Thursday, August 20, 2009

Black Children/White World: How Do I Make the Journey Easier?

“For not only must the black man be black; he must be black in relation to the white man.” --Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks

Please forgive me if this runs long. I composed it months ago, and have since revised it to the bare bones. But I really need your help on this one. Please stay with me until the end.


The questions began very early, even before I was prepared to deal with them.


At the time, my son was one of only a few African American children in his school and the only African American child in his kindergarten class. I accompanied his school on a trip to the zoo during a week set aside for the local schools.


His school, with its long line of white children with only a few specks of color here and there, stood in line next to an all black school. My son looked down the long line of white children in front of him and behind him, and then looked over at the long line of African American children.


Then he turned to me and asked me, “Why are all the white kids over here and all the little brown kids over there? And why am I not over there with the little brown kids?”


I was not prepared to deal with that question, and can’t recall exactly what I said. However, I do remember rattling off some abstruse, recondite theory that he would have never been able to understand at the time and then trying to redirect his attention elsewhere. But for the rest of the day, he was uncharacteristically reticent, and often I found him gazing wistfully and curiously at the little brown kids whenever a group of them came near.


Now, both he and my daughter have grown accustomed to either being the only African American child or one of only a few African American children in almost every setting they find themselves. But as they grow older and the relationships and social situations become more complex, I find myself having to revisit the racial question with them all over again.


In a World Surrounded by Whiteness


In their world surrounded by whiteness, I am more worried for my daughter than I am my son. My son is more than secure in his blackness. He is almost arrogant in his blackness even. He wields his blackness like a club, beating those who underestimate his ability, his mental acumen, about the head and shoulders with it.


His friends represent numerous races and ethnic groups. In fact, his current crew is made up of a Jew, a mixed race black/Hispanic, and a mixed race white/Hispanic. However, it is important to note that his crew occupies the middle and upper middle class economic stratum.


But my daughter is not so confident. Often she downplays her abilities. And all of her friends are white. She has had black friends, but they have never been long term friends. She says that the young black girls that she comes into contact with are simply too loud and boisterous, their behavior too outrageous. They are, in a word, too ghetto.


Her last friendship with a young black girl ended abruptly when that friend got into a rift of some kind, and she expected my daughter to assist her in fighting. When my daughter refused, she turned on my daughter and ridiculed her for some time. My daughter was heartbroken.


And I am just being honest when I tell you I am troubled every time I enter her room and practically all the faces staring back at me from the many posters on her wall are white. At this point, she seems to have immersed herself in whiteness. And from my own experience, it may come back to bite her.


I, too, grew up surrounded by whiteness. Most of my friends were white. And it was all fine until we grew older and began to compete for educational opportunities and jobs. Then they grew resentful of my blackness. Then they felt my blackness gave me some unfair advantage.


The first time I was ever directly called a nigger was by my white best friend at the time. Not only did he call me nigger, he moved to attack me in a violent, drunken rage. While he was being restrained, I promptly hit him in the head with a desk lamp.


I learned a lesson that day. I responded by adjusting my world view accordingly. But I was always aware of my blackness and my precarious footing in the white world, and I was confident, almost arrogant in my abilities. However, my daughter seems to be not so aware, not so confident. How will she react if she is ever confronted by a similar situation?


Coming to Terms with So-Called Black Culture


My children and I were out about town recently, when we witnessed a group of black teenagers acting a complete fool. They were loud. They were boisterous. They were profane. So much so that a security guard backed up by the local police had to escort them from the premises.


My son and daughter looked on mildly amused, and when the ruckus had subsided, I heard them joking to one another about the scene that they had just witnessed. I became very upset, however, when I heard them referring to the group of black teenagers as coons and spooks and “ignant knee-grows”.


I was perhaps more upset with myself than with them. I immediately recognized where the pejoratives coons and spooks and “ignant knee-grows” came from. That came straight out of my mouth. If you are ever curious about the faults in your children, examine yourself first.


But at that moment it became plain that my children have created a dichotomy between themselves and their social circle of acceptable African Americans and African Americans of questionable mental acumen, social graces, and moral and ethical standards. They have divided African America into good negroes and bad negroes.


But in all fairness to them, the so-called “bad negroes” have rejected them as well. So many times and for so long they have been ridiculed, sometimes by close family members, for being “too white.” They have been ridiculed for “talking white.” They have been ridiculed for “acting white.” They have been ridiculed for “having white tastes.” They have even been ridiculed for getting good grades and loving to read which incidentally falls under “acting white.”


How do they then reconcile themselves with a culture that rejects them? How do they respect a culture with values that seem to run so contrary to their own?


The Summation


I have attempted to teach my children who they are, what they. I have attempted to instill in them pride in who they are, what they are. But often I cannot find the right words. Often I am faltering in my speech. And too often I contradict myself in words and deeds.


But in the meantime, I fear they and other African American children like them are sinking gradually into the frigid depths of a cold naked abyss, and I am unable to find a rope long enough or strong enough to throw down to them and pull them to a place of safety.


What advice to you have for me?

14 comments:

MackDiva said...

I'm so glad you wrote this! While I wish I had a solution for your dilemma, I don't. What I do have for you is a story...

When I was in elementary school, my use of proper English made people say that I was trying to be White. One of my teachers, while explaining some concept to us, used the word 'particularly.' However, she pronounced it, 'particuLARly.' Since my fifth grade self had no sense of decorum, I raised my hand and asked her, 'Uh, isn't that word parTICularly?' To say she was embarrassed would be an understatement.

Fast forward to my 10-year class reunion. I ran into this woman again. After a few pleasantries, she said (in a snarky tone), 'Oh, I see you're still talking proper.' My adult self, who had become a radio personality, told her in an equally snarky tone, 'Yes, but they pay me for it now.'

All that was to say that neither you nor your children will be able to stop people from saying what they will about them. The best revenge is living well.

As for their thoughts on other Blacks, just remind them that the only thing standing between them and the bad actors is the grace of God and the love of their parents.

williedynamite said...

Max
Great post.
As a father of two young children I ponder the lessons and behaviors i will pass onto my children. My daughter is 4 years old and recently she came home and told my wife and myself that another white girl said she was black. I had to explaih that she did not mean literaly black the color but black the race, But it's difficult to explain ot a 4 year old the terms black and white, when they've been accousomed to brown , pinks and yellows.
I fear the day when my son or daughter comes to me and tells me that some other child called them a derogatory name, but it's bound to happen. I wonder will I be able to calmly, rationally deal with the issue or will I want to go off.
The best thing you can do is provide your children with a sound foundation, love, respect, confidence in themselves and their culture.

It's important for us (African Americans) to embrace diversity amongst our race. I find that some of us African Americans can be the most closed minded people when it comes to trying new things. "Black people don't do that." Well why not. We've got to stop ridiculing kids that are smart and read, kids who don't play basketball and listen to rock.
I was raised with this kind of mentality, black don't ski, or swim, or run 5k's,listen to music other than hip hop and R&B. It's this narrow minded mentality that keeps many of us from becoming the persons we can be.
Over the years I've come to realize that much of this stubborneness about what things blacks can do is rooted in insecurity and fear. It's takes a risk to go out on a limb and do something that no one who looks like you has done.
I wan't my children to be proud of their culture , to embrace it fully but not allow it to be a crutch and hold them back form doing whatever it is they want to do.

rainwriter jones said...

I have had the same problem of being black in a white world. It used to trouble me, but I have found that there is a need to be able to communicate with both black and white people in order to survive today. Not all white people are "out to get you," and believe it or not, not all black folks want to see you make it!

When I was growing up, I lived in a thoroughly mixed-race neighbor with Asians, Blacks, White, Filipinos, Japanese, and Chinese. My schools were the same. Funny thing is that we didn't realize we were different from one another until junior high. Then, ethnic groups kind of became cliques. I think everyone was searching for who they were and once we became comfortable with our identities, we could once again integrate.

However, my children have had times when their schools were primarily white and I think because of my relaxed attitude toward race, they were able to do quite well there...maintaining high G.P.A.s and their ethnic identities.

You're doing the right thing in exposing them to the world out here as it is not only black and white. And there are "bad" folks in any race, including ours. They should not associate with any person who detracts from their goals, black, white, etc. Just continue to re-direct your daughter (kindly so) that she indeed is black so that she doesn't have her feelings hurt when someone calls her on it. She'll be able to say, "Yeah, I'm black, and damn proud of it, too!"

msladydeborah said...

This is what I would like to share with you on this subject.

I'm the mother of three sons. They are all adult. Their initial upbringing was in the multi-cultural style. Because we are from a bi-racial family and I felt it was only sensible to rear them in a manner that reflected our branch of family.

I'm am fiercely Black. A self-made version of what I believe a woman of color should be. My sons are their own version of Black males. They all attended schools in which they were either one among many or the minority. They each took away what they wanted to keep from those experiences.

I suspect that in due time and due season-your daughters will define who they are as Black women. They will fashion their inner imagery in the manner that pleases them first. Which is okay. Eventually someone will like their style.

md20737 said...

They learn so quick. My son is three I took him to soccer class so he can learn something new. I purposely didnt sign him up for basketball. His whole life people will ask him about basketball, but sports like soccer, baseball, swimming thats not what black are known to do. So I wanted to counter act that early on in life.

The first day the kids are in a circle. He goes and sits next to the only other black kid there. My son is 3 he decided to follow the other black kid around I guess because he looked like him or familarity. I dont know if this is my fault. But I guess it is. I dont have any white friends I bring to the house, or visit outside of work. I guess I am teaching him this behavior indirectly.

Our kids learn from us. So whatever messed up or questionable things that they do, we. So we must ask ourselves what next. This is a hard question to answer because I dont think they are any answers.

Regarding your daughter, this is a hard lesson that she will learn. But she may have to learn it on her own to benefit from it.

I am guilty to of judging, but not by appearance, talking, or any other physical features, etc. But I judge by tweets. Since I am privy to others thoughts I am making judgement calls on their personality & I deem some of them to "ghetto" for me to tweet or follow. I then segregate myself from them creating the perfect stream of info in my mind. So I can truly identify with her. Life is the same way. If you dont want to be guilty by association, you dont associate.

OneChele said...

All you can do is infuse them with confidence, make them proud of their culture and reinforce to them that they are brilliant individuals regardless of race.

I grew up constantly the only black face in the crowd during the week yet surrounded by "my own" on the weekends. You learn to make your way and carve out a path in all worlds.

My nieces and nephews are half-Black, half-Hispanic. My niece Brooke asks me things she doesn't want to talk to her parents about (gulp!) When she was seven, she asked Auntie Chele what color she was. I asked her what color she thought she was. She said caramel (my girl!). I said then that's what you are. Smiling, she skipped away telling everybody, I'm caramel, you're vanilla, you're chocolate, you're butterscotch!

Granted she has come back to me since then and demanded more answers to similar (and increasingly difficult) questions on race and gender relations. My favorite, now that she's 13 and cute as hell - why do boys want to do THAT? (sigh) I stay prayed up to deliver the "right" answers.

Kim said...

I don't have children but I have neices and nephews who are biracial and they pretty much do their own thing and dont' seem to have an issue w/ what is black culture or white culture or parents who thnk they need to be more this of more that. Theyv'e just been allowed to be who they are and whomever they gravitate to is who they gravitate to.. It irks me that theres is this outbreak of "black like me" snyndrome in the black community no matter what age you are. People have to realize that there no one way to "be black" and we are not a monolithic group of folks.
But parents are worst when they seperate thier own children and they want you to know it too because you hear things like, "My child is in Montessori School", or my chilrena are the only blacks in this private school and blah, blah, blah.

Issa Rae said...

Wow, great post, as usual. I think at some point I WAS your daughter and looking back on it now, I HATE that part of me. I hate the part of me that other black people rejected and poked fun at and I hate that I succumbed to the limitations of what black people are 'supposed to do and like.'

I used to be one of the few black faces in the entire school, and it wasn't until I went to an all black high school of medicine and science that I really got to fully appreciate the different kinds of black people and my own blackness. I was wholly intimidated at first, but I would never trade that experience for anything in the world. I strongly recommend you place your daughter in some kind of consistently all-black environment, whether an after-school program or activity. Either that, or tell your son to influence her, lol.

If she goes to college without feeling any particular ties to her blackness, then it's a wrap.

Keith said...

Thank you for sharing this with us. I always learn so much when I visit your blog. You share a perspective that as a white male I'm not generally accustomed to knowing much about. Your blog has really opened my eyes to a lot of what's going on out there.

Most of my friends in school were black. It especially was the case in high school. I remember pretty much every class I was in that you had the white kids sitting in all the rows together. Then you had all the black kids sitting in rows together. I was there with the black kids.

I hope you have a great weekend. Take care.

Toya said...

I could really relate to this. I am so guilty of this putting a distinction between the two groups. Educated black people and what I consider uneducated or ignant knee-grows.

This is something that I have had to work on.

Mainly because growing up I was discriminated against by the latter group for being "too white". I also had mostly white friends even though I was in the hood. I didn't feel like I related and they def. didn't feel like they related to me.

My children now are the exact same way. Even their father teases them about "talking white" because they use proper English. They have mostly white friends and went to a mostly white school.

But, as I have gotten older I have grown to embrace the differences in people. People are unique even when they have the same background. I have learned this by friendships I have gained as an adult by looker deeper than skin color or education level etc. Now I have to make sure my children have this same mindset.

Another great and thought provoking post!

uglyblackjohn said...

The common thread seems to be that most have created their own definition of what it is to be "Black".
This would seem to be the best course for your children as well.

Nanette said...

I think this is something that we, as a people (in the US, at least) have been struggling with for a long, long time. And will probably continue to struggle with for decades to come, considering. Whiteness good - educated, polite, gracious, poised, honest, innocent always - except for a few errant individuals who are "not the norm"; Blackness bad - ignorant, rude, loud, street or ghetto, aggressive, criminal, guilty from birth - except for a few good individuals who "made it out".

All crap, of course, but it's difficult enough as adults to wade through all that, pushing back against it; it's horrific for children, particularly as they are bombarded with the many messages - by non-Black folks primarily, but by other Black folks, too - in so many more ways than was possible when I was a child.

I, too, was raised primarily in a white world, white settings and with primarily white friends - while somehow living in mostly Black and Latino neighborhoods, as it wasn't really possible to live elsewhere when I was young prior to, I guess, the Fair Housing Act. We were asked to leave a couple of places before that after only living there a couple of weeks, because they caught sight of me, mostly (my mother and brother look white, whereas I am - or was - a brown child).

Anyway, a couple of thoughts:

However, my daughter seems to be not so aware, not so confident. How will she react if she is ever confronted by a similar situation?

Sorry if I seem to be asking the obvious, but have you asked her? Prepared her for the fact that, most likely, she will encounter that situation one day?

How do they then reconcile themselves with a culture that rejects them? How do they respect a culture with values that seem to run so contrary to their own?

Well. The phrasing of this question troubles me. Annoys me, even. However, I am not condemning anyone or anything - god knows I've gone through - at 51, am *still* going through - my own journey in embracing Blackness in all its manifestations, but still...

In a different era, in a different place, I also had the "acting white" epithet thrown at me - but it didn't take me too long to realize that it had little to do with my speech patterns, or my grades, or the fact that I always had my face in a book (plenty of other Black kids, both in primarily white and all Black schools did the same and didn't face that accusation) but more with my attitude. The actual accusation was "acting like you *think* you're white", and its meaning had more to do with a sort of impression I no doubt gave that I thought I was better than Black people, that I thought I was something other than Black people, and so on.

Once I figured that out and adjusted my attitude, things changed. I still hung out with the same (mostly white) friends, did the same things and kept my nose in a book, but in some indefinable way I guess I didn't exude the same sense of superiority or whatever. Anyway, it worked and still does although I still have to check myself from time to time.

(Sadly, I am brevity impaired - I can think of even more to say! but will spare everyone. I hope this comment isn't too long to post.)

Charles J said...

@Issa Raye

I strongly recommend you place your daughter in some kind of consistently all-black environment, whether an after-school program or activity. Either that, or tell your son to influence her, lol.

If she goes to college without feeling any particular ties to her blackness, then it's a wrap.


I agree 100%. Place your children in situations and organizations where they will be around Black role models that they can immulate. This will create a stronger self image.

As for myself I grew up from K-8 grade with all Black teachers who taught literally that Black was beautifuland I was taught Black History and why Black people are important. It wasn't until high school that I got into an all white enviroment, but by then my pro-black identity had been sculpted.

shaun. said...

my advice is to let them grow into themselves. let them define who they are and what they are but make sure that they know how the world "might" see them. there is no difference between the good and bad negro to the average white person. we are all the same... coming from a similar background as what you seem to have described for your children.....reality will hit them later in life. and thats when it will truely matter. the post you just wrote is the great irony of being black in america.

for now let them become great. teach them respect and confidence. teach them how the world has historically viewed their skin color vs how it is viewed now. teach them that they will get no where by judging others. teach them that they are a minority and not a majority. and just let them grow.

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