The Karden Family Kitchen—After School
Jontie and Pik are walking around the kitchen doing chores, as they chat with their daughter about her day at school. Their daughter keeps talking about the “American kids” at school, and Pik and Jontie look at each other confused.
PIK: “What do you mean by American?”
DAUGHTER: “You know, the American kids.”
JONTIE: “I’m confused too. You’re American … are you one of these American kids you’re talking about?”
DAUGHTER: “No, Americans, the real Americans”
JONTIE: “You’re a real American … you were born and raised here, you’re a citizen … you’re a real American”
DAUGHTER: “Why don’t you understand. Real Americans!”
JONTIE (after pausing to think): “Do you mean white kids?”
DAUGHTER: “Yeah, exactly”
JONTIE: “Hahaha … we need to have a talk”
Such a simple conversation, and a simple clarification, yet so complicated. There was a lot here that I needed to unpack.
Why didn’t my daughter believe she was a “real American”?
I’m not oblivious to reality, there’s this unspoken idea that “white Americans are more American.” I’ll give credit where credit is due, white Europeans of Christian descent were the founders of this country (ignoring the whole issue of Native Americans). These founders didn’t build a country based on ethnic and religious identity. Instead, they built a nation on a set of values, born out of our struggle for independence from the authoritarian rule of King George III. Our values are elaborated on in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. In these documents, we declare our commitment, and the commitment of all Americans, to the rights and freedoms of all people, and equality and justice under the law. It’s a powerful idea that unites us, and new arrivals to this country. As a matter of fact, new immigrants to this country know only too well how precious and valuable these ideas are.
So, to reassure my daughter of her Americanness, I regularly remind her of the unique nature of being American. I remind her that our American identity is based on values, not on race or religion, and I share the stories of how our family found our way here, seeking the freedom and opportunity America promised, like generations of Americans before us.
Why is my 12yo daughter looking at the world through these racially-tinted glasses?
I found it quite upsetting that my daughter would be making sweeping racial generalizations.
To understand this, I had to take a painful look at myself. Did I do something to influence her behavior? It’s an unfortunate reality that we all stereotype each other. As an example, I remember growing up hearing things like “women drivers” … “Asian drivers” … “Asian women drivers” (sorry Pik!). It’s an unfortunate byproduct of our minds trying to make sense of our chaotic world. We place individuals, groups and ideas into categories that help us make sense of our lives, and help us to predict the future. Over the years I’ve rationalized my own stereotypes by telling myself that I stereotype my own family and ethnicity as well. I also tell myself that I don’t apply these stereotypes to individuals. It’s why I’m able to develop caring and trusting friendships with people from around the world.
However, what I just said directly contradicts the very notion of having stereotypes. If I have to assess each person on their own merits, then my stereotypes serve no purpose. So, why indulge in this idea? This intellectual curiosity can easily go from stereotyping to prejudice, and maybe I was witnessing a complication of my behavior in my own daughter.
While I may be a contributing factor, I fear it’s not that simple. I grew up hearing generalizations in my own family and found myself rejecting them. So, is all this talk of race by the news media and politicians also affecting her? My daughter has shared that classmates protest against and for Trump. She shares that pro-Trump kids are even labelled racists. These kids are mimicking the world they see around them. A world of divisions and conflict, and a lot of it connected to racial identity. Were her peers also influencing her ideas of race and identity?
Or was there something more personal involved? Our daughter has also shared some painful first-hand experiences. Some of her friends were told by their families to not be friends with our daughter, because she’s Muslim. This pain can be difficult for a child to process, and the easiest way to deal with it might be for her to stereotype the group this friend belongs to. Reinforcing her perceptions of bias, my daughter has shared with us how certain teachers and administrators will treat white kids and minority kids differently, with stricter consequences for the minority kids, for the same infractions.
This isn’t something I want my daughter to be thinking about at such a young age. Unfortunately, this is our reality, so we find ourselves having regular conversations about race.
- We teach her that racial bias is an unfortunate reality, that it’s difficult to fix, but that if she witnesses unfair treatment to tell us so we can notify the appropriate authorities.
- We encourage her to find ways in her own life to make progress towards racial equality, whether by volunteering or donating to groups she believes in, or starting her own group.
- We continue to reinforce that while there may be tendencies in certain races and ethnicities, those generalizations should never be applied to individuals. Just as she doesn’t want people to treat her differently for her Islamic identity, she shouldn’t stereotype and judge others because of their identities.
- And when all else fails, we whip out the big gun, Will Smith’s Just The Two Of Us—“Throughout life people will make you mad, disrespect you and treat you bad. Let God deal with the things they do, cause hate in your heart will consume you too.”
All kidding aside, what our daughter observes in school, and the perceptions she’s picking up can only be addressed through helping her to look at the world through a different lens. A lens not biased by stereotypes or political partisanship, rather a lens that looks to build bridges of mutual understanding and respect. My wife and I also understand we play a huge role, by setting a better example and by having these difficult conversations. I hope and pray what we’re telling her makes sense to her, and I hope other families are having similar conversations with their kids.
Which reminds me, has anyone else faced similar issues with their children? If so, how are you handling it?