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Why I’m hesitating to have ‘The Talk’ with my Korean American son

At what age can you talk to your child about racism without planting the seed of fear or hate in his heart?

A boy takes part in a "Love Our Communities: Build Collective Power" rally to raise awareness of anti-Asian violence in Los Angeles on March 13.
A boy takes part in a "Love Our Communities: Build Collective Power" rally to raise awareness of anti-Asian violence in Los Angeles on March 13.RINGO CHIU/AFP via Getty Images

My 7-year-old son wears a Captain America face mask and dreams of being an All-Star pitcher like his idols in the “Aces” poster that hangs in his room. He also lives for soccer Sundays, the day that his league plays. The Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy are as real to him as his own reflection in the mirror.

He is also of Korean descent.

I have stopped listening to the news when we are together in order to shield my son from the reports of the spike in hate crimes against Asian Americans. I haven’t told him anything yet about the shootings in Atlanta, or the countless faces that make up the disturbing statistic that hate crimes against Asian Americans have increased 150 percent in the past year, or the results of a recent Pew Research Center survey that reports that one in three Asian Americans fears someone may physically attack or threaten them.

I have reasons for my silence. A cousin who was more forthcoming with her 12-year-old son about the news has told me that he has developed anxiety and begs her not to leave their home. My son is too young for me to be able to answer questions about just how these hate crimes have manifested into violence — how Asian Americans and immigrants of Asian heritage have been shoved, slapped, stabbed, slashed with box cutters, and set on fire. But I also don’t know how much longer I can keep sheltering him. At what age can you talk to your child about racism without planting the seed of fear or hate in his fragile heart?

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Fortunately, the only kind of community that my son has known is the largely inclusive one of our small, liberal college town in Maine. During quarantine, families put hammer to wood to create a traveling menagerie of rainbow-colored animal sculptures. Neighborhood contact lists ensured that neighbors were offered assistance, and the local librarian has been known to personally drop off books at your door. If racism festers under the cover of anonymity, then it might wither in a place like this.

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Venturing outside the progressive bubble of our town, however, I have felt less secure. One afternoon, as we were returning home down a country road after a hike, a big black pickup truck sped up behind us, the largest Confederate flag I have ever seen billowing from its bed. The windows — I willed myself to look in the rearview mirror — were tinted, so I could not see the driver to read the intention in his eyes. All I saw was my own knitted brows, my own brown eyes looking away and then back. My fingers tightened around the steering wheel. From the back seat, sensing the shift in mood, my son asked what was wrong.

“Oh, that car — it’s driving too close behind us,” I said, the truck’s bumper inches from ours.

Had the driver seen us? My mind argued with itself. I turned the driver’s side mirror away from my face. But mile after mile, the truck didn’t back off.

When it finally turned, after what felt like an eternity but was perhaps 10 minutes, oxygen returned to my body.

Sitting up in his booster seat, my son craned his neck.

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“They’re gone,” he said. “Mommy, they’re gone.”

A Black friend had “The Talk” — the one meant to keep her son out of harm’s way, to keep him alive — with her boy when he was 7. My friend cautioned him that rather than see his innocence, the world would perceive him as a danger. She urged him never to internalize those perceptions. She told him to be prepared to work twice as hard as his white friends and to expect to have to earn every single thing. She told him that he will have to split himself between two worlds — the safe, known world, and the other one.

I do not know the algorithm by which parents of color factor in race, geography, and threat level to determine the age for and urgency of having this conversation. I only know that being Asian American, I had felt I had more time than my friend and that I felt guilty for thinking so.

The version I will tell my son? Maybe something like this: You belong, but some will question that. And when you are confronted by such a gap in beliefs, you must tread carefully and make a choice: Determine whether it is safer to cross that divide or to walk away.

I wonder: Will that message cut it in the real world?

In the dream I have for my son, he will never have to feel the kind of discrimination so many Asian Americans are experiencing right now; he will never have to know that a face that looked open and unthreatening in one moment can twist in the next, turn septic, and spew hate. He will never have the feeling of being reduced to a stereotype.

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I do tell my son other things: that Chloé Zhao became the first Asian American to win an Oscar for directing; that his beloved Pokémon originated in Japan. I make a mental note to tell him about former Major League Baseball pitchers like Chan Ho Park and Hideo Nomo, who are not on his poster. I do this in the hope that it might strengthen his armor and counter the negative messages he will inevitably receive, so that slights can’t penetrate too deeply.

At night, I slip into my son’s room and watch him sleep. Glow-in-the-dark stickers of moons, comets, and shooting stars expand across the walls and ceilings. In the dim shine of the nightlight, my son’s face is luminous under the jagged bangs of his bowl cut, the best I could manage with my shears. Like patron saints, All-Stars Noah Syndergaard, Corey Kluber, Clayton Kershaw, Chris Sale, Max Scherzer, and Madison Bumgarner watch over him. He sleeps with his hands clasped beneath his head, grand and magisterial, as if the mayor of his own dreamworld. Please keep him safe, I pray. When his expression changes, I can see his dimples, so many that they create shifting constellations, and I can’t help wondering if others will see, as I do, the galaxy that is in his face.

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Jennifer Sean Chung lives in Maine.