Sunday, December 15, 2019

Religion and Racism: Sweat-Inducing Chats With My Kids

I was sitting at this exact desk when I called out a classmate for being racist. Also, the yearbook caption writer greatly overestimated my interest in physics class.
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"What do you get when a black woman gets an abortion? A CRIMESTOPPER!!"

I took a deep breath and exhaled loudly as the other kids uncomfortably laughed. Still giggling, Kelly looked over at me and my blank stare.

"Oh Sheevani... that's just the way I was raised," she said with a flippant wave of her hand.

This was her go-to excuse whenever she made a racist joke and I sat stone-faced. A group of us in the back of Physics class were often subjected to her racist comments and "humor." Before class started or when we were supposed to be doing in-class work but the senioritis was too strong, she'd educate us on her ignorance and always just say, "Well, it's just how I was raised," as if that excused her behavior.

"Why do you get so pissed anyway? You aren't black!" she laughed and looked around for expressions of agreement, "It's not like I'm making fun of... you know... Muslims?"

"I'm not Muslim either," I said with my stoicism acting as a shield for my increasing rage.

Don't freak out, Sheevani. Don't. Freak. Out.

"Well, whatever... I grew up with those kind of jokes."

"Those jokes are racist and NOT funny." I said opening my Physics book. Perhaps today I could distract myself with the thermodynamics chapter we were covering. I looked up to find her glaring at me with a look of disbelief.

"OH my god, Sheevani... I am NOT racist!"

I stared back... partly because I didn't know quite how to respond and partly because I was taking some pleasure in offending her for a change.

"They are just JOKES. God, just because someone makes a joke doesn't mean they are racist!"

"If you weren't racist, you wouldn't tell them or find them funny." I said.

Mr. Schultheis began class and the room quieted down as bodies shifted forward and books were opened. Kelly's eyes lingered on me before she turned around. Her face showed genuine hurt and for a moment, I felt bad for calling her out. I looked over at my friend Tom who grinned and gave me a thumbs-up. Lucas glanced back and mouthed, "Thank You," to me. Whew, I wasn't alone... although, those same guys laughed at her joke. I may have had supporters, but I was the only one who spoke up. In that moment my momentary guilt dissolved and I knew I had done the right thing.

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Lately, my kids have been bringing up some heavy topics that I should have seen coming, but naively assumed were a few years down the road. Namely, racism and religion have had top billing around our house for the last couple of weeks. The innocence with which my kids ask questions and share things they have heard from friends is just that - innocent. These topics are ones about which I want to be very thoughtful. That thought has forced me to once again be reflective about my own experiences with both... and as always, I try to provide my kids with open and transparent conversations. Admittedly so far, the conversations have been a bit clunky because I've been so caught off guard, so the imperfection of my response is where I'm struggling. I didn't expect parenting to be easy by any means, but I also wasn't prepared for such complicated conversations at this stage. Nonetheless...  they're here.

The Worst Word
Earlier this week, my daughter told me that a boy said the n-word at school. We were driving home from carpool pick-up and my stomach dropped. She explained how in history they were learning about the Niger River, but this boy said it the "other" way. For a moment I unclenched and asked if she thought he said it by accident... just pronounced it wrong, but she said he has said it before. I had about 47 more questions but asked only a few more; Had the teacher heard him? Did he laugh when he said it like it was a joke? Did other kids join in saying that awful word? Turns out, my daughter had heard the story from a friend since she was in a separate history class, so she didn't possess the details about which I was inquiring. While inside I was horrified, I tried not to show too much of my emotions while driving home. 

"Well, that's an awful, awful word and I'm disappointed to hear he said that," I calmly said as I drove past the town Christmas tree. 

"I know," my daughter said. 

"If... if you were there when he said it... what would you have done?" I asked trying not to lead her to any specific answer. 

"I would have said he shouldn't say it and it's very hurtful to black people," she said and my shoulders relaxed with relief and pride.

Truth be told, I had talked to my kids about that word months ago because of.... well, Beyonce. Both the record and Netflix film, Homecoming, were in heavy rotation for a few weeks at our house and Queen Bey lets the n-word fly. And yes, I let my kids listen to uncensored music. Look, music is one of those constants in my life that has served many purposes from inspiration to healing. I would be lost without my favorite music and I just cannot subject myself to Kidz Bop. I hold absolutely no judgement if that's your jam for your kids, I certainly understand why, but I'm selfish. I can handle the occasional Disney soundtrack, but I cannot handle Kidz Bop. I'm an original artist purist and I'm won't apologize for that. 

Since my daughter seems to memorize lyrics after one listen, I felt it necessary to tell her that she shouldn't be throwing around that word while singing along to Beyonce. We had a very frank discussion about it and why it wasn't a good word to say. She had even noticed that when I sang along, I'd skip that word.

"There are bad words and there are WORSE words... to me, that word is the worst word. It really makes me sick to my stomach when I hear it used as an insult," I said.

"But, why does Beyonce use it?"

I knew this question was coming. Since college, I have been a part of many debates about black artists using this word in their comedy or song lyrics... how "they" are allowed to say it but "we" aren't. And yes, all the uproar came from white people who thought the black usage of the word was hypocritical. I never understood why this bothered some of my white friends so much. I'd retort with, "Do you WANT to say that word?" To which they would be horrified and say of course they didn't, yet they felt somehow repressed by this societal rule. I explained to my daughter that since I had never been victimized by that word, I have absolutely no right to judge how those who have been oppressed by it choose to use it.

"Not every black person uses that word and some don't like that black artists use it in their work, so even amongst themselves there are disagreements... but for us and other non-black folks... we should never say that word." I told my kids.

After discussing the incident at school, my daughter could see I was distracted and asked what I was thinking. I dismissed her concern, but after a few moments I decided to share some of my experiences with not only that word, but all sorts of more racist occurrences in my life. I even shared how her own grandfather, my dad, was denied housing back in the 1970s because some apartment building owners didn't rent to Indians. "They ruin the place with the spicy cooking," he was told. There were times when I'd hear the n-word thrown around casually at school or by a friend's parent. My daughter listened intently and wondered if I had spoken up, and I was honest about how it took me many years before I'd openly chastise people for using that word. Often times I would get scared to say anything because I thought if someone was ignorant enough to use that awful word, they may turn their racist venom on me. But that as I grew older, I knew that if I didn't say anything, I was telling the offender his or her actions were okay.

I chose only a few stories and held off on telling many more offensive details - I'm not sure they are ready for that yet, but the message was clear. Based on how my daughter felt about the incident at school that day... I know the message was received.


Praying with my Dad at my pre-wedding Ganesh puja

I Don't Want To Start Any Blasphemous Rumors
My son loves to chat. And I love that he loves to chat. Part of his daily oratory abundance is a rundown of what he's learning at school. He's at the age where everything is interesting,  and he cannot wait to tell us about things like ancient Egypt, sound vibrations and even punting a ball. He's so proud of how much he's learning and I eat it all up.

"Mama, the Star of David is the symbol of Judaism," said my son out of nowhere while eating his after-school snack. 

"Yes it is! Wow, how do you know that?" I asked.

"We're learning about it in school. Also, they celebrate Hannukah and it lasts for 8 days!" He licked his top lip leaving a key lime yogurt mustache I'd have to wipe off later. 

"Very cool, bud... I'm glad you're learning about that," I said. 

For the next few days, he brings up different tidbits about Judaism, Christianity and Islam, all the topics of their World Religions unit. I was so focused on my delight that their school is exposing them to different religions, that I didn't see a very obvious question coming. One night while we were watching The Great British Baking Show, my son asked what religion we were.

"Umm... well, I'm Hindu. I mean, I was raised Hindu... and Daddy was raised Catholic," I sputtered.

"So, we're Hindu and Catholic?" My daughter inferred.

"I mean... I guess? So, I tend to be more of a spiritual person versus religious and Daddy really isn't religious at all... but, that doesn't mean we aren't... I think there are certain parts of Hinduism... like, some people are very religious and we aren't... not that I don't believe in God, but... (sigh)... it's, um, complicated, I guess."

Oh God.

Yyyyeaaaah, needless today my kids stared at me blankly and turned their attention to the technical challenge on GBBS since it was easier to understand. Paul and I looked at each other and sort of shrugged. But, me being... well, me, I have been thinking about my clunky response for days. I didn't want to confuse my kids but at the same time, I don't know if I'm very clear about where I stand on God and religion. 

"How are you guys going to handle religion when you have kids?" 

A co-worker of mine asked this during a discussion about her own struggles with her husband. I sort of shrugged and said we would "figure it out." She sighed and said how lucky I was. Her husband was insistent that their kids be raised Greek Orthodox - no debate, no question. He insisted on this because my friend wasn't religious. Since religion wasn't important to her, but very important to him, his logic was that the kids should be brought up with his faith. However, being a headstrong, intelligent woman, she couldn't accept that as a sound reason. The topic had gotten so heated and contentious, that it was delaying their attempts to start a family. I felt relieved not to deal with such a hot topic in my own relationship.

While we were dating, religion was barely on the radar. I suppose it was at it's height as a subject when we got married. We had heard about a non-denominational "priest" who could perform the ceremony and thought that was best since both of us weren't very religious. But I did want the presence of the Hindu ceremony because I've always imagined performing some of the elements I had seen at countless Indian weddings. Paul was very supportive of that and I knew it would make my mother happy. So we combined a Humanist and Hindu priest to perform our wedding. Done. Easy Peasy. 

Growing up, my mother prayed every single day. After she bathed, she immediately performed her puja, or prayer, at our home mandir, or shrine. I'd watch her as a young girl and sometimes sing along to the Hindu hymns, or shlokas. My favorite part was seeing her eyes open after the final meditation. Her calm was blindingly apparent. On the other hand, my father had more of a scientific mind and deferred to logic over religion. While he'd show doubt, I knew he wasn't a complete non-believer. Almost every summer, our family would take a road trip to a temple in Pittsburgh. During our visits, I would see my father, our resident skeptic about all things, press his head against his clasped hands and close his eyes so tight that I could almost feel the importance of his prayers. 

Paul is an Agnostic with a pinch of Atheist. On the rare occasion where we have talked about religion, he's expressed strong opinions about the Catholic church as an entity (given the rampant pedophilia and the lack of consequence for that pedophilia), but he's sort of ambivalent to the concept of God. He doesn't proclaim there is absolutely no God, but he's not willing to submit to a "fact" that God exists. For me, I have issues with believing only one religion has it 100% correct. Whether it's Hinduism, Christianity, Islam or Buddhism, there are elements to every religion that serve humanity in their own ways. I wouldn't say to a Christian that they are wrong since they don't believe in Lord Shiva, nor would I want to be persecuted about polytheism by a Catholic.

It seems I have inherited a combination approach about religion from my parents; a good amount of faith with a healthy dose of logic. I feel a comfort when I enter a Hindu temple, yet I'm not willing to subscribe to all that Hinduism has to offer. While I cannot prove there is a God, I cannot bring myself to tell my kids that God doesn't exist. During tough times in my life, I have prayed in private for some guidance, but I've also found strength within myself to take things head on... but did God give me that strength? I don't know.... I just don't know.

A few days after the inquiry about our family's beliefs, my son asked a more pointed question, "What is God?" Once again I found myself to be incredibly inarticulate. So, I did what I've done whenever my kids ask about shit I cannot answer; I Googled it.

"God is a supreme being or creator. An all-knowing, all-powerful, all present being."

My son stared at me.

"Like... like a superhero who helps you figure out your life," I said.

"Oh, cool!!"

I chuckled at my kid-friendly translation and knew it wasn't quite enough. Later, I spoke to my kids about how everyone has different beliefs, and how those beliefs must be respected. My own approach to faith, I told them, was a bit complicated and I was still figuring it out.

"But one thing I do know is that no one should be picked on because of their religion, and no one should force their beliefs on other people. Respect what others believe and move on."

I'm pleased with how I handled this religion stuff, but I know I'm not done. No doubt there will be more complicated topics to tackle in the future... and I can only pray there is a Pinterest board to help me out.

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I want my kids to be good people. It's that simple. The challenging discussions were perfect occasions to talk about diversity and respect. When I told them stories about racial and religious strife throughout history, they couldn't fathom how people could be so cruel to one another. To them, it didn't make any sense. I hope that view strengthens and permeates to their friends, colleagues and, one day, kids of their own. But, telling them to be respectful isn't enough... I am keenly aware how my actions will go much farther than my words, which is why I'm very conscious of how I conduct myself. After all, I want to be a better person, too.

God knows I'm trying... or maybe it's just Wonder Woman. 

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