When Your Kids Experience Racism



When we were getting ready for bed the other evening, Little Brother said to me, “Everyone at school thinks I’m Japanese.”

Absentmindedly, I told him, “Did you tell them you’re half-Taiwanese or half-Chinese?”

“But they just keep doing this,” he replied.

I looked over at him, cringing at what I saw. His little pointer fingers were at the corners of his eyes, pulling his lids into slanted slits. I felt sick to my stomach.


In a split second, I had to decide how to react. My instinct was to find out who these horrible kids are and who are their parents who are teaching them these things (or sitting idly by while their formative minds are exposed to and soaking in racism). If I said nothing or blew it off, it would condone those actions, and make Little Brother feel like this was a normal and acceptable thing for people to do to him. If I reacted with outrage, I might make him feel victimized when he didn’t otherwise feel that way. What I needed to do was to let him know it’s wrong for those kids to call attention to his race in a belittling way, give him some simple words he could use in response, and explain to him the idea of stereotypes being rooted in biased perceptions — and not reality. All in language a second grader can understand and while reminding him to brush his teeth.


“Who said that to you?” I demanded.

He must have sensed that I was pretty mad at whoever did this, because he went into protective mode. “I dunno… just kids at school.”

“Your friends? Because your real friends wouldn’t do that.”

*Deep breath* This is what I told him after that, “It’s rude for people to say that to you. If someone does that again, you tell them them to stop, okay? That’s not what you look like. That’s not what real Japanese people look like, it’s just something people do.”


I feel so helpless. Why don’t I have better comebacks for these kinds of childhood taunts? Perhaps because I didn’t know the words to use when I was a kid. The only advice I ever received (if I ever received any) was to just ignore them and they will go away. They don’t, by the way.

Why do I feel the same sense of shame and speechlessness, thirty some years later? The words I’d use as an adult writing about race seem pedantic and pretty ineffective against schoolyard taunts. It’s hard for me to even call those children bullies. It seems so harsh, like I will be called the bad guy for even saying that. But it is bullying, perhaps in a fairly innocuous way, but this is how it starts.

This is important, because Asian American students report the highest rates of bullying, 20% higher than other races.

I thought about talking to someone at school — a teacher or administrator — but quite honestly, I’m not sure whether that will help. And it could possibly make things worse. I don’t know who exactly is doing this, so we can’t report specific kids. And there aren’t that many Asian students at school, so if I asked for the teacher to address this in a general way, I’m afraid I’d be opening my son up for scrutiny. To complicate the situation further, I am mulling over ideas from Emily Bazelon’s new book about bullying Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy. One of the ideas that caught my attention was the problem of diagnosing bullying too soon and too often, which can lead to a child being perceived as a victim or a complainer, and then harassed even more.

If you are person who has never experienced this kind of bullying, I suspect you may think this is unacceptable and of course I should speak up. I’ve had that happen before, being somewhere and a racial epithet is yelled out from a passing car or a subtle jab is made by someone, and my white friend is more outraged than I am. I just sigh and shrug. It’s just part of being Asian in America. So forgive me if I am surprisingly resigned and defeated about this. I just don’t know what to do. Am I rolling over, right in line with stereotypes about Asians? Or is my inaction simply knowing when to choose my battles?


One year ago this week, Trayvon Martin was shot and killed. In the aftermath, many black parents wrote about The Talk they have with their sons in teaching them how to handle potentially life or death situations of  racial profiling. That’s in a different league than elementary school teasing, but it has me wondering… what do we need to teach our children so they can deal with racism?

I know Little Brother is a smart, confident, popular kid, so I’m not that worried about it. But I’m still worried.

For more of my thoughts on how to talk to children about race, read Why You Need to Talk to Your Kids About Race on The Mother Company.

Have your children experienced racism or discrimination? How have you dealt with it?

Did your parents teach you how to respond to racism?

Let’s talk…



  1. says

    Our recent experience: The other week at Taiko drumming, my son tripped and broke a wooden drum stand. Another boy in the class called him a “Stupid Mexican baby.” I found out in an email from the teacher that outlined what happened and how she handled it (I was pleased with how she handled it). I tried talking with my son but he didn’t mention anything negative happening other than tripping. At the next week’s practice he practically refused to go into class and was near tears because skipping class wasn’t an option. Finally he told me about the name-calling incident from the week prior and I knew he didn’t want to face that boy. Ugh. He held it in all week. This was sort of a first for us.

    • says

      Oh no. Poor guy. It’s hard to know what to do. I’m glad the teacher noticed it and stepped in. For what it’s worth, that should help your son feel like the authority figure at least has his back!

  2. says

    I guess we are pretty lucky – there are no racist remarks and I doubt there will be any. It is very sad when children at tender age are acting up like that. All I can say is I wish you and your child strength to remain kind and open-minded. Racist and nationalist remarks can really leave scars in one’s heart. I’ll be sharing this on Sulia if you don’t mind to bring more awareness.

    • says

      Thanks for comment and for sharing on Sulia. Racism is an uncomfortable subject to talk about with kids, but if we as parents can start talking about it and encourage one another, that’s a start.

  3. says

    I’m so sorry your child had to go through that. It’s horrible that these types of taunts still go on today and how still some people brush it off like it’s nothing or “the kid didn’t know any better.” I think it would be great.. if moms, folks in the blogging world and non-profit organizations can come out together and start some real conversations that focus on education and awareness… i think it would be really powerful if it came from moms. And even holds hands with other moms of color and all moms to stand together and say this is wrong and embrace diversity.

    • says

      Thank you, Jane. I wrote this partly because I thought if more parents (of all colors) knew the effects of seemingly “harmless” comments, they might work with their kids against this racial bullying, instead of laughing it off or looking the other way. And I’m encouraged that many mothers of different ethnicities have shared and re-tweeted this already. I appreciate your support!

  4. says

    As I recall my worst bullying had to do with my being the smart kid instead of the Chinese kid (somewhat surprising in the very white area I grew up in). I do remember my parents telling me I had “the best of both worlds” as far as being of mixed race went (that’s a classic, right?), and that people who made fun of me did it because they felt bad about themselves and not me. I guess they started that early enough because I remember believing them and not being super-disturbed by any of it. Mostly I thought kids who said that stuff were idiots, possibly because my parents never showed any signs that I remember of thinking that those opinions needed to be taken seriously. (They don’t think being part Chinese is awesome? Of course they’re idiots!)

    My brother apparently on one occasion when being given crap about being half Chinese told the other kid that his ancestors were inventing gunpowder when the other kid’s ancestors were still painting themselves blue. I really wish I’d been there to see that one!

    Hope this turns out to be an isolated incident for Little Brother.

  5. says

    Great piece! The other day a kid at school walked up to my son (4th grader) and asked, “Are you Mexican?” My son said, “no”. That was the end of their conversation. The kid who asked the question is in a lower grade. But, the episode struck me as odd. I always wonder if something like this is just a kid trying to sort out racial identity differences among schoolmates or something else.

    • says

      Christina, I definitely think there’s an element of kids trying to sort out racial identity, especially as there are many mixed-race kids who don’t neatly fit into the racial categories we’re trained to see. I’ve had kids come up to my sons (and myself) and ask “What are you?” in an innocuous way. When they are curious, they seem to also want to talk about their own ethnicity and are processing what other people are. When I was a kid in the Midwest, people asked me if I was Chinese or Japanese, as well as Mexican or Puerto Rican. Their questions seemed more judgmental than what I see my kids experiencing. But I still feel it’s something to keep an eye on.

  6. Chris says

    Your son’s a great kid, and I’m sorry someone said something that bothered him. Not to excuse what was said, but kids at that age and in that class say and ask a lot of things, sometimes just out of curiosity, without being fully aware of the implications. I helped in that class yesterday. Between the windy day and my having hurriedly pulled off a sweatshirt, my hair apparently looked awful. Within five minutes, three kids asked me what was wrong with my hair. Perhaps they’re still learning the types of questions they ask, even if they’re just curious, can sometimes make the other person uncomfortable. Pulling the eyes, even if it’s meant in a not-mean way, makes it even tougher.

    • says

      Thanks for the perspective. I know kids sometimes say or ask things because they are trying to figure things out. The hard part as a parent is to discern between what’s healthy processing and what’s mean-spirited. If only there were easy answers… By the way, what is wrong with your hair?

  7. says

    My Japanese grandmother always told me that kids will always point out things that are different, but different isn’t necessarily bad. She always pointed out I myself might ask some pretty dumb questions or point out something if, say, an exchange student came to our class. She always reminded me that as a kid, even I pulled my eyes back and pretended I looked like her at one point in time (ouch).

    So, every time a kid would point out something different about me, I’d say something like “My eyes are almond-shaped, yours are blue, and so-and-so’s are green! Isn’t that cool we all are different? You’ve got curly hair and I’ve got straight hair!”

    I got the most teasing (since I look pretty Caucasian) when I’d bring something “weird” to eat. Whenever someone would “ewwww you are so gross!” over some dried fish, I’d tell them it was something amazingly delish, and would they like to try it, because they are totally missing out!

    Turning their comments into something positive shows that they can’t make fun of you (because if the comment was mean-spirited, it’s no fun if you brush it off and turn it around) and plus a lot of people ended up thinking my lunches were totally cool and it ended up being a great discussion about where my family was from, and where their family was from. The best is the next day at lunch, when the same person would come running up to tell me about where their family hailed from after asking their parents.

    When someone would yell something I couldn’t turn into something positive, I wouldn’t bother to respond to them, but would turn to someone close by and say “too bad they don’t understand!”

    • says

      I honestly think it was harder when I got older, when I was in high school and people said things like “You’re not really Japanese, you’re just pretending!” or when they came over and thought my grandmother was our housekeeper.

      Even now as an adult, I got told at work that “Eww… I don’t think I like you with eye makeup… It makes you look like some sort of Asian!”

      But with a nice sense of humor and an even better grasp of irony, things like this now just make me laugh, especially when my entire team of coworkers shouted back, “Duhh! She is part Asian!” The look on her face still makes me chuckle to this day. Getting offended wouldn’t take back the comment, but all us laughing at her made her a bit more careful about what she says.

  8. says

    My daughter hasn’t gotten anything yet (she’s only 2) but I think it’s important to keep things in perspective in that all kids of all colors, sizes, intelligence, get made fun of. It is going to happen at some point. Bullying is different, but some kind of teasing will happen to every kid.

    This isn’t to say it’s ok or shouldn’t be dealt with, I just don’t want my Chiquita to ever get the idea that the racist remarks actually mean something, any more than any other thing kids pick to tease on. I don’t want her to believe any of it and I worry that getting more upset about one mean remark over another could reinforce the idea rather than do away with it. Does that make sense?

  9. says

    I’m sorry to hear that this happened to your son. I probably would have said something similar to what you did. It’s a shame that it’s still happening.

  10. says

    Thanks for sharing this, Grace. It’s a painful topic to discuss. I remember being teased as a child too, especially in the Midwest where there were few Asians (“Chinese, Japanese, dirty knees, look at these!”). And even though it was humiliating then, it’s so much worse when your children have to deal with it too. It’s a punch in the gut.

  11. says

    I am so very sorry to hear this, Grace. I remember being bullied in school because I am a Latina. I also remembered being bullied in jobs. I never “handled” it, and, in truth, I don’t know that I could today. I’d probably just cry, because I am the type to not want to hurt the other person.

    My grandsons have experienced som racism in school, (they are half black and half latino), but nothing too serious though.

    One would think that times would change, but change doesn’t come easy.

  12. says

    Awww Grace, I’m sorry. I remember in first grade being made fun of because I brought “weird foods” like mangoes and rice. There was a playground taunt where the kids would say, “my daddy’s japanese, and my mommy’s korean so what am I?” and they would make their eyes slanted, one eye stretched slanted upwards, the other downwards. I don’t even remember thinking it was racism just stupidity because no one would look like that! I did bring it up to my parents and they laughed it off, maybe for the same reason I did, or maybe because racism is a hard topic and they had already dealt with even harder issues than stupid jokes (like living on a small island during and in the aftermath of WWII). I hope that I can talk to my kids honestly but there will be a huge pit in my stomach the whole time.

  13. connie says

    When any form of racism lands on one’s own child, it is as we as parents have finally stepped into a minefield. What is the right thing to say or not say to the child @ the time. Does saying anything to perpetrators really do anything or just embarrass / mortify your child ? Often, it is people in our own families, sometimes spouses/partners & those in our communities that are the least understanding or supportive. When my half – Asian 4 year old was teased to tears because she did not look like the rest of her Waldorf pre-school class, the other parents with the help of a lawyer, issued a political statement that “they did not see color”, whatever that means & was against racial prejudice. From that point on, they were never comfortable with us & we left the school shortly thereafter. The political Asian women’s group I was apart of @ the time gave me constructive criticism that I should have known that this would eventually happen & why did I not somehow emotionally/psychologically somehow inoculate my child to things like this. I feel for Travon Martin’s parents & any parent who has to figure any of this out. I wish there was a graphic or list of things to do or not do, to generate more harm. BTW, a very nice article in the NY Times FYI http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/07/opinion/coates-the-good-racist-people.html?src=me&ref=general&_r=0 … not that people who say they do not see color would bother to read …cheers & in solidarity with you as a mom.

    • says

      Wow, Connie. This is the first I’ve heard of people taking steps like that to assert how un-racist they are. The whole situation sounds so awkward, as I’m sure the other parents had good intentions, but I can see that causing some uncomfortable attention. One of the big problems in our society is that we have been taught to talk about race is somehow seeing problems where there are none, or asking for special excuses. I do think those white parents had the kind motivations, as I do believe that all people are created equal– but society hasn’t always treated them that way. And how do we live in a world where imperfect people have created these norms? More importantly, how do we teach our kids to navigate this world?

      As for the advice from your colleagues, I’m wondering if they had any specifics on how to innoculate children to these stings? I realized I reacted visibly in shock and horror, which made my son feel he was getting someone in trouble. Being made fun of for slanty-eyes is not the main problem. I’m more concerned with what could happen in the future, and want to start laying the groundwork to give my kids tools to recognize and handle racial prejudice in the future, and to know what action to take if needed. If only there were some guidelines!

      Thanks for sharing.

  14. says

    That’s terrible that happened to your son, and I dread the day it’ll likely happen to my daughter. It will bring back memories as that’s who I was teased by other kids when I was in elementary school. It’s hard to know how to handle it – as you mention if you say something to the school nothing may be done or it may make things worse. I don’t think it’s admitting defeat to ignore it – somethings are not worth engaging in.

  15. says

    So sorry that LB had to experience that taunting at school :(. I’d be raging mad too.

    I grew up in a mostly black neighborhood with no Asians, so I got that “eyes” and people saying things like “ching chang chong” to me. I ignored those people in public but it certainly irked me. When we moved to a neighborhood of mostly ethnicities, I didn’t feel so out of it.

    It wasn’t until I returned from 2 yrs in Taiwan that I made up racism in my head. I thought all white people were judging me. It was a very interesting thing.

    Anyways, I worry about bullying, not just about race but about anything these days kids bully over. As parents, we just have to take our kids’ cues and make sure it isn’t anything serious or that needs immediate attention. Like you said, I think LB will be fine for now.

  16. says

    Racist remarks are not very common where I live but a few months ago I was minding my own business at a very late soccer practice to pick up my daughter. There were two dozen other parents waiting around near me (a team that I didn’t know was going to Ireland and the coach was discussing the trip with them). A woman with three dogs was walking her dogs and one came over to me. The dog was medium sized, about 60 pounds, and started jumping on. I raised one knee to keep it off as I had been taught but I didn’t kick the dog. The woman called me a rude name and as I told her to control her dog and to really watch her word choice, she walked away. About 300 yards away, she yelled to me, “I shouldn’t have called you a cocksucker, I should have called you x, y, z.” X,Y, Z were racial insults I’m pretty sure though it was windy and I didn’t hear her very well.

    Now, she was far enough away that I could have ignored her. But frankly, I am sick of being the passive Asian female that looks the other way. Also, although I am very small (under 5 feet and less than 100 pounds), I have trained in kickboxing and boxing for years. Most recently, I have been boxing 3 times a week.

    So, I ran after her. I yelled, “Excuse me, what did you call me?!” The words sound nice but I said it in a mean way.

    As I closed in on her, she was surprised and said, “Peace. I shouldn’t have called you that.”

    We were in a faceoff and finally another dad that I didn’t know came up to ask me to forgive her and to walk away and also that she was a crazy person.

    My point is that for bullying, confrontation works really well. It’s not P.C. at all, but fighting works really well, if you have the upper hand.

    I have all my kids train in karate and kickboxing as well. When we have a physical incident of bullying, we tell our kids. If someone pushes you, you push back a little harder. If someone hits you, hit back a little harder. We had an incident when my son was 3. He finally pushed back his bully. The bully looked surprised and then they both ran off and were friends ever since.

    A bully needs a passive victim to play the game. The playground is where kids are trying to establish dominance, not unlike a dog pack.

    In truth, I would coach my son to say, “I don’t like it when you do that. If you do it again, I will punch you in the eye,” I bet that will shut it down and no one will try that again.

  17. says

    I would ask a teacher, principal and lawyer for advice.
    Parent to teacher or principal: “What would you recommend is the best response when a child is teased?”
    Sometimes rules and laws are logical and sometimes they are not. Maybe a tease in retaliation for a tease may stop the teasing. However, if the teasing escalates one of the zero tolerance policies may kick in and a student could find him or herself suspended, expelled or jailed.

  18. Dee hemphill says

    A coupl weeks ago my 0 yr old black daughter as called a black nigger from a Caucasian boy in her class, also he has been sexually harassing her about her butt and her breast , mainly the color of her skin and making racial comments such as ” don’t touch this or that because it probably belongs. A black person or white people are above all other races” I’ve reported it to her teacher, her vie principle but they just say ok we will talk to hi,. I’m no satisfied with the at all and don’t know what else to do.

  19. Yade says

    My now 8year old son’s racist bullying started when he was just 5. In the beginning it was poo or chocolate face which children obviously pointed out that his face was brown but I wasn’t offended as kids will be kids. However as he gotten older his bullies have learned the ‘N’ word. Now that is getting out of line. I’ve had meetings with the headmaster and teacher but they still do it. I’m just stuck with my next step. I’m thinking the police is the next option but u feel like this might be overreacting.??? What a dilemma???

    • says

      Sorry to hear about your child’s experience. Talking to the teacher or administrators seems like the right place to start, but it sounds like you have already done that. Is it a private school? Is there a higher board or administrative level you can report this to?


  1. […] Back when I was in college, I took an English Lit class focusing on post-Civil War Southern fiction, in which the idea of “twinning” was a big theme. By twinning, I mean the concept that there could be mixed-race twins, in which one sibling “passes” for white, and the other one is visibly black. I think about this often, as I watch my own sons developing their own personal and racial identities. As much as I try to emphasize to my children that they are multiracial — both Asian and white — they seem to be drawn to a more simplistic view. Big Brother seems to have a much stronger identification with being Asian – perhaps because he attended Chinese school for several years, or because he spent more time with my Taiwanese mother when he was a toddler, or perhaps because he is darker complexioned and there is no mistaking that he is not white. Sometimes, he’s been assumed to be Latino, given that we live in California. Ironically, it was my fair complected younger son who experienced racial taunting in the form of slanty-eyed gestures. […]

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