Like many international school educators, I have found myself confined to a distant country during this period of the COVID-19 pandemic. In my case, Myanmar, where borders have closed, flights into the country have ceased to exist, and departures are limited to relief flights organized by embassies and INGOs for people not anticipating a return in the short term. As a result, I’ve watched from afar the recent protests and demonstrations that have rocked my home country, the United States, in recent days. Each morning, I wake up to notifications on my smart phone telling the story of unrest that has spread across the country, and then the globe, as we begin to grapple with the soul searching sparked by the gruesome death recorded for us all to see of a black man at the hands of a police officer on a previously unknown corner of a street in South Minneapolis.
The needless death that appeared in that video held a particular poignancy for me. Watching it, I realized I recognized the location where it took place. It was just over a block away from where I had lived for several years. It was just a few blocks north of the elementary school I had attended as a child, and little more than a mile north of where I had lived for five years when I was growing up. It hit home for me, and, like I imagine it did for many others, has caused me to look inward, to re-examine some of my own experiences and ideals, and to question my own beliefs about myself and my perspectives as a white person, a white man in this world.
People who know me are aware that several years ago my family took in a nine-year-old street boy who had been living on the streets of Yangon. Through a series of circumstances, I brought him home one day with the intention of helping him out and providing him a sort of safe harbor he could make use of as needed. Instead, he stayed, and over time we gradually made the decision to adopt him into our family. When he first joined us, we were surprised how quickly and how easily he seemed to fit right into our lives. He became a part of everything we did, and seemed to thrive on the time he spent with us. Early on, we bought him a bike. He wasn’t attending school at first, so would ride that bike to the school where we worked every morning to have lunch with me, and then return home for the afternoon to wait for our return. We would spend the afternoons and weekends engaged in play. We would swim in our pool, where he would climb on my shoulders to dive into the water and swim to the other side. Some days, we would go on long bike rides through the city, dodging the traffic, and stopping to explore the zoo, the local markets, or sites known to him from his days on the streets. At other times, we ran around the yard, hiding out on the roof top, or in the garage, shooting at each other with nerf guns. There were games of basketball and one-on-one soccer. He has a great love of fishing, and we would often go fishing in Yangon, and later in Minnesota where we go for the summer. In all fairness, I should say he went fishing. I spent most of my time unraveling incessant knots in the line, or getting his hook loose from the rocks and weeds in the water. In every way, this small boy who had at one point seemed to have an incredibly rough exterior became a member of our family, fitting in alongside our other three children. We grew to love him, and guided him as he began to navigate many of the same kinds of challenges we experienced with our other children – homework, making friends, keeping his room clean, household chores, and contributing as a member of our family.
As my son grew older, his interests began to change, as they do with kids. He began to exert a level of independence. He no longer was as interested in hanging out with dad. He would go off with friends on his bike. He discovered malls, arcades, and laser tag, venturing to these sites with friends, and began to pay closer attention to how he was perceived by others. We witnessed a change in his dress and his social interactions, and his smartphone became a permanent appendage. The most noticeable difference for me as this was happening was the gradual lack of desire to be seen with us. I think I felt it most as I seemed to go from being the center of his world, to suddenly being a bystander watching his world go by.
I believed that what my son was experiencing was the normal maturing process children go through as they get older. I understood this and excepted it, but there was a part of me that missed the way he had been when he was younger. I would often joke with him, asking if he was sure he didn’t want me to hang out with him and his friends. He would respond jokingly, and with a fun sense of humor. At one point though, I became a bit serious, reminding him of how much he used to want me around, and I asked what had changed. He grew very serious as well. Looking at me, he stated, “you don’t understand, dad, your skin is white.”
I was completely surprised by this statement. My surprise was partially because the statement was so unexpected. I had never really thought of him in terms of skin color or of ethnicity. He was simply my son and a member of our family. Clearly, it was something he was thinking of though, and was somehow playing into his need for independence and desire to do things that didn’t include us. I was surprised for another reason though. I had always considered myself fairly enlightened and open minded when it came to race. As a child, my family had specifically moved to a neighborhood where the first schools were being integrated through bussing so my sister and I could attend school there. Growing up, I had many friends of color, and believed I was sensitive to the challenges they had experienced. As an adult, I had worked for a while with children from multi-racial backgrounds, and my wife and I had specifically chosen careers that exposed us to a myriad of different races and cultures. Really, how could my son now say that I didn’t understand him because of the color of my skin?
Slowly, though, I began to realize that this was the issue. Yes, I had been exposed to others and had integrated with others, but I couldn’t understand them. I couldn’t understand because I can never experience things from their perspective. From this short statement my son had made, I began to look at things differently. I began to realize that I don’t fully understand what it is like to be him, I can’t understand, and in reality, I never will. To be honest, any contradictory thinking on my part just isn’t reality as he has a set of life experiences and perspectives that are beyond my ability to fully comprehend. However, I began to realize there are things I can do. Since that time, I have come to realize the importance of listening, and truly hearing him as he expresses his personal perspective. I have come to realize the importance of making sure he knows we appreciate his perspective, and that we value his experience. I have come to accept that when he says he doesn’t want me around, it isn’t about me, it is about him needing to be him and needing to feel comfortable being himself.
As I adhere to the current orders to stay at home during these difficult times and watch the scenes of protest unfold around the world, in the U.S., and in my old neighborhood, I can’t help but think about what is happening in relationship to what I have learned from my son. As a white man, I can’t ever fully understand the challenges people of color face every day in this world. To pretend that I can is not being honest. I can listen though, I can appreciate the sacrifices others are making and the experiences that have brought them to this point, and I can make sure I value those experiences. As an educator and as a fellow human being, I need to be committed to this. These are things we need to do if we are going to begin to see change result from the events unfolding around us. I really believe that this is the first step.
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