Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The black elephant in the elevator

I must admit I have never felt the oppression of racism.  The concept has always seemed other-worldly to me actually.  There has been only one time (a disturbing incident in a Huntsville, Alabama Macy’s) when I walked away with a strong suspicion that I had just experienced racism.  Otherwise, rude people have always been simply that - rude. I never assumed that slights, denied career opportunities, or diverted eyes had anything to do with my color.

My husband and I have had an unspoken agreement to not make race an issue in raising our sons.  We have always lived in multi-cultural communities, and they have always had classmates that represented the widest cross-section of the nation.  We never talked about race, always affirmed them and each other, and discouraged using race as a descriptor when talking about someone:  “the short girl with black hair and dimples,” as opposed to “the black/white girl.”   Racial references were so avoided that the boys, when they do refer to someone’s skin color, don’t follow the concepts of race, but of Crayola.  They say tan or brown, instead of white or black.

I expected that my boys will be part of an enlightened post-racial society and I wanted to do a good job preparing them for it.  These days, however, I am not so sure.  I am not sure that there will ever be a post-racial society (or what that even means).  I am not sure that I am doing a good job of preparing my sons for the society that will be.  Recently my 5 and 6 year-old sons in discussion at the breakfast table, both decided aloud that they would marry tan (white) girls.  I was stunned, scared and heartbroken, though I was not sure that I should be.  I tried to find out what had led them to their decision, but neither seemed to be able to identify a catalyst.  They wanted to, “just because…dunno why.”  An equally important consideration: if I am indeed above and beyond the considerations of race, as I like to consider myself, why was their pronouncement bothersome?  A recent struggle with my sons and their visiting cousins over Nintendo Wii Miis turned teary and gave me an ugly answer.  None of the kids wanted avatars that were representative of how they look.  They wanted lighter skin, narrower noses, and straighter hair.   When I created an image that I thought resembled my son he said it was ugly and burst into tears.

My peers almost all reacted with the same resigned shrug of the shoulders and noncommittal references to “other influences” affecting our children when I told them about the incident.  No one seemed as startled or as worried as I was.  Race is not so much a bothersome personal issue for Blacks who have been saved the direct burns of racism through education, attainment of wealth, or geography of birth or residence.

Concern for my sons makes me conclude though, that it should be an issue.   We cannot afford to ignore race in our homes when there are those “other influences” – subtle yet effective – affecting our children.  They will form opinions about culture, race and themselves, and parents have an obligation to try to influence those opinions.  If I continue to deny race to my sons, but the world is telling them they are ugly because their skin is dark and their nose is broad, I am not preparing them for the world, I am sacrificing them to it.  So there will no more ignoring race in my house.  There will be lots of talk about skin color and beauty, about men and women of color who left their mark on the world, about self-worth and the necessity for more than a little bit of arrogance. I will teach them what I have learned – that racial equality and the elimination of racism require us to affirm and value our place on the rainbow.


  1. I was curious as to why you and your husband chose not to discuss color with your children as we live in a society that not only recognizes race, but uses it in every day decisions whether it be getting on an elevator, clutching a purse or even which president to vote for.

    You have been fortunate not to ever experience racism, but as boys who will grown into black men, the possibility of them experiencing racism is exponentially higher for them.

    At their current age, I would not worry about who they desire to marry, but I would be concerned with their choice of miis. Are they regularly told that they are beautiful/handsome? Regardless of what society shows them, I find it important for our children to be constantly reaffirmed and to continually build up their self-esteem.

    We can live in a world that recognizes that beauty comes in all shapes, sizes and races should be respected.

  2. Thanks for reading and commenting Dave. As you can see from my conclusion, I don't think we made the right choice. I just did not believe that my affirmations of my boys (which I am more than liberal with) should have anything to do with race. I tell them all the time how handsome and good looking they are. I had just disregarded/underestimated the other influences that would be at work in their lives. I still cannot identify the source of the insecurity that caused the Mii incident. I just have to adjust going forward.