Though much ink and discussion have been spent on the racial climate of Oak Park, little has been addressed in terms of race and Asian Americans. Yet, on my way out of picking up my children from preschool, I got called out — "Hey, Chinese lady" — by some elementary-aged kids on a school bus.
A flood of emotions flew through me at that moment, ranging from anger to frustration to sadness and then weariness. My only response was, "I'm not Chinese."
I had my 2- and 4-year-olds with me, and while my gut (teacher) response was to get on the bus and school them, I just didn't have the energy to do it with both of my kids in tow.
A woman walking by witnessed it and responded, "That's horrible, that's atrocious," in sympathy and as a reprimand to the kids on the bus. I responded, "It happens all the time" and kept walking. I didn't hear a response from the kids.
This has happened multiple times to me in my 10 years in Oak Park. The experiences have ranged from being randomly called Chinese on the street to an individual saying "ching-chong" while walking by and a bus full of kids pulling "slanty" eyes at me at a stoplight.
However, this was the first time I had such an experience with my kids present. Observing these interactions, my 4-year-old proceeded to ask me what was going on, and as I tried to explain, I realized there was no good way to explain it. For a moment, I felt overwhelmed and hopeless. I had an ocean of scholarly words, explanations, justifications, and analysis, but, ultimately, no simple answer for my child about what just happened or why.
Reflecting on the various experiences I have had in Oak Park, I realize that this is a conversation I will have to have with my children more than once. This is an experience that I will most likely encounter again and that my children will encounter again.
Compounding the complexities of this incident further were the fact that the kids were African American, the bystander white, my kids biracial. As we try to critically engage with the complicated histories and relationships of race within our nation, much is left out about Asian Americans — here in Oak Park and nationally.
Often discussed as being "model minorities," of having "positive" stereotypes associated with them, Asian Americans are often ignored in larger discussions of race. However, while not wildly publicized, there have been recent racially-motivated attacks on people of Asian descent, images that have gone viral of individuals and athletes pulling slanty eyes in photos, and the innumerable daily humiliations of "go back to your own country," the ethnicity guessing game, and "you speak English so well."
Scholars have written about how Asian Americans are forever seen as foreigners, always presumed to be immigrants — to be Other. I have friends who are fourth-generation American citizens who get asked all the time where they are (really) from (i.e., not American-born).
As I see the Asian population in Oak Park growing, I wonder how they/we will be perceived, treated, addressed. Will people automatically assume we are Chinese/Japanese/immigrant/English language learner/etc.? Will we have to constantly explain ourselves? Will people feel the compulsion to randomly identify us on the street like exotic birds?
One of the things I love about Oak Park is its engagement in social issues, its deep desire to be reflective. However, it is time for us as a community to engage with race beyond black and white, as multilayered, nuanced, and fraught with challenges.
We must all question the stereotypes, preconceived notions, and generalizations we hold about one another as members of groups — whether it is that one group is "hard-working" or another "lazy" — and work to build connections beyond these limiting stereotypes.
We border one of the most segregated cities in the country, and while we do a better job at physical integration, I would challenge us to do more as a community to break down the emotional and mental spaces of segregation that too many of us still experience far too often.
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