A few months ago I was within earshot of a rather interesting, and a little troubling conversation between my son and his friend, who were sitting in my living room. My son, who is genetically, mostly African, and his friend who is racially mixed (I honestly don’t know what the mix is), were recounting various situations at school in which classmates were being in the least, ignorant and insensitive and, at the worst, overtly racist towards them. The final comment was by the friend who said, with a sigh and without any malice, “I hate white people.” At which point I, the invisible, forgotten parent and the only white person in the room piped up and said, “Hey! Wait just a second! I’m white!!” To which they both turned a startled gaze upon me as if seeing me for the first time as a white person (or even as a person, for that matter) , and the friend said, without skipping a beat, “Naw, you’re not white. You’re pink. We good.” OK, thanks for that, and nice recovery, by the way, but, “Yes, I’m white and I don’t treat either one of you like that, neither does anyone in our family or any of our friends or our church or our neighbors, so let’s not make generalizations about people based on skin color, since you don’t want people to do that to you… yada, yada, yada… Golden Rule…. (Picture pre-pubescent eye-rolling here annnnd… end of teachable moment. “Can we go outside?” Screen door slams. yes. sigh.)
My son was rather, shall we say, frenetic as a toddler, so, I think he was a little late in developing the cognitive ability to recognize racial characteristics. But when he finally did, Boy Howdy! Everybody knew. Every time we saw a person of color, he would shout out at the top of his lungs, “MOM! Look! (pointing, of course) That lady is brown just like me!” I didn’t know how else to respond, so I matched his enthusiasm. I would say, “I know! Isn’t that great?!” Most people would come over to high-five him or shake his little hand and say, “Hey, little buddy! Look, you’re just like me. We’re the same!” It was rather precious, except when it wasn’t… well received, but those situations were few and far between. For the longest time, he referred to himself as brown and I went with that. Sometimes, he was chocolate and I was vanilla, because I always prefer chocolate, and he always prefers vanilla. And, yes, I did let him lick my arm, many, many times. “Mmm, tastes like vanilla. Now, you taste me, Mom.” (I can assure you that sweaty, sticky, dirty little boy arm did not taste like chocolate, but, a mom’s gotta do what a mom’s gotta do.)
One day, when he was maybe 4 or 5, after spending time with my dad, he came home and said, very firmly, “Grandpa says I’m not African-American.” OK… tell me more about that conversation. “He says I’m an American. I was born in America just like you and Grandpa and I’m a cilizen of America!” Yes, yes, I agree with all of those statements. You were born in Portland, Oregon, and you most definitely are an American and a citizen of America. “I wasn’t born in Africa.” No, you were not. OK, good talk. However… when he felt the need to announce this fact to random people, specifically, people who identify themselves as African American, it didn’t go over so well. The “African American” identifier still doesn’t quite work for him, even now, especially since we have friends who are from Africa and became American citizens, and thusly are African-Americans.
But, now, he identifies with black instead of brown. And, lately, I am more referred to by him (as a joke, mostly, because I flush and sunburn easily) as pink rather than white. Are we clear on that? I’m not. It’s an ever-evolving process. What I am clear on is that my son gets to define it, himself, with the loving support of his community, which is his family, his friends, his church and his neighbors. You see, in addition to all the awful, evil, violent things that are happening in our country regarding race relations, there are also wondrous, miraculous, divine things happening. There are more interracial marriages/partnerships than ever before, and the resulting children are a blend of the best of us. There are blended families of mixed races where a blond-haired, blue-eyed little girl calls an African immigrant, Daddy. There are families that grow by adoption that know absolutely no boundaries when it comes to race, ethnicity or country of origin. There are old, white, folk who were raised in a different era who end up with Asian granddaughters and black grandsons and become the proudest, most indulgent grandparents ever to bore you with pictures. And, while skin tones may be a part of our family or personal narrative, and may be an ever-morphing part of our individual identity, it does not always define our culture. Our families and communities define our culture.
Recently, I took my son to North Portland at his request because he wanted to go to a real black barber. He’d been asking every black male in Vancouver with a haircut he admired, and I mean EVERY one, even strangers. They all said the same thing: you need to go to North Portland. So we headed to the epicenter of African-American (I’m white, I use the PC term) culture in Portland, Martin Luther King Boulevard, on a Sunday afternoon and began searching for a barber that was open. White me, my handsome, young, black son who looks four years older than he is, cruising around in our decidedly “mom-mobile”-looking, old SUV. After one hit and miss, we were referred to a place that was open and took walk-ins and my young man was able to get a killer haircut from a bona fide, black barber. Afterwards, I wondered what his response to this experience would be, if he would be more or less comfortable being in a room full of black people (this rarely happens to him), and if he would be drawn to, or repelled by the particular (and kind of odd) situation in which we had just found ourselves. His observations impressed me and made me very proud. He felt that the only other woman in the room (the wife of the barber) was dressed immodestly, that they had conversations in front of a room full of strangers that were too personal in nature, and they used language that was inappropriate to use in front of a child. He liked his haircut very much. They were very nice to him. “But, can we try another place, next time, that would be more… professional?” Absolutely! We’ll keep trying till we find the right one.
The values of HIS culture, our culture, that have nothing to do with the color of our skin, held true in this situation: to respect women (and for women to respect themselves), to conduct yourself with dignity and professionalism when you are at work or in public in general, to be gracious and thankful, but make wise choices in where you spend your time and money. O.M.Gosh! Did the nagging, lecturing, harping, and yes, sometimes yelling and screaming, “Did you hear what I just said?!” actually get through? In this moment… maybe. He’s only twelve. I’ve still got plenty of time to ruin him. (Or, I’ll keep nagging, lecturing, harping and maybe I could try to cut back on the yelling and screaming.)
Maybe, an entire generation of mixed families, however they come to be; by marriage, by birth or by adoption, are building a culture that has nothing to do with their skin tones (or better yet, are embracing ALL their skin tones) but going beyond that, can stand on a culture of which the values are respect and dignity and graciousness and kindness and thankfulness. It’s a tall order, a noble calling, and, I’m not gonna lie, most days I feel like I’m failing. But, I’m trying. And I know an African-American dad and a white mom who are trying with their white daughter and their bi-racial sons. I know white parents who are trying with their Asian daughters. I know many interracial couples who are trying with their bi-racial kids. I know many adoptive parents who are trying with their kids. And let’s not forget the unsung heroes: families who are all of the same race and/or ethnicity who are raising biological kids who do not know, nor will they tolerate racism, because their parents brought them up that way, some of them breaking the patterns of racism with which they were raised.
Lest you think that I’m unaware of the state of race relations in our country. Stop right there. Lest you think my son and I haven’t experienced racism. Stop right there. I am, painfully, fearfully aware and I try to make my son aware without causing him to be fearful – it’s more than a fine line, it’s a razor’s edge. He has, we have, experienced racism – some situations still too raw for either of us to share publicly. But, I have hope. There IS hope! And if you need to be introduced to ‘hope’, I know them, personally.
Love is Risk