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March 7, 2020

Letting People Own Their Racism Without Shaming Them

Yes, my son is a different color than I am. No, this doesn’t mean you get to ask inappropriate questions without using your manners. In fact, you should ask him the questions. It’s his story. If you are uncomfortable asking him, it’s probably a rude question.

Our nation is melding into a beautiful array of features and colors, and I think a big fear is that there will be so many shades, that people will no longer be able to hate just one group. Will it be the green-eyed people we should despise? Or the curly hairs? Goodness, people just want to look down on somebody for being inferior in some way.

There are so many ways for people to become parents, which means there are just that many different ways to judge how people are having babies. There’s even judgment over people NOT having babies. What it comes down to, is that haters gonna hate. While all that hating feeds them in some ways, it’s got to be mostly tearing them down.

I’ve got a milk-chocolate baby. I’m pretty damn white on the outside. He’s nearly 17 now, so I’ve gotten accustomed to the looks and the questions, and when I do notice, I’m actually pretty amused.

When he was just 14 months old and I was pushing him in a grocery cart, kissing his sweet little cheeks and sniffing his curls like every mama does, I noticed a little black girl staring at me. She couldn’t have been more than 8 years old. “Is he yours?” she finally asked. I laughed. “No, I just found him out in the parking lot,” I teased. “Isn’t he cute?” She understood my sarcasm or maybe just brushed it off to a more pressing question. “Is he black? Or Mexican?” she wanted to know. I laughed again, and that’s when his dad and I started calling him our Little Black Bean.

We don’t get upset by people’s questions, but we see those questions are born from curiosity, fear, judgement and disbelief. We raise him in an environment that keeps race and judgment light, but we are careful not to disregard it. We surround him with people of his culture, from all socio-economical levels, so that he understands that what counts is his heart, his intelligence, and his work ethic. We make tongue-in-cheek jokes and generalizations about all races, making fun of people who really judge. In the same regard, we warn him of stereotypes and how to keep himself clear of trouble, because when it comes down to a carload of kids in trouble, it’s the darker shade kid who’s going to get targeted.

Genetic testing turned him up as Ashkenazic Jew, so that just added to the fun. Now when people blatantly ask things like, “What is he?”, as if he’s a curio on the shelf, we say, “He’s Jewish.” We say it with such finality that it stops them from asking further questions, as if we’ve finally answered their concerns.

We have always put him in camps and schools where he can choose what race resonates with him the most. His attachment to ethnicity has fluctuated as much as the percentages of his heritage, so we let it flow and support whatever he’s into. Turns out he’s mainly into diesel mechanics, motorcycles, chainsaws and bikes. He is just as amused by the questions of his peers and has adopted our favorite reply of “Why do you ask?”

His little brother is white. We definitely refer to him as the Little Cracker. The Little Cracker doesn’t see color, and despite being five years younger and a foot and a half shorter than his 6 foot brother, that little boy is the protector. He will stop any unfairness he sees or hears. I see him as the caretaker forever, and even though they say they hate each other, their actions are from deep love.

I had my boys at a wedding when an extremely white and well-heeled woman with fancy hair asked me, “How did he come into your life?” I paused, looked at her quizzically, and said, “He’s my son.” She looked agitated and said, “Yes, but where did he come from?” Usually my answer is given with such finality that it is obvious more questions are not welcome, however, this went right past her, so I was forced to explain to her what happens when a sperm and an egg meet. Her pinched face led me to believe that I was not meeting her expectations so I stopped and asked, “Oh! You are wondering if I’ve slept with a black man?! Because, ohmygoodnessYES!”

I finally succeeded in ending the conversation.

Sometimes people speak with assumptions like I am in the Big Sister Program and gosh, what a good person I am for taking this unfortunate and underprivileged child out into the woods for a mountain bike ride. They must not have heard him in the parking lot complaining that his suspension on the $3k bike is not working properly and why does dad keep saying he’s going to fix it but doesn’t?!

Other times people come to their own certain assumptions that I have adopted him and say things like, “You are such a good person for adopting.” As a child, I remember people saying that to my mom about me being adopted, and it made me feel like I had been saved from the streets with mange and a gimped leg. What irritated me more was her sardonic smile and joy at being applauded for her altruistic gesture. I never said, “She had several miscarriages and realllllly wanted another kid.” Because that was HER story to tell, not mine. Nobody asked me.

I was at a party chatting it up with a woman I thought would be my friend until she met my son and said, “Oh, he’s so precious!” Further into the conversation she asked, “Is his dad still in the picture?” As if all black men disappear from their kids’ lives. I brushed it off and said, “Oh, yes, he’s here!” She apologized, and said, “Gosh, I’m so sorry I just said that. I have a really good friend who’s black and and he is a solid parent.” There was no way that foot was coming out of her mouth for a while. And when my black male friend, also at the party, came over to hug and chat, she assumed he was my husband. He was not. But I sure as hell pretended he was for the sake of all black men in this country given an unfair judgement and bad rap.

Even the well-intended go overboard. You don’t have to talk like a black guy out of the projects when you are talking to any black person. Unless you grew up in the projects and that’s always how you talk. We know when you’re putting it on. Overcompensation is really clear when white folk go on about how much they love black people, or Chinese, or Mexican, or whatever. There are assholes and stellar people of every race.

It’s ok to be curious. Just be ethical and willing to adopt a new perspective on life, choices, race, and love. Drop the need for ethnic superiority. You are not better. Neither am I. My favorite part about my blended family is that I am a living lesson for people to be open-hearted, accepting and willing to love without judgement.

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