Hereditary Colorblindness?

Unlike the United States, Ukraine does not have many dark-skinned people, or Asians, for that matter. It's a fairly homogenous white society, which means that anyone of non-European descent stands out and might be exposed to ridicule, or worse. However, although I'm half Japanese, I've been fortunate.

I have not  experienced any racism here. Until recently.

I was walking past the playground beside our apartment building and heard two of our neighbors' kids jabbering nonsense syllables at me and calling me a Chinese woman. (I guess the nonsense syllables were their attempt to mimic the Chinese language.) Since I understood them, I decided to shake them up a bit by telling them, in perfect Ukrainian, "I'm not Chinese, I'm an American." 

It was a minor event, but a sobering one. The only other time I've personally witnessed such xenophobic behavior was during my first visit to the American Midwest.

My husband and I were in a diner, and I noticed that the two older men in the booth next to us were starting to behave oddly. They had been carrying on a normal conversation, but suddenly the sounds coming out of their mouths were completely unintelligible. I looked at my husband, an Indiana native, for an explanation. Maybe it was a Hoosier thing? 

"It's because that Mexican guy just walked in," he said.

I was astounded. Having grown up in the two cultural melting pots of Southern California and Hawaii, I had been largely blind to race until forced to take university "tolerance" classes. For me, those classes did more harm than good, suddenly sensitizing me to skin tone, where before I had only seen people, all of us alike, because we all shared common hopes and dreams and fears. Seeing the behavior of those men in the diner was a shock. Rednecks, I immediately labeled them in my mind, simultaneously angry at their arrogance and relieved that we wouldn't be living in such a backwards place. 

Instead, we're living in Ukraine.

There are many similarities between Ukraine and the Midwest. There are things I appreciate, like the climate, the fertile soil, the agrarian culture, and the extravagant hospitality of both places. But unfortunately, there's also the racial intolerance. I think that much of the problem is because neither region saw many foreigners until relatively recently, whereas the places where I grew up have a long history of immigration.*

I had always assumed that my own children would inherit my racial colorblindness, but after moving to Ukraine, I sometimes puzzled over how I would make that happen while living in a predominantly white, often racist society. And then God moved us to Ternopil. 

Ternopil is a university town. During the summer months, it's a sleepy little place, and very, very white. But in the days leading up to September 1, an amazing transformation occurs. There is a huge influx of international students from all over the Middle East and Africa, returning from their summers at home or just arriving for their first semester. Almost overnight, the city's ethnic makeup becomes something that you'd only expect in a much larger metropolis. 

This ethnic diversity is reflected in our church, where we switched to bilingual services to better serve the international segment of the congregation and where several African ladies routinely help out in our children's ministry. Our church potlucks are a wonderful smorgasboard of Ukrainian, American, and African cuisine, and we've managed to bring other cultures right into our home: an Arab woman from Morocco lives with us, and black students from several other African countries are frequently our guests. 

For the time being, my children are growing up in the midst of surprising diversity, given our location. 

And I'm so thankful.

But they're not quite colorblind yet. I was amused to hear one of my kids talking to one of our African visitors. My child was coloring with crayons when my friend arrived. He paused, turned to my friend, held up his crayon, giggled, and exclaimed, "The same brown like you!" 

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*You could argue that all Americans besides Native Americans are foreigners, but in this context, I'm referring only to those immigrants who arrived since the founding of the United States of America.


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9 thoughts on “Hereditary Colorblindness?

  1. It’s funny that you weren’t teased like that at Calvary. I was jabbered at in “Chinese” all the time. At the time it never occurred to me that it was supposed to be an insult. Ignorance was bliss I suppose.

    Sounds like Kiyoshi was enjoying the beautiful dark skin coloring not making fun of it. =o) I think seeing how you & George treat all people with love & respect no matter how they look will do a lot to teach the kids how to treat others. There’s nothing wrong with noticing differences – think how boring a monochromatic world would be!

    • Well, you do look more Asian than I do. (I always envied you for that.) I think most people have a really hard time placing me. The boldest strangers will apologetically ask me what my ethnic background is. It’s fun, because I feel like I can fit in most places, as soon as I learn enough about local customs to dress and act in a way that doesn’t draw attention. Of course, I can’t fit in in the Far East, ironically. I remember how much people would stare at me in Japan! I have a little game I play with myself when boarding an airplane to fly to the United States. I see if I can act in such a way that the flight attendants assume I’m a local and welcome me aboard in the national language, instead of the English they use for all the obviously American passengers. I’m usually successful. :)

  2. This reminds me of my own “colorblindness” situation. My father was from Oklahoma and my mother was 1/2 Mexican and 1/2 Yugoslavian. We traveled from California to attend a family picnic in Oklahoma with all my Dad’s family. We had been playing all day with our cousins and enjoying our new found family members. My mother was talking with one of the grownup cousins and her little son came up to his mom and asked her “Where are all those little Mexican kids we’re supposed to be nice to?” : > )

    • What a wonderful illustration of what I’m talking about! Racism is definitely a learned behavior, and children will naturally be accepting of everyone if that’s what’s modeled to them.

  3. My husband is Hispanic and I’m Caucasian. We’ve asked our boys in the past if they are brown like Daddy or white like Mama. My oldest has declared that he is dark white :)

  4. Little children are so cute – they seem to notice ethnic traits with the same interest as red hair, being tall, or grandad’s moustash and grandma’s wrinkles: no tact, just appreciation of the uniqueness of each person. I remember being amused, in Korea in 1973, a cute little preschool age child pointing at me (from across the street) yelling “Oma, Oma – Me-guck saram, Me-guck saram!” (“Mommy, mommy – American person, American person!”) as the mother kept politely wispering in embarassment to her child to be quiet – it didn’t help. This was an exciting moment for the child!

    • It’s nice that it was an exciting moment for that child. I remember on one of my family’s trips to Japan when I was younger, a group of school boys was following my 6’1″, blue-eyed dad around calling, “Henna gai-jin! Henna gai-jin!” which means, “Crazy foreigner! Crazy foreigner!” and is a fairly harsh insult. They were old enough that it was no longer an exciting moment to see an American, for sadly, they had been taught to be racist.

      On the other hand, I remember when we lived in Kyiv there was one African American missionary who was a part of the church there. I once overheard my little niece innocently ask her, “How come your skin is brown? Can you wash it off?” The lady chuckled and explained that, no, it didn’t wash off–that was just the way God had made her.

      • I saw adults ask the one African member of our church in Moscow if he had washed the brown off of the palms of his hands, since the skin is lighter there.

        The first time we went back to the states with our children, they made a big fuss about every African American we saw. I was not happy about that. This time they hardly seemed to notice. Except for the fact that we stayed with friends who had recently adopted from Africa, and now they’re all convinced that they want an African baby sister now or to adopt on their own when they grow up. And that makes me very glad.

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