Survival Skills

By Erin Okuno, contributions by Kristin T.

Earlier this week I spent some time listening online to womxn of color talk about their experiences in education. It was renewing to hear people speak passionately about education for people of color. Towards the end of the conversation a question was asked by a Black mom, she said (paraphrasing) “Everything you said is great, and I still need to teach my mixed-race kids how to navigate and survive a school system and world not made for them. What advice do you have?” It got me thinking how we as POCs, especially parents/caregivers of color,  have the added burden of teaching our children how to navigate and stay safe in a world not designed to keep them safe. My friend Kristin, mixed race and raising mixed-race Black children, is a teacher reminded me how these things we teach our children become part of who they are. The survival skills are not equal. As an Asian what I teach my children is different than what Kristin may be teaching her kids due to race and how the world perceives our children. As an Asian it is also my role to be an ally to and disrupt in places so we don’t have to use survival skills.

Artwork by Rue Oliver, Amplifer Art

Survival skills we teach our kids:

  • Don’t play/carry toy guns outside the house.
  • Speak up, but not too much — think about this through racial power dynamics.
  • Listen first before speaking — listen for the code words to know if your contributions will be valued or challenged.
  • Always wear your seatbelt, use your turn signals, don’t cut people off, so you don’t call extra attention to yourself when driving. Put your driver’s license, insurance card, and registration in easy clear reach in case you are pulled over.
  • If you are pulled over, put your hands on the steering wheel, be polite and extra respectful.
  • Code-switching, which is important in both settings or you are acceptable in neither
  • Daughters (especially Black women) need to be taught to guard their bodies and stay out of situations alone with men (of any race).
  • Stay out of the way and don’t draw attention to yourself, always be on your best behavior
  • Work twice as hard as everyone else in the classroom, keep quiet, be respectful, question authority with delicate care. 
  • Don’t challenge authority with direct eye contact / Do look people in the eye when speaking — In some POC cultures it is impolite to look people in the eye when speaking, in others it is important to look at people in the face. Cross racial and cross cultural nuances are survival skills.
  • Speak and write with standard English in certain settings, but switch to other languages when with POCs. Belonging and acceptance are key survival skills.
  • Learn the rules, even though the rules aren’t always explicit or won’t apply evenly to you.
  • Tolerate Euro-centered curriculum, but learn about POC history and curriculum on your own.
  • Don’t wear heavy coats into stores, no matter how cold it is.
  • Don’t touch things in stores unless you plan on buying it and putting it into the cart and basket.
  • Shop at certain stores. Black friends will go out of their way to grocery shop in more POC neighborhoods vs their own grocery stores for comfort and mental wellbeing.
  • Calculate everything, for every push think about the counter-push and strategize to blunt the blow
  • Overbuild and overplan to keep things from being chipped away, but also don’t become too emotionally invested in the results because it can be taken away by white supremacy with one swift action. Keep in mind this takes a lot of extra energy that way drains from other efforts.
  • Limit dreams to protect from being crushed time and again
  • From conception to birth Black and Indigenous babies have to fight to survive. Mommas of color fight to protect and birth healthy babies.
  • Know how to nod and say “hmmm,” to survive a conversation with a white person who is clueless. Know how to extricate yourself from conversations with people who don’t understand your life.
  • Where to travel and where not to — Confederate flags and MAGA hats are signals we may not be welcome. In order to access nature or certain communities, POCs have to travel through places not inclusive of Black and Brown people.  
  • Teaching kids the same experience won’t be felt evenly. 
  • Teaching our children to pay attention to race in a way white children rarely are forced to focus on. 
  • Think of others — your family and community, not just yourself. Survival includes survival of others in your community.
  • How to swallow disdain in a moment, but also to find people who ‘get it’ and help us build for a better future.

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