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Race Matters

Denene Millner of MyBrownBaby

Really, it wasn’t planned, this cornucopia of color and races and backgrounds and experiences. It was just Mari’s birthday party, a tiny affair that involved five beautiful 12-year-old girls with big personalities, lots of shared interests in Lemonade Mouth and Glee and an affinity for gourmet strawberry cupcakes and painting each others toes and fingers. Peeping around the corner into the room where this loud, giggly affair was taking place was like gazing at a Benetton ad on helium: lots of colors, lots of cultures, lots of backgrounds, lots of languages, all united, with a sole mission: to have as much giggly sleepover fun at our place as humanly possible.

They weren’t focused on their differences, by any stretch. But I noticed and reveled in them—the hysterically gregarious Ethiopian baby girl of the interracial couple from New Orleans; the motor-mouthed and deliciously bubbly daughter of an African American woman and a Mexican dad; the quiet, observant Jamaican-American; the lanky, thoughtful Chinese child of two white Southerners; and my baby, 100 percent black Georgia peach by way of NYC. And I couldn’t help but to be proud of my Mari for picking the mix, even if it happened only subconsciously.

Oh, she swears she doesn’t pick friends by color or culture or background—that she’s an equal opportunity friend, so long as you’re a nice person and kinda, sorta dig some of the same things she does. We had an interesting discussion about it yesterday, the continuation in an ongoing conversation we’ve been having about differences. About noticing them. And giving them a nod. And appreciating them for what they are. She understands its import—and for that, I’m grateful. But she told me, too, that picking friends according to some arbitrary thing like skin color doesn’t rule her choices either—and for that I’m grateful, too.

I’ve been considering this a lot this week after I logged onto The Twitter and found this tweet from a white mother named Brenda who blogs about her autistic son on her website, Mama Be Good

@MyBrownBaby If u get a min, would love 2 know what u think. Why should I teach my child about race?

In the tweet, Brenda included a link to a poignant blog post she penned about her delicious son, Jack, who, it seems, has yet to identify people by skin color, and instead focuses on the shape of people’s foreheads and the color of their hair to distinguish one person from another. Recently, she wrote, Jack said a man with the same wrinkleless forehead and dark-colored hair as his dad looked like his father. This, despite the man is African American and Jack’s dad is Caucasian. And in Brenda’s opinion, this is a perfectly acceptable way for her son to identify folk because, well, it’s no more random than pointing out someone’s skin color. She continued:

Let's just admit it.  Race-based identification is arbitrary.  So I haven't 'taught' Jack about skin color.  I haven't labeled people based on their race.  I haven't pointed out that people have different skin colors.  I'm curious to see if he notices - ever - but I can't think of a reason, right now, that he needs to know.  I can foresee sometime in the future when we're reading history ... he already knows Lincoln and some things about the Civil War, all to do with the terrifying fact that people died.  And, if for some reason, he began acting differently towards people based on their skin color, or wanted to know why others treated people differently based on their skin color, or if he were treated differently because of his skin color, absolutely. Then we'd need a history lesson and a human being lesson.

And, yes, perhaps not teaching him about prejudice is a luxury we can afford simply because we happen to be Caucasian. I recognize the unfairness. I recognize that this lesson has to occur for some children earlier. And it is unfair. Or perhaps we aren't teaching Jack about prejudice right now 'cause we're still working on the basics.  Because Jack is diagnosed with autism.  Or because we'll be talking about a different kind of prejudice.  Because Jack is diagnosed with autism.

But right now, Jack perceives people without bias.  We aren't our skin color.  We are people.

And foreheads.  Apparently.

I promise you this: Brenda’s post—and her question—did make me think and stretch and consider the view from her side of the street; her son sounds precious and my God, who would want to sully that innocence?

The truth is, I wish Jack’s way was the way of humans—that we all were blissfully unaware of skin color and all the baggage that comes with it and simply identified people by the number of lines on their forehead or the tint of their hair. But we are humans. And sadly, all-too-many of us grow up and get grown and get our fill of living and experiences and theories and stereotypical messages both overt and subliminal and, whether we really care to admit it or not, we form our ideas and feast on those of others and, quick as a wink, that idealistic innocence flies right on out the window.

Here on the Parenting Post, I’ve cited studies and books, too, about how well-meaning white parents do their children a huge disservice when they cloak real historical and cultural issues in vague platitudes instead of taking on the topic of race head-on. As evidenced in this post, you leave your child open to some pretty scary situations; in another post, I wrote about how exposing white children to books and toys featuring children of color helps give parents a chance to show not just the differences but the commonalities between the races and cultures and why this is an important conversation to have early and often.

Here’s the thing: no matter how much white parents think their silence on the matter will help their kids maintain their innocence when it comes to race, the world will work overtime to feed kids the crazy—kind of like what happens when parents refuse to talk to their kids about sex and then he hits the locker room and some boob tells him he can’t get a girl pregnant if he pulls out or that he’ll grow hair on his hands if his uses them to masturbate or he can’t get HIV from oral sex, and then the kid with all the bad info shows up wiht a baby or an infection. Like sex, skin color will become one of those things that sticks out like a neon target. It will become a very relevant thing. Maybe not for Brenda. Or her sweet Jack. But for plenty more, I assure. And if the discussion doesn’t come up in your house until there’s a problem, well, the discussion is way too late.

The truth is I don’t have the luxury of walking into the room and having my skin color go unnoticed. I don’t have the luxury of applying for a job and having it go unnoticed. I don’t have the luxury of going to a restaurant or shopping in a store or driving in a well-to-do neighborhood—even my own—and have people see my forehead or the color of my hair or the hue of my eyes instead of my skin. The same goes for my man and my hulking, football playing son and my two chocolate girlpies and my 76-year-old daddy, who grew up in the segregated South, and my in-laws, who live in a mostly-white neighborhood where their son is the only black child in the class and their other son, a sweet 12-year-old kid who couldn’t and wouldn’t hurt a fly and loves pretty much anyone he comes in contact with, was called the “N” word for nothing more than that his skin is brown. This is the American way.

And seeing as it can’t be hidden and I’ve worked so hard to love my brown skin despite all of the negative storylines/assumptions attached to it, the last thing I and oh so many more who look like me want is to have someone say she doesn’t “see” it. I won’t speak for all African Americans because we are not a monolith. I will, however, say that a large part of who I am and what I love about myself is rooted to my race and the culture connected to it; my skin is no less a part of me than my limbs, my breath—my heart. I know for sure that I am not alone in my thinking on this. It does not define me, but this brown skin has helped shape me in immeasurable ways. I can say the same is true for my babies, who, even as they are being encouraged not to dwell on color, are being taught that color and culture is important—a part of the myriad of things that makes each of us special and different and beautifully human.

And that, along with foreheads and hair color and a cornucopia of giggly little girls with a rainbow of skin colors, cultures and backgrounds, is worth noticing.  

To read more of Denene's thoughts on parenting, check out her personal blog at MyBrownBaby.com.

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