Memory #957: The Thin Line Between G And K


Dear Blue,

You like to talk. This is not a surprise since you’re a toddler and you try on words like they’re clothes at a thrift store. And you don’t let insignificant annoyances like pronunciation hinder you from trying to communicate to anyone and everything. It’s admirable. If we somehow manage to get you through this stage and you still attack the English language with no shame to your game, we’ve won. We have won.

Right now, we’re in the game, and that means helping you figure out how to get your tongue and your brain on the same linguistic page.

For instance, you have trouble pronouncing FR. It comes out like FUH. Also, you usually pronounce G as K.

This led to a situation  at the zoo. We were heading down the hill to your favorite exhibit, LAIR. Like most boys, you like your animals creepy, crawly and slimy. I mean, you really like them.

As soon as we entered, you ripped your hand out of mine and went catapulting across the room towards a glass window and behind it, a mossy log. As you went, you started yelling “F@*K! F@*K! F@*K!”as you pointed emphatically at the glass. Parents gasped. Kids gave ground. Who was this little kid who spoke so foully? Where did he learn such filth? And where were his parents?

Right here, prudes. And no, we’re not going to correct him.

He really like his FROGS.

You’re my boy, Blue.

-Dad

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Talking About The Elephant In The Room That Never Left

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Dear Blue and Wheels,

These letters will reach you in a time and place all its own, but they are always written in a particular time. This particular time happens to be at a very divisive time in our nation, after cops shot and killed two black men, protests ensued, and during these protests 5 cops were killed by a black man. That’s an understatement, but right now, nobody needs to hear a rehash of what happened. We all know. If you want to know more, I hope the names Alton Sterling and Philando Castile are merely footnotes in an awful sequence of history, not the beginning bookends of something much worse coming our way.

It’s scary out there, kids. Engaging in any sort of meaningful conversation with someone who doesn’t hold your particular views is seemingly hopeless. All we create is an endless string of hashtags and videos and likes for articles that share our point of view, all while never engaging in any real and substantial movement of unified change. That word is important there: unified. For the life of me, I cannot understand how people cannot see the black lives matter for what it is intended to be. I don’t get the stubborn refusal to just hear that other side, the side that is very angry and fearful about what is happening not just because it is happening, but also because it could happen to them.

Maybe I’m being naïve, or maybe I’m just star-struck by you, Wheels, sleeping calmly next to me as I type this missive, but I think the hope for a world where all lives truly matter, where change is truly affected, is found in you. The next generations, being raised in a 21st century society that has begun to grasp the nuances of communicating on the internet in ways that we don’t grasp yet, and in a 21st century society that has come to terms with the fact that just because there are now civil rights, it doesn’t mean that everyone is treated equally. (Also, maybe one with less guns and one where we have avoided a full scale war with ISIS, but who knows?)

Last year, when I was teacher training, we took a class on multiculturalism in the classroom. I have to admit, I was not the biggest fan of this class. Mostly it had to do with the way it was framed, and the prism through which we were asked to see culture. The instructor talked about multicultural perspectives from the perspective of someone who was oppressed, someone who has been victimized by oppressors. It was not comfortable to hear this. You could feel the nervousness start to bubble up in the room, as cohort peers who had been getting to know and like each other for a few weeks suddenly had to shift gears and reevaluate the people around them.

Can I trust that person? Do they share the same worldview as me? What happens if they don’t? Are they the oppressor?

We hadn’t considered those questions when we started, and now at the end of training, it was a bit jarring to suddenly be faced with our differences when we had been unified in a singular purpose for so long. We were suddenly all aware of that elephant in the room. That elephant that lets us know that not all things are equal.

But, something very interesting happened on the third day of class. We all took a quiz to assess how our ethnicity, gender, age, sexual orientation affected how we interacted with the world. More importantly, it gauged how the world interacted with us.

I am straight, white male in my thirties. I am over 6 feet tall and I have a full head of hair. My teeth are straight and mostly white. I smile at people and make eye contact. I do not have any debilitating diseases or mental illnesses.

I am white privilege personified, and I have no shame in admitting that when we were asked to line up in order of the quiz score, with the highest score being the most privileged, guess who was at the front of the line?

(Two thumbs pointing back at me.)

We were asked to explain why we thought our score was the way it was. My explanation was simple and truthful. “Look at me. I’m a white guy.”

Everyone laughed at the curt response from the oddly handsome, kind of goofy white guy.

Then everyone else got their turn. And it was a horror show. Story after story of unfair treatment, discrimination, prejudice, abuse…everything. Tears were being teared. Hugs were being hugged.

Then someone spoke up. “I’m sorry. This is bullshit,” said a white woman. “I don’t think it’s right that white people are made to feel guilty for this. I won’t accept it.”

I’m paraphrasing but it was something like that.

The air was sucked out of the room, mostly by awkward silence. The instructor tried gamely to assess her opinion and help her to understand the purpose of the activity was not to make anyone feel bad or ashamed, but it was too late for that. The woman was upset, and not wanting to hear anymore, she left the room.

She left the room. That happened, and while she was gone, the discussion continued on what she had started. It didn’t go how I expected it to go, because nobody else spoke out in anger or frustration towards her. Nobody whined that she was being dramatic or unreasonable.

I remember one guy, a quiet guy whose family is from Mexico. He said, “All we want is to be heard. That’s it.”

That’s it.

Well, okay, it’s not, but that’s a good a starting point as any if we are talking about a path towards true racial reconciliation.

So that you are not unwilling to listen, I want to outline some things on how to approach such a delicate, inflammatory subject as race.

You are not black. You are half white and half Asian. You have color, but it isn’t that color. You have a culture, a particular set of beliefs and values that shape you. Not everyone has these same sets of beliefs and values. A lot of them may overlap, but respect that race relations is and always will be a Venn diagram. We can push to make the middle bigger, but the circles will never totally be the same. If someone tells you they are colorblind, tell them they are a liar.

You are also Asian, which means at some point you might be referred to as a member of the “model minority.” Please, thoroughly and completely reject this. Reduce it to smoldering ashes that flitter away in the wind. Do not stand for it. It diminishes your own standing in the world in a condescending, pat on the head kind of way (not to mention it’s an idea that has been fabricated by the majority) and it also fails to recognize that there are legitimate differences between the Asian American and African American communities that have had a huge impact on their place in American history.

While Asians have suffered horrible discrimination and oppression, it does not compare to the plight of African Americans. African Americans, after all, did not have a choice in whether or not they wanted to be African Americans. That decision was made for them by slavers who forcibly removed them from their families and homes. Entire generations of people were lost to the slave trade.

Think about what could happen to a culture’s values, its ethos. It’s not just oppression. It’s devastation, and anyone who thinks that 50 years of equal rights under the law will undo centuries of that sort of systematic cultural annihilation is either not looking at the situation with both eyes open, or doesn’t care to do so. I say this because people will try to feed you this narrative that the only reason certain groups succeed where others do not is because they chose not to be victims. They chose not to blame their problems on others and took ownership of them. It isn’t so simple. History never is.

Finally, you are white. You do, in fact, have privilege. Don’t allow yourself to feel shame or guilt because of that inescapable fact, but do know that it exists. You can no more erase your privilege than you could remove your liver. It is what it is. You are afforded things other people are not afforded. If the Black Lives Matter movement is still around, don’t make the mistake of saying All Lives Matter. Of course they do, but that’s not the point. Remember that when someone says black lives matter, there is a missing word. An implied “too.” It makes all the difference.

I keep going back to that class last year. As I think about this subject, it draws me in like a magnet, some sort of anchor point that helps keep me tethered to the most important question I can ask and potentially answer: What can I do? I am a white man, and for the first time in the history of the world, I feel powerless.

To be fair, this class was over a year ago and I don’t remember all that was said or why that woman said it. What I recounted before, I was paraphrasing. I think I got the general tone right but definitely not the exact words. I don’t want to paint her in a light that she need not be painted, but it doesn’t matter because it wasn’t what she said that really matters; it’s what she did.

She left the room.

Don’t leave the room, guys. The elephant is in there, and it needs to be talked about. And heard.

-Dad

The Birth of Wheels

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Dear Wheels,

It’s been almost a month since we welcomed you into the world. I was hoping you could make it to June 10, so your birthday would be number palindrome, but you came a day earlier than that. This means you may have to suffer through some lame teenage boy jokes when you hit high school. We’ll teach you to say your birthday is June 9. You will never say six nine, okay?

You rang out your first cries in the exact same room your brother did two years ago. You came out with the same black shock of hair on top of your head, like the top of a carrot being plucked from the ground. You weighed 6 pounds 6 ounces and measured 19 inches tall. You have long eyebrows, long fingers, long toes. You have what we affectionately call in our family “turtle lips,” where the top overhangs the bottom like a crisp little beak. You have grey-blue eyes, the color of the ocean in the morning twilight. (That might change, but we’re holding out hope.)

You’re beautiful.

You look so much like your brother.

You don’t look anything like your brother.

I don’t know how that juxtaposition is possible, but it is. And you do.

Your entry into the world came at 10:50am. You were originally scheduled to be born on the 17th in a scheduled c-section, but the doctors decided that was too far away. Your mother’s blood pressure was dangerously high and when asked what was the best way to alleviate that symptom, the doctor said, “Have a baby.”

So we went into the hospital on the 8th. The anesthesiologist decided it was better to wait until the morning when they had more support for the c-section, so we waited until the 9th. Unlike your brother, your c-section was not an emergency so I had time to enter the room with your mother. After they had injected local anesthesia and it took effective, they ushered me into the room to sit next to your mom. We couldn’t see anything. Just a blue tarp covering the doctors from view. I was not allowed to stand up until they said it was okay to stand up. So we waited. Then they said okay. I peeked up, and there you were, slathered in a pile of placental fluid. I willed myself not to look at your point of origin into the world, your mother’s open abdomen, but my will is not strong.

It’s a moment of profound humility in a man’s life, when he sees his wife’s internal organs not presently internal. Women are strong, Wheels. I could never make it through what your mom has now done twice.

I met you for the first time at the warming table. I cut the umbilical cord, which was already cut off but you know…ceremony. It’s surprisingly difficult to cut. I blamed it on me being a lefty.

And there you were, and there we were. We spent the next few days in the hospital. Your brother came to stay with us. When he wasn’t trying to climb up in the bed to say hi to you, he was outside in the garden trying to track down rogue pillbugs or roaming the seemingly abandoned west wing of the 4th floor like the kid in The Shining. He did great.

You did great. You’re a nursing whiz kid, Wheels. Figured it out within seconds and haven’t stopped eating since. The double chin you’re now sporting is a testament to that.

I’m going to write a lot to you, Wheels. A lot. I get the feeling that you’ll need a little more guidance than your brother, not because of who you are but because of who the world will try to say you are. In all honesty, I have very little clue how to raise a strong, independent, free-thinking woman who is unafraid to stand up for what she thinks is right, defends her loved ones passionately and wrings out every last drop of enjoyment life has to offer her.

However, I married one such woman. Your mother and I have a lot to teach you.

We love you, babe. Welcome to your family.

-Dad