One of the fun parts about parenting a child in elementary school are those “deja-vu” moments. It seems some things just haven’t changed much. Those tiny plastic chairs in the classroom. The fervor around making bracelets. Playing chase at recess. And even those rhymes the kids learn on the playround. At Christmastime, Zip came home singing, “Jingle bells, Batman smells, Robin laid an egg!” Remember that one? If not, come to my house. My kids will sing it for you, over and over. And over. You’ll never forget it!
Sadly, the racist rhymes have somehow hung on through three decades too. It kind of boggles my mind, how these things persist. The other night I overheard Zip and his little brother talking. “Bee, look at this.” And then, in a sing-songy voice, “My mom is Japanese, My dad is Chinese, Look at what they did to me!” I peeked around the corner just in time to see Zip pulling at the corner of his eyes.
One day last year, after I had eaten lunch with Zip in the school cafeteria and was waiting for his class to head back to their room, I spotted a little girl showing her friend a similar rhyme while they waited in the lunchline, tugging her eyes upward, “Look at me! I’m Chinese!” I was right there, just a few feet away, and and I wanted to say something. But I didn’t. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I didn’t say a word. I just thought about what I could have said or should have said, and it bothered me for days.
So a part of me was relieved when I heard Zip repeating this rhyme to his brother. I was relieved that, if this racist rhyme is still floating around (as it clearly is), he had just offered up to me a perfect teachable moment.
I wonder if teachers and other staff at school hear the kids say these things. They must, right? I wonder how they respond. Do they laugh it off? Ignore it, like I had that day in the lunchline? Do they reprimand or shame them, Don’t say that!, and leave them on their to figure out why it is wrong? Or do they explain that it’s hurtful and racist and help them to understand what that means, without judgment, knowing that these little ones have little understanding of the weight of these words?
Here was my opportunity. My teachable moment.
“Hey, Zip, what was that you were showing your brother? Can I see?” He looked hesitant. Like he wasn’t quite sure if he should show me. Maybe a part of him already sensed it might be wrong. “I’d like to see,” I urged, and he repeated the rhyme while his little brother wandered out of the room.
“Did you learn that at school?”
No. Well, sort of. One of my friends showed it to me.”
“Kids used to do that when I was in school, too.” I told him. “But you know what? It’s really not a nice thing to say. It’s making fun of Asian people.”
He looked confused, like he had no idea what I meant.
“People from China and Japan often have smaller eyes, and that song is making fun of their eyes. It’s racist. Like, what if someone made fun of black people’s hair? How would that make you feel?”
“Right. And if an Asian person heard you singing that, they might feel sad or angry. Like your friend Adam, from your class last year, his dad is Asian and he is, too. Do you think it might hurt his feelings if he heard other kids at school sing that?”
Zip nodded. “Yeah.”
“And do you remember Dan, who was at Grammy’s house over Christmas?”
He nodded again.
“He’s going to be your uncle. His family is Chinese. A rhyme like that could really hurt his feelings too. It’s not okay to sing songs that make fun of other races.” I could see he was getting it. “One more thing, buddy.”
“If you hear one of the kids at school saying that, I want you to be a leader. I want you to tell them, ‘Don’t say that. It’s making fun of Asian people and it’s not okay.’ Can you do that? They might not know better. Can you be a leader?”
He grinned. “Okay.” In the meantime, I could hear Bee in the next room repeating the rhyme to my husband, providing the perfect example of how these things perpetuate themselves, passed on from one child to the next. I called Bee back and asked Zip to explain to his brother why he shouldn’t say it, which he did, much more succinctly than I had managed.
We have lots of conversations about being kind and not judging people, and yet Zip heard this rhyme on the playground and I don’t think he made the connection. It was abstract. It probably seemed funny and clever. He didn’t connect it to anyone he knew personally or to the concept of racism. It was up to me, as the adult, to help him make the connection.