You know those situations when someone says something that insults or stereotypes a group, and you don’t figure out what you should say about it until hours later? That’s so often how it goes for me – more often than not. In fact, sometimes I’m not even fully cognizant that they’ve said something problematic until later.
But once in a while I recognize what’s happening and say what I want to say, and I want to share an example with you because of what I learned. I was shopping for fourth-grade math workbooks for my daughter, since we were going to be in Mexico and she was going to miss several months of school. I found one; the cover showed a girl her age, playing a violin. The fact that the girl was Asian-American seemed to touch off something in my shopping companion. In a voice lowered as if for confidentiality, she said, “I see so many Asian parents buying these.”
Alarm bells rang in my consciousness. “Oh yes?” I said, neutrally.
“Well, you know, tiger mothers. Those kids all get pushed, push push push. Have to learn a whole grade in one summer,” she said.
I said it! For once, I found the words and the courage to speak them! “Wow, that’s pretty racist,” I said.
She wasn’t going to let it go that easily. “They just want their kids to get ahead. All they do is study . . .”
“Still racist,” I said. That seemed to end the conversation, which might have been my goal. Did it also have some impact? Will she speak differently, think differently now? That’s what I would like to be my goal. I’m just glad I spoke instead of being silent and kicking myself later.
Here’s the thing. I know why it went differently this time: I was ready. I’d been having a lot of conversations about the subtle and unsubtle ways people promote racial and ethnic stereotypes. Our Beloved Conversations group, and associated conversations with colleagues and anti-racism activists, primed me to notice these moments. They strengthened my determination to do something, to be an upstander instead of a bystander. More than that, they gave me practice. So when the unfortunate opportunity came, as they do, I was startled, but prepared.
What I learned from that is that these are learnable skills. We don’t have to respond the way we have before. We can practice; we can be ready; we can be the change we want to see in the world. I’m still practicing. I’d love to hear about what you’re doing to practice too.