Last month on Ebony.com, a white father wrote that he hopes his biracial son will stay light-skinned and “pass” as white. The post went viral and triggered such an outcry that he followed it up with “7 Things I Can Do That My Black Son Can’t.”
As the white mother of three biracial African-American children, I can understand his fears about racism. But as someone whose oldest child is very light-skinned and blue-eyed, I have my reasons for why I hope he doesn’t stay white.
My son is 15. This summer, he participated in a program to teach minority youth how to start their own businesses. At the end of it, my son told me he’d never do another minority-oriented program again.
“I’m tired of being told I don’t act black, I don’t talk black, and I don’t look black. I’m sick of being told I’m not actually black.”
(My African-American husband’s response was, “I got the same thing because I spoke properly and did well in school. And I had two black parents. Suck it up.”)
There are things about being a black man that my husband understands and I don’t. He teaches our kids never to raise their voices in public, because that might seem threatening, and never to run down the street, because some people think a black man running must mean he’s just committed a crime. But there are things about not looking like what you are that I understand, and he doesn’t.
Because my son doesn’t look identifiably black, people feel free to say things around him that they never would if they thought someone black was listening. Sometimes it’s innocuous: one day, taking the subway home from school, a fellow student noted, “Hey, you and I are the only white people on this train.”
“Actually,” my son began. “Funny story…”
Sometimes it’s something more hurtful, like a tossed-off ethnic slur, a downright insult (as happened to him at camp with the “N” word) or a Jewish joke (my son doesn’t look Jewish, either).
On an almost daily basis, my high-schooler has to decide whom he is going to educate, whether it’s worth it and what the fall-out might be. That’s a lot to pile on shoulders that are already preoccupied with the usual adolescent angst of grades, girls, acne, girls, growth spurts and girls.
Earlier this year, I urged my son to apply for an award for gifted black students. He met all the requirements, including testing in the top 5 percent nationwide, going to a school with an accelerated curriculum and being a gold-medal winner in the National Spanish Exam (which comes in handy when people assume he’s Hispanic).
My son was willing, except for one thing: The application required a photo. And he knew what that meant.
I told him he had every right to enter. It’s not like we were lying. My son self-identifies as African-American. (Having been born Jewish in the USSR, I know less about mainstream American, “white” culture, or even traditional Jewish-American culture, than my husband does. As a result, my children’s dominant American upbringing comes from their father’s side of the family.)
My son was named one of the winners. But he balked at going to pick up his award in person at a conference. Once again, my son was afraid of being rejected. Of being told that he actually isn’t what he believes himself to be.
And I was reluctant to come along. I feared having me around would only make things worse for him.
When I confessed my fear to my husband, he became furious, telling me there is no one way for African-Americans to look or behave, and that by acting like I agreed there was, I was just encouraging our son’s hang-ups. (He ended up going with his paternal grandparents.)
For the past few years, in addition to the African facial features and tightly curled hair that he inherited from his dad, my son’s skin has been growing darker. I hope that his appearance continues to change until there is no question about his heritage.
Because while I understand there are drawbacks to being perceived as a black man, there are plenty of pitfalls to seeing yourself as one while nobody else does.