Stay in Your Lane… Always?

It was a hot summer day, but we had the mercy of the shade as we walked down a path in the woods. We were on our way to a BBQ (a large group of international children and I) and in this specific moment, I walked alongside two Indian boys as they began to discuss God with two white boys. All of them were/are “Christians” so I just listened and this is what unfolded:

The oldest Indian boy (6 years old) began to talk about everything he was learning at the Christian school he attended during the school year. How he was learning so much about God and loved this God very, very much. He said things like “God is the most wonderful being in the entire universe. Did you know that?” And the other kids would say “Yeah!” And soon they turned to me and asked me what I knew. I said not much, but I had heard of this God. With genuine curiosity I asked them what made God so wonderful. The Indian boy answered again, “Because he’s perfect! He is better than all of us.” He said it again with even more energy, “He’s better than all of us! He’s… perfect!

Last summer I worked in Germany for an international youth program with children aged 4 to 7. The kids were super cute and filled with good energy. Most of the time. Other times, I felt the hairs on my back stand straight as I listened to them from my meter above. Race-researcher and professor Robin Diangelo as well as others have talked about how racial power constructs are ingrained in the psyche from pre-school (just think back to that famous social experiment where children from around the world pointed at the “good doll”/”bad doll”). And as someone going into her second year working with some of the most diverse groups of young people, I watch it happen all the time. And it’s gut wrenching.

I looked at him, and in the same curiosity I asked my little Indian friend what this God looks like.  He said with that same enthusiasm, “He’s…. He’s German-people color!”

And my heart broke.

This is how white supremacy works. It’s teaching Brown and Black children that their God is a white man. A white man who looks just like the white men that invaded their countries, kidnapped them, raped them, sold them, murdered them, and took everything. A white man who looks just like the white men many of these countries still pay colonial tax to today. It’s producing images in media that depict white people as the main character, smart, brave, and beautiful, while keeping PoCs in the background or cast as the enemy. Meanwhile Brown and Black countries have been economically tortured paying reparations to white nations for the “crime” of regaining their independence………….. But many are still kicking ass despite all the bullshit. Especially India.

A few days later, this little Indian boy came to me… crying hysterically. “What’s wrong?” I asked him, “Tell me!” Through panicked gulps of air, he told me how his little white friend (the one he’d been talking to in the woods about White Jesus just a few days earlier) had just kicked him.
Little white boy has problems of his own… but the short of it is that he’s spoiled rotten (an unsurprising response to a narrative that you are entitled to have everything and do anything).

But not on my watch.

I went over to him, “Hey! Did you just kick your friend?”
He looked at me with blank eyes, “Yes.”
“It is not okay to hit other children or to touch them in any way at all! What do you say to your friend?”
I kid you not… before this little white boy could even say “I’m–” my little Indian friend blurted out, “I forgive you! I forgive you!” Even as the tears continued down his face.

I couldn’t believe how quickly this white boy was forgiven. And because the Indian boy forgave him so quickly, it made me it difficult for me to really drive the point home to the white boy that what he did was wrong. Especially because the little Indian boy still wanted to play with him.

For the rest of the summer, I paid attention. I watched as the Brown and Black children would try so hard to be friends with the white children, who… if I’m honest, were nothing but mean and nasty to them.

They would kick them out of the group just because; they were more violent. We even had two white children who spat on two PoC children, again, “just because”. The first time a white child spat on a PoC child I was so triggered that I took it to the main counselor. A white woman from Texas. She yelled at the PoC child. It was one of the most violent days I’ve ever experienced.

At first I was flabbergasted by the behavior I was witnessing on all sides of the racial spectrum, but when the world has been colonized by white people and their image as good deeply imposed on PoCs across the globe, by the end of the summer all I could ask myself was: Is it really so hard to believe?

I told some PoC friends about this and it was amazing the way they also had memories of childhood eerily similar to what I was describing. We all felt our stomachs turn as we realized this was us at 6 years old. This was us at 12 years old. This was us at 16 years old.

This was us all the way up to when we finally realized that these interactions will always go this way because they always have gone this way… since our worlds were invaded. It’s the structure of the interaction that has been defined for us since before we were born but were able to grasp by pre-school. It’s the reason why when these things happen, despite yet having the language, we have always felt a deep ancestral pain that many of us went on to explore with horror. Like me now.

So I am trying to use my role in these spaces to uplift and empower these young PoC children. Right now I’m the art teacher for an international craft’s club for children 5 to 7 years old.

Indian_Boy_Child_5006

Not a real student. Taken from wikicommons

It’s great. I have a kid from Saudi Arabia, two boys from India, a Turkish kid, two Hawaiian girls, a Chinese kid, and one full-on white “American” boy. They are all super cute and overall friendly towards one another. Actually there’s never any really trouble with bullying except when “girls” get brought up (since my class is mostly “boys”) and then I’m treading carefully in sexism spewed by six-year-olds, trying to explain why they’re wrong fully conscious that these comments may have come from Dad himself. Thankfully, my Saudi Arabian friend is also an unlabelled feminist so he’s usually the one to say most of my thoughts… at 7 years old.

Yeah that’s my buddy.

Anyway, this job is also exposing to me how much my American/Western upbringing causes static when trying to be culturally inclusive. For example, I chose to have them draw themselves in their Halloween costumes in October and learned that the two Indian boys had never celebrated Halloween. And in November, the first thought to pop into my head was something about Thanksgiving. The whole indoctrinating children into the Thanksgiving magic is something I absolutely do not agree with… and yet, it was my first thought!

So, knowing from my brief stint with Cultural Anthropology Studies that ethnocentrism cannot be escaped, I wrote a little letter to the parents, telling them more about me, and what I envision for the club. That all suggestions would be warmly received. Et cetera.
No one sent anything. I think the parents found it at best amusing, and at worst annoying (looking at the American parents on this one… from Hawaii to wherever my white friend’s parents are from. I think it goes back to that whole “We’re all American dammit!” attitude).

So working with nothing but my own heart and research, I tried to keep it creative and inclusive, without appropriating. We made owls and looked at owls that live in Saudi Arabia vs China vs India, etc. And I gave the children the choice to make whichever owl they desired, and everyone chose the owl from their country. Shocker.
When it snowed a few weeks ago, we made snowflakes and talked about the experience and if anyone had experienced that in their home country. We learned how snowflakes are all unique. No one is like the other, and that’s okay. They are all beautiful and mysterious, but you can’t see that unless you take time to care and look. Wink, wink —  We don’t have to be a melting pot. A salad bowl is also good. And healthy.

Overall, I think the kids get the point of what we’re doing and enjoy talking about home and also learning about home through crafts. But there have been times when sharing thoughts about our home countries, where the little Indian boys will talk about India with the word “dirty”.

Now, say what you will about India, but “dirty” is not India’s entire story. A subcontinent with over one billion people and arguably the oldest history in the world, there is a plethora of words to describe India besides “dirty”. And I’m not saying it isn’t dirty. I’m just saying I’ve never been there and heard a lot of stories. Of the slums, of the cities, but also the country side, the beaches, the temples, and the people.

So for two 6-year-old Indians to already have this image of India in their heads that they can sum up using “dirty” and speak of their homeland with damnation, all while living in one of the whitest countries IN. THE. WORLD. in a Schengen Zone including countries that invaded their country and caused chaos until 1947 (and that’s also debatable), I can’t help but wonder how these ideas got put in their heads.

Except I know.

Kids listen. And kids talk. And they’re not stupid. And the international children I work with have seen a lot. Their parents have seen more. With a backpack and an open mind? I highly doubt it. And those comments are spread and then shared at school.

I don’t know who said that India was dirty to those two little Indian boys. But I do know they haven’t forgotten it. When their moms picked them up that day, I asked them if they had any ideas of how I could incorporate some crafts about India into the club. I told them that as an American, my culture always tends to be the first that comes to mind… and I’m working on it because I want this club to be an inclusive space, but I also felt weird just picking something from Indian culture to make a craft about, because I’m not Indian and don’t want to cherry pick something from their rich and meaningful culture and make a kids craft about it based on what I googled. You know? Both smiled and agreed and said they’d think about it. But weeks went on and I still heard nothing.

Then last week, one of the little Indian boys said, “I hate India!” And I just about lost it inside. I said to him, “Why would you hate India?” and again his reasoning was that “It’s dirty”. I told him that India is a lot of other things than just dirty, but he was adamant.

When their moms came, I again asked them if they had any ideas. They didn’t really say anything, and I sort of got the feeling that they felt like I was singling them out. So I told them that I keep asking them because of some of the comments that the boys have made in the club. And then I told them everything.

Both mothers were shocked, but they didn’t respond with hysteria. They were very calm and said again that they’d think about it. I said that all I want to do is present India in a positive light so that the boys feel connected to India in a positive way. I said during the school day they probably aren’t seeing themselves very often (the school curriculum is totally white-washed), so if I could give them some time just once a week, it’s something I’d feel honored to do. The mothers were calm, but one of them said to me, “The course is only a few more weeks and we’re about to have Holiday break. Where we will go to India.” I smiled and said “That’s great!” But her eyes made me feel very nervous.

After they left I felt nothing but a giant lump in my stomach. I wasn’t sure if her comment was telling me to back off. I wasn’t sure if it came off like I was shaming them. Like I was subliminally telling them their kids hate India because they aren’t doing enough. Which, of course, I wasn’t… but they don’t know me. Maybe I had been too political. Maybe I had overthought my job. It is, on one hand, just an after-school crafts club. Maybe I was trying to do too much. For one week, these thoughts kept me up at night.

Did I go out of my lane?

I decided that this week we would make 3-D (paper pop-out) waterfalls and look at waterfalls in all of the countries the kids are from. We looked at the Duden Falls in Turkey, Niagra Falls, Waikome Falls in Hawaii, the Detian Waterfalls in China, a waterfall in Jizan, Saudi Arabia, and then I showed them Jog Falls in Southern India.

I watched the little Indian boys light up! They were so excited that such an incredible, powerful, beautiful waterfall was in their country. And even though they said the rushing water was white and brown “because its dirty” (and I couldn’t convince them otherwise), both chose to make the waterfall. One even asked if he could use brown and white paper, and made a “curly” waterfall where the water fell into the sky “because that’s how high it is!”

It was the cutest thing ever.

When the moms came to pick up the children, I was tied up with some last few projects that needed gluing. But I could see in the corner of my eye that one of the Indian mothers was waiting for me. With four children around me, I felt my nerves as I continued to help them finish and leave. When everyone was gone she said to me, “I’ve been thinking a lot about what you said to me last week and I have some ideas for you.”

Her ideas were great. Transportation — airways, waterways, railways. And different seasons “Here there are four seasons. In India, there is the rainy season and the dry season. Maybe you can do something with that!”

She was friendly and open and that’s when I realized that for almost 168 hours I had felt nothing but bad. She affirmed that my intentions had been well received, and while it was very scary to tell her, I’m now glad I did.

Later on my way home, I ran into the second Indian mother. Her eyes were still the same, but she said to me “My son showed me the waterfall he made. We are going to India next week.” We talked for a little bit about India and I hope by the time the semester ends in 6 weeks, I can read her a little better.

In no way do I want to “save” these boys. I just want to have a safe space. For all of us. Because everyday, all around us, we are learning who is good, brave, and beautiful, and who is dirty and unworthy, with no regard to the violence and discrimination this narrative justifies. Some Brown and Black children go to schools where they learn about White Jesus, others go to schools where they’re taught about Christopher Columbus. So if I have the power to give Brown and Black children the spotlight, for just one hour, just once a week, why on earth would I do anything else?

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