When I first read the news about the deaths of eight innocent people in Atlanta, six of whom were Asian women, my heart sank into the pit of my stomach. Instantaneously, all of the recent violence and hatred towards people that look like me and my family had escalated to a terrifying new level. Many fears raced through my mind. Was this a terrible turning point? Would things only continue to get worse?
After sharing my concerns, deep sadness, and fears with my wife, who is Caucasian, we agreed I would talk to our older children about these events. Explaining senseless violence and death to kids is not easy, but, sadly, I’ve had plenty of practice with tough conversations about the murder of George Floyd, the insurrection at the Capitol, and racism towards Asian Americans.
My wife and I both want to make sure our kids have context and awareness for current events, especially ones that relate to our family’s social justice values and biracial makeup. And while I may never know the perfect things to say, I believe creating imperfect teachable moments is far better than leaving my kids in the dark and/or having their experiences be solely informed by hearsay.
I didn’t want to rush the conversation with my kids, so I took a day for myself to process the events and have my feelings. I wanted to make sure I would be able to share with my kids without becoming upset or otherwise making the experience scary for them. The following day, I asked my two oldest kids, 10 and 8-year-old girls, to have a seat so we could talk. I let them know I wanted to tell them about something upsetting that happened.
Tailoring my account to match their developmental levels, I explained that something sad had occurred involving a man killing 8 people, six of whom were Asian women. I said that this was upsetting to me because life was lost and some of the victims were Asian, just like us. I reminded them of past conversations we’ve had about hatred and violence against Asians, highlighting that this has been ongoing and especially frequent during the pandemic due to COVID-19 starting in China.
As I wrapped up the talk, I unexpectedly ran into the hardest part of all. It was time to end, but I did not want to close on a negative note or leave them feeling afraid. So I told them that they would be safe. I had absolutely no way of knowing this for sure, but I felt it had to be said. In order to reassure them further, I told them that these events took place far away on the other side of the country.
As soon as we finished our conversation, I realized I had lied.
There was no way I could guarantee with 100% certainty that they would be safe from harm. In fact, data from the group Stop AAPI Hate points to the prevalence of hate incidents in our state of California and among youths. The week prior, I learned about a physical attack on an Asian man in the predominantly Asian community of Temple City, only a few miles from our Pasadena home. Beyond physical violence, there are a host of other hate acts that my family could encounter including verbal and online harassment, shunning, spitting, and vandalism.
So why did I lie to my kids and tell them they would be ok?
First of all, I felt an overriding urge to protect them. Among my many responsibilities as a parent, an important one for me is preparing my kids to handle whatever the world throws at them. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to tell them about these tragic events — to prepare them for harsh realities. But at the same time, I didn’t want to scare them into being completely afraid. That wouldn’t be protecting. It would be paralyzing. So I lied and said they would be ok.
Secondly, I’m an Asian man who falls into the stereotype of not possessing a lot of awareness about feelings — both recognition of my own feelings and how to share them. So I did what I’ve done my whole life — I swallowed those feelings. I told myself an all too familiar story that my emotions will get in the way of me functioning at work and at home. I also didn’t want to tell my kids how much hatred and anger I have in my heart for those perpetrating this violence. I was afraid of losing control. So I lied and said they would be ok.
Lastly, I had no idea what is being done or could potentially be done to fix this situation. If I knew specific actions were taking place to end widespread anti-Asian violence, I would love to tell my kids about them. But in the moment, I had no ray of hope to share. It feels like just until recently, Asian Americans are the only ones who have cared about this issue. The best option I had to comfort my kids and myself was to deliver broad generalities that sounded nice. So I lied and said they would be ok.
I look forward to the day when telling my children they will be ok won’t be a lie. In my deepest pits of despair, I fear that day won’t happen in my lifetime or theirs. At my most optimistic, I think about how families like ours speaking up and acting together can be part of making the necessary changes happen.