On Story, Skin, and Empathy

In the morning, when I twist the wooden blinds open to let in the light, small fingers are already skimming our bookshelves for favorite tales and new adventures. So many old friends from my own childhood stand sandwiched together there, though most of them are clothed in new editions, and introducing them to the girls is a ongoing source of joy and reminiscence for me.

We love the great books of children’s literature, and we read them heartily: “with voices,” in different languages, laughing as we remember funny details and foibles together. But occasionally, even as these stories weave themselves into our home and our vernacular, something happens that pulls me up short.

Ma’s outright hatred for American Indians in the Little House series, for instance.

Or the short, fat, “comically waddling,” slant-eyed, “altogether… highly satisfactory Chinaman” in Eight Cousins. 

Or the scene in The Horse and His Boy, in the Narnian world that’s as dear to me as my own, when both the reader and Shasta discover that we ought to have known he belonged to a better realm, because he is “fair and white.”

When I was a young girl, there were cold-water moments like these in my reading when I became suddenly unsure that the story was meant for me. Perhaps I didn’t really have a right to read or relate to this world I had so gladly entered. As a woman and mother now, I find that these moments happen still; yet, because I’ve grown as a reader, it’s the real life ones that jar me most.

When we moved to our town, I was constantly and acutely aware of how we stood out as minorities. Since then we’ve sunk roots deep enough that it’s not the foremost thing on my mind as we run errands or spend time as a family, but every so often I’m reminded that we look different — and that others notice.

“Oh, my goodness!” A woman clutches her friend’s elbow in a clothing store as they gaze down at Little Jo and Lucy. She looks up and smiles briefly at me. As they pass, I hear her say with enthusiasm to the friend, “Is there anything cuter than a little Asian girl?”

A cashier at a discount warehouse exclaims over Little Jo’s cheeks, then turns to Y and me to say encouragingly, “Don’t worry, her eyes will get bigger as she gets older.”

A random hipster downtown hails us with a confident Konnichiwa as he passes us on the crosswalk.

“You don’t have to worry about [proposed immigration policies], because you’re not an illegal immigrant. …Right?”

In the wake of such comments, I glance sidelong at Lucy. To be honest, in the episode at the warehouse, I was caught so off-guard that I only smiled and nodded and left as quickly as possible. It was only hours later that I remembered Lucy was at the front of the cart, that she likely heard, and I wished I’d had a better, loving response for the cashier.

Both life and literature are opening up topics for conversation with our increasingly cognizant firstborn. We talk about why Laura Ingalls’ fervent belief that golden curls are more beautiful than brown hair isn’t a fixed standard of beauty. I pause, searching for words, before we read the chapter in which Pa slicks back his whiskers and colors his face black for a minstrel show. Walking through the kitchen one afternoon with a thoughtful look on her face, Lucy tells me, “I can’t be Anne because my hair is black, so I’m pretending to be Diana.”

Oh. I try to form an answer with a half-washed bowl in my hand. “That is one thing you have in common with Diana… but you know how you love to imagine? That’s one of the best and most important things about Anne, so you can absolutely pretend to be her, too.” I watch as she turns the idea over in her mind, aching a little that children can feel “otherness” at so young an age.

In the evenings, I read the headlines, and I lose my words to heartbreak. How many mothers are fearing for the lives of beloved sons and daughters today? How many wives for their husbands as they report for work at a police station, and vice versa, and on — and on? I want to tell my children that perceptions change as people get older, that skin and color and heritage are regarded as causes to celebrate the rich beauty of our God rather than markers for stereotypes and greater evils, but that isn’t always — “isn’t often, even,” to borrow a phrase from Richard Rodgers — the case. There is no short road out of this kind of brokenness and hurt and tension, and I don’t know exactly where it begins.

But– in our home tomorrow, two little girls will clatter downstairs. They’ll curl up in their corner with their paperbacks and Caldecott-winning illustrations and hard conversation starters, and I will encourage them to keep reading.

Own these stories, little ones. Don’t let the jarring moments make you feel shut out of them. Roam their spaces. Grasp what is good about the people they feature: the courage of living as pioneers, Rose’s pluck and curiosity, Ma and Pa’s ability to make music and build solid homes in a strange land, every last bit of valor and humility in The Horse and His Boy — hold on to these things that highlight the best of what it is to be human.

Exercise your imaginations here so that, in personal cases of deep hurt, your minds will not leap to fearful defenses or escapist fantasies, but to compassion, and to finding connections with others that bridge painful gaps. We are cultivating an essential habit as we willingly enter story after story, and I pray that it will give you good practice in keeping tender. For everyone is scarred in different ways, and it takes a purposeful resilience — built through the repeated bringing of wounds to the Father — to keep from becoming calloused in the friction of living without closing off completely.

Thick skins, tender hearts: this is how we will bear His love.

*

It’s morning, and I’m ready.

Lucy plucks a book from the shelf and brings it to me. I clear my throat as Little Jo opens the cover, and we begin.

 

 

 

 

2 comments

  1. Beautifully written. I could identify with your reflections on experiencing otherness as an Asian living in the U.S. How you tell that part of your story is refreshing. You emphasize surprising human connections and encounters, rather than resentment towards racial prejudice. Thank you!

    1. So glad it was refreshing, Simone; trying to keep in step with Christ as a mother is teaching me to think hard about where I want our emphasis to lie. Thank you for letting me know it resonated!

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