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After attacks, here's how to talk to your Asian American kids about racism

"There are some people who will not like us because of our skin color. That is called racism, and it is not OK."

Suzan Song is the Director, division of child, adolescent and family psychiatry, at the George Washington University Medical Center.

This essay originally appeared in NBC News THINK.

A year ago, some people might have been shocked to think that elders, women and 1 in 4 young adults in the Asian American Pacific Islander community would become targets of hateful violence. But the subsequent swell in anti-Asian incidents, including the beating Monday of a 65 year-old Asian woman outside a luxury apartment building in Manhattan and the killings on March 16 of six Asian women and two bystanders in the Atlanta area, should not have come as a surprise. When President Donald Trump spread racist rhetoric about a "China virus" and the "Kung flu" while discussing Covid-19, he merely punctuated the existing history of systemic racism and, yes, violence against people of Asian descent.

Still, the violent incidents are only one sign of the larger problem, which is that open anti-Asian racism has become increasingly acceptable — if not actually popular.

This month, for instance, a friend's 5-year-old daughter returned home from her first day in kindergarten in tears and confused because a classmate had taunted her saying: "You brought the China flu! Get away! Yuck!"

As children return to in-person activities, such as school, we should anticipate that they will unfortunately have their own experiences with our widening racial divide. Studies show that when people are confronted with their own mortality — as during a pandemic — they can more aggressively "other" those with whom they do not identify. (It perhaps makes sense, then, that many Asian American students are opting out of returning to in-person school.)

After this incident, though, my friend approached me — an Asian-American mother and child/adolescent psychiatrist — and asked, "How do I talk to my children about anti-Asian racism?"

I often encourage parents not to wait for children to begin asking uncomfortable questions but to be prepared to answer them — or, better yet, to start uncomfortable discussions so our children don't have to navigate their feelings alone when the inevitable occurs.

When it comes to racism, parents may well be silent too long because we don't know what to say or when to introduce "the talk." So perhaps it's good to note that babies as young as 9 months old can notice racial differences. That, of course, is not racism; it's familiarity. Race isn't biologically determined but merely a social construct. But even if parents believe they are not communicating racist ideas at home, children in their preschool years have been shown to internalize social and culturally implicit biases — and parrot them in their interactions with others.

For people in the AAPI community, in particular, the underlying principle we tend to uphold in discussions about our race is the desire to instill in our children a sense of racial pride, since we are continually seen as foreigners in our homeland. But racial pride is a complex issue for many Asian Americans, many of whom hold cultural expectations that there is suffering in life and that we should simply bear it and move forward. We try to become invisible when we are targeted because of our race, but that can lead to us internalize a sense of shame around our racial identity.

So, before we speak to children, we need to have an honest discussion with ourselves about our own experiences. Perhaps we brushed off childhood slights when children made fun of our "smelly" food from home or made "slanty eye" gestures at us, or perhaps we felt like we were different from the other children, because our parents always worked late or never chaperoned field trips like other parents did. Many, if not most, of us in the AAPI community experienced harassment and bullying as children but to this day continue to be silent when people comment about how good our English is, ask whether we are our children's nanny or inquire whether our children are "American."

AAPI parents need to respect and validate our own experiences and organize any anger or anxiety into strategic action to be clear about what information to pass onto a child.

Then, depending on the developmental age of their children, parents can use stories about the systems and structures across time that have perpetuated anti-Asian sentiment to explain why racism is harmful and why their children are not at fault for other people's racism.

For younger children, we can use our own stories about our experiences of racism, both as children and as adults, to help illustrate that this is common and wrong and that they are not to blame for it. We can teach older children about the history of anti-Asian racism in America, including through stories: about white Americans' fear of "yellow peril" and how people incorrectly blamed Asians for the spread of disease, the history of the internment of over 100,000 Japanese Americans during World War II, the massacre of Chinese Americans in Los Angeles in 1871 or the murder in 1982 of Vincent Chin, whose killers were released with a fine and probation.

Hearing age-appropriate stories can help set the stage for children to understand the anti-Asian sentiment they may face and express their emotions about it in a cathartic way.

The goal is to give children both the language and an open door to talk about race and racism. Parents can and should help put words to a child's experience, because children are still learning about all the feelings they are having and can be overwhelmed by them. By helping children label feelings, we give them a vocabulary to articulate their inner experiences.

So if someone makes a comment about a child's physical features or teases them about causing the Covid-19 virus, parents can ask, "How did that feel when he said that?" If the child is unsure, help her with prompts about potential feelings: "Maybe sad, humiliated, small, hurt, confused?"

This gives us as parents another opportunity to validate our children by labeling these behaviors as both racist and wrong. We can use the moment to explain how racist remarks are distinct from the normal hurtful things that some children can say and why racist remarks are not the same: "There are some people who will not like us because of our skin color. That is called racism, and it is not OK."

Talking about how racism is wrong is also a moment for parents to incorporate inclusivity and allyship in conversations about racial justice, to let children know they are not alone in experiencing racism in America. Learning about racism goes beyond figuring out how to protect ourselves from racist behavior; it can help us develop empathy for other marginalized groups. Engagement with the entirety of racism and its wrongness can help build empathy and allyship with all communities of color.

Finally, role play can help parents and children review how to respond when they are faced with anti-Asian sentiment. Asking children for their ideas about how to respond both provides a lens into their inner thoughts and world and helps them to develop problem-solving skills. But if children have difficulty thinking of responses, parents can say, "Those are good thoughts, but what about this?" Providing a broad range of ideas can help children feel they have more options to choose from, which helps them feel more in control.

AAPI parents should also remember that racism and hate are community problems and that the burden to address them should not fall exclusively on us. Teachers, administrators and policymakers should: proactively incorporate evidence-based anti-racism interventions in schools, with anti-bullying and bystander training and anonymous reporting for microaggressions and racial incidents; develop groups to empower AAPI students and other students from marginalized communities; and consider restorative justice approaches to facilitate dialogue, empathy and action when incidents do occur.

Now is the time for AAPI parents to move our discomfort into strategy. We cannot brush aside the long-term impact of anti-Asian hate on our children; we have to actively engage in a dialogue and activism to help build a future we want for them.