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?
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?