It’s that time of year MLK Day and pre Black History Month when schools begin to tell the same tales of blackness and comfortably watered down liberation. My daughter comes home from kindergarten talking about Rosa Parks, segregation (Jim Crow) and “Don Luther King” who is actually Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. We begin the conversation with her narrating all the things that she learned in class. “How she couldn’t believe it; How it was sooooo long ago; How she was shocked that people wouldn’t share a space with someone else of a different color skin”. I let her epiphanies flow through her and fill the minivan until finally I intervened:
Me: Actually dear it wasn’t that long ago. It was during Great-Grandma and Granny’s childhood and they’re still alive. Some of it was still going on in the 80s when I was your age. There is still discrimination even today.
Her: What?! Oh my god mom! I can’t believe it. I mean what is that about. Right?
Me: Yeh. I know. But Dr. King believed that ALL people should have an opportunity to better themselves and live together in harmony. Essentially every person should be treated with dignity, no matter if you agree with who they are, what they look like, their lifestyle or what economic class they’re in.
Her: Yeh. That is so sad that people care about that kind of stuff.
Me: Yeh, it’s pathetic. But it’s America.
The conversation keeps going. We talk about being friends with people of all types of backgrounds. How it’s a blessing that her school has people from literally everywhere in the world; how they are the same but they all have unique cultural experiences that if shared will make the world a better place. We talked about the disparity between segregated schools.
Her: Mom then we learned that kids of different colors couldn’t go to school together. I mean isn’t that crazy.
Me: Yeh. If you were living next door to a school that was all white you’d have to go across town to go to the black school. Often those school were not funded equally either.
Then she asked….
Her: Mom am I white?
What the… that question hit me in the face, hard. It rattled in my brain like a smooth metal sphere in a pinball machine. I then developed all these questions of doubt in my mind.
I’m black and we are together every day… you can’t see that?
How could you think you were white?
I’m glad you’re associating with the winning team, but really?
And then the main question came to the forefront… AM I FAILING MY BLACK CHILD? So I answered her…
Me: No Dear. You aren’t white. You’re just a different shade of black.
Her: Yeh, I thought so. (She sounded so disappointed)
I was disappointed for her (because of her oversight and inaccuracy not because she wasn’t white). But then I rethought the question during our awkward silence. AM I FAILING MY BLACK CHILD?
Most of the “boom-bayeh Pro Black” types would furiously say “YES, yes you are!”. Most of the super crunchy “heal the world, we’re all the same” types would say, “This is beautiful”. I am not sure where I lie on the spectrum. I think if my kid can feel comfortable walking around as who she is; that is great. I also think that there will come a point when what she looks like is important. This is not a post racial America as I’ve personally learned in small covert racist instances that I then ask myself if I was being “too sensitive”. So I analyzed more deeply as she was thinking about how she was “who she was”. The main conclusion I came to was her being submersed in a “non traditionally American black” upbringing since birth.
Essentially we have a Caribbean household. Her father is Caribbean and since birth she’s stayed with her Caribbean grandmother while we both went to work. The funny thing about the Caribbean is that although it is relatively small, it is comprised of every cultural and ethnic group of people in the world. Its cultural diversity would be analogous to the biodiversity of the Amazon rainforest. It is a wonderful outlier of ethnicity and cultural identification. Yes, there is racism there but people aren’t quick to chop themselves up ethnically to explain who they are. Her father’s family is a prime example of this. Although, being of Portuguese, Venezuelan, Black, Indian and so many more ethnicities, peoples and cultures, but they have the wonderful way of saying they are just Trinidadian. They also don’t care about their cultural mixing. They aren’t obsessed with it like Americans are. I then realized that black people in America don’t have that luxury of just being “American”. So when my child asked me if she were “white”, was it because she doesn’t associate herself with just “black” but rather Trinidadian and American?
Is this my fault? I’m mean as far as America goes, I’m just black. And although I am a mixed race multiethnic person, you can’t really tell. Marrying someone who looks more multi ethnic (not on purpose- another blog topic to cover later) made an interesting genetic soup. As my kids grow, I’ve noticed that some years they look more “multiracial” than other years. Unfortunately, I’ve noticed during the “multiracial years” people tell them how awesome their “non traditional” black traits are. I’ve been told I was “gorgeous” but I think it’s because I was associated with weird looking kids and I guess it was rationalized that I had to be special or worthy enough for some non-black man to mate with me. Needless-to-say, I took the compliment and I continually tell the “zealous complimenters” that it’s pretty on the inside and hard work in the classroom that counts in our family.
In our ever-changing ethnic landscape of multiethnic people, I find that this is an interesting time. People are not just recently multiethnic. I think that because more black men and white women are getting together, we believe that multiracial is a “new thing”. Actually if you speak to Caribbean people and American black people you will find that mixing of races and cultures has been going on far beyond the 1980s. It goes beyond black and white and somehow in America we ignore the intermixing of other races and cultures in an embarrassing fashion. My daughter’s great grandfather was a Portuguese white man and her great grandmother was a Venezuelan (dark skinned) black woman who married and had 9 kids (there’s more of that where I come from). I think that in the past, these products of multiethnic marriages, love affairs and sadly even rapes were quieted or hidden and even shamed. Today, we’re giving them the voices they deserve which totally debunks our outdated and ridiculous system of categorizing people.
So am I failing my “black” child? I would say that I’m not. I am allowing her to grow without the hindering ideologies and stereotypes associated with black culture. I am encouraging her to choose the desirable personality traits of genuine friendship. I am empowering her to believe that she can do anything with hard work and dedication. I am raising her American with compassionate American expectations. What is failing, is our cultural laziness; the idea that we can quickly judge each individual’s ability and traditions based on a quick glance. We can’t do that anymore people. We actually have to take the time and get to know people because they aren’t what we expect. We have to have conversations and awkward interactions. We have to unlearn some of the things that we’ve catalogued in our brains. We have to grow and decide that humanity is comprised of more than just titles and labels. To be human is to experience. To participate in humanity, is to experience it together.
I'm a former teacher and former college athlete, currently working to make life more equitable for all people. My mission is to get parents to partner with their child's teacher.