As long as I can remember the subject of race has been a hot button topic of discussion. My first influence on the subject of race was when I watched the TV Mini Series Roots. We did not have a TV in our home growing up, so I remember I went to watch this anticipated series at a friend’s house. From the first episode I was mortified yet hypnotically transfixed on the program. I remember sobbing convulsively as I watched the depiction of some of the worst acts of violence I had ever seen.
My love, compassion and humanity were really born from this experience. After that, even at a young age, I remember becoming acutely aware of anything that felt racist or discriminatory. Of course as I grew up I learned more on the subject, such as the Holocaust and other monumental world events that occurred from fear and hate – the roots of racism. As a young Asian boy, I recall that there were no Asians on TV shows or in the movies. Even the King, in The King and I (which I deeply loved) was not played by an Asian man. On the TV show MASH, the only Asians I saw, were always being shot and killed; we were the enemy.
When you are young, all these mixed messages are confusing. I grew up in Chinatown and so I saw Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese and Thai people around me all the time. I also lived in Hawaii, so I knew Hawaiians, Polynesians, Pacific Islanders and occasionally met some white people. I can honestly say that growing up in this melting pot gave me the ability to identify people by culture rather than color.
Lately my five year old son has been asking me about race in the ways that a 5 year old might. It started when I told him that one of the schools we had applied for him to attend was called Kamehameha Schools. “Kamehameha is a Hawaiian word, right Daddy?” “Yes it is Tino, in fact King Kamehameha the Great, is the king who established the Kingdom of Hawaii.” “Wow, said Tino, and he started a school?” We talked for some time about the school and how it offers great perspective and insight into the Hawaiian culture as well as just being a good school. When I mentioned that he could attend this school because he was partly Hawaiian, he immediately said, “But what about the other parts of me?” Okay here we go, I thought. “Tino, you are made up of many parts, many cultures, many experiences and a giant mix of love. Sometimes knowing who you are and where you come from can help you bring greater understanding and awareness to the world.”
Tino looked at me blankly, and then he said, “Some people are black, some people are white, and some people are brown, is it because they get too much sun?” I responded, “Well kind of Tino, the sun is the reason some people are darker than others, but people have different skin colors because of their ethnic backgrounds; these contribute to the color of our eyes, our skin, our hair, sometimes how tall we grow or the shape of your nose. Some people come from Africa, Mexico, South America, India or from the United Kingdom. We talked about the people and friends we have that come from different places who are his aunties and uncles, his friends and his neighbors. We talked about President Barack Obama and the story of where he came from, which we have read together often. We finally got to the point in the discussion where he was able to make the connection that all people, no matter where they were from, or what color of skin they had were all humans, and we must care about them.
The conversation ended here for a while. I started remembering my childhood and the TV show Roots. I was thinking we had come so far, we even have an African American President today and then the words Black Lives Matter came to mind. I then began recalling all the recent acts of violence that have propelled this movement. I wondered if we had really come that far after all? It was not that long ago that I remember the hate crimes against the gay community, the marches in the streets and the creation of hate crimes laws which were needed to protect people. It was a fearful time for many of us.
It’s easy for me to speak to my son about love, compassion and acceptance, because these are the values that are at my core, but how and when do I tell him about the cruelty of the world around him? How do I tell him about the violence that occurs each day because of the color of someone’s skin, or who people choose to love, where they are born or because of their religion. Do I keep it from him for as long as I possibly can? I feel we should talk openly with our children about race and religion, which hopefully opens their minds to diversity and to the fact that we are all a part of the human race no matter what our ethnic or religious differences are. The quality of our children’s future is at stake.
I remember the book (and then a cartoon) by Dr. Suess called The Star Belly Sneeches, which even to me as a child, spoke clearly about themes of tolerance and diversity. The first story in the collection tells of a group of yellow creatures called Sneetches, some of whom have a green star on their bellies. At the beginning of the story, Sneetches with green stars discriminate and shun those without. An entrepreneur named Sylvester McMonkey McBean (who calls himself the Fix-It-Up Chappie) appears and offers the Sneetches without green stars the chance to get them with his Star-On machine, for three dollars. The treatment is instantly popular, but this upsets the original star-bellied Sneetches, as they feel they are in danger of losing their special status. McBean then tells them about his Star-Off machine, costing ten dollars, and the Sneetches who originally had green stars happily paid the money to have them removed in order to remain special. However, McBean does not share the prejudices of the Sneetches, and allows the recently starred Sneetches through this machine as well. Ultimately this escalates, with the Sneetches running from one machine to the next….
“…until neither the Plain nor the Star-Bellies
knew whether this one was that one…
or that one was this one…
or which one was what one…
or what one was who.”
This continues until the Sneetches are penniless and McBean departs a rich man, amused by their folly. Despite his assertion that “you can’t teach a Sneetch”, the Sneetches learn from this experience, that neither plain-belly nor star-belly Sneetches are superior, and they are able to get along and become friends. “The Sneetches” was intended by Dr. Seuss as a satire of discrimination between races and cultures.
I have decided to start the conversation with Tino using The Star Bellied Sneetches story. Sadly it is a conversation and an understanding that needs to happen even in the 21st Century. I grew up a double minority, Asian and Gay – today sometimes referred to as “Gasian.” Growing up I saw both racism and homophobia, both of which are based in fear and hate. We have a son who is Native Hawaiian and Asian being raised by two gay men. Valentino may possibly need to learn that some people may not recognize him for the star that he is, simply because of the color of his skin or the fact of who raised him. But I am hopeful for the future and believe the next generation will have more compassion and acceptance than previous generations.
I am reminded of the song from Rogers & Hammerstein’s musical South Pacific, “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” a song about hating the people your relatives hate. Breaking the chain of racism starts with parents and how they talk to their children about people who are different. One important gift we can give our children as they grow up is a home in which the idea of accepting all people is promoted as well as the space to discuss difficult issues like racism. By talking openly and listening without disapproval, we can learn about our children’s concerns and help them find connections with larger social issues and help with their own life experiences. It is up to us as parents to carefully teach our children that no matter where people come from, who they worship, who they love or what color of their skin is, that we are all a part of the same human race, we are all one, and that
ALL LIVES MATTER.