My Teachers Needed Tools to Address the Racism I Faced

November 15, 2021

I wish I could have told my teachers about the microaggressions I was experiencing, but children don’t have the words to talk about racism until they’re taught them. 

There were two things that made me want to become a teacher. 

First, it was the love of school – I was lucky to have had many caring teachers who instilled in me self-confidence and the love of learning. Second, it was the realization that while school prepared me for many things, it unfortunately did not prepare me for the hardest lessons in my life. I wanted to become a teacher to help children today navigate the same lessons I navigated on my own.

Doris Lo

    Doris Lo

My identity as an Asian American meant that I, like so many people of color, endured racism from my earliest years. There are many rewards to a good academic education, but systemic racism inevitably erodes them away. It undoes the hard work of well-meaning educators. 

I never doubted that my teachers cared about me. They spoke positively of me and expected me to do well. I relished every sticker, every star, every compliment, and every good mark. Even when I was caught passing notes in class in 4th grade, my teacher was disappointed and stern with me, but never in a way that conveyed she stopped caring about me. I am lucky to have had these positive experiences that built my self-confidence. Whether I was unconsciously viewed as a “model minority” or not, I know I benefit from the care of my teachers.

The irony is that while my well-intentioned teachers poured their efforts into creating affirming classroom experiences, they also missed the kinds of interactions that regularly chipped away at my spirit. Their colorblindness meant they were blind to the racism that I saw clearly. These were comments like, “Eww, Chinese people are gross. They eat chicken feet.” and “Ching chong ching chong!” Or the seemingly benign statements like “You’re so quiet” and “Where are you from?” – which are in fact microaggressions.

I wish I could have told my teachers about these, but children don’t have the words to talk about racism until they’re taught them. And even if I had the words, by then, racism was already winning. I felt too small to speak up.

On field trips, my mom would pack me a fried egg, over easy, drizzled with soy sauce, sandwiched between two slices of white bread. It was simple and incredibly delicious. When you bit into it, the creamy egg yolk mixed delectably with the salty soy sauce-soaked bread. I loved it, but I hated eating it in front of my classmates. This delicious sandwich was a source of embarrassment.

School is a place where curiosity is encouraged, yet, so often, students are not taught to be curious about people they don’t know about. Harmful comments are exchanged every day because children assume that just because something is different, it is wrong.

By the time I was in 4th grade, I had internalized the stereotypes and racist messages about Asians, and specifically, Chinese people – messages like Chinese people eat disgusting foods. I was afraid to eat my sandwich in school because I feared my classmates would see it as gross and weird, when in fact it was just different, and they might have found it delicious if they tried it.

Because racism is systemic, it isn't just experienced once in a person’s life; it is experienced regularly throughout a lifetime and can lead a person to be ashamed of who they are. I was ashamed of my Chinese identity and did what many people do with something they’re ashamed of – I disconnected from it. This is internalized racism. Until I confronted it, it was as if I was living two separate lives – the  life that was “American” and the life that I kept hidden from view that included everything from what I spoke at home to how and what I ate.

But the reality was, no matter how much I ran from it internally, when people see me, they see an Asian woman. 

I believe that giving tools to children to confront racism is as important as personally refraining from racist behaviors. I wrote this lesson as one such tool for all caring teachers.

This is a lesson for elementary teachers because we know racism starts early. We know that as early as three months of age, children are already paying attention to people who don’t look like their parents on other caregivers.

It is never too early to give children the tools to understand the world they are growing up in.