Race and Ethnicity on a Napkin (Yes, Really!)
By: Mark Hagland
Having been brought over to the U.S. in the first wave of transracial international adoption (I arrived as an eight-month-old, in June 1961), and having grown up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in the 1960s and 1970s, and having experienced fairly intense racism and social marginalization, one of the things I was determined to do for my child was to make sure that she didn’t have to go through what I did.
Fortunately, of course, American society has changed dramatically since the 1960s, though it still has a long way to go in terms of race (as does every society on this planet). But I was certain in any case that my daughter would need to understand her racial and ethnic background, and would need to be prepared at a fairly early age to explain to others who would inevitably inquire about (and perhaps even challenge) her identity . What’s more, it was clear to me that, like all other children, she was quite aware of race at an extremely early age (though she of course lacked the language and vocabulary to articulate that awareness).
Unfortunately (and rather surprisingly, for a number of reasons), her mother utterly failed to begin the process of explaining her race and ethnicity to her, so it fell entirely to me, and I gladly took on the challenge. The first time I attempted to explain race and ethnicity to her was when she was four years old. We were having breakfast in a hotel restaurant, and I took a spare napkin and a pen, and started talking.
Me: “So, you know what a pie looks like, right?”
Me: “So, everyone has their own personal pie, in terms of how their heritage looks. So you know that Daddy is Korean, right?”
Me: “So, half of every person’s pie comes from their mommy, and half comes from their daddy. And since I’m 100-percent Korean, half of your pie is Korean.” And I drew a circle and then divided it in half vertically, and wrote a “K” on one side of the circle.
“And your other half comes from Mommy.”
“OK.” “And you know how Grandpa is from Iran, right?”
“So that means that Mommy is half Iranian, or Persian. So because Mommy is half Iranian, that means you’re one-fourth, OK?” And I drew a line dividing the one-half of the circle, and wrote an “I” for “Iranian” in that quarter.
“And you know that Grandma is half-German and half-Irish, right?”
(She just looked at me.)
“So Mommy’s other half is German and Irish. So that means that one-eighth of your pie is German, and one-eighth is Irish. And that all adds up to a whole pie. So you’re half-Korean because of me; and, because of Mommy, you’re one-quarter Iranian–that comes from Grandpa–and one-eighth each German and Irish–that comes from Grandma. OK?”
“And that’s your own special pie, and everyone has one. So you have four heritages: Korean, Iranian, German and Irish.”
I reinforced this over the next few months, and added in the concept of race–“Asian,” explaining that Koreans, Japanese, Chinese, and other groups were all Asians, and showing her on a map where those ethnicities/countries were. (Note that this was also the very beginning of my explaining genetics to her, too, a process that has been ongoing.)
I also began introducing her to chopsticks, giving her a pair of plastic children’s “practice chopsticks,” as well as a cute Hello Kitty set of tableware that included a fork, a spoon, and chopsticks, which she loved.
I gave my daughter the Hello Kitty tableware set about four or so months after the initial napkin conversation, and she loved the chopsticks from that set–so much, in fact, that she insisted on bringing them to breakfast with us in the hotel on that visit, even though there was absolutely no food for which chopsticks were appropriate. But she used them, to my amusement, to spear her doughnut…! So I took the opportunity to explain how different Asian groups use chopsticks differently; for example, Koreans not only use chopsticks with a spoon (as do Thais); they alone have a tradition of using stainless steel chopsticks. I was a few sentences into explaining the differences in chopstick usage among Asian groups, and was talking about the Japanese, and was saying something like, “So, the Japanese also use chopsticks…” when she interrupted me and said, “Because they’re Asian, like us!”
(Incidentally, if you’re wondering, my daughter doesn’t exactly look Asian; she looks generally “exotic,” people tell me; if anything, she looks vaguely Latina, but when she’s with me, our resemblance makes clear that she’s partly Asian.)
I was both astonished, and quietly delighted, by this statement of hers. I had never, ever told my daughter that she was Asian, only that I was. I hadn’t wanted to put the “biracial” label on her yet, and had wanted to have her absorb the very general concepts of ethnicity and race first. But she had put two and two together, and realized she was indeed Asian; what’s more, to my surprise and pleasure, she had chosen to identify as Asian, a self-identification I had been very careful not to impose on her. Interesting!
Since then, over time, I’ve introduced the concept of racism to her, very carefully and gently (more on that next time), and in the next couple of years, I’ll introduce the concept of white privilege to her.
I have to say, I feel quite satisfied with the way all this has turned out. Now, at 10 1/2 years old, my daughter is very confident in her ethnic and racial identity, and she can choose how she articulates that to others. But I gave her the core information she needed, early enough on so that she could absorb it before others began to identify her or question her (as people inevitably will), and that is very important.
For those transracially adoptive parents, this process of empowering your child is incredibly important, and believe me, if you’re going to err on any side, it should be on the side of starting “too early”–whatever that means–and retrying again shortly after the first time, if it doesn’t click. I owe a great deal to my parents that they explained very, very early on to me and my twin brother about our race and ethnicity, because we were confronted with our race pretty much every single day of our lives from the time we entered kindergarten, and it would have been unbelievably awful to have been challenged with the constant question, “WHAT ARE YOU???!” without having been prepared with an answer, from loving family members who could give us a positive sense of our differentness. Yes, the world has changed a great deal since 1961, but not as much as some would believe. And arming your child very early on with this information, reinforced with positiveness and straightforwardness, will do a great deal to help your child develop a healthy sense of her/his race and ethnicity early on. And yes, it’s “easier” to explain ethnicity than race, but you need to explain both, if not the very first time, then pretty darned closely together.
And it can all be done on a napkin!