Sitcoms may not seem very high brow to you, but to our family they are a perfect bridge between the racial microcosm that is our home and the big, wide world. Sitcoms provide the perfect springboard for conversations about racial identity, stereotypes, and hints at how to fit into a culture when you are a minority.
If you don’t already know, our son was adopted from Korea at 19 months old and is now 13. He looks Korean and, recently, identifies very much with his Asian-ness.
How do I know?
When the first intense racial storm hit Ferguson, a storm was brewing at our own dinner table.
Somewhere between the news of Michael Brown’s death and the riots that later ensued, my child called me a racist.
I was admittedly taken aback if only for a moment. I could have scolded him and told him that calling people racist is offensive and rude. I could have launched into a diatribe about why I’m not racist (seriously, I can go on and on) or I could have blown it off with a casual remark like, “Me? Racist? Pfffft.”
But, when you have an adopted child, you prepare for moments like this.
When Lee was in preschool, I expected him to ask about not having grown in my tummy. It’s an interesting fact, only adopted children ask this question. Children born into their families apparently never bring it up.
The first time I heard, ‘YOU are not my real mom!’ it was a piece of cake. It probably went something like, “Yes, I am. Now, set the table because it’s your job as part of this family.”
I was even cool with, ‘I want to move back to Korea!’ Fair enough. I asked if he needed directions.
And, I knew he would eventually question his identity, but calling me racist?
I’m not going to lie. Reading that your “internationally adopted” child may need to explore his racial identity is far more organized and sterile in the paragraphs of a book than the messy truth that emerges from the mouth of a teenager.
Confronted with my son’s search for identity in this tumultuous teenage phase, I scoured the internet for information on racial identity development. It exists. It’s a thing. And it’s so very interesting. I soaked up the psychology, reading about how children who experience life as minorities begin by first identifying strongly with the majority race. As they grow into young teenagers, they begin to disassociate from the majority race and its authority in an attempt to understand their own racial identity. They tend to align themselves with their inherent culture. Eventually, they learn to live in both worlds based on their own development, experiences, and education.
As our country has erupted into a battle of race, law enforcement, and politics, our little yellow house on the corner of an uphill Wyoming street has become its own microcosm of racial inquiry.
Admitting to other parents that your child calls you a racist can be a wild social experiment. Most of them look horrified, like maybe my child has lost his mind or is just a natural born jerk. Others are more sympathetic, looking at me with confusion while figuring out what I think before laughing or handing me the name of a good therapist. And in almost every case, the person I am talking to is very quick to assure me I am not a racist so my feelings aren’t hurt.
It’s also a pretty radical topic to bring up when television news and Facebook feeds are embroiled in a hashtag-a-thon to see whose life matters most.
Clearly, at our house, our lives matter.
I’m just saying.
It’s hard to watch a kid come through the door at the end of the day angry and venomous because someone called him a racially charged name – from kids whose parents would never believe it.
It’s fascinating to listen to teachers, when I approach them about an incident, say something like, “Your son was laughing too! The boys seemed fine.” You know why he was laughing? Because if you are racially different from the majority, you will often fit in better if you make fun of others (even if the others are people of your race). It’s socially acceptable these days.
But when he gets home, the laughter has turned into anger.
We don’t need more hashtags.
We need more empathy.
When my son suggested that I was a racist, he basically flipped a light onto a part of himself that had not yet been illuminated. Since the light has come on, we have been on a wild ride! I’m so lucky that his racial identity development is taking place alongside the wave of national debates surrounding immigration, the confederate flag, same-sex marriage and racism. Every incident on television becomes a deep conversation in our household, an opportunity to further integrate what it means to be a mixed race family.
I don’t think my son fully understands what it means to be racist. What he typically means by the word is, “This is super confusing and I’m not quite sure what to do about it!” So, we have lots of interactions and teachable moments. None of his accusations or my perceived (and perhaps real) lack of understanding are disrespectful or wrong. He is learning. He might laugh off a racial comment at school with friends and seethe about it at home. That’s how our culture works. That’s what it means to live in minority: Fit in at all cost and deal with your baggage at home.
This past weekend we bought a new car. The dealer was going through the many computerized offerings of our purchase. My husband blurted out, “It’s okay if we don’t remember. If we can’t figure it out, we know someone who can!” He clearly meant our teenager. They can do anything with electronics.
“Oh sure, just because I’m Asian,” retorted the teenager.
Oy! You see?
That’s why we can’t wait for the new season of The Middle, Black-ish and Fresh off the Boat. Lee sees a little of us and a little of himself in all the characters. In The Middle, he’s a little lazy and academically unmotivated like Axl and a little quirky like Brick. In Black-ish, the family constantly tries to preserve their version of black identity while living in a white, suburban world. And in Fresh Off the Boat Lee is totally like Eddie, the oldest son who identifies a little too much with mainstream black rappers.
Together, we laugh and see ourselves. We don’t watch these shows thinking they are truth, but rather we assess the stereotypes and talk about how those stereotypes affect our communities. We talk about what oppression means, who is oppressed, and why people protest. We talk about different cultures and what the culture is in our own home.
We talk about why people automatically assume that Lee is highly intelligent. We laugh and think those stereotypes are so silly.
Now, he can spot a stereotype a mile away.
Thank goodness for sitcoms that blow the lid off stereotypes. These comedic shows are making our conversations around racial identity and stereotypes so much easier.
And those shows are why I’m okay with my kiddo walking around listening to black rappers in solidarity with their angst against the majority.
And why we expect the race card to come out frequently at our house.
“Sure! Make the Asian do the dishes!” as though household chores are a form of punishment this white mom inflicts on Asian children with absurd regularity and wild abandon. (Seriously, the kid is a politician.)
But it’s also notable that in staying with his grandma this summer, he noticed how great it was that there were so many Asian looking people in Edmonton. There is a great comfort in walking around among people who look like you.
And even though people look like you and are called Asian, they are all really from different parts of Asia.
I am so grateful that we get to explore Lee’s racial identity together as a family against the backdrop of a political era charged with stereotyping and marginalizing. How lucky are we to help our child wrestle with the world’s biggest issues in our small yellow house on an uphill street in Wyoming?
And how lucky are we to examine our own thoughts and feelings about racial integration. It’s illuminating how much Dave and I take for granted in the face of Lee’s racial identity development – as in, we’ve never had to go through it! But we are a mixed race family, so we all get to wrestle with what that means.
And how lucky are we all to have a sense of humor when things get hard.
When I informed Lee that after just a few months of vision therapy his standardized reading scores went up radically, which is rather difficult in standardized testing, he was delighted.
“Yep! My Asian is finally kicking in!”
Laughter sounds the same in every culture.
And the way to anyone’s heart is through the stomach.
Food and laughter.
I like to think it’s what brings us together.
Most of us are pretty open minded when it comes to cultural cuisine.
Here's a lovely an healthy Asian inspired salmon dish. Lee prefers chicken or pork to salmon. This dish makes it easy to chose your protein.
FIND RECIPE HERE!
What did you find toughest to integrate into your world when you were a young teenager? How did that affect you?
How do you talk to others about what is happening in our world regarding race, race identity, immigration and politics? Do you involve your kids?
Why or why not?