What Makes them Whole

(Note: I wrote this back in the Summer of 2008, swore I had published it somewhere, but can’t seem to find it. So, my apologies if you’ve read this already, but I figured it was worth re-posting anyways! Enjoy – Liza)

There are so many times when I’ve wanted to give up the fight against racism. There are many of my friends and a few of my favorite bloggers who have. There are days when I sit at work thinking, “Is this worth it? Can we really heal? Can we really learn? Move forward?” There are days when I want to scream, “I quit!”

Thankfully, I know that there is at least one week during my race-filled year when I do recharge and when I am humbled. This past week, I spent our 2nd visit to Camp Sunshine, a retreat camp for families with children with life threatening illnesses. My daughter was diagnosed with cancer just a few weeks after her 2nd birthday. It rocked our world. It changed our lives. She was diagnosed with retinoblastoma – a rare eye cancer that resulted in the removal of her right eye, 6 months of chemotherapy, and dozens upon dozens of doctor’s appointments, hospitalizations, and tests.

I tend to link disability activism with racism activism because I believe that, at it’s core, our goal is to raise children who treat others like human beings in this world.

Coming to camp has been a fantastic experience because “camp” is the place where we all feel normal for a week. Retinoblastoma children get to be in the majority. They get to experience privilege. They get to experience power. Confidence. Support. Every family that attends that week has been affected by retinoblastoma. Some children have both their eyes, having sucessfully treated their cancer with laser, radiation, or chemotherapy. Some children have lost one of their eyes. Some children have lost both of their eyes and navigate our sighted world completely blind. Each family has a slightly different story, but at the heart of our experiences is cancer in our children. Families from all over the country fly in to be together, to heal, to relax, and to be in the majority for a week.

One of the many things that I find interesting about coming to camp is that race, ethnicity, geography, socioeconomic status, and gender all seem to fade away. It’s a place where people find that they are bonded by their experiences with cancer, rather than the identity labels we are faced with outside of this little heaven. For most of my year, I talk about race, diversity, sexism, etc., and for this one week, none of that even enters into my mind. We are all united by cancer. Our conversations are guided around the “cancer lens” through which we all see the world. And, for many of us, that cancer lens has given us a strong faith in the human spirit.

For 51 weeks out of the year, my daughter lives in the numeric minority. She is different than any other child she plays with at school and at home. She doesn’t interact with any other children with a prosthetic eye; and, outside of the hospital, we never meet any other children her age with cancer. Camp is where she feels normal, where she is in the numeric majority. Camp is where she doesn’t have to worry about dumb things people say when they notice she only has one eye. She doesn’t have to worry about what people will say if there is goop on her eye or if her prosthesis happens to pop out while she is rubbing it. Camp is where kids talk freely about chemotherapy, about their “special eyes”, and about their radiation. And, camp is where, if they choose, they don’t ever have to talk about it at all.

Camp is also where my daughter learns how to interact with children who are Picture 1differently abled. She has made fast friends with two girls , Tacey and Mayci, who both lost their sight at around age 7 from reoccurances with retinoblastoma. Through their stubborness and their insistence that they not be perjoratively treated as “blind kids”, Tacey and Mayci defy stereotypes. They defy preconceived notions about blind children. They set a new standard, a new “normal”, and a new understanding of how high our children can soar if we give them wings rather than weights. Tacey barrel races horses in her homestate of Texas. Mayci plays softball on a sighted team (and, when given the option of having a “beeping sound” signal an approaching softball, she made the officials turn off the beeping because it was annoying her!). Parents and kids watch in awe as these two little blind girls actually lead each other around hand-in-hand through the camp grounds (which, yes, gives new meaning to “the blind leading the blind.”).

At first, my daughter was afraid of Tacey and Mayci with their white canes and the blank, unresponsive look in their eyes (they both wear prosthetic eyes). But, Joli really wanted to make friends with these two girls. When the girls would walked by, Joli would wave at them and, in her smallest voice, say “hi.” This happened a number of times, but I just watched to see how she would respond, react, and adapt to her method of “waving hello” to a couple of blind girls. Eventually, Joli grew discouraged and their un-reciprocated “hello” and said to me, “Mommy, I don’t think I like Tacey and Mayci – they never say hello to me. I don’t want to be friends with them.” We had to explain to her that “they can’t see you waving to them, Joli. You have to actually say ‘Hello, Tacey and Mayci! This is Joli and I am in front of you waving.'”

Simple, right? Right.

We practiced saying, “Hello, Tacey and Mayci! This is Joli saying HI to you!” Joli tried that method the next time she saw Tacey and Mayci. They, of course, said “Hello, Joli!” and were so excited to make a new friend. Tacey and Mayci began to feel Joli’s hands, her face, her coarse curly hair, and her glases. They also felt Joli’s smile that was stretched from ear-to-ear in pure happiness! Since that day, the girls have been inseparable and even keep in touch during the school year. It was that easy….

This year, our second daughter was now old enough to experience camp with her sister. Of course, the first kids we saw when we pulled up to camp were Tacey and Mayci. Joli hopped out of the car, announced she was there and invited the girls to touch her — feeling the change in her height, the shape of her new Hannah Montana glasses, and her tight braids that stretched from the front of her head to the back. Once the girls reacquainted themselves, Joli brought her 2-year old sister, Jada, over to meet the girls. When Jada first saw Tacey and Mayci, she kind of freaked out. They were touching her face, touching her hair, and “seeing” Jada with their hands. I watched Jada’s body tense up and tears well in her eyes. Joli felt it, too. Joli, the now experienced 4-year-old-big sister, held Jada’s hand and, in her most delicate way, explained what Tacey and Mayci were doing. Jada stopped crying. Jada stood still. Jada touched back.

Camp is special for me for so many reasons. This time around, though, it helped renew my faith in our children – for whom many of us parents/teachers/counselors/friends want to raise in an anti-racist world. As I re-read my post, I mentally substituted words related to blindness and disabilities with words that are related to race and anti-racism. It’s amazing to me the connection between what we experience as a family with a differently abled child and as a family with race and ethnicity at our core. Through both lenses, we constantly learn and reinforce valuable lessons about treating people as humans.

We learned valuable lessons about making mistakes and finding ways to move beyond them. We teach and learn that sometimes we can control how we interact with others (saying “HELLO” to a blind person) and how sometimes we have no control over a situation (a healthy toddler being diagnosed with cancer). We learn that kids sometimes do know better than we do. We learn that kids make the same pre-judgements that we do, and that kids can also quickly learn how to challenge those pre-judgements. We witness that our children are more adaptable than we are. And, they are often more resilient than we are, too.

My daughters and their friends many not necessarily think about living in an anti-racist way. They just want to make a new friend. They just want to be treated kindly. They want to have the same opportunities as others have, and they truly want to share their happiness. Learning from my children gives me hope. On those days when I get so discouraged having encountered a racist person, a racist practice, and an unjust system, I think back to those first moments when my kids met Tacey and Mayci – how hard it was to feel left out and how easy it was to make a friend. They don’t see one another despite their disabilities, they see one another in light of their disabilities. They have seen beauty in being different.

And they know that different is what makes them whole.

Changing the Complexion

A little too mad to even respond to this one, so I’ll just do blips.

I think it’s one thing to do racist stuff to adults, it’s another thing to make kids the subject of one’s racism and stupidity. This story is going viral, so if you haven’t checked it out, here it is.

More than 60 campers from Northeast Philadelphia were turned away from a private swim club and left to wonder if their race was the reason.

See, white kids never have to wonder if a negative behavior is attached to their race. It’s called white privilege….

“When the minority children got in the pool all of the Caucasian children immediately exited the pool,” Horace Gibson, parent of a day camp child, wrote in an email. “The pool attendants came and told the black children that they did not allow minorities in the club and needed the children to leave immediately.”

Except for the fact that the day camp PAID to use the facility for the summer, was accepted to do so, and entered into a contract with the Valley Club. So, yes, they were allowed to use the pool. And, if the white kids didn’t want to swim with them, that was THEIR CHOICE. But, instead of stating it was a choice, the white parents/children instead decided to remove themselves from an uncomfortable situation and just deprive another EQUAL paying customer the right to a service.

After being told the Club would refund their money…

“I said, ‘The parents don’t want the refund. They want a place for their children to swim,'” camp director Aetha Wright¬†said.

They just want a place to swim. Jeez, really, people? Are the club members working on old school racism that the black kids might a) pass on cooties, or b) steal something from kids in the pool (perhaps their shorts? I dunno?), c) act like… kids?

While the parents await an apology, the camp is scrambling to find a new place for the kids to beat the summer heat.

And, that’s what white privilege does. It puts white people ahead and POC behind. So, while the white kids get to just sit back, relax, and enjoy their summer, the black kids have to scramble and find something to do. Next thing you know, you’ll hear from white people saying “I can’t believe all these Black kids are out on the streets. Don’t they have anything better to do?”

YES. THEY COULD BE SWIMMING.

Following the Lead

The other day, I took my children to a birthday party for their friend, Lucas, who was turning 3 years old. Lucas’s mom is Korean and his dad is Japanese.

While spending some quality time with my potty-learning daughter in the bathroom, she and I got into a conversation about “eyes.”

Daughter: “I like Lucas’s mommy. She’s the one with the different eyes.”

Me: “What do you mean ‘different eyes’?”as I glanced over at the bathroom mirror and saw my own Asian reflection.

Daughter: “You know, the same eyes like Luke’s Daddy.”

Me: “Oh, you mean the same eyes like ME, too?”

Daughter: “No, Mommy. You don’t have the same eyes.”

Me: “Yes, I do! We are Asian. I am Asian, Lucas’s dad is Asian, and Lucas’s mom is Asian. We have the same eyes.”

Daughter: “Nooo. No you don’t. His dad’s eyes are like this (she pulls upward at the corner of her eyes), and his mom’s eyes are like this (she pulls straight outward at the corner of her eyes), and your eyes are like this (she pulls just a little tiny tug at the corner). See, you don’t have the same eyes!”
Now, I wasn’t sure if it was the scent of being in the bathroom too long or if it was all of my childhood fears coming at me, but I felt sick. Uh uh! Did my kid just do the eye-pull thing?? Did she just spark my worst memories of playground children taunting me by imitating my eyes? Did she just throw me back to when I was 6 years old in church and had to endure a little girl staring at me and copying my eyes — in the same way my own daughter was doing?

Or, was she just doing what 3-year olds do — observing and copying? Truth is, she was right. She didn’t obnoxiously pull at her eyes, she quite accurately did copy the eye slants of the Korean mother, the Japanese father, and me.¬† She didn’t all of a sudden bust into ching-chong calls or a monologue about the coolness of karate or an interview of whether or not I liked math/science/or the violin (insert your own commentary about how childhood taunts stay with you well into your 30s).

Needless to say, my biracial children did not inherit my Asian eyes. They have large brown eyes that are wide and round like saucers. When we are out, most people are surprised to know they are my biological children — they have curly/wavy hair and dark skin like my Puerto Rican husband. I have straight hair and light brown skin.

I didn’t really get into the eye-thing with her. I mean, truth be told, I would typically ask an older child to “use your words instead of your hands” to describe a physical characteristic or go into an age appropriate lesson about what imitating means. But, what do you do with a 3-year old who’s world IS about communicating with gestures. The easiest way for her to get her point across was with her hands.

My 3-year old’s tendency to describe everything isn’t bound solely to race. While on vacation in Maine, where I was already feeling so self-conscious being the only family of color that we had seen all day, the same daughter was talking to an couple of older women. When the older women left, my daughter ran up to me and yelled, “Mommy! Those really old ladies are nice. And old. Like, really old!” Yes, they heard her. I froze. And, then I emphasized the “nice” part with “They seemed like really nice ladies. That’s so nice that they were talking to you! Wow, aren’t they so NICE?” all the while waving at the ladies as they got into their car. I know – overkill.

I think one of the biggest challenges as a parent is walking that fine line between going with a child’s observation and correcting racial/social mis-steps. It’s kind of like the situation I’ve written about before when she decided to name everything on the street — that car is red, that bird is small, that dog is big, etc. When we passed a man on the street, she said, “That man is Black.” My response was “Yes, he is.”

I’m sure we’ll get into the eye-thing a bit later with my kids. For the most part, they won’t be subjected to it as a personal observation of their own physical features. But, it’ll surface somewhere in a picture, on the internet, or as a misstep from one of their favorite stars (again….). They’ll need to know what it means, how it affects their Mom’s side of the family, and how it can be hurtful.

For now, we’re walking the line of observation as we prepare to cross the line of education.

The Anxiety of Violence

I never really did like violent movies, especially as a child. I was the kid who watched viewed most violent movies through the lens of the spread fingers of my hands. Later in adulthood, I still didn’t develop the stomach for them. I would feel my heart race and my face swell with tears. Now, as a mother, I have extended the category of “violent movies” to anything scary. I rarely watch gangster type movies, certainly no horror movies, and no movies that talk about violence against women or children.

Given the work I do, I feel a responsibility to watch movies that have addressed cultural exploitation and violence. While I know movies like “Hotel Rwanda” and “Blood Diamond” are Hollywood versions of the atrocities that are occuring, I have completely avoided them. And, I haven’t read books related to those issues, either. I know (as much as any average American knows) what’s going on over there. Yet, I can’t bear to watch it.

But why? Am I avoiding just the sheer violence of it, or am I avoiding these stories — likely worse than what is portrayed in the movies — because I know I’ll feel guilty turning off the TV and walking away from them? Isn’t the discomfort and challenge the exact thing that I tell others they need to experience in order to move forward in the conversation about race? If so, what is it that I can “more forward” in here? How does watching these movies help me move forward?

A close friend of ours filmed a documentary called “War/Dance” which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary. I probably wouldn’t have chosen to watch it, except for the fact that I wanted to honor the work he did. In the end, Sean created a beautiful film about the ways a few children in a refugee village — though they had lived such tragedy — found joy through music. I was glad I watched it, and it pained me to know that these stories were all too real.

A few years ago, my college invited an author and former child soldier. I went to his lecture, but couldn’t bring myself to read his book.

Am I avoiding engaging in the conversation about violence because it brings me such anxiety? Isn’t this exactly the discomfort I should be feeling in order to do good in the world?

Note: I’m posting because I’m avoiding watching one of those movies … it’s “date night” with the hubby and we chose this movie. Guess my laptop has become the new “spread fingers lens!”