As difficult as the early baby and toddler stages of parenting are, there is some relief in knowing that your caretaking is more or less based on survival—it’s really caveman stuff, feeding and bathing and stopping them from their many attempts to try and kill themselves. But now my oldest is approaching that age where he’s asking a lot of questions about how the world works, from the sounds certain animal makes to the age at which a person will get old and die (yes, that conversation happens a lot in our house). More and more, I’m realizing that my parenting is shifting into that realm of really raising a member of society, someone who will be participating and maybe even leading conversations that are difficult for even adults to conquer. Can I go back to changing diapers?
A topic that’s been on my mind is inclusivity and diversity, a buzzword that’s permeated our lives from commerce to pop culture. Woke culture, a trendy target for many a political brawl these days, and no matter what side of the aisle you identify with there’s no denying that this is a thing now. We no longer live in a society where the majority rules and owns the conversation about everything, and look, I think we can all agree that it’s a good thing. Sure, it’s not without it’s problems when we execute it poorly, with the fervor and hostility that mirror, dare I say, those we want to go against. But the idea of it is something I want to strive for. I want to raise my kids to respect and appreciate people, no matter their race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or identity. Because to deny a certain walk of life is to open my own life to be denied, and I want my kids to understand that we are all connected in that way.
What makes this lesson challenging at times is that I feel like it SHOULD be easy. I mean, we are minorities, after all. A family of Japanese Americans with a long last name and kids’ faces that look just like ours—it would seem that we wouldn’t need to imagine what it’s like to be them, they are us. We should be able to use our experience as an opportunity to teach our kids the value of inclusivity, right? Share our painful stories and turn them into teachable moments on the importance of making everyone feel accepted, no matter how different.
The thing is, neither my husband nor I have stories like that.
Call us lucky or dense, ask either of us and we haven’t got in our toolkit an experience that could translate into such a profound lesson that I imagine other children of minorities having. Sure, some old white guy called me a “Jap” once, and my husband has been called “Chinito” (Spanish for “little Chinese boy,” used pretty endearingly), I could recall a time or two where I was treated like a child probably for my height and race, heard a stereotype or two, been asked about good ramen places… and while I list these out there is a voice in my head that observes these as microaggressions or prejudice, but I never felt like a minority. Not to say that I feel white inside (although I do have the sensibilities of a middle-aged white woman… cue cardigans and fanny packs even before they were cool), I do feel like an “other,” a separate entity from the cultural “norm” of blond tall and eating dinner rolls but I kind of never cared or learned to internalize these as affecting my sense of belonging.
I grew up in a house that spoke Japanese and we watched Japanese media, so I always saw myself on the screen, even if I didn’t on American TV or magazines.
I don’t think that means I was especially adjusted or anything. I grew up in a house that spoke Japanese and we watched Japanese media, so I always saw myself on the screen, even if I didn’t on American TV or magazines. I still take makeup tips from Japanese magazines and influencers, which puts me at a disadvantage for being trendy (which… let’s be honest, I’m at a disadvantage already anyway) but I always felt that advice suited to my eye shape > what’s “cool.” Remember when “fox eyes” were a thing? Me too. Bleh.
I think about that scene in Jordan Peele’s fantastic film “Get Out,” where there was a Japanese man among the white elders participating in the auction. I thought that was brilliant and very telling of how, from other minorities we are not seen as one of them. We are lighter skinned, yet don’t celebrate Lunar New Year, and have “made it” by assimilating. Our history rooted in internment and our subsequent “rise” in status has put us in this little nook all alone.
But in a sense, this isolation does give us a special opportunity to teach our kids about tolerance, acceptance, and above all, love.
Pride isn’t just about preservation or performance or loudly demanding. Sometimes it’s in quiet defiance, where we may give our children “American names” and lose the language, but keep celebrating cultural holidays. Sometimes, saying “Gochisosama” after a meal can still be enough. Just as we teach that the “white way” is not the “right way,” we can also teach that there’s no right way to be a minority either. We are us, and no one can judge us, and therefore we don’t judge others. It’s as simple as that.
Just as we teach that the “white way” is not the “right way,” we can also teach that there’s no right way to be a minority either. We are us, and no one can judge us, and therefore we don’t judge others. It’s as simple as that.
So that’s what I’ve been doing with my kids. That there’s no right or wrong in the world, that everyone deserves to be who they are just as they are. This translates not just to how we all come in different shapes and sizes, how we all show and give love differently—it also comes into play in everyday situations.
Once, when another child acted cruelly to my oldest, I found myself making sure not to use the “that was wrong,” type of script. Instead, affirmed that he was ok to feel sad about what happened because what happened to him was sad.
“We’re not always fair to each other, or a good friend to each other, are we?” I asked, and he nodded.
“But isn’t that bad?” he asked, sniffling.
“I don’t let you act like that, no. I try to teach you to be kind.”
“So is he bad?”
“No. Maybe that’s not a rule of his. Or maybe he’s still learning. Whatever the reason, you were sad about what he did, so you get to decide if you want to keep playing with him.”
He thought about it for a little bit. “I’m going to ask him to apologize.”
“Okay, that’s a good idea. And what will you do if he says no?”
“I think I’ll take a break and maybe play with him later.”
Look, I don’t know if I’m setting him up to be a doormat. I’m not an expert. But navigating a difficult social situation in this way makes it easier for me to relate it to inclusivity because I truly believe that the answer is empathy. When we train our kids to understand others and empathize even when they don’t agree, it allows them to see that every person is unique not only in the way they look but the journey they’ve been on. That judging someone as right or wrong divides us, and we should rather approach each other with acceptance and compassion—if that’s what we want in return.
Let’s just see how this all shakes out.
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