Photo: Courtesy of Louise Gleeson
The past year has called on my husband and I to reassess how we talk to our kids about what’s happening in the world, and last week’s vicious attack on Asian women was another crushing reminder that a year into this pandemic, Asian phobia is still at the top of our family’s agenda. Our kids are affected by it because they are of Asian descent—but instead of worrying about being targeted by it themselves, they are afraid for people they love.
Fortunately, I'm well-positioned to talk to them about it. I know what it’s like to be white-passing and affected by racism.
I spent my childhood summers in the area of Scarborough, Ont., where my Chinese family lived—my grandmother, aunt, uncle and cousins from my mother’s side. It was the ‘80s, when kids roamed through neighbourhoods in packs from sun up to sundown. There were five of us; even more if other cousins were visiting. We felt invincible as we travelled through parks, corner stores, arcades and then back to their house when we got hungry for my aunt’s restaurant-worthy noodles and homemade dumplings.
We never cared what we were wearing or how many days in a row we wore it. I have no memories of standing in front of a mirror on those long summer days, and we didn’t have to worry about how we looked on a screen inside a phone. And so it was easy to forget. Easy to feel like we were no different from all the other packs of kids we'd run into while loading up on candy or during an impromptu game of baseball in the field behind my cousins’ school.
When we were finally trusted to go to the local outdoor pool on our own, we were excited to add swimming to our list of adventures. I remember the first time we went. We rode over on borrowed bicycles that we tied together outside the doors. We moved through the change rooms and out onto the hot concrete of the pool deck in our tight-knit pack.
“Ching, chong, chung! Ugly faces, get lost!” yelled out a group of white kids. They pulled at the corners of their eyes with chests puffed out, daring us to fight back, to prove we had a right to be there. They moved too close to us. No bystanders intervened.
The heat rose from my bare feet, where it had felt nice, to my face, where it felt humiliating. I vividly remember my oldest cousin squaring her shoulders, her nostrils flaring like a bull that was about to charge. But she kept calm, refusing to give them what they wanted.
“Come on,” she called to the rest of us. “Just ignore them.”
I felt the stiffness in my body as we hurried past what had initially felt like a group of kids just like ours and now felt more like a menacing mob. I have a vague memory of grabbing my sister or youngest cousin’s hand, as I did my best to emulate the no-care attitude of my brave cousin.
It wasn’t the first or last time I would be targeted for being Chinese. But at the pool that day, I realized I had a choice my cousins didn’t. At home, I could choose to hide behind my white father’s last name and my family’s easier acculturation because of it. I could laugh off the jokes our friends made about the food my family ate or the way my mother’s accent got in the way when she tried to say certain words. I accepted the teasing and even joined in, knowing it was the price I had to pay to be accepted.
If you ask me now which version made me feel most comfortable in my skin, it was the kid who roamed Scarborough with my Chinese cousins—the one who didn’t have to hide that beautiful piece of herself. When we were lucky enough to join our auntie on her trips to the Chinese market, it was my sister and I who got noticed by its patrons. We’d catch sight of the amused expressions when we deftly navigated our chopsticks while slurping from huge bowls of noodles in the food courts.
While my sister and I knew we were the ones who were different, we never felt unsafe. Our whiteness provided a protective barrier. That is a feeling my Chinese cousins have never had. And with rising anti-Asian phobia and violence against Asian-Canadians since COVID-19, they definitely don’t have it now. I was terrified at the pool that day, but today, I'm angry. After all the good my family has brought into their communities, they have to feel afraid to move through them.
When I became a parent, I was determined to raise my own multiracial family with a respect and love for their Asian culture. We embrace all of the traditions of my mother's ancestors; my kids request their grandmother's favourite dishes from her kitchen, honour her cultural celebrations, and use chopsticks to devour dim sum. Over the past year, they have asked her questions about what it was like to be an immigrant. Along with their own cousins, they are proud to be Chinese.
But even the strongest in the Asian community are reeling from this latest attack, so I remain focused on sharing my family’s stories and discussing what they are hearing and seeing in the news. I can see that it empowers and reminds them of their responsibility to stand up to racism. By speaking honestly and openly about the experiences I’ve had, they are learning to be allies for anyone who needs them to be.
Whether or not your kids are old enough to talk about what’s happening in the world, they are always the right age to hear about and experience the joys of different cultures. This is how we can do the work of dismantling white supremacy—by amplifying the voices of diverse groups in positive ways. Watch shows and read books by BIPOC artists, get curious about cultural celebrations and connect with families who look different from yours. If we start at the beginning, by modelling acceptance and respect, we can have hope that the world we pass down to our children will be a better one.