How a board game prompted a conversation with my kids about what it means to be ‘American’

IMG_3592.JPGIdentity politics can be played like a game by cable news talking heads – so perhaps it’s only fitting that a kids’ board game got me talking about this topic with my daughters.

Lily, my 10 year old, got the game “Guess Who?” for her birthday. Similar to Battleship, each player has their own board that the opponent isn’t supposed to see, with several rows of different character faces and names. Based on the draw of a card, each player assumes the identity of one of these characters until game’s end, and asks one question per turn to the opponent to determine who their character is first.

So this is about the process of elimination. You ask things like, “Does your person wear glasses?” or “Is your person wearing a hat?”, and you pull down the tiles that the question eliminates as possibilities.

But shortly after Lily got this gift, I overheard her playing with her 7 year old sister, Neve, who asked, “Is your person American?”

Lily said, “No,” and I thought, WHAT IN THE HELL IS HAPPENING IN OUR HOUSE RIGHT NOW?

“Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait,” I said, sternly. “How could you possibly tell whether the people on this board are American or not?”

They meant the people with fair skin, of course.

Oy. Here I’d thought that because they attended a public school with a significantly diversified student body, they wouldn’t develop such notions. But Lily tried to explain her logic to me.

“Because they’re not African American, or Chinese American, or Indian, they’re just American,” said Lily.

Holy crap.

Clearly this was a conversation we needed to have – which shouldn’t be surprising, since it’s not a topic that comes up much – and this game was providing the perfect springboard.

I took a breath and jumped in.

“OK, first of all, America is a land of immigrants,” I told my daughters. “People have arrived here from all over the world for hundreds of years. So every person on that game board could be American, or they might not be. You can’t SEE someone’s citizenship, so being American is not something you can tell by looking at a person.”

I took another breath, tried to stay calm, and made a lot of direct eye contact with them, trying to emphasize in every way possible the importance of what I was trying to communicate.

“Second, you mention people who are two things, like African American or Indian American. But we’re pretty much ALL ’something’ American. I’m Scotch-Irish American, plus some other stuff, and Daddy’s Russian Jewish American – and you’re a mix of all those things. Logan and Savannah’s mom is Italian American, and Ben and Cindy across the street are Greek American, I think. This country was built by people who came from other countries, so none of us are just ‘American.’ And no one’s more American or less American than anyone else. We’re all equal. Our country has this huge, amazing variety of people, and they have different skin colors, and languages, and food and music and art. It’s one of the very best things about our country.”

My daughters were looking a little chastened, so my voice softened and grew a little less ardent.

“It’s just really, really important to me that you understand this,” I said gravely. “Right now, the people running our government are stirring up a lot of fear around immigrants, and saying bad things about them, and treating them terribly. So I want you to know that every single person on that board could be an American. And even if they aren’t, they deserve respect.”

I was getting emotional and expanding from my original point, so I stopped, and Lily said, “OK, Mommy. We understand.”

Neve locked eyes with me. “You, too, Nevie?” She nodded.

IMG_3595We hear a lot about the painful conversations black parents feel they have to have with their children – about how to act around police, etc. – but perhaps this is the conversation white parents have to have with their kids. It’s challenging, because there’s no obvious occasion for it, nor is there an organic way to raise the issue. (Let’s face it: part of privilege is not having external forces constantly pressing you to talk and think about privilege.) Plus, because of the nature of their school, I’d naively thought (or hoped?) that their day-to-day experiences would obviate the need for such a conversation.

Nope.

So in a way, I ended up feeling lucky to have overheard my daughters’ conversation over a board game.

And by the way, my daughters are far from the only ones to have made this kind of error.

Recently, I heard Janet Yang, an executive producer of the 1993 film “The Joy Luck Club,” being interviewed on NPR. When asked about concerns or reservations that studio execs had had about the movie, she said, “You know, in some cases, it was very blunt. I know Chris Lee, who was working at TriStar at the time, remembers, specifically, when he was trying to push for the movie, they said, ‘Oh, but there are no Americans in the movie.’ And he said, ‘Oh, they are Americans. They just don’t look like you.’ And then that executive said, ‘Oh, you know what I mean.’ So there was a perception that Americans – and that especially Americans in movies – had to be white. And that, by the way, is a perception that prevailed largely until – and bless them – the African-American community stood up more. So they helped pave the way for us for sure.”

In addition, a month or two after this game incident, Joe’s best friend from high school brought his Spanish-speaking five year old daughter, Kasey, who primarily lives in the Dominican Republic, to our home for dinner and a visit. As kids tend to do (with far less floundering and fuss than adults), Lily, Neve, and Kasey found ways to communicate, mostly using gestures and play-acting, throughout the evening, and we barely saw the three of them as they traveled through various rooms of the house to play.

By night’s end, Lily and Neve offered Kasey a chance to pick out three Barbie dolls from their now-pretty-much-abandoned pile of them, and she carefully, happily did so. After we all said our goodbyes, the girls said how much they enjoyed spending time with Kasey, and I said, “You know how we had that conversation before about what makes someone American? Kasey is both Dominican and American – even though she mostly doesn’t live in America, and she speaks only a little English – because her daddy is a U.S. citizen.”

They seemed to get it.

And you might think that, at that point, I was beating a dead horse.

I don’t think so. To me, it feels like, if we have any chance at all of leaving behind the prejudices rooted in our history, we have to keep reminding our kids that we’re all in this together, and that we’re equals. That despite our differences – ideological or ethnic or religious – we are ultimately all human beings, and we all deserve respect, compassion, and the chance to be heard.

When I came across Dave Eggers’ picture book about the Statue of Liberty (“Her Right Foot”) while working at the library, I initially checked it out because our family had visited the monument during a recent spring break trip to New York City, and I thought that the girls would be interested in its history.

But then it all seemed to hearken back to the very things we’d talked about, making me feel like I’m on the right track.

Thank goodness the universe throws you a bone as a parent now and then.

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