White Child, We Need to Talk About Racism
In the car, I ask if you remember how you told me coronavirus got started.
“Yeah, with bat blood.”
“Right,” I say. “In China. Did you know some people are blaming people from China and people who look like they might be Chinese for starting the coronavirus?” I park the car and turn in my seat to look at you. “Some people say mean things like, ‘Cough, cough, corona’ to a random Asian person taking a walk, just like we are. What do you think of that?”
Double thumbs down. “Not good.” Your face is a mix of horror and contemplation like a bad guy just put tacks in the tires of our race car and you’re thinking about how we’ll get out of this mess.
“I know. It’s an example of racism.”
You unbuckle your seatbelt. “They should blame the butcher who should have been more careful with the bat blood.”
I wonder how many times I’ve told you to be more careful. “But he didn’t know,” I say. “Viruses can emerge anywhere. What good would it do anyway?”
You shrug it off conceding that blame is a weak tactic.
We pick up a book from your teacher’s porch and then repark closer to the woods. Chancing the sun between storm clouds, we take a familiar path to the burnt out Buttercup Cottage and beyond to where we climb down to the water.
Lately, ideas like “Blame the Chinese and Everyone Who Looks Like Them: The Impacts of Racism and COVID-19” and “Undercounted Low-Income Asian American Native Hawaiian Pacific Islanders Miss Out with Lack of Delegated Census Resources: COVID Exacerbates the Problem” and “Fear of Anti-Asian Attacks Prevents Some from Seeking Testing” swim in my head. Article headlines I want to write. Dread writing. Dread reading that they’ve already been written. In the woods we sit on the edge of rocks watching the forceful pull of the Wissahickon Creek after weeks of rain. Somewhere in there is a metaphor for how these thoughts nag at my mind. Somewhere in there the struggle to swim against the tide of a country founded on colonialism.
I try to come back to the present. The number of times in the last week you’ve said, “Snap out of it,” to me as I cut myself off mid sentence drifting back into thoughts of my writing and research. There’s Celine Tien’s piece I’m Chinese. That Doesn’t Mean I Have the Virus. I keep thinking we’ve been down this road before, not with COVID-19 but with a pandemic of racism. Think: slavery, Jim Crow Laws, and the lasting impact on Blacks in the US in the form of defunded public schools, prison-industrial complex, a flooded child welfare system, and higher rates of chronic health problems and lower life expectancy. I wish that I brought my notebook. I’m glad I didn’t bring my notebook. I take off my mittens. The sun is strong. Somehow it feels exponentially lighter in the late afternoons like summer is around the bend ready to pounce.
“Come on,” you say. “We have to find a really big rock to put right here.” Your sandled foot is in the rushing water. “We can redirect the water. Actually we don’t need a big rock, lots of little rocks will work too.” Indeed, lots of little rocks. Each of us, on our own, is only a little rock but a community of little rocks, now we’re talking.
On March 18th, President Trump Tweeted, “I always treated the Chinese Virus very seriously, and have done a very good job from the beginning, including my very early decision to close the ‘borders’ from China — against the wishes of almost all”. Borders: this unstable notion of defined territory. The water shoves our rocks and stream plants aside. Maybe the water is the power of community, the power of a tide of people, unstoppable.
It’s been almost 19 years since the 9/11 attacks and we are still witnessing the reverberating effects of anti-Muslim rhetoric, from punishing a demographic of people based on the actions of a few.
I’m getting hungry, ready to walk back to the car, ready to wash off our muddy feet, ready for my girlfriend, Jesse, to come over so we can chop veggies for rice bowls while you tell us about how you memorized the computer keys to make a Wild Kratts character jump. And do we know about carnivorous plants? I’ll tell Jesse about the articles I’m working on and everything else turning in my head. We start back up the path. You toss your grappling hook high into the sky so we can get over the lava. When our arms get tired of pulling the imaginary rope above our heads we switch to hover boards.
Celine Tien wrote in her piece that she has “learned to be fearful of things possibly more contagious than COVID-19: racism and the silence of those who witness it”.
What can I do with all this? What I know how to do: write. Start conversations. Ask questions. Share other people’s stories. Vote. Inform you, my white male child. Keep The New York Times open on the kitchen table. Deepen our friendships. Stock up on our collections of diversity-represented kids books with characters doing ordinary things. Do those ordinary things. Come back to the woods over and over. Listen and be ready to grow in ways we don’t yet know how in order to stand as an ally, in order to be a witness who takes action, in order to stand beside people like Celine Tien so she and more than 19,041,252 AAHPIs aren’t more afraid of racism than COVID-19. We are in this together.