This week, I counsel a White mom on how to get her Korean daughters’ school to address constant anti-Asian slurs and harassment.
For financial reasons, we recently moved across a county border to a mostly White town from a small, diverse city. Before we moved, our two daughters, who are adopted from Korea, had many friends, including Asian and Black and other adoptees. Now they are each the only Asian kid in their grades, which is very hard for my older one who is in fifth grade.
Though we are close to our old home and the girls see their friends on weekends, school is a lonely and often unfriendly place. Both girls have been racially hassled for the first time, including a boy who called my little one a slur (which she didn’t understand, thank God) and other kids who use their fingers to make their eyes slant (imitating Asian eyes) and one kid who keeps telling my older girl to go back to China. I thought in 2017 things would not be like this!
My husband and I (who are both White) want to raise a big stink at the school and advocate on behalf of our children, but my older daughter is begging us not to. She says it will make her stand out even more and that right now she wants to keep a low profile (not her words).
How can we help her without making things harder at school?
I understand your rage. Of course you want to stand up for your daughters and make the school accountable. I also understand your older girl’s wish to blend in, regardless of how different she is being made to feel.
You made it clear that this move was not something you wanted but that it was a necessity for financial reasons. You’re also clearly aware that the move was not ideal for your girls socially. Under the best of circumstances, it’s hard to be new in school and make friends from scratch. But when you’re seen as racially “other” it’s even harder.
I have to say, I’m slightly alarmed at the racial ignorance coming from kids who live so close to a diverse city, even if it’s a county away, as you say. I wonder if this is a situation when proximity breeds fear of the “other.” It is possible that the kids in your daughters’ new school are hearing negative things about minorities in their homes because their parents are threatened by the closeness of such diversity to their homogenous enclave.
In any case, your daughters should not have to bear the brunt of anyone’s ignorance. Since this is a new and probably shocking situation for them, your first concern is their wellbeing. Support them so that they don’t internalize the slurs and become ashamed of their identity. Make sure they know they did nothing wrong and that they are—as they have always been—wonderful, valuable people. They should be proud of being all of who they are—and that includes being Korean.
Next, remind them that bullies bully people because they feel small and weak—bullying is the only way bullies know to feel powerful.
Next, provide your girls with a mini-script of what to say when and if the bullying happens again. Role play with each of them. Make up skits where you play your daughter and she plays the bully. Then switch roles. Practice until each girl feels strong and validated.
Here’s are some examples:
Bully: Why do your eyes go like that? (twists corners of eyes in mockery of Asian features.)
RESPONSE: Why do I have fingers sticking out of my eyes? Last I checked I didn’t.
Bully: Go back to China!
RESPONSE: Excuse me—where should I go?
Bully: You heard me. Back to China!
RESPONSE: Dude. I’m Korean not Chinese. And I’ll go when you go back to Europe.
Of course, you don’t want your child picking a fight with a larger, tougher kid. Frankly the best response to these remarks is NO RESPONSE AT ALL. Best to roll her eyes, shake her head, and walk away. In any case, the goal of all these options is the same. Bullies stop bullying when they cannot get a rise out of the victim. When your daughters show they cannot be hurt by these (obviously, understandably hurtful) attacks, the bullies lose face—and lose the game in general.
In advising your daughters to feign indifference and walk away, you must stress that you are not indifferent. The bullying behavior is unacceptable and must be taken seriously by the adults involved to stop the abuse.
You and your husband are well within your rights to raise a stink and you may well have to. First, I would request a meeting with the school principal, a social worker and the girls’ teachers. Do this via email, in which you document every incident your daughters have described to you. This way, in case you have to take legal action at some point, you have everything in writing: The events as well as your efforts to address them with the school.
Come prepared. Prior to the meeting, go online and gather some antiracism resources for schools. For example, the Anti-Defamation League has a page on their site for diversity trainings for staff, as well as anti-bias, bullying-prevention guidelines for educators and parents.
At the meeting itself, give the school officials the benefit of the doubt and ask what steps they plan on taking to ensure that this sort of behavior does not continue. If they stammer and draw blanks, this is where you offer the information you’ve gleaned from the web.
Be warned however: The school may deny that racism was the motivating force in the incidents. If this is a largely White school where there is no precedent for racist bullying, the officials may take a brush-it-under-the-rug, “kids will be kids” attitude. They may also become defensive and suggest that your child may have invited the treatment. Either is unacceptable.
If the school refuses to take your daughters’ plight seriously and refuses to hold the bullies accountable, you may need to contact the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights to file a complaint.
In any case, you must hold the school to the standards your daughters deserve. Then follow up until things change.