During the month of April, I had a wonderful opportunity to volunteer at an established Vacation Church School (VCS) at one of the local churches. The first week of VCS catered to the members of the church and the Sunday school children. Since the church heads multiple outreach programs, we traveled to a few of the outreach locations for the second week. I really enjoyed helping and teaching the children over the two weeks, but this blog post is not about the wonderful time I had at VCS. Something happened during my first week in VCS that has been weighing heavily on my heart. It’s something I take very seriously and personally, and I need to address it openly with hopes of it benefiting someone else.
Most children know certain “nursery” rhymes. Whether they learn them from classmates or siblings, children eventually learn popular rhymes like Humpty Dumpty or Itsy Bitsy Spider. It’s not uncommon to hear children singing them with their friends. Towards the end of the first week, one child was trying to choose between a few things (I’m unsure what those “things” were at this point) and she began to recite a counting rhyme:
“Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Mo
Catch a n****r by the toe
If he hollers, let him go
Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Mo”
Yeah, cue my shock during that second line. Honestly, it took me a few moments to recover, in which time, I’m sure the little girl realized that something was wrong, maybe it was the look on my face, but she unapologetically stated “My dad taught it to me.”
After talking with the other teachers who had worked with the girl a little longer, I gathered that her father is an American who came to the Philippines to get remarried and start a family. He has also been known to express what would commonly be seen as prejudice and/or racist views. Not many of the other teachers were surprised that she learned such things from her father, but I felt like I was the only person with a lingering concern. In my mind, however, I’m screaming, “ We are in a Church and SHE IS FIVE (5) YEARS OLD!!!” Although, the girl had no idea what the word meant, I had a major problem with the fact she is being taught to carelessly throw around racial slurs.
A quote from The African American Registry:
“The word, nigger, carries with it much of the hatred and disgust directed toward Black Africans and African Americans. Historically, nigger defined, limited, made fun of, and ridiculed all Blacks. It was a term of exclusion, a verbal reason for discrimination. Whether used as a noun, verb, or adjective, it strengthened the stereotype of the lazy, stupid, dirty, worthless nobody.”
So, I took the opportunity to explain a few things to her. I simply told her “that word” is a very, very, very mean word. People say that word to make other people feel bad about the way they look and their darker skin. And I know that your father uses that word, but it’s not a nice word. The rhymes are meant to be fun for everyone. I asked her “How about you try to use a different word, like ‘tiger’ or an animal you like?” In the end, she decided to use “kitten” because she loves kittens. Although I can’t imagine how someone else would’ve reacted to the incident, I prayed that I handled the situation well and it was a blessing that God chose me to deal with the situation.
I am happy that we found a different word for her to use, I really am. However, the reality is that she is at home, where nothing has changed. She will continue to hear derogatory words that are hurtful and demeaning, yet everyone around her will disregard it or even encourage it because “that’s just the way things are.”
So, now, I am at a point where I am asking myself “What have I learned? What does God want me to take away from this experience?” Obviously, I can’t really answer those questions on behalf of God, but I have had a chance to think about what happened and I can draw my own conclusions.
For years, I lived in a bubble. I created this bubble around myself so I wouldn’t be bothered by what was happening around me. I remember moving from the suburbs of Chicago to Waxhaw, for the first time in my life, I was told that I “talk white”. By the way, I still haven’t figured out exactly what that means. I talk like many other African-Americans that I am around. I knew that I should be offended, but instead I remained falsely oblivious, pretending I didn’t care what was said. That bubble stayed with me through college. My bubble protected me from the hurtful words people threw at me, so I took nothing personally. My bubble helped me remain blissfully unaware of the violence and corruption that is constantly showcased on the news and online. My bubble aided in my false belief that I could be uninvolved with the unpleasant things in society.
When I arrived in the Philippines, I should have realized my bubble didn’t come with me. My parents have extensively traveled internationally and have shared with our family that racism and bigotry does not stop at America’s borders, but I remained optimistic. Sure enough, I’ve had some tough experiences here involving my hair, my weight, and my skin color. I still wrote them off as me being in a new environment and being unfamiliar with my surroundings, but it’s more than that, especially now. Being 8000 miles away from my home country lit a fire to be more invested in the well-being of my country and all the people in it. America sets the standards for diversity and civil rights for other countries to follow; what messages are we sending the rest of the world today?
I recently turned 23 (happy birthday to me)- I am long overdue to be involved in what’s going on in my country and creating solutions to unify all of God’s children. I am an adult who is about to enter a society that I perceive to desperately cling to old beliefs; a society that is extremely divided and is constantly fighting or fiercely disagreeing as some call it. The situation with the little girl has taught me that I cannot run away and hide from the problems of my own country, because those problems have obviously found me on the other side of the world. Ignoring the problem doesn’t make it go away. I pray that the same little girl will remember that words can hurt people and choose her own path toward respecting others.
I’ll be home in a matter of days, maybe even by the time you read this blog post. As I begin my medical school journey, carve out the rest of my life, and impact the lives of others, this young woman commits to “stay woke” and will strive to bring healing to my country in more ways than one.