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Friday, 22 April 2016 12:27

Community columnist: Navigating race in a search for answers

Written by Cathy Durkin Mestek/community columnists

By Cathy Durkin Mestek

I don’t think it’s my imagination that we’ve lost some ground. There’s no time like the present to work together to do better.

When my late husband, Steve, and I decided to have children, we opted for adoption and brought Jimmy, Cassi and Timmy into our family as infants from Korea during a span from 1984 to 1991.

Our children joined an extended family that included adopted children of Chinese, Vietnamese, Hispanic and African-American descent. We were aware that along with the joys of adoption, there would be challenges. Indeed, there were both.

Race was not a defining factor in our children’s lives as they headed off to school, but there were moments. It’s a heartbreaking thing to have your 5-year-old hop off the den of iniquity called a school bus to ask, "Mommy, why does that big boy on the bus call me a ‘Pig-nose son of a _____?’" What came to mind was, "Because he is being raised by racist idiots who have no business being parents."

What I said was, "Oh, honey, he doesn’t know better. I’ll talk with his parents so he can learn."

As children get older, there’s a time for them to solve their own problems. They don’t always approach things as we might advise, but such is the price of letting go.

When Cassi was in eighth grade, she received, from a high school boy, vicious emails calling her a "stupid (expletive) chink."

Rather than come to us, she took matters into her own hands and emailed him that, "My older brother will take care of you."

When we belatedly saw the nasty thread of messages, we firmly advised Jimmy to take the evidence to the school counselor for appropriate action.

We also told Cassi to cool it on offering her brother’s services. Unfortunately, Cassi and Jimmy opted to skip the counselor’s office in favor of a more direct approach.

Before long, I answered my classroom phone to hear the principal say, "Mrs. Durkin, I’m very sorry to interrupt you, but there’s been an altercation involving your son..."

What followed were the various consequences, including a fine, which Steve said was the best $240 he ever spent in his life.

Were our children right? I don’t think so. Were they wrong? I don’t know. The longer I live, the more I learn that the gray areas in life are not just in my hair.

Most racism is far more subtle, but equally damaging. Several adoptive parents have told me they relied on therapists to help their children handle the slights and slurs faced by minorities in a predominantly white community.

It would be a reasonable goal for us to reach a place where families choosing our towns would not need to routinely budget for their children’s psychiatric care in order to navigate the racial minefields out there.

My children are now long since adults.

Both sons go by various nicknames such as, Squintz, the Asian or Baby-in-a-Box.

I’m not sure I’m comfortable with that, but I’m not the one who gets a vote. At 18, Cassi enlisted in the Army, in large part to join a racially diverse society.

She continues to prosper there. She says racial divisions have no place when you’re in Iraq, depending on your fellow soldiers for your very life.

You’d think with all the diversity in our extended family, we would have this race stuff down to a science, but even in the context of great love, it’s a learning process for all of us.

One of my nieces has become an activist in the Black Lives Matter movement. Those of us who love her admire her spunk and conviction, while we, at the same time, fear becoming the enemy, simply by virtue of our white skin.

If finding common ground in matters of racial justice stymies a family, consider how difficult it is among strangers.

I have no easy answers. I do know it is at our own peril that we ignore the need to make our communities safe places for every child, for every family.

Our future depends on it.

Cathy Durkin lives in Richmond Township. A version of this column first appeared in the newsletter of Sugar Creek Lutheran Church in the town of Sugar Creek.



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