March 23, 2021
Illustrated by Garth Williams in Little House on the Prairie

When I was young, I used to wish I could step into my books and live in them. I read American Girl books and wished I could knock on Samantha’s door and walk into her beautiful 1904 Victorian Christmas home. I devoured Laura Ingalls Wilder’s stories of traveling west in a covered wagon in the late 1800’s, and imagined going to town to pick out ribbon for my hair or going on merry sleigh rides with friends. I read Pride and Prejudice and thought wistfully about how lovely it would be to dress up and attend one of the many fancy balls. I imagined it all through rose-colored glasses and thought someday it would be fun to dress up and pretend to live in the old days: at a farm, in a charming pioneer town, or at a ball.

I don’t know exactly when it happened, but one day it dawned on me that actually, I would look really out of place dancing at Netherfield or walking along the streets of one of Laura’s childhood towns. Even if I wore a big, beautiful gown and put my hair up in lovely curls, I would stand out, and probably not in a good way. As reality settled in, I was sad to realize it probably wouldn’t be very fun at all for me. People would probably give me funny looks because my hair was black, and I would generally be out of place. Would Laura even want to be my friend?

When I was older, I saw pictures of Chinese railroad workers and learned about the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which prevented Chinese from entering America during the time my beloved Laura Ingalls Wilder was making her way out West. I learned that Chinese women were viewed as immoral, and had actually already been banned from America several years before the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed.

…Wait, what?!

Ok, nevermind, I don’t want to live in history. I didn’t want to live as a girl in China’s history, where women had to bind their feet and where baby girls were not valued as much as baby boys. And I certainly didn’t want to live anytime during American history, where racism abounded to the point where Chinese people were not even allowed into the country, and the few Chinese women that were present were treated horribly. But that was all in the past, right? Wow, I thought to myself, there is no better time and place to be a Chinese girl than in present-day America. I felt so fortunate to exist right here, right now.

If I admired America as the best place to be a Chinese girl twenty years ago, I love it with an added sense of pain and betrayal today. The recent uptick in hate crimes against Asians and the shootings in Atlanta show that a lot of that ugly old racism is still here today. I’ve long been familiar with the fear that comes with being a female walking alone at night: I stay aware of my surroundings, I grip my keys tightly between my knuckles, and I sometimes run to my car in a flurry of fear and anxiety.

This past year has presented me with another layer of fear to live with: being Asian and leaving my house–at any time of the day. In broad daylight, I keep a close eye on my surroundings, especially if I am in an unfamiliar (and less diverse) city. Instead of gripping my car keys more tightly, I brace myself for a racial slur or a comment and try to stay mentally ready with a possible response. I wonder to myself, Would I push back and defend myself in order to fight against the stereotype of the passive Asian? Or is it better to simply protect myself and leave? What if my kids are with me? Does protecting them mean to flee, or does it mean showing them what it looks like to say something and stand up for yourself?

When I hear about racists harassing Asians at local grocery stores and gas stations, a common theme that pains me is learning how nobody stood up for them. If anyone were to target me and spew racist comments my way, I would be upset. But if there were other people around and nobody intervened or said anything to me after, I would be devastated. Silence is complicity. And then I can’t help but wonder: What would I do if I were a bystander? Would I say something to the harasser? Would I step in? Would I say something to the victim afterwards?

I like to think I would do something, but I know that if I don’t really think it through and come up with a plan, the easiest response would be nothing. In all my mental preparation, I imagine myself with sharp and silencing comebacks, but I know that the real JoEllen would probably be tongue-tied and terrified. My heart rate increases just imagining myself in such a scenario.

What should I do if I see racism taking place?

So when my friend shared a link to “Hollaback!’s Bystander Intervention Training to protect others from harassment in public settings,” I gave it a click. It turned out to be just what I needed:

The Five D’s are different methods you can use to support someone who’s being harassed, emphasize that harassment is not okay, and demonstrate to people in your life that they too have the power to make our communities and workplaces safer. 

Surely out of the five options, I could find at least one that felt realistic and doable. And I did. The 5D’s are: Distract, Delegate, Document, Delay, and Direct:

These are just snippets from the website, which is super well-organized and full of helpful graphics, examples, and tips. I highly recommend taking a look, especially if you have ever found yourself wondering what you would do if you saw someone being harassed in any way. After reading through the options, I felt like Distract and Delay were two things that I could do. I was mentally rehearsing, “Excuse me, do you know what the next stop is?” when I realized that the only time I’m on a train is when I’m traveling, so I mentally modified it to, “Excuse me, do you know where I can find the milk?” (grocery store) and “Excuse me, do you know which way the library is?” (gas station) and “Excuse me, have you seen our red ball?” (park). Whatever the situation, I feel better knowing that I’ve got a method in my pocket to use instead of simply relying on my own bravery and wit (though if I’m honest, I think even this would require some bravery from me).

This organization has full on trainings you can sign up for, but even taking five minutes to scroll through their page and think through which ones feel accessible to you is a worthwhile way to spend your time. It would mean a lot to me if you did. Any one of you. Because even that act of preparation is a way of saying you care and have sympathetic intentions.

And if someone ever says mean stuff to me in the future, I really hope a bystander will show that they care. The website shares that “Research shows that even a knowing glance can significantly reduce trauma for the person who is targeted. One of the most important things we can do is to let the person who is targeted know, in some way, however big or small, that they are not alone.” So if you ever see someone yelling “China Virus!” or “Kung Flu!” at someone, please do something and be one of the helpers.

Let’s stop it before it begins

You know what would be even better than seeing a bystander step in and stand against harassment? If there were no harassment in the first place. If the person spewing unkindness had instead been taught, at a young age, to treat others with respect, compassion, and empathy. If that person had been exposed to all sorts of different people with different skin tones and different traditions and different backgrounds, and learned to appreciate the differences rather than to use them as a way to feel superior.

This is something that is super important to me as a parent and educator. One accessible way to teach this to my kids is with books. I have always valued having my bookshelves full of diverse authors and characters, and I want the same thing to be accessible for families everywhere. I was delighted to learn that my husband’s coworker Tony had compiled an extensive list of diverse book recommendations into a tidy spreadsheet, and I was even happier when he said I could share it with you all. You can search for books based on the reader’s age, the character’s appearance and skin tone, and even whether the protagonist is female or not. There are nearly 300 titles listed, but this list is actually a portal to many more books than that since oftentimes only one book is listed to represent an entire series. I’ve already checked out several titles from the list that our whole family has enjoyed, and encourage you to do the same!

Some personal favorites of mine on the list include Last Stop on Market Street, Jabari Jumps, Jamaica’s Find, Dragons and Marshmallows (part of a series), and the Mindy Kim books (part of a series). I would also add The Proudest blue: A Story of Hijab and Family by Ibtihaj Muhammad, Dreamers by Yuyi Morales, and The Invisible Boy by Trudy Ludwig. I appreciate books that share about the specific ethnic backgrounds and experiences of diverse characters as well as the ones that portray kids with various skin tones as simply normal American kids. It’s important to me that my Asian American kids, for example, read books about Asian characters that aren’t always about dumplings or folktales, but also books where Asian characters are simply regular kids at school. That’s one of the reasons why The Invisible Boy is one of my all-time favorite children’s books! It’s a story that shares about compassion within a bunch of regular kids, one of whom happens to be an Asian American child.

It’s also important to me that other kids in America are reading books about Asian characters that aren’t always about dumplings or folktales, but also books where Asian kids are simply regular kids at school. I want our heritage to be appreciated, but I also need for our Asian kids not to be othered. And of course I want this for every kid, not just Asian ones! So I love this list and hope you can take a moment to peruse it and find something just right for you and your family to check out from the library or purchase.

Let’s Do Better

America has come a long way. I mean look, I’m here! And I feel so fortunate and lucky to be here for many, many reasons. But we haven’t made it, yet. We still have a long way to go. It’s hard to imagine an America where everyone is truly respected and regarded as an equal, but I have to hope that things can get better. I believe that if we all keep taking these small steps to work towards that–learning how to be a helpful bystander, teaching our kids to appreciate the differences in people around them–the world really will be a better place.

I hope you can take these steps with me.

17 responses to “Let’s Do Better”

  1. Charlotte Cunningham says:

    Thank you Joellen! It’s easy to imagine myself being brave and standing up directly to hate, but in reality it can be very intimidating. I really like these alternate ways to intervene and support each other. Cheers and love!

    • joellen says:

      Thank you, Charlotte!! Your comment means a lot to me! Please share if you ever end up using it! <3

  2. olwen says:

    JoEllen, I am truly thankful for your sharing! Praying that we can all do better, including insignificant me.
    I feel that I will need to re-read it couple more times to prepare myself better. By the way, may I share your post?
    Father God, may your will be done on earth as it is in heaven!

  3. Dakota says:

    Thank you so much for sharing that website and your succinct summary of it, JoEllen. Those are really clear steps to take that weren’t in my mental file cabinet! And thank you also for the link to the book list! I’ve been paying closer attention to what is on my kids’ bookshelves for the last few years, but we definitely don’t have enough books that feature Asian characters… and like you, I also dislike having books that make it seem like they’re always part of folktales or “other-ish” stories that are somehow not part of the here and now.

    • joellen says:

      Dakota!! *HUGS* It’s so good to hear from you. I’m so glad you found this helpful! And I appreciate that you understand what I mean about having books that offer representation of other ethnicities while also showing that they are often just regular American kids! 🙂

  4. Angela says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this, Jo! It is powerful to hear your experience and helps to verbalize how I feel as well. I love how you have practical tips on what we can do and how we can educate our next generation as well. <3

  5. Wendy says:

    Thank you for sharing, Jo. I feel the pain and struggle in your story of coming to realize you wouldn’t be readily accepted (or worse) in times of old, and that being alive today has both moments of gratitude for the world of possibilities but also a world of pain for equality and acceptance not yet fully realized. Thank you, as always, for the many practical and accessible steps to be doing better together.