Sunday, October 08, 2006

We All Look the Same--To Kids

You know, we spend a lot of time romanticizing childhood in this country.
Oh, they're sooo innocent!
Children see the world with wonder!
If only we could go back to the time when we had no worries.

(This last one is actually courtesy of a student paper from this morning. Said student writer is SEVENTEEN years old, and is nostalgic about childhood?!)

But what if all of this is simply our own projection onto children? I have to imagine that the world is sometimes a scary, complicated place to kids, just as it is to adults. What brings me to these questions, of course, is my interaction with a colleague's child yesterday. I was strolling into campus with Senor Fluff, bound for a serious bout of paper reading, when we stopped by the local drugstore to pick up allergy medication. (For him, not me, although I've been known to steal it periodically. But not to make crystal meth or anything, so I think it's okay.) The Family Fluff ran into one of my delightful colleagues, who has a young daughter (I think she's 3 or so--I'm bad with the numbers). She was frolicking in the Halloween aisle, picking up different costumes and trinkets. When her father said "look who's here!", she looked me dead in the face and said "Hi June! Look at this!" and handed me a toy.

Lest you think I've just outed myself on my blog (alert the press!), June is actually a psuedonym for another of my colleagues, who the child confused with me. What's notable here, of course, is that June happens to be MY OTHER ASIAN AMERICAN COLLEAGUE. I should also note here that June and I look NOTHING alike (and I'm not just saying that). She's tall and thin; I'm...not. She's immediately identifiable as Asian, I've been told by my oh-so-sensitive senior colleagues that "no one would know you're Asian unless you told them"---so much for the carefully-considered politics of multi-ethnic backgrounds.

All of this leads me to ask--what exactly was going on in that kid's head? Did she just mistake one of Daddy's dark-haired colleagues for another? Does she see a subtle set of resemblances that escape many people?

Either way, it gave the grownups an uncomfortable little chuckle--and it's a great example to use in class when discussing the ways in which people can replicate racist behaviors that are free of the vitriol and prejudice that we assume motivate them. Obviously, this kid hasn't been raised on a Neo-Nazi version of Goodnight Moon or anything. She's identified the wrong person, and done it without reference to the kinds of stereotyping that usually underpin this kind of mistake (you know, the "they all look alike when they're trying to put good Americans out of jobs"). In short, this kid has made an innocent mistake, which, coming from an older mouth, would have been automatically perceived as some sort of deep racist behavior---the worst possible offense in our multicultural society. What she exemplifies, then, is that there's room to consider people's responses to similar situations: is it the case that any adult who makes the same mistake has fallen prey to American stereotypes perpetrated by the media? Or is it possible, in some situations, simply to say the wrong name?

Regardless of what she saw, I think she's bought all of us a little more breathing room for a time when we confuse one person for another (without the automatic mortification response of: "oh my god! [flog, flog] Secretly I'm racist! [flog, flog] Racist to the core! I need to go to sensitivity training at once!"

I suppose there is something to be learned from children---but I'm not falling for that "wonder" crap!


Blogger Flavia said...

I don't know if you read Phantom Scribbler, but she had a really interesting take on this same subject last month, in regard to her own son's confusing two half-Asian girls in his kindergarten class. The comments are also worth reading.

Sunday, October 08, 2006 2:28:00 PM  
Blogger kfluff said...

Thanks for the tip, Flavia! It's fascinating over there--much more to think about. I'm particularly interested in the ways that people compare the experience of confusing their "frat boy" students to the question of confusing people of color. There's more to unpack here, but I suppose one way to think about it would be to compare these two experiences on the basis of the confuser and the confusee. Clearly, the mortification level for the confusers of frat boys is far less than that of the confusers of Asians. Does this same rubric hold true for the confusees? Do frat boys take it less hard than Asians (or African Americans, etc.)?

Tuesday, October 10, 2006 9:15:00 PM  

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