Revisiting Childhood Racial Teasing

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You grow when you can face the things you most want to avoid.  One day in Terron's school, I faced my worst nightmare, an entire hallway of young African American kids, some almost as tall as me, taunting me back and forth like a pack of wolves. I was powerless to strike back. I was bigger, older and a mentor trying to set an example. I faced each child down one-by-one with my voice and an affectionate brush or ruffle of the head.  That little Chinese boy who remembered countless times of being teased for being Chinese was now fighting back, staring fear straight in the eye unarmed. Every child I made eye contact and approached, dared not look at me and became very quiet. The instant I turned my back and walked away, someone would suddenly feel brave enough to start yelling racial taunts at me. No one had the courage to yell directly to my face.

If fear was a person, I saw that fear could only exist behind my back or in the corner of my eye. Fear dared not look at me straight in the eyes. That child in me had won. I held my ground, and now the adult could walk away from an increasingly pointless situation. I left as a swell of racial taunts started to pick up again, as horrified teachers tried to control the situation.

Later I brought this to the attention of the school.  They immediately had students go through the "Brown Eyes/ Blue Eyes" program. This is a program which for one day divides a class in two groups, where one is treated special and the other one told they are inferior. This allows kids to at least experience what racial hurt feels like. No one taunted me again. I know that this didn't stop the seeds of racism. However, it did teach them about racism and to know a bit of how much it can hurt. So now if they still choose to tease me with racial slurs, they now know that they are willingly hurting me. I felt so proud that I made an impact and defended my respect with no verbal or physical violence!

12/8/99 - I saw Terron today, and found out that he's now very embarrassed to be seen with me because I'm Chinese! Terron's self-esteem is deeply effected when others start harassing him about what they think of me. I asked Terron if his "friends" made fun of other Chinese kids, and he said yes. I asked if they ever made fun of him, and he said sometimes. Terron's grades have taken a sudden dive, and Teacher's have mentioned that he's acting very defiant, like he's trying to be "cool" My visit with Terron was cut really short as he really wanted to go out to the playground and avoid being seen with me. I talked to his guidance counselor about this situation. This form of racism is a bit more complex and difficult to combat, because it's more hidden and it strikes deeply into your gut, and taunts you to give up. It makes you talk to yourself and think, all this giving and mentoring is stupid. I should just concentrate on making more money, buy a nice house, car, etc. and stop making my life complicated.

12/10/99 -
AM: Today I'm going to a private conference with Terron's reading teacher. I was originally going thinking that I was going to learn how to help with Terron's reading skills. Now I'm thinking that maybe this will be a waste of time! But I'll give it the benefit of the doubt and go.
PM: I met with two of Terron's teachers and they both asked me about if I had insight into Terron's suddent behavioral change. I told them about how Terron was embarrassed to be seen with me by kids at school, because I was Chinese. They were shocked. I told them that there wasn't much they could do about it. I did make sure that they knew that Terron himself still deeply respects me, it's just that his peers make him feel bad about himself because of me. What it comes down to is that we shall all come against nasty words by others. That is mostly out of our control. However, the pain that we feel is in our control. We can choose how we wish to interpret and react to what others say or do around us. It is one's ability to control their perception and reaction that defines the strength of a person.

Honestly today there is a good part of me that wants to quit mentoring. However, Terron still does want to see me, and the school is working on getting me setup to work with Terron in the reading lab. This will at least give me some structure in the limited time I interact with Terron.

12/15/99 -
According to Mrs Davis, his teacher, their teasing is kind of their way of getting Terron to give up his mentor. Mrs. Davis asked Terron if he didn't want me to come back. Terron gave a resounding No! He definitely wanted me around. When he realized that his attempt to act "cool" with his peers, was pushing me away, I think it triggered something in him. After recess we walked in the hallway past other school kids. One of the kids yelled something unintelligible at me. Terron gave me a look of concern. The same kid yelled again and a teacher stifled the yelling abruptly. Terron gestured me into a side hallway and said that they were making fun of me. I asked Terron what they were saying. He repeated what they said, but I still couldn't understand what was being said. And then he said it was the same as saying "Jackie Chan." Somehow it's odd that being called "Jackie Chan" should somehow be considered an insult. "Jackie Chan" is a movie star. I guess if I practiced hard enough I could learn to make it bother me. But being "Jackie Chan" kind of borders on being a compliment. Anyway, I think Terron was a bit surprised to see how I was genuinely not bothered by their teasing, if you can call it that. I think him seeing my genuine indifference to this "supposed" direct teasing helped him.

I've come to realize that no matter what anyone says to you, despite the looks or gestures, the ultimate impact upon me is soley dependent upon my perception and reaction. When someone yells nasty words at me, it is still up to my brain to perceive and believe that what they said was meant to hurt me. It's completely my decision whether or not I choose to feel hurt. I believe that the vast majority of times what's behind nasty words is not a premeditated desire to hurt, but rather just a venting of anger or fustration. Maybe someone is just having a bad day.

What if somehow I didn't understand English and someone yelled 4 letter words jokingly at me. Most likely I'd just wave back with a smile, thinking "my what friendly people," with my day being all the more brighter. If later someone translates for me, should I necessarily start to feel bad. I create my own reality. It's just a matter of being strong enough to stand my ground and not give in to the suggestion that it's some how more proper to feel hurt.

Before I left that day. Terron and I talked about his upcoming tests. I told him that he should make sure he studied. Both of us know that his school grades depended a lot on his studying. If he studied, he'd probably do well. If he didn't he'd probably fail. Simple as that. The next day I got a joyful call from Terron. He wanted to tell me that we was alone in the house, and was busy doing his homework and was studying. I told him I was so happy to hear that. He was happy to tell me!

12/22/99 - Terron is reportedly getting more defiant and losing his temper more in class. He got into a fight and almost got suspended. He made it a point to mention that he didn't throw the first punch. I did ask if any of this had anything to do with kids making fun of me. He said that there were a different set of kids that started ganging on him with physical taunts like a hard shove behind a teacher's back to trigger Terron to shove back while the teacher is looking. Racism is no longer a focus. It's now just to basic if someone taunts you or banters you in order to get you to escalate the conflict what do you do. If you keep returning taunts and don't back down you maintain your pride, but are guaranteed to get into big trouble when tempers flare into a brawl. If you back down then you lose some of your pride and that's scary.

Also that day I happened to talk to one of Terron's teacher. I mentioned the prior racial incident with Terron being embarrassed about me. She gave me a look and said two simple words that somehow did a lot to heal me: "So What". If it were just anybody else, it would have been insensitive. But from her "So What" was deep with wisdom. She was an African American woman old enough to be my mother, and I could just see it in her eyes that she'd been through a lot of racism and prejudice throughout her life. And now after a lifetime of maturation and becoming ever so strong, she's learned that what other people say means nothing unless you choose to allow it mean something. She was living proof of what I already knew.

And with that the manner in which to fight racism changed. Originally, I had this obsession to push a racial awareness program into the school. However, now it's not really that important. It's something that I'd like to do in the future, but it's not a big priority any more, because there's no pain. You see there are more important things to worry about, like Terron's well being. And since my race was no longer an issue with Terron, then racism was no longer an issue with me. If you have a few special people that you love and they love you, what the rest of the world thinks doesn't really matter. And then so racism begins to not matter.

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