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How To Talk To Kids About Anti-Asian Racism

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The rise in anti-Asian hate incidents over the past year has prompted a call for Americans to talk about racism and discrimination with their friends and parents and children, conversations made even more difficult and urgent after last week's shootings in Atlanta. If you're looking for ways in on those conversations, our next two guests may be able to help. Nicole Chung is an author and advice columnist for Slate.

Welcome to the program, Nicole.

NICOLE CHUNG: Thank you so much for having me.

CORNISH: And we also have Christine Koh, a neuroscientist and co-author of a book on parenting. Welcome to you.

CHRISTINE KOH: Thank you so much for having me.

CORNISH: Nicole, I was hoping to start with you because you write an advice column at Slate. What are two tips you would give to parents who want to start a dialogue around these issues - racism or discrimination or inclusivity?

CHUNG: One thing I do is, like, hearken back to past conversations. Like, I'm always saying, remember when we talked about this - like, this particular issue? Like, something else has happened. I want to talk to you about it. Like, this is related to, like, this other thing that we talked about - so that they're always - I'm trying to teach them to make those connections themselves.

And the other big thing is just to, like, ask them what they have noticed, what they have experienced. Like, have they witnessed at school or out in the world - have they seen things that maybe we as their parents haven't been present for or have missed, something that stuck in their mind? I mean, I've been really surprised sometimes by all the things my kids have encountered when they're not with me, sometimes at school. And then those are also really good starting points for conversation.

KOH: I would say that, you know, my two recommendations - you know, one, you know, we're going to be having so many of these conversations. I think parents get very afraid when they don't have the answers and when they don't feel like they have the language or the right thing to say. I mean, we're going to make mistakes. That's just how it goes. Parenting is like a lifetime of do-overs. So I would just encourage parents to first not feel like you always need to fill that space. You know, let your kid talk. Let there be some awkward silence because if you just wait, something unexpected is probably going to come up, and so that's so crucial.

CORNISH: But you have to ask.

KOH: Yeah. I mean, you can open it up. I really recommend doing this, you know, sort of, like, in a safe environment, like, you know, bedtime, when it's kind of dark and you don't have to look at each other and you can just talk. And I found that's a really, really good way to have a conversation or just, you know, in a low-pressure way where you're not looking at each other. Like, you could be cooking. My kids and I talk a lot while we're cooking or baking or, you know, in the car - that kind of thing.

CORNISH: I want to talk about the idea of blended households. You both come from blended families. And, Christine, starting with your story, you're Asian American and raising two mixed race children. Your husband is white. I mean, how do you go about talking about these kinds of events?

KOH: Yeah. I mean, my kids - when they're with their dad, they could pass as white. And when they're with me, then people might look at them and think, oh, OK, you know, maybe they could be part Asian. So I know that at the beginning of the pandemic, I felt very self-conscious, especially as, you know, all of this sort of - the terrible things that were being said by the administration and all of the scapegoating was happening. And I just felt like, wow, if I go out with my kids, you know, they may be more of a target.

So I think that, you know, it's always been about talking to my kids about being aware. You need to be aware of your surroundings. Not in a way - not to scare them, but I think it's a reality that kids need to know about being safe, about, you know, keeping their eyes up in the world. We have a strict - my younger one doesn't have a phone yet, but we have a strict, like, no walking and having your head down in your phone policy. You know, you always have to keep your eyes up and just be aware of what's going around.

CORNISH: Nicole, I understand you're ethnically Korean and were adopted by white parents because you wrote about this in a piece for Time where you said that your parents thought of themselves as colorblind. What advice can you give to families who were in this situation - maybe their child is an Asian American adoptee - or as the child in that kind of family who's trying to explain to family members who don't get it?

CHUNG: I was thinking about this while Christine was speaking just about how she talks about this with her kids. And that goes both ways. My adoptive parents passed, but when they were alive, I often found myself in this position of either trying to explain or sort of translate not the whole Asian American experience because I'm one person and I could not do that - right? - but, like, trying to sort of explain and translate, like, to them really, like, what I experienced, how I experience this country as a Korean American. And they did kind of always struggle, you know, to see me as a Korean, as an Asian American woman. At the time they adopted me especially, you know, the standard line was, just basically assimilate her. I mean, that's literally what the adoption judge told them. Assimilate her. You'll be fine - like, no recommended reading, no recommended classes.

And so I really grew up - I wouldn't say, like, I necessarily grew up colorblind because I don't believe I was any more than I believe most people are. But certainly I had no language for talking about race and racism. And, of course, like, I started experiencing racism from a very young age. I grew up in a really white community, heard my first slur at the age of 7. So I always knew from a young age that my race was in fact relevant to my lived experience and would be, like, throughout my life. And it was just really a process starting, like, much more in my teens and 20s, I think, than when I was a young child of trying to kind of get my white adoptive family to sort of see that reality and acknowledge it even though, of course, they could not, like, fully understand, not having experienced it.

We have a tendency in adoption nowadays to lean into the really fun, like, cultural exploration and acknowledgement, and I think that's all great. I think it is a lot harder - right? - to have these conversations with our kids about racism in this country, about white privilege. And I think, like, those are the discussions that, like, adoptive families also have to be willing to have. We know statistically a lot of white families aren't having these discussions. But when you are raising Asian American kids right now or kids of color at all, like, you have to be able to have those discussions and really be prepared to be your kid's, like, first best ally in these situations.

CORNISH: I saw you nodding a bit, Christine. Did you want to add something there?

KOH: Well, I was just thinking as Nicole was talking about how for a long time, for most of my childhood, I felt very deeply uncomfortable associating with other Asian kids because I felt actually unsafe. And so to think about that framework - you know, just because I felt like if there were more of us together, we were a bigger target, you know, which is a really terrible, terrible way to, you know, lose your connection with a culture and a community that is so important.

So, yeah, I guess, you know, I think these conversations are obviously, you know - I just received some outreach about talking to a parent group, and, you know, they were saying, we don't understand how to have these uncomfortable conversations. And my response is kind of like, it's high time to get uncomfortable. We have to get uncomfortable. We have to have these conversations. And, you know, honestly, if - you know, this is not to be too hard-lined about it, but, you know, if you're a white parent and you are feeling like the conversation is uncomfortable for you, just sort of tap into your empathy and think about how uncomfortable it is to be a person of color and feel like you have a target on your back or to feel the serious emotional labor of reliving racial aggressions and having very real safety concerns every time, you know, you see another - yet another incident in the news.

CORNISH: Well, Christine Koh, thank you so much for speaking with us.

KOH: This was so delightful. Thank you for making the space for this conversation. I truly appreciate it.

CORNISH: And, Nicole Chung, thank you for your time and advice.

CHUNG: Thank you. It was a pleasure to be here with you both.

(SOUNDBITE OF HIROLA'S "PERPETUAL LIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.