by Aeriel A. Ashlee
“Take a deep breath.” These four words have become a daily mantra amidst the chaos that is the new normal of my everyday life. A friend, and fellow Korean American adoptee, recently referred to the world right now as a “dumpster fire.” Yeh, that sounds about right. And, it’s my dumpster; my city that is on fire.
It was a bright May morning, we were walking down our back alley toward a large retaining wall made of big boulders. My 19-month-old daughter, who loves to climb everything, starts most of her mornings these days trying to summit the 5-foot “rock wall.” As we made our way to her morning mountain, I told her that we needed to have a serious talk. She scampered away, squealing with anticipation as she neared the base of the wall.
“Baby, are you listening to mommy?” I asked in a serious tone.
“Yeah!” She exclaimed, emphatically nodding her head while reaching up to find her footing to start the ascent.
Taking a deep breath, I started, “Mommy has been having a hard time this week.” I felt unsure of how to put into comprehensible words the mix of emotions that had pummeled me over the previous five days since George Floyd was brutally murdered on camera by Minneapolis police.
“Yeh…” my daughter replied, her voice full of empathy and concern. Her eyes darted between me and the rock wall, searching for where to reach next.
I took a deep breath, lifting my face to the sky, soaking in the warm early-summer sun. I listened to the birds singing and relished in the feeling of my lungs and chest expanding. I live on the North West side of Minneapolis, in a quiet residential neighborhood affectionately called “Bird Town.” When my husband and I moved back to my home state of Minnesota last summer, we knew that we wanted to be in the Twin Cities. As an interracial couple with a young multiracial daughter, we wanted to prioritize living in a racially, ethnically, and culturally diverse community. Yet despite these good intentions we ended up buying a house on a predominantly White block. As I have watched the events in South Minneapolis unfold on my social media feeds, it seemed like what’s happening is a world away.
But in reality, the Cup Foods and Lake Street area, the heart of the protests and the catalyst for what is being called the “Minneapolis Uprising”, is just 20 minutes from where I live.
Recognizing my complicity in all of this through my race and class privilege has caused guilt to surge in my stomach and a sour taste to thicken in my mouth.
But we chose this, we may have justified our decision by rationalizing that we wanted a “safe neighborhood” with “good schools” for our daughter, and we used our positional privilege to prioritize our family’s interests in a society built upon institutional racism.
The helicopter propellers and emergency vehicle sirens from the nearby hospital brought me back to the present moment and my imperfect yet urgent attempt to explain systemic racism, anti-Blackness, and White supremacy to my Asian and White multiracial child.
“A man named George Floyd lost his life this week,” I continued. Immediately, I felt ashamed, knowing that this description was too passive. I paused. Was I really going to talk about murder with my baby? Taking another deep breath, I started again. “He was killed by a Minneapolis police officer. Many people are sad, mad, and angry, and they are demanding justice.”
“Justice!” she parroted back to me, making my heart swell.
Taking another deep breath, I stumbled through the words, my heart crushed that I could not protect my not-yet-two-year-old from the hate and hurt of racism. Just two months earlier, a new wave (in a long history) of anti-Asian racism had rolled through the country (and around the world) in light of COVID-19. On the heels of the global pandemic an influx of Sinophobic hate crimes forced many Asian Americans to confront racism in an acute and painful way.
And then I thought of all the Black mothers who have had to have their own version of this conversation; everyday for hundreds of years, as a matter of life or death. Privilege formed a lump in my throat, threatening to open the flood gates of guilty tears, but I swallowed them down. This is not about me.
This is not about me, and it is important for me to name my positionality. As a transracial adoptee–who because of my White family–has benefited from a proximity to whiteness and White supremacy; as an Asian American Person of Color who holds light-skinned privilege and refuses to be used as a racial wedge weaponizing the model minority myth; as a partner in an interracial marriage; as the mother of a multiracial child; as an educator committed to facilitating healing and liberation; and as a Minneapolis resident, I am affected. I have work to do. I must engage in critical self-reflexivity to address and unlearn my own internalized anti-Blackness. I must respond to racist comments and ideology in my workplace and in my neighborhood. I must commit to being actively anti-racist and demonstrate that I value Black people in life, and not only in death. Although I have not and will not do things right every time, I am committed to infusing social justice and anti-racism into my everyday life and one way that I can do that is in how I talk about George Floyd’s murder with my daughter.
Coming back to the present moment again, I watched my determined little one look up at the boulders in a retaining wall at least three-times her height. Her small face contemplated the immensity of the task before her, as she scanned the rocks immediately in front of her and tried again. Choosing a new climbing route, bringing the same determination.
Inspired by my littlest love, I took yet another deep breath and started once again. “Our country, and much of the world, is broken and unfair. Black people…” My voice trailed off as I realized this was too abstract. I shifted tactics. “Black people, like Uncle Wilson, Auntie Mika, Stephen and Sebastian aren’t treated fairly. When Mr. George was killed earlier this week, it hurt a lot of people. They are marching in the streets protesting racism, specifically anti-Black racism. Mommy wishes she could march too, but with you and Nanna and the coronavirus it's not safe. So instead I’m showing up how I can, I am talking about Mr. George with daddy, Teagan, Grampa, and the students I teach.”
“Daddy! Teagan! Grampa!” my daughter trilled with joy! These are some of her favorite people in the world, and so she broke into a huge grin. I cupped her precious little booty, spotting her as she searched for her next foot holding. I leaned in and took a deep breath. Breathing in her sweet scent, I whispered, “I love you so much.”
“Yup,” she responded matter-of-factly.
“This week has been hard for mommy,” I continued. “Hard in a way that is different than for daddy.” She perked up, lifting her chin to meet my gaze, eyes beaming at the sound of his name. “Mommy is a Person of Color,” I explained. But knowing this means nothing to her yet, I tried again. “Mommy looks different from Nanna, Grampa, Gramma, and even daddy. Some people don’t like differences, and they are mean just because of how someone looks.” I know talking about meanness doesn’t even begin to touch the realities of systemic racism, and it seemed like a reasonable, albeit insufficient, place to start the conversation.
My daughter’s little brow furrowed. I had lost her. Closing my eyes for just a moment, I took a deep breath and asked God for the words. Trying again, I said, “This week mommy felt very sad and alone.” There I said it. A truth that had been keeping me up at night, that had robbed me of my appetite all week, but that I hadn’t actually confronted or uttered out loud.
“Mr. George’s death has been impacting different people differently…” I sucked in a sharp breath and let the truth tumble out. “We are People of Color and most of our family is White..." My voice trailed off as I tried to figure out how to explain our transracial, interracial, multiracial family to my little girl. Squeezing her tightly I continued, “You are Asian American, like mommy.” Her eyes lit up. Already she knows we share a special kinship. There are some times when daddy, Nanna, or Grampa–people who love us fiercely–might not understand what we are experiencing because they are White. Regardless of how much they love us, we experience racism differently than they do because we are the target of systemic racism and they are not. Sometimes it might feel lonely, being People of Color in a White family. And even though our White family's experiences with racism may be different from ours, they are still hurt by racism. Everyone is hurt by racism; and so we must all work for racial justice together."
Immediately conscious of the limitations of this dichotomous depiction of us versus them (People of Color versus White folks) and cognizant of the ways in which my daughter’s multiracial existence transgresses this binary thinking, I continued, “You are a Person of Color like mommy, and you are also White, like daddy and Nanna.” As I pressed on, my friend Lisa, a biracial Filipina and White womxn who has generously shared parts of her experience growing up in a monoracist society as a multiracial person comes to mind,
“You are both,” I asserted. “Sometimes that might feel hard or confusing, being White and an Asian Person of Color. But no matter what anyone else says, you don’t have to choose one.” Aware that I may be saying all this more for my benefit than for hers, I added with a sigh of relief, “Mommy is so grateful for you, because now I’m not alone.”
“Tada!” she exclaimed proudly, arms raised high above her head as she stood with glee and pride, marveling at her accomplishment from atop the rock retaining wall. “Good job, baby!” I beamed back at my little one. As I lifted her down to the ground and kissed her chunky cheeks, I said, “We love Uncle Wilson, Auntie Mika, Stephen, and all Black people, not just the ones we know.”
“Yeah!” she confirmed, vigorously nodding her head in agreement.
“Okay so that means we have to check in with them and fight for them to be treated equitably.”
“Mm-hmm” she concurred decidedly.
As I carried my beloved baby down the alley back to our yard, I promised, “We are going to continue talking about race, about why Black Lives Matter, and about your experience as a multiracial Person of Color. Mommy isn’t always going to know the words to say, but we will do our best.” Squeezing her little body close I took another deep breath, and I felt less alone.
Dr. Aeriel A. Ashlee is Assistant Professor at St. Cloud State University and co-founder of Ashlee Consulting. She serves on the KAAN Advisory Council and as the Transracial Adoptee Advocacy & Education Coordinator on the NASPA Multiracial Knowledge Community Leadership Team. Aeriel lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota with her husband and their amazing daughter.