Am I A Plain Old Person?!

My 5-year old said, "Did you know that Beth and Laura in my class speak Chinese?" "That's impressive!!" I said excitedly. "Not really. Their moms must speak Chinese." "Oh. Have you heard them speak Chinese?" I asked. "No. but their moms totally look Chinese." Okay. "They do, huh?" "Yes, totally!!" So I ask  "Do I look Chinese?" "No" "So what do I do look like?" She looks at me and says "You just look like a plain old person."

"Plain old person?" I said and gave her the tightest hug I could ever give. This was a very special moment for us as a mother and daughter. Until this moment, she had always looked at me as "the other"- the opposite of the "plain old person". Even before she could speak, she often compared my pale skin with her beautiful mocha complexion. And as soon as she learned to speak a few words,  "Me, Daddy brown. Mommy, white." "Very good," I said. I would then bring a whole box of blocks and asked her to sort them first by colors, then by shapes. (As it turns out, she was exceptionally good at analogical reasoning and scored perfect scores in various IQ exams.)

At three, she started going to a Jewish nursery school and after a few weeks there, she said "even though I am brown, why did you make me Jewish?"using her maximum verbal capacity at the time. To be frank, I was mortified a bit. I told her that one can be any color and still be Jewish, even though everyone else at school is beige. "I made us Jewish because I thought that would be the best for you. But if you don't want to be Jewish when you are older, you can then decide not to be Jewish anymore. But for now, you just ARE as Jewish as everyone else."

Then when she was four, she told me that I should go back to Japan and live there because I was born there. At five, "Don't call me brown. I just wear brown skin." And if anybody should refer to anybody else as black, she'd get offended and say "Nobody is black!"

So I had to sit her down and explain that there are many people who are called "Black" and identify themselves as Black, and the word has more than one meaning.

By this point, doubts started to emerge in me. Doubts about series of decisions I had made for my child and for myself including my marriage. This past year has been difficult for our family because we have been witnessing the true racism and blatant condescension towards minorities being portrayed as non-racist.

For example, one of my musician colleagues said the reason why our daughter got into _____ (an elite private school in New York City) is because she is black. So I told him that his statement was racist. Then he got offended by me calling his statement racist. (Remember, I never called "him" a racist.) He then went onto saying this. "Racist is someone like Trump. If he becomes the President, your husband will be working in a kitchen and you will be deported. And you won't be able to lead your own band because you are a woman!" (If anyone needs an explanation of what, in so many aspects, is wrong with his statement, I will do so in the next blog. But for now, I'll just move on.) FYI, my husband is Sam Newsome.

One of  the things that happened during this election is that it allowed people to believe that they are not responsible for their own bigotry and racism by calling Donald Trump a racist. People have become so busy signaling their moral superiority that many skipped any kind of self-examination. Instead, they chose the quickest way to advertise their non-racist status which was to call Donald Trump a racist.

Sadly, I am also guilty of my own racism and racial assumptions. Just last week, I spotted an Asian woman at my Temple, sitting next to her Jewish husband, or whom I assumed to be her Jewish husband. And for the whole service, I was trying unsuccessfully to believe that this woman was a Jew and that she could read Hebrew and knew the prayers. It was painful for me to admit that I was not able to do the very thing I ask others to do for me, which is to accept me as a Jew without any scrutiny.

So when someone says something that seems racist, I try not to judge him/her and try to forgive that person. It certainly is difficult because racist remarks hurt my feelings, especially when it is about my own child. It is especially painful because the person who is hurting you so deeply has no recognition of guilt or shows any signs of remorse and ridicules me instead. But there is absolutely nothing I can say to them because they are not ready to be changed by a conversation they enter into (borrowing from Cornel West).

And as far as my own child, I do not condemn her to be a racist. She is merely assessing the world around her using all of her cognitive abilities and trying to make sense. Her thought processes are developmentally appropriate for her age, if not slightly ahead of her peers, and even ahead of some of MY peers.

So today, I celebrate my daughter's new developmental achievement. She finally sees me as a "plain old person" and not a person belonging to another country or someone with a different skin complexion from hers. She just sees me as a person just like herself, not one of the "others". It took her many years to get here and she still has a lot of wrestling to do. But we now know that she is capable of judging a person by the contents of one's character (as MLK had dreamed) when it comes to her own mother. She still has a long way to go, but at least she is now on the right path.

Are you?

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