Liz Farrell

Farrell: Hilton Head dad speaks out on unintentional racism

On YouTube, if you search “Choo Choo Charlie,” you will find a number of videos celebrating the old Good & Plenty jingle, “Once upon a time there was an engineer …”

If you search “Choo Choo Charlie Hand Clap,” however, the results are of something quite different: videos of two children, usually elementary school age, clapping hands and singing variations of a song that begins “I went to a Chinese restaurant …”

In many versions, the verses cycle through worn stereotypes.

In some, the children karate chop each other or pull at the corners of their eyes to mimic Chinese and Japanese ones.

Eddie Walsh of Hilton Head Island first heard an iteration of this song when he picked up his kids from Hilton Head Christian Academy one day this past fall.

The words came from the back seat, with sweet, carefree innocence, sung by the two little people he loves most in this world.

And he felt as though he had been punched in the stomach.

Where did you hear this? Who taught you this?

Classmates were singing it at school, he was told.

Why?, his kids wanted to know.

Is it bad?

“Yes,” he said. “It’s about Asians.”

“It’s about you.”

Walsh, who is white, wrote about this incident and other experiences he’s had on Hilton Head as the husband of an Asian-American woman and the father of biracial children.

The essay was published Tuesday on Huffington Post with the headline “Hilton Head Island Shows Racism in South Carolina is Not Black and White.”

In the essay, he talks about inadvertent racism, the kind that comes from the well-intentioned, from those who would never consider themselves a racist, from those who are unaware that their assumptions, their questions, their comments can detract from another’s sense of safety and community.

He talks about the kind of racism that often ends with “Relax. It was a joke” or “They didn’t mean it that way” or “Let’s just forget I said that.”

At the bottom of the essay, a reader commented that Walsh had understated the problem on the island.

Walsh and I hung out Friday morning at the Dunkin Donuts on Hilton Head, where we talked about his experiences on the island, how racism against Asians and Asian-Americans often gets unnoticed and about the Town of Hilton Head Island’s desire to attract young families.

We also talked about the ideas of “inclusiveness” and “community,” and how neither of those things are truly possible unless we’re willing to have honest and frequent conversations about how all members of a society are being treated.

“People,” Walsh said, “shouldn’t feel like they should have to justify who they are. There’s pressure to always be defined or to define yourself, but it’s always for the people ‘outside the norm.’”

Likewise, “these are not people choosing to be racist,” he said of Hilton Head residents.

Walsh is a senior foreign correspondent who has been widely published and is the chief executive officer of Islands Society, a nonprofit he intentionally based on Hilton Head that seeks to engage island communities in global affairs.

He and his family moved to this area full-time last year, but he’s been visiting Hilton Head since he was a boy.

He is close to his children, and protective of his family.

“I never write about my children,” Walsh said. “It was a huge hurdle to get over.”

He was prompted to write about the incident — and the time a stranger touched his child’s cheek because she “liked Asian skin,” and the time a neighbor asked him where he brought his wife from, and the time his mother was asked what country her grandchildren were adopted from — because of a story that ran in The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette about the Town of Hilton Head Island’s desire to craft a vision for what the island should look like in the future.

“If we want to fully achieve the Hilton Head Island Vision 2030,” Walsh wrote in his essay, “the Hilton Head Island Town Council must do more to make sure that our community addresses the full range of problems facing young families. It cannot just be the problems facing young white families.”

When Walsh reported the “Choo Choo Charlie” incident to his children’s school, he wanted administrators to address the issue by talking to the kids’ parents so that they, too, would understand the weight of what seems like a silly playground song.

Instead, he said, the school simply told the children not to sing the song anymore because “it’s too violent.”

“It was an end to the incident,” he said, “but not the problem.”

Walsh is careful to point out that he is not being overly sensitive or politically correct. He’s also not interested in pointing the finger at anyone. I reached out to the school Friday to let them know I was writing about the essay and to hear the headmaster’s thoughts on the incident, but he and his assistant were out of the office.

Walsh said he is speaking out not to shame anyone, but so that there’s an unavoidable account: This happened to us. It’s probably happened to others. Don’t sidestep it.

His only end game is that honest discourse ensue.

People do and say racist things all the time without meaning to or as a joke — in fact, I am certain I have been one of those people over the years. When I played the “Choo Choo Charlie” video, the cadence rang unfortunately familiar.

There is no fix for racism, though — at least not that I can figure — except to confront it in real time.

When a woman touched his child’s face, Walsh asked her what she was doing.

When a stranger at a store ask his children where they came from, his oldest now says “From my mommy’s belly.”

And when a town’s residents got called out in a national publication … well, I suppose their reaction remains to be seen.