Updated: Jan 8, 2021
I am a Chinese American woman who immigrated to the United States from Singapore as a child and attained American citizenship in my early twenties. Taking the oath to become an American citizen was one of the proudest days of my life.
Little did I know though, that only a few years later, my being American would be questioned simply because of my race. I was lucky that this experience with racism was only a subtle verbal attack and I was not physically harmed. I was lucky in that I was 28 years old, certainly old enough to recognize and respond to even subtle forms of racism. But, even so, I was not prepared.
It started out as a normal day in the life of a litigator. I was a taking a deposition, and for whatever reason, the deponent refused to answer a simple question I had asked two times. After the third time, I noted on the record that she was legally required to answer my question, which was not only relevant but material to her case.
Her lawyer, an older white male – a Biglaw partner – who had already been patronizing me throughout the deposition, threw a fit. He stood up, leaned across the table, and pointed his finger at me. As he towered over me, his words still ring loud and clear to me more than a decade later, “Young lady, I don’t know where you came from but here in America, we do not harass our witnesses.” In shock, I remember providing the “lawyerly” response that I was entitled to ask this absolutely relevant question and I was not harassing his client in any way. But, it was not until after the deposition that I was able to fully digest his words and realize why they shocked me to my very core. It was the implication that, because I looked the way I did, because I was Asian, I could not possibly be “American” like him. I would always be the “perpetual foreigner,” no matter the fact that I was just as American as he.
I will never forget that incident, which to me, even in its most subtle form hurt more than the overt racist slurs I have gotten over the years, words like “Chink” or “go back to China.” I suppose it is because it was so unexpected coming from someone so educated and pedigreed. It didn’t matter that I myself was a lawyer or as educated as he. I was not immune. I buried all of these incidents in my subconscious, hoping they were just anomalies and “one-off” incidents.
Little did I know that years later, all these hurts, would come tumbling back when I became a mother. My daughter, now 8, and son, 5, are also Chinese American. Here in Denver, Asians make up only about 4 percent of the demographic, and the number is even smaller at 3.5 percent in the entire state of Colorado. This means that my kids rarely see anyone else who look like them. I remember when my little girl came home from kindergarten one day and asked me, “Mama, why can’t I have golden hair like the other girls in my class?” I recall being perplexed but appreciating the question as a teaching opportunity to celebrate what makes us special as Asian Americans.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and changed all our lives, my kids had to contend with anti-Asian sentiment for the first time. There was a surge in hate crimes and racially-motivated incidents against Asians throughout the United States, the most horrific involving the violent stabbing of a young Asian family entering a Wal-Mart in Texas. Stories of racial epithets and rhetoric being hurled at Asians and Asian-owned businesses became fodder for the news. According to Stop AAPI Hate, there have been more than 2,300 reported hate incidents against Asians since March.
It was perhaps wishful thinking on my part, due perhaps to my own (lucky) experience as a kid, but I suppose I was hoping my kids would stay in a bubble at school and not have to experience racism at such an early age. In hindsight, I should not have been surprised as my daughter was an easy target as one of the few Asians in her entire school. In her second grade class of 70 plus students, there were two half Chinese kids; but as the only one of full Chinese descent, there was no other child who looked like her.
It was a week before spring break in March, as anti-Asian rhetoric stemming from the Coronavirus was reaching a head in the United States. When she arrived home from school one day, my daughter recounted an incident which brought me to tears – taking me back in time to my 28-year-old self sitting in that deposition room. She shared with me that a student in her class had approached her in front of her peers and blamed her and her “people” for causing the pandemic. Refusing to back down, he then stated she must be infected with the virus too because she was Chinese. She and her friends did not know this was racism but knew enough to tell him that his words were “not nice.” The boy ultimately apologized, but the harm was done. It had my daughter questioning her race, her culture, her worth, and “her people,” for a long time. It certainly did not help that some of our legislators, and even our president, have insisted upon using racist slurs like “Kung Flu” or “China virus,” referring to Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, when discussing the pandemic.
I am finding a silver lining though in her experience, and in the Black Lives Matter movement, as it has helped me realize that I can no longer sit back and hope my kids and their peers will not have to deal with racism. If the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement have shown us anything, it is that racism is prevalent; it is not going away; it is espoused by even people of power; and as a result, my kids will, more likely than not, experience more racism in their lifetime.
I realized that I needed to be proactive in equipping my kids with the tools they need to address racism head on. In thinking about what I needed to do in this journey, I road-mapped a list of objectives for my family. It is not exhaustive by any means but simply steps in the process, as it is an ongoing journey that requires regular commitment:
1. Nurture an appreciation of our own race and culture. We want our kids, first and foremost, to be proud of who they are
, and a significant part of that identity is obviously tied to the color of their skin and the fact that they are Asian Americans. So much of what we were taught as kids decades ago is that we are a colorblind society, when the reality has shown we simply are not. We need to understand our racial experiences – both negative and positive, embrace our cultural heritage and celebrate our unique perspectives.
So, my family tries as much as possible to embrace being Asian American and all the many cultures and aspects that makes it unique and special. This is easier said than done in Denver and Colorado, where the Asian population is noticeably smaller, but it just means we as parents have to own and create these opportunities ourselves. We make a concerted effort to celebrate holidays like Lunar New Year, the Mid-Autumn Festival, and the Dragonboat Festival. We try different Asian cuisines by supporting Asian restaurants, and shop for Asian delicacies like kim chi and rou song at Asian markets. We try to speak Chinese whenever we can. We encourage our kids to share with others what it means to be Asian American too, including talking about our traditions and beliefs at their school and amongst friends. Helping my kids appreciate their own race and culture, I think, is one way to help them respect other races and to understand how – even in our differences – we have commonalities that can bring us together.
2. Expose our children to people, media and books that celebrate racial and cultural diversity. As important it is for them to learn about their own race and culture, it is equally important for our children to appreciate and embrace those of others. We make a consistent effort to learn about other races and cultures, whether it is through reading books, watching movies, visiting museums, or simply helping friends celebrate important traditions and holidays. Exposing our children to the rich racial and cultural diversity in America is getting easier to do because the literary and entertainment space is also starting to promote diverse authors and entertainers. There are many lists of diverse titles for children. (https://diversebooks.org/resources/where-to-find-diverse-books/) My son’s favorite book is Bao Phi’s “A Different Pond,” an autographical picture book about a Vietnamese family’s assimilation into American life, while not forgetting their Vietnamese roots. The story features a father and son who go fishing at the crack of dawn, not for leisure but out of necessity. My little boy loves the story because it reminds him of his fishing excursions with my husband; and we are able to discuss why that little boy’s family is different, and yet, similar to ours as a Chinese family.
3. Reach out to other diverse families and celebrate diverse trailblazers. In a place that is not racially diverse, the reality is that our children will not see many other minorities, let alone people who look like them. We encourage our children to reach out to other diverse children and families in the hopes that they will find commonalities and comfort in their shared experiences. We make it a point to learn together as a family about diverse trailblazers and role models who make a difference in society. This allows our children to see that there are people who look like them, and they too, can make a difference and inspire others. Additionally, having friends or people of color you admire helps your child see all the more why the fight against racism is so important.
4. Educate about the past to understand why it is relevant today; and involve extended family members as well. I believe it is tremendously important for our children to understand the past so that we do not repeat this country’s history of racial discrimination and hate against minorities. I started these discussions with my daughter as early as kindergarten when I felt she was developmentally ready. Over the years, we have had very basic discussions regarding the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Japanese American Internment, and I hope we can really delve into some of the weightier issues when she is ready.
We have found it to be meaningful as well to involve other family members in this discussion, especially those who have lived through these experiences and can really share their own personal story, in their own voice. For example, my parents shared with my kids their story as young honeymooners driving through Virginia one day in 1970, when a restaurant refused to serve them because they were Chinese. Their personal story really struck a chord with my kids because even their own grandparents were not immune from racism. Giving them the context of history – and just as importantly, the activism that led to change – helped my kids to understand that, even if they themselves encounter discrimination and racism in the future – they are not alone, and they too must and can take a stance against hate and injustice.
5. Meaningfully engage in discussions regarding current events and how race is relevant. I used to shield my kids from most negative news as I was afraid of scaring them, but now I believe that sharing and discussing current events can be meaningful if your child is developmentally ready. For example, with my daughter, we took COVID-19 head on and discussed misconceptions regarding the virus and the resulting anti-Asian sentiment and rhetoric. When George Floyd was killed, we discussed police brutality against Black lives and why the Black Lives Matter movement is so important. We also discuss the good news too because it shows that positive change can come from the activism of good people: For example, we talked about when Senate Bill 217, the Enhance Police Integrity Act, was signed into law here in Colorado. When Kamala Harris was nominated as the first Black and Asian female candidate for vice president on a major party ticket, we talked about the implications of that for our country, and why it was a watershed moment for people of color.
6. Advocate for anti-racist training/programs at school. School is such an important place for our children as they spend so much of their lives there. Above all else, it should be a safe place where our children feel comfortable in their own skin and are respected and embraced by their teachers, administration, and peers. After my daughter’s experience, I was particularly interested in finding out what programs and training were available to our school community regarding anti-racism, tolerance, allyship, and diversity, equity and inclusivity. You may be surprised to learn that your child’s school may not have such programming or training. If it does not, be that parent who speaks up and advocates for the change you want to see.
7. Equip our child with tools to respond to racist behavior, whether as the target or bystander. Even if your school has a robust program on anti-racism, I still believe we, as parents, need take active steps to reinforce at home and prepare our kids to identify and respond to racism. After my daughter experienced racism at school, we discussed how racist behavior could include pre-judgment, bias, stereotypes or generalizations about an individual or group based on race.
For example, we talked about how it would be factually accurate to say that the first cases of COVID-19 were reported as coming from China, but it would be a generalization to say that all Chinese people are responsible for the virus or that all Chinese people must have the virus. Name calling the virus “Kung Flu” or the “Chinese virus” is equally harmful because it could prompt people to believe that all people of Chinese descent are to blame for the virus. We also discussed how this is not the first time generalizations and stereotypes have been made about Asians. The unfortunate reality is that, long before COVID-19, such misconceptions have abounded in history, chief among them stereotypes about Asians as the “perpetual foreigner,” the “model minority,” and the “Dragon Lady.”
Going forward, we discussed ideas about how to respond if and when my daughter experiences racism again, and some of the questions we considered were: Is it a safe space for you to engage in a discussion with that person? Is the other person rational and willing to listen so that having a discussion would be meaningful? If yes, what can you say to educate the other person? What examples can you give? When is it an appropriate time seek help and bring an adult into the discussion?
We discussed how, just as important as it is to stand up for yourself when you are being targeted because of your race, it is equally important to stand up for others, just as her friends did for her when she experienced racism in the classroom. We emphasized how she should always feel comfortable confiding in us as her parents, and we would be there to protect and advocate for her. We talked about how experiencing racism will inevitably make you feel vulnerable, and thus dialoguing with people may bring you some vulnerability but you should not be afraid of it if you are in the right space to do so.
8. Collaborate with our child to use his/her voice to bring positive change. In the course of the Black Lives Matter movement, we realized more than ever why being non-racist is not enough; and we must strive to be anti-racist. My kids wanted to do something to lend their voices to the movement. As a result, we worked with them to find a safe and appropriate space to do this, and they made posters in support of BLM and participated in a vigil. We will continue to encourage our children and facilitate them to be active supporters of anti-racist efforts.
9. Help our child understand that learning to be anti-racist is an ongoing journey and that we will make mistakes too. In discussing these weighty issues with my kids, I have asked them to give me and my husband some grace, as we too are learning, and the process to becoming anti-racist is an ongoing journey for our entire family. We as parents are not perfect, and having taken the implicit bias test, also have implicit biases that we need to check. Inevitably, all of us – parents and children – will make mistakes along the way. We may not always find the right words, but we will learn from them and do better. We have made a commitment to them as their parents to continue to learn in this space as well, to continue to build upon this dialogue with other parents and friends in the community and to stand against racial injustice when we see it.
As a parent, I hope that my kids never have to experience racism again, but I know I cannot count on it. I am hopeful though that proactively preparing them will help them stand up against racism for themselves and others when they see it, and to do so with courage, truth, and kindness.
Deborah Yim served as an Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Justice Department and as an employment attorney for the Department of the Interior before founding the Primera Law Group, LLC, this year. She now focuses her practice on employment, civil rights, and consumer protection law. She is the Asian Pacific American Bar Association of Colorado’s affiliate representative to the CWBA Board.