities and ethnicities. The only president they’ve ever known is the nation’s first African American president, and just last week, my eight-year-old came home with a book he had made of “10 Famous African Americans,” complete with illustrations.
After my five-year-old defined “segregation” as having to drink from different water fountains—I like how this concrete, practical example was the one that stood out to him—I couldn’t help ask a follow-up question. “So what about people like us? How would we be treated then?”
Before my five-year-old could answer, his older brother chimed in, “Oh, we would be treated like the black people.”
He said it matter-of-factly, like was on a gameshow answering the multi-million dollar question—with no sense or appreciation for the injustice of that fact.
“Wouldn’t that have been terrible?” I asked
“Actually, Mommy,” he corrected me, “we wouldn’t even be in the same school.” Then after a pause, he added, “It’s a good thing it’s not like that anymore.”
At that point, my five-year-old reminded us, “Yeah, because we’re brown.”
Matthew, my ten-year-old, who has been generally silent during the conversation, lets out an annoyed sigh. “Colin, don’t say that. It’s weird.”
“Why it is weird, Matthew?” I ask.
“I don’t know. It just is.”
I can tell he’s uncomfortable with the subject, with talking about race. When I point out that we are, after all, literally brown-skinned, he gets even more annoyed. “That sounds racist, Mommy.”
“I don’t know. It just is. We shouldn’t be pointing out people’s skin colors like that.”
That’s when I understand that he doesn’t want to be anymore different than I did all those years ago.
This post is part of the “Slice of Life” series, organized by the teachers at Two Writing Teachers, whose goal is to give teachers a place to write and reflect. This March, more than 300 teachers have committed to daily writing. If you’d like to read more “slices” (from other teachers and even some students), visit twowritingteachers.wordpress.com/challenges.