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Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Raising Children of Color in White Anarchist Circles (2004)


Written by Victoria Law   
Sunday, 19 September 2004
 Siu Loong means "Little Dragon" in Cantonese. 
But Siu Loong herself isn't Cantonese. She isn't even one hundred percent Chinese. Through me, she can claim to be Hakka, Suzhonese and Shanghainese. From her father, she can claim to be Finnish, Hungarian and Jewish. But she is also an American living among American anarchists, where none of this supposedly matters.
Before motherhood became a consideration, I paid little attention to the lack of color in the New York City anarchist "scene." So what if no one looked like me? Weren't we all struggling for the same thing?
Pregnancy made me sit up and look around at the demographics of the anarchists around me. Yes, I had followed (but not participated) in the short-lived discussion on white privilege in Seattle's protests against the WTO. Yes, I would confront my fellow anarchists about their internalized racism. But I never really went further and questioned why there were so few people of color-never mind people of color like me-in the anarchist movement.
Motherhood forced me to open my eyes. Before the recommended six weeks of postpartum rest were up, I was up and about on my various projects. Virtually everyone was supportive of my new role as mother and on-call cow. However, I started noticing small things that bothered me about my (mostly white) activist circles.
For starters, no one could pronounce my daughter's name correctly. It was pronounced, "Sue Long," "Siu Long," "Sue La," any which way except the way it was supposed to be pronounced. If people didn't have trouble making a small circle with their lips to say the word "siu," they couldn't remember that "loong" had two "o"s. One person tried to shorter her name to Suzy. I very firmly put a stop to that.
Before Siu Loong could even remember her environment, I looked at the young children who made up the anarchist scene. Who would she be playing with when she grew old enough to interact with other kids?
Most anarchists do not have children. Whether this is a political statement or a personal choice, the face remains that anarchist children are few and far between. On the Lower East Side, the anarchists who choose parenthood and had enough support to remain somewhat involved in the movement tend to be white.
It bothers me that Siu Loong's companions are almost all white. I do not want her growing up in an all-white (or predominantly white) environment. I do not want her to wonder if she is somehow incorrect for not having blond hair and blue eyes as many of her peers do. When I have brought this up with other anarchist parents, they dismiss my concerns. Of course they do not have to worry about whether their child will feel as if she does not belong. Their children, even those who are of mixed parentage, have white skin. They do not have to worry that their child may feel as if she is not as good as her lighter-skinned, lighter-haired friends. They do not have to worry about the fact that our small community sometimes mirrors the racism and ethnocentrism found out in the larger world.
Sometimes I wonder if I obsess about race too much. I buy her books that emphasize her Chinese heritage and, more importantly, have characters that look like her. When she began Early Head Start, I was secretly thrilled that there were no white children in her class. When she entered Head Start seven months later, I was delighted that ten of the fifteen kids running around were Chinese and that all spoke Cantonese. No one mispronounced Siu Loong's name, not even the non-Chinese teachers.
However, the parents and caretakers of these children are not ones with whom I share anything except an ancestral homeland. For the most part, we do not share the same language and thus cannot talk with each other. Some of them do not return my tentative or "Jou sahn" when we pass each other in the hall or wait for the elevator together. I do not know their politics and opinions. After seeing my punk rock babysitter, they may have guessed mine, although this did not prevent them from electing me the chairperson of both the Class Committee and the Settlement House's Policy Committee. But because we have virtually nothing in common, we do not arrange for our children to see each other outside the classroom. Perhaps because their children are full-blooded Chinese, often raised in a community of other full-blooded Chinese, they do not see arranging play dates with the other Chinese children as a concern. Or perhaps they already do, but because my Cantonese is limited to ordering food and asking for prices, I am left out of the invitation loop.
In addition, despite my visible pleasure at Siu Loong being around children who share the more neglected half of her heritage, I feel as if I'm compromising some of my anti-authoritarian beliefs by placing her in a school-like atmosphere. She not only picks up the odd Cantonese phrase but also the seemingly senseless rules and regulations found in all classrooms.
One evening, as I sat and talked with a friend, Siu Loong grabbed my legs. "Put your feet like this," she commanded, attempting to bend my legs into a cross-legged position. Then she grabbed my hands.
"Put your hands like this," she demanded, intertwining my fingers and then folding my hands.
This was not a comfortable position for a grown woman in a chair, so I promptly uncrossed my legs and unfolded my hands.
Siu Loong tried to reposition me again.
"This isn't comfortable," I protested.
"It is comfortable," she insisted, trying to bend my fingers.
"You need to sit like that so I can read you a story," she added.
That was when I realized that, for some unknown and probably nonsensical reason, Siu Loong's teachers were having their charges sit for story time with folded hands and crossed legs.
The logic of this escapes me. Isn't it enough that the kids are seated and quiet? Why impose a needless rule? Especially one that she will parrot and annoy me with?
Often, I feel as if my life is split. If I want to be around people who think as I do, who believe and are willing to fight for the same things, they will not look as I do. They will not share the same culture or upbringing. I will have to explain certain aspects of my life and sometimes have these aspects be misunderstood or distorted. If I choose to be with those who share my culture and collective history, I risk having my individuality misunderstood or ignored. During high school, I chose to be with other Chinese. We shared nothing except a common ancestry. In that circle of friends, my needs and wants as an individual and as an emerging anarchist were ignored. As an adult, I have been asked why I choose to be around so many white people, why I do not choose to be around "my own." In this circle, my needs and wants as a woman of color are ignored.
Sometimes I wonder if Siu Loong feels the split as acutely as I do. I wonder if she notices that, around white people, virtually anything is okay. She can run and climb and laugh and shout. She can even take all of her clothes off. No one will chastise her. The most that will happen is that the grown-ups will laugh.
However, among those who look more like she does, whether they be schoolmates or relatives, such behavior is not only not laughed at, but actively discouraged and chastised.
When I try to talk with my anarchist friends about this split in my life and hers, they don't get it. Why is it important that I send Siu Loong to "school"? Why am I subjecting Siu Loong to regiment and restrictions at such an early age? Can't I find an alternative source of childcare for her-one that does not reinforce models of hierarchy and oppression? And why am I so hung up on race? One anarchist described my concerns about race and ethnicity as "nationalistic bullshit."
How can I raise a baby anarchist of color if my choices lay between a white, color-blind movement or a gathering of those who can identify with her looks and heritage, but little else?
I'm still struggling to find some sort of balance between these two extremes. It's hard to think of solutions when those around me-both my peers and the parents of Siu Loong's peers-do not acknowledge that there is a problem. This reflects a larger issue-white anarchists' refusal to discuss race, racism and exclusivity in the movement. Knowing this doesn't make it any easier. I am still struggling alone with this concern.

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