The Baggage of Racial Bullying

August 28, 2013

A few weeks ago, I saw my big kid off to Kindergarten on the school bus for the very first time. Months ago, she had been in anguish over the idea of going to a new school where she knew nobody, but you wouldn't have guessed it while we were waiting at the bus stop. In fact, she spent the last weeks of summer barely able to contain her excitement. We had visited the school a few times and met some of the faculty, and each time she'd walk off to play in the front yard of the school and come back ten minutes later with a new friend. She was Ready (with a capital R).

I met the day mostly with pride. Our daughter was well-equipped for the change -- much more than I would have been at her age. We had already moved cross-country once, and she had been in preschool for three years prior to this. She has always been super friendly and social, and she already had a lot of experience being thrown into a new environment and having to make a whole new set of friends. I figured going off to Kindergarten was old hat for us. It was an important milestone for us, but it was a positive, happy one; at least, that's what I told myself as I tried to keep the mom-anxiety at bay.

She made it through the first week with the same positive attitude, but then mentioned nonchalantly that a couple of boys -- boys whose names she'd mentioned literally every day as being the funniest kids in class -- had been mean to her. I tried my best to play it cool, but I did feel my heart beating faster and my blood pressure rising. Why didn't the teacher tell me? How are we going to handle this? Is it okay to teach her to hit back? And after the kids went to bed that night, I drafted a long, incensed email to the teacher.

My husband and I tend to err on the side of hypersensitivity when it comes to bullying, thanks to our own childhoods. My husband attended middle school in Seoul where, as a mixed kid, he stuck out and frequently got into fights. I spent all of my early years getting beat up on by my cousins, then in elementary school I made a best friend who had gained the title by isolating me from the rest of our classmates and picking on me until I sufficiently felt like I wasn't allowed to sit with anyone else at lunch.

Coming up in a predominantly white suburb of Connecticut has informed a lot of the decisions I've made as a mother. According to Great Schools, my alma mater is currently 82% white, but that number was undoubtedly higher when I graduated 13 years ago. While this experience wasn't terribly traumatic -- I made it out alive and sane, and I still keep in touch with a classmate or two, after all -- the racial isolation I experienced wasn't something I'd choose to put my kids through.

There were no burning crosses out there. I didn't learn the term "microaggressions" until college, but that was what my childhood was full of. Neighborhood kids telling me my house smelled funny or insisting they couldn't understand what my parents were asking them, even when they were speaking English. A group of classmates in high school asking crazy inappropriate questions like the size of my dad's genitalia. Even when these kids were being "nice", they were being assholes. I had a friend who nicknamed me "Pah" -- which stood for "Pretty Asian Hair." I was catcalled by high school boys and called a chink in the same breath.

My home life made me especially susceptible to bullying. My cousins grew up in the same town and they knew the racial isolation well. I think it was natural for them to deflect the pain onto me. It wasn't just standard bullying fare either, like picking on me because I was little and I wore glasses. A lot of it was because I was part Chinese, not full Filipino like them. I got the slanty eyes a lot, and the "Let's see if we can blindfold Theresa with this dental floss" a lot. My family always explained this to me as their way of making me feel included; it was kind of a rite of passage that my older cousins went through with our older older cousins, and they'd insisted I'd feel left out if they didn't beat up on me.

It wasn't so much that I wanted to be included, either. In the end, I realized I didn't want to be accepted by any of these people. I mostly wanted to feel like I had some control and agency. I wanted someone to be on my side and help me feel brave. My parents were not big on teaching or allowing me to speak up in most situations, and when it came to my cousins, their best (only) advice was to ignore them, which was difficult to do when I was at their house almost every day. Their other solution -- signing me up for Tae Kwon Do -- only opened me up to more ridicule at a time where I wanted to minimize the my exposure to Asian things as much as possible.

I harnessed all of that frustration by going punk in high school, by writing, and by taking a special interest in social justice. Focusing on injustice in the world around me was a way for me to speak out without standing up to my bullies face-to-face. And this fear of speaking up still haunts me as an adult -- I still have a recurring theme in my nightmares of needing to scream but not having a voice. And, obviously I'm still passive-aggressively blogging my issues to avoid the discomfort of confronting some of the bullies I still have contact with.

Since the day I was pregnant with my older kid, I promised myself that, as a mom, I wouldn't go out that way. I would teach my child assertiveness, I would let her know I supported her, and I would make sure she fought back. But it's tricky to teach skills that I never learned myself. My husband has mostly taken over as the king of being assertive and fighting back, but I find myself occasionally getting in the way by being overly concerned about having a polite, well-behaved child -- just like I was when I was young.

At the very least, racial isolation is not something we have to worry about in our elementary school. For one, like Aimee Phan recently wrote in the NY Times, we pay a premium to live in L.A. specifically to avoid that type of thing. But our daughter also attends a magnet school where only 37% of the student body is white, and a whopping 31% of the student body is Asian (as opposed to my old high school's measly 8%). That said, racial integration isn't necessarily a remedy to good ol' garden variety bullying.

I did end up sending a diplomatic email to my daughter's teacher, to let her know what she said and that I would continue to ask her if the situation improved. My husband and I also had a long talk with our girl, telling her that it was okay to tell people she doesn't like it when they are being mean to her.

And after a phone call to the teacher to get more information, it didn't seem to be much of a bullying situation at all, really. In the end, they were boys my daughter chose to play with every day -- the teacher even asked if we knew them from before Kindergarten because they acted so familiar with each other -- and maybe she just didn't have the words to tell them, "Hey, I don't like when you guys say those things or play rough like that." I may have jumped the gun with my Mama Bear steez, but hopefully my kid gained at least a little of the courage I never had.


Theresa Celebran Jones


Theresa Celebran Jones was born and raised in Connecticut and has moved cross-country four times. She currently lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two young daughters. She works full-time as a technical writer and is an MFA dropout. Her only other hobbies are reading, taking pictures, scrapbooking, and listening to hip hop. Clearly she has no social life.



I'm sure you will get boneheaded comments from people who insist that you're teaching your daughter to see race as a big deal, and therefore you are the one perpetuating racism. However, I think you're doing an important thing; looking out for your daughter and being ready to teach her to deal with microaggressions (and aggression-aggressions).