Friday, February 17, 2012

Grasping Racial Identity...At Six Years Old

I'm white. My husband is black. Our children happen to be very light-skinned boys: Khary is 6 and Khalil is 3. We've discussed race, discrimination, slavery, segregation, integration, the Civil Rights Movement, how Mommy and Daddy wouldn't be allowed to be together or married or live as a family with our kids...the whole shebang. They've heard me say that if they had lived in their Gram's (my mother's) time, they wouldn't be allowed to do many of their regular activities, play with many of their friends, and would generally have a second-class life simply because of their racial heritage.
Family portrait from May, 2008
courtesy blessed life photography
But it's never really sunk in before. For instance, when my son was 5, he drew a picture for our neighbor's 8th birthday. Our neighbor is dark-skinned, as is his niece, age 6 at the time. Khary drew a really fabulous picture of the three of them playing on our playset in our backyard--neighbor and niece were brown, naturally; Khary was white. As in, he used *white* crayon "because [he] couldn't find the 'other' pink kind" to depict himself. When I asked him to tell me what was going on in the picture, he said they were playing and that "D and A are brown like Daddy, and I'm light like you." Hm. So I try to explain again that he's a mix of Daddy and me, and yes, he has light skin that is just a little darker than Mommy's, but neither of us is really white like the crayon. He says he understands and runs off to play and give the picture to D. [note: we now have the Crayola "Multicutural" crayons and markers!]
The infamous birthday drawing (those are flowers under Khary, by the way)

Now--his whole life, he's played with a veritable rainbow coalition of kids--including the children of our neighborhood and of course my husband's family, but naturally in our daily lives of secular homeschooling and Unitarian Universalist Sunday school, the majority of kids with whom he interacts are "light like Mommy." (I do make a concerted effort to ensure a more diverse experience when seeking out extracurricular activities.) However, I noticed a curious thing when he was around age 4 or 5: anytime we were with other (black + white) biracial children, he gravitated to them. We'd talk about K or M and note that they and Khary looked somewhat alike--had the same hair, skin tone, etc. Maybe it's the adoptive families with whom we play and learn whose children don't necessarily look like their parents--or like one another, for that matter--that sort of kept that genetic heredity thing from becoming evident. Or maybe it just doesn't occur to kids by this age, though I seem to recall "knowing" it by this time.

Whatever the reason, it had never before sunken in for Khary that he is both "brown" and "light" at the same time. So tonight, as I was tucking them in, I answered the ever-present question of what we're doing in the morning with, "Going to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. You remember, it's near where we went for the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Rally?" After jarring his memory with a reminder of what snack we ate on the sidewalk afterward, he recalled the day and then asked, "Who was Martin Luther King, Jr. again?" (Totally forgiveable, as we've been reading a goodly number of biographies lately, and he's as bad with names as his mother.)  "You remember, he was the man who helped lead the Civil Rights movement so black people and white people could be equal?" I turned off the light. Then came his worrisome reply: "Oh, yeah. I'm glad he did that. And I'm glad we're white so we wouldn't be treated bad."


I flip the light back on, go over to his bed, and the conversation ensues thusly:

Me: Honey, you know you're part white like Mommy and part black like Daddy, right? [He nods.] So at the time of Dr. King, you'd be considered half-black, which was the same as anyone else with dark skin like Daddy's or D's [neighbor] to many people of that time. And you couldn't do the same things Dr. King couldn't do as a kid.
Khary, a look of astonished fear in his eyes: Oh. I'm really glad Dr. King worked to change that.
Me: Yes--me, too. We know it doesn't matter if a person is white or caucasian or black or African-American, that we're all the same on the inside. But it took Dr. King and a whole lot of other people to make sure the laws changed.
K: What's caucasian?
Me: It's a big word for people who have light skin like Mommy's--it's not really white, though, is it? I'm kind of pink, huh? And "black" is the same as what some people call African-American or "brown"--it's not really black, huh? There's a word from a really old language, negro [which I said with as much of a latin accent I could muster], which means "black," and so African-Americans were called "negroes" [said in that all-American way we all know and disdain today] by some people back then. In fact, we're going to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum tomorrow. That's why it's called that.
K: Wait, they didn't even get to play baseball?!
Me: No, isn't that silly and sad? There was a separate baseball league for players who were black--we'll learn about it tomorrow, and some of the players were really fun--and they were all really good. It was totally unfair that they never got to play in the regular Major Leagues. Until Jackie Robinson. We'll learn about him tomorrow, too. He was the first black player to play in the regular Major Leagues. He was a very strong and brave man.
K: Why was he brave?
Me: Because a lot of people still thought it was wrong for black players and white players to play baseball together. How crazy is that? Those people treated him very badly; they were very mean to him, but he was brave, and strong, and he knew he was doing what was right, and he played anyway.
K: What kind of mean things did they do to him?
Me: Some people sent him angry letters, some people tried to spit on him at games and throw things at him, and people called him names and made fun of him while he was playing. But he stayed strong and showed what a great player he was. Like I said, we'll learn about some of the Negro Leagues players and Jackie Robinson tomorrow.
K: [looks thoughtful and somewhat dejected]
Me: Hon, you okay?
K: Yeah. So we're all brown--all of us?
Me: Yeah--all of us: Daddy, Me, you, Khalil. We're all just different shades of brown. I'm the palest [said with an eyeroll; I am really pale, about which Dawud teases me sometimes.] But you know our skin colors don't make any difference about us--we're all the same on the inside, and we all love the same, like I love you.
K: What's pale?
Me: It just means I don't have very much color in my skin--that I'm really light.
K: Oh! [then with a  chuckle:] Yeah, you don't have much color at all! I love you, Mommy. Goodnight.
[Many hugs and kisses. Khary still looked worried. End scene.]

I came downstairs and relayed the conversation with Dawud, who only a little jokingly agreed with me that he may be waking some tonight with some scary dreams...

I know it's a struggle he's going to have for much of his life--figuring out where he fits in this country's crazy view of race--and I can only hope I can help give him the love and tools to feel comfortable in his own skin, no matter the color.
with Daddy at Thanksgiving 2011

with Mommy on her birthday, January 2012


  1. Awesome post, thank you for sharing!

  2. This is a great post! Thank you so much. We've been having this conversation with my 6 year old too - well, not this conversation but exactly but talking about skin color, race, and what it all means. It's very simple for them, isn't it? Color is such a minor thing... I wish we could keep it that way!