When President Obama was sworn into office in January 2009 there were a lot of conversations about having entered a post-racial America. I was pretty upbeat at the time – I believed electing our first biracial president boded well for the direction our country as a whole was taking. Did I think our race issues had disappeared overnight? No, I wasn’t that naive, but I honestly felt we’d taken a giant step forward.
The last few years have pretty well demonstrated how far off the mark I was.
Race problems have featured prominently nationwide for a while now, but I’m going to focus on our little corner of the world – the place where T-man and Bear call home.
My sister lives in a city not far from me, with a much larger population that’s far more diverse than our area. Her city, like any urban area, has to deal with crime statistics that ours does not.
We live in a more rural part of North Carolina. Yes, there’s crime, but we’re not exactly dealing with drive-by shootings, drug raids, or rape and murder statistics nightly. BrightSide’s office is in a small town, but our neighborhood is located further out in the county. It’s very pretty (creeks, meadows, horses, and cattle greet us on our drives back and forth), our neighbors are friendly, and the kids attend an excellent school in our district.
There are probably a hundred positives I could list about where we live, but there is one blatant problem. We’re in the southern part of the county, and there are very few black people living in our area. When I think about who my kids encounter day-to-day – at school, in our neighborhood, during extracurricular activities, at church – I have to say that they’re mostly white.
During our adoption process, when BrightSide and I agreed that our future children’s race was a non-issue because we knew God would form our family as it was meant to be, this wasn’t a great concern for me. Were there minorities in our area? Yes. Were there a lot of minorities in our area? Well, not really, but I didn’t believe it would be a problem. We’d be raising our children with love and respect for who they are, and I felt that supportive environment would be the cornerstone of their positive self-image.
This was before I had biracial children.
I can’t exactly say I disagree with that philosophy now, but I do believe it falls under the “walk a mile in their shoes” category. I suppose I could compare it most simply to a glass of lemonade. On a hot summer’s day you can look at a picture of a tall glass of lemonade and clearly imagine what it would be like to hold it, condensation from the ice dripping down your hand, before enjoying a long, cold sip.
Even though you can vividly imagine this, though, it’s still different from the real life experience. Imagining the condensation doesn’t give your palm that chilled feeling as you grip the glass, and there’s a real physical interaction when you swallow that ice-cold lemonade. There are also a dozen variables you have no way of anticipating – the sweet but sticky liquid may attract a bee, or the glass’ condensation may leave a water ring on your table that you’ll notice for years to come.
You see my point? Imagining the cold lemonade seems perfectly vivid, but a real world experience can still introduce variations that influence things.
Before we had biracial children, I believed that race wouldn’t matter in a perfect world. It was important to acknowledge our differences, yes, because pretending we aren’t different is like trying to whitewash their genetics. But we wanted to celebrate our differences as part of what makes us all beautiful as human beings.
And we have done this. I believe our children took in the message from an early age that they are beautiful as they are. What I didn’t anticipate was the variables the real world would introduce into our family life.
Please note: I’ve been reading a book named I’m Chocolate, You’re Vanilla: Raising Healthy Black and Biracial Children in a Race-Conscious World by Marguerite Wright. The information regarding children and racial consciousness development comes from what I’m learning in that book.
The kids’ preschool experience was pretty typical, developmentally speaking. Bear garnered the most attention in this stage, with children wanting to touch her curly twists or beaded braids. Otherwise, I saw their experiences as common for that period of time. Kids that age notice differences and will even comment on them, but there’s no judgement attached.
In early elementary school T-man and Bear’s awareness of race grew. They noticed not just what the other kids in their classes looked like but also how many of those kids looked like them. And now we’ve entered what they call the middle childhood years, when kids (specifically black and biracial ones) identify more strongly with their race. T-man has struggled the most with this issue over the last year or so.
He was genuinely upset when the only other African-American boy in his class moved away last fall. There were children of other minority races in his room, but T-man very specifically said he was sad that the only kid “who looked like him” was gone. This was when I realized how different T-man felt in his everyday environment, and no matter how much we emphasized the positives of diversity that wasn’t changing the influence of his school experience.
He hasn’t shared specific experiences with me, but he’s asked why people are automatically scared of him because of his skin color. There were also some incidents of racist comments last year that his teacher and the administration swiftly and firmly addressed once T-man told us about them. All in all, fourth grade was a pretty pivotal time for him.
I volunteer a lot at their school, so I’m in those halls and see the children in their grades. They are not the only biracial students by any mean, but they are most certainly in the minority, and I imagine it’s remarkably hard to constantly be surrounded by a sea of faces that do not look like yours.
Even when you’re a great kid. Even when you’re well-liked by your teachers and peers. Even when you’re successful in academics and extracurriculars.
It’s hard to feel like you’re the only one.
The only one with dark skin that makes people stare. The only one who can’t grow his hair out long so it will look like popular (white) hairstyles. The only one who sticks out in a sea of classmates on Field Day.
I imagine looking through T-man’s eyes, seeing the kids he’s with every day, and feeling so completely different. Especially at a time when all a kid wants to do is fit in.
The irony is that I know when he’s grown T-man will see that there are lots of adults who feel like they’re “the only one” for various reasons. Some struggle with their looks, too; others with a disability of some kind. But none of that matters now, not while he’s fighting to find himself while surrounded by a sea of white faces.
I’m not even aiming for “perfect” now. In a better world, I wouldn’t be a white parent struggling this hard to help her biracial son feel confident in his own skin. Not while also teaching him survival skills for times when “the big black man” might be what someone reacts to first.
This is a very hard, very real struggle. I see T-man facing it every day, and all I can do is pray that we’re preparing him for whatever he faces.
But I think the world has some changing to do. There is much work to be done, and I’m starting in our own little corner.