Saturday, 28 February 2015

Brown Eyes Blue Eyes

For the past 24 hours, the English-speaking world has been ablaze with the mystery of the blue/black/white/gold dress.  What colour is it really? Is the whole thing a click-bait scam? Who sees what? It’s been one of those Internet phenomena that verify what a small planet this is, how close we all are and yet how different. And how many of us are willing to be completely and utterly diverted by trivia. It came during a week in which perspective and disparity in how we see the world has weighed heavily on me.

When Manchild was only in Grade 2, his world shifted seismically. Mr Inquisitive, a chattering cheerful junior scientist couldn’t resist the temptation to look at everything with his fingers. He skipped through life with an infectious smile, filling each day with a running commentary of all that he saw and heard and thought and felt and wondered. Then it all stopped. It didn’t just begin to diminish as he grew older and more self-conscious. It stopped. 

 'Mummy, she doesn’t like my face. She smiles at the boys with yellow hair. She never smiles at me.'

He was talking about his Grade 2 teacher. A tall, powerfully built woman, older than the teachers he was used to, but that wasn’t the problem. She was as old as me. I was 41 by the time his adoption was finalised. She was tall and fair-haired and strict. That wasn’t the problem either. I’m tall and fair-haired and strict.

No. The problem was something he sensed every day. Something he couldn’t understand or name. It was something unspoken and almost invisible and evil. Something I couldn’t quantify to approach the school about. Something that happened when I wasn’t there to protect him.  Something I couldn’t fix.
A few years later, when he was subjected to persistent harassment and bullying at his next school —including having an image of a beautiful Asian woman left in his locker accompanied by a note to ask if he’d started saving for his sex change yet— I went to the school to report it.

Kids will be kids, I was told. The boy responsible had no idea he was being offensive. He thought he was being funny. He’s just a child. You’re being over-sensitive.

And then the boy’s mother spread the word to the other parents to stay away from us: “Be careful of that family. If anything happens that they don’t like, they play the racist card.”

The authorities told me the same thing at yet another school when Miss 14 was only in Grade 6 and one of her peers began to regularly chant at her:
“Ching-Chong China
 She has a big vagina.”

We were assured that the taunter had no idea this was offensive.
My daughter was forced to explain to the other child why it upset her.
She has never bothered to report further instances of racism to the school since.

She is tired of having to be the living example for the lesson of the day about how families differ, about adopted kids and their real families. She’s sick of hearing how she and her brother look so alike when they don’t. They don’t look even remotely similar.  Except that they’re both Korean-Australians. 
It’s now more than 45 years since Jane Elliott stirred up uncomfortable controversy with her Blue Eyes Brown Eyes exercise after the murder of Martin Luther King Jnr affected her so deeply that she was moved to take action against bigotry and racism. That act of hate motivated Jane Elliott to commit her life’s work to making young people see how deeply programmed and emotionally charged our world-views are. And to open their eyes to how hurtful and damaging that can be. Even if it made them uncomfortable. Even if people hated her for it.

And all these years later, videos of her work still circulate on sites like Upworthy  and their power has not dissipated. They still divide, surprise and inflame. 
I shared the video below recently with Miss 14 when she was upset about yet another ‘innocent’ reference to her ‘exotic’ appearance. And a particular moment resonated very deeply with her. And me too.

Often, people believe they are demonstrating how open-minded and accepting they are when they say to my adopted Korean children: ‘But I don’t see you as Asian or adopted.”
Why not?
Being Korean and adopted is integral to who my children are, critical to their identity.

What those well-meaning people do not understand is that they are, in effect, saying: “ I don’t see you as Korean, I see you as Caucasian Australian – just like me.”

I don’t know how that sounds to you, but to me, and to Jane Elliott, it sounds like entrenched racism. The sort that’s so far beneath the surface of best intentions and good will that the only people who see it are the ones who feel it as a constant ache. A hurt that some would label over-sensitivity.

How we see things.
Blind spots.
They’ve been on my mind this week.
What about you?
 Did anything change the way you see?

( ... almost 10 minutes in you'll find the conversation that resonated)


  1. this is a powerful post and I am saddened by what your children have had to experience. You are a strong momma tiger for them, and I applaud you, and I am ashamed to be an educator when I hear what other educators have told you. Oh for the day when there is no bullying, but alas I fear it is far far in the future.

    1. Thank you... I've had an emotional week and wanted to try to write something 'up" and positive... but this was what came out....
      I've been reading some of your amazing daughter's amazing posts, too... she's added to my heart and thoughts...

  2. What a wonderful piece, W. Oh my goodness. It's certainly evoked a groundswell of feeling in here. I want to hardpoke some people in the chest (parents actually, and teachers) and shout in their stupid faces, in a really angry voice, that it's just not good enough to continue to feign ignorance when there's so much damage being done. Because it's not. Enough. Enough of the bullies being protected while the targeted are left to be bigger than the hellholes that are dug for them. It's shit is what it is. How will the children ever learn? How will anything ever change if the grown ups remain so damned blind/blocked/ignorant? We owe it to the children. All the children, dammit. God dammit.

    1. ... absatively... unforgivable shitful behaviour is just that...

  3. This post really saddened me.Even in this day and age with all the education and knowledge we possess, we still have problems with the race, religion and sexuality of others. Why can't we just accept or at the very least tolerate each other's differences!

  4. My nephew is now in his mid 20s. When he was at preschool, his best friend was a boy named Andrew. My mother one day pointed out to Jez that Andrew was Chinese. Jez looked her up and down, wrinkled his nose and then told her, "no he's not, Nannie; he's my best friend." Said it all really.
    I married the son of Dutch-Indonesian immigrants. Lots of people cannot peg my husband's heritage. Many think he's Maori. My kids friends have come from all over the world and they have never been defined by colour, race or religion. I've only ever felt awkward when I couldn't pronounce ethnic names.
    A friend from uni felt that one of the best ways to break down barriers was through food. As a teacher, she likes to introduce real food and the recipes to her students at every opportunity. She is Korean born and teaches Japanese. And a bloody good cook.

  5. Oh Robyn, I wish there were more of you in the world!

  6. I am so sorry. This had to be the saddest thing for me to read. It is horrible, I remember this happening to me when I was at school, but to think it is just as bad today. Obviously we haven't progressed as a society. I am so sorry for what you and your kids have had to deal with.

  7. I forgot to post this before.
    A few months ago L was telling me about a discussion he and his mates had had at school that day. It was an innocent, passive discussion, but they were discussing what nationality they are, where their families came from etc. His best mate V (whose family moved here from India when he was a toddler) had said he was Australian, but someone else (whose family was from India) had called themselves Indian. L was a little confused too, about the fact that his Dad is from NZ and L doesn't really think about himself as a New Zealander in any way (apart from following the All Blacks because his Dad does and they win a lot).
    I told him the best thing to do is listen to what people say about themselves and how they identify themselves, and THAT is who they are, be it Indian, Australian, Indian/Australian or whatever.
    Seems like I was kind of on the right track then.