It doesn’t have to be men with pointed hoods and robes burning crosses on lawns. It’s not always found in name-calling and ethnic slurs. Sometimes racism can be found in the little assumptions we make about other people because of what they look like or what we see on TV. Sometimes racism can be found in the way we choose not to include others who don’t seem to “fit in” to our group.
And sometimes racism can be found in the seemingly innocent comments of little children.
My daughter and I were on a school field trip one day and she was sitting right across from me and next to one of her friends. They were chatting as kids do, when a boy came up to her with a question. He asked, “What are you?” At first, my daughter gave him a quizzical look as she tried to figure out what he was asking. Finally, she just responded by saying, “Huh?” And he repeated again, “What are you?” And then added, “I mean are you Chinese or something?” Now, just for full disclosure, my ethnic background is Japanese and my wife is Caucasian so Emma is a beautiful mix of the two of us, but she definitely has an Asian look. Emma answered, “Oh, I’m Japanese, but I have some American Indian and some English and some other stuff, too. What about you?” And this is where it gets me.
“I’m an American.”
I have to admit to being offended, even by this little kid. He said it like it’s his ethnicity. But unless he’s 100% Native American, I’m betting he has some immigrant blood in his veins also. My guess is being white, he probably had some European heritage in him. I spoke up, “Emma’s an American, too. So am I. We were all born here.” And then he said with some conviction,
“Yeah, but I’m an American American.”
Wow. What do you say to that? Do you feel bad for him that he has no sense of ethnic identity? Do you try to make him understand that being American isn’t about race but about citizenship? Or do you just wonder what kind of parents don’t teach their kids the difference? I don’t blame the kid. Honestly, I don’t. He only knows what he’s been taught – or not taught – by his parents, by his environment, sometimes by the media and pop culture that fails to include the rich diversity of life we find every day whether we acknowledge it or not.
Cognitively, I’m sure he’ll learn that being “American” is not an ethnicity, but I wonder if he’ll ever totally understand that he’s not “more American” than other people who look different than he does. He might acknowledge it, but this attitude that somehow some of us are less worthy of being American is one that seeps into our national landscape.
And that landscape is changing. It’s estimated by 2043 that white, non-Hispanic people will no longer be in the majority. Already in New Mexico and California, Hispanics now make up the largest single ethnic group in those states. Our ideas of what it means to be “American” are shifting rapidly, but I think that’s not just a good thing. I think it’s a great thing! As more and more people are added to the Great American Melting Pot, the stew inside becomes even more flavorful.
Already American preferences have influenced how we eat. We think of California Rolls as sushi, but they’re called “California” rolls for a reason. Nobody living in Japan thought of stuffing avocado into rice and seaweed. Sweet and sour anything seems Chinese, but really was invented in America to be more palatable to people’s taste preferences in the States. And don’t get me going about fortune cookies! Whatever California native thought of that was a marketing genius!
Racism doesn’t have to be openly vicious or harmful. Certainly this little boy wasn’t intending to harm my daughter. He was simply perpetuating a myth he was brought up to believe or had never been taught any different. But it does hurt to think that somehow, based on the color of your skin or the shape of your eyes, you’re somehow less American. That somehow you don’t belong as much as other people.
If we’re going to work on eradicating racism in America, we have to be aware of what we teach or don’t teach our kids. Hopefully, we’ll embrace the concept that America really is the Great American Melting Pot; that we are made better because we embrace and incorporate the cultures of those who come to this country. What makes America unique is that we are a truly heterogeneous society with no one origin story. What makes us unique is that everyone can be American.