At the Y last week, updating my single membership to a family one, I saw my beige hand writing the word black for my son’s race. Not biracial, not black and white, though that would have been accurate, as he is my biological son and I am Irish American.
I was taken aback. For years, I’ve meticulously referred to my son as biracial, indignant that our society still follows the one-drop rule of slavery. My son has my eyes, my forehead, my allergies, many of my ways. He often says, “I’m you with a good childhood.” I’ve read of why Tiger Woods invented a name for his ethnicity that included Asian and white as well as African-American—he responded to an interview question simply saying that he wanted to show respect to his mother.
I paused at the Y counter, but I didn’t erase the word “black” or write anything in.
My son and I talk a lot about race, and how it impacts his life. When he walks down the street, people don’t categorize him as biracial; he’s immediately labeled black and treated accordingly. Just like President Obama in pre-presidential days, when my son walks into a store, he’s followed. When he walks down the street, white women clutch purses. Late at night, walkers switch to a different side of the street. That’s my son’s reality, and as his mother, I guess I’m finally catching up.
Sometimes I think about Trayvon Martin and my son. To paraphrase President Obama, my son could have been Trayvon. He wears hoodies when it’s rainy, he frequents the 7-Eleven in our predominantly white neighborhood, and he sometimes buys iced tea (although rarely Skittles). He sometimes walks late, although usually listening to a sports podcast rather than chatting on the phone.
I remember thinking, when my son turned fourteen, that that was the age Emmett Till was when he was murdered. Emmett Till was killed the year I was born, yet I was well into adulthood before I even knew his name. Whiteness makes you oblivious to so much, and having black friends and even a black husband only taught me so much. Having a black child, however, wakes you up quickly.
Once, when my son planned to accompany me on my lunch hour walk, I started off ahead, not wanting to be late back to work. When he caught up to me, he said he no longer surprises me by saying “boo,” as he did in younger days. It’s not that he’s grown into more sedate, mature ways—he knows somebody might suspect he was attacking me.
On the day the jury debated the fate of Trayvon’s killer, my son and I were visiting a friend and her four-year-old daughter. My six-foot-five son played catch with the little girl, allowing himself to be crowned with a pink tiara crown and draped with stuffed toys. Yet, on the way home, my son told me that he’d been a little nervous—if neighbors saw them playing together on the outside porch, they’d be concerned, because my friend’s little girl is white and he is black.
My son accepts his reality. “It’s like when you go outside, you know you need to put on bug spray. Just something you need to be aware of,” he says. And he uses humor as a protective shield. Sure, he’s followed into stores all the time, but, “hey, I always have my own personal shopper.” He says he takes pains to be unfailingly polite and never to push ahead of others onto buses; he knows that he will not be forgiven for etiquette breaches.
I think bitterness might have corroded me, but he says there’s no way for me to know—I’m not black, so there’s no way to know how I’d cope. I guess it’s sort of like praising someone in a wheelchair for their “courage.” What choice does the person have? Still, I can’t help it, I admire my son.
I remember, before his prom, giving him “the talk”—reminding him, that if he and his buddies did anything slightly wrong, he’d be the one who’d get in the most trouble. It was a multi-racial group of buddies—Native American, Chinese, white South African—but my son was the black one, and I was afraid that that would make all the difference. That if he were stopped by a policeman, to be as polite and genial and compliant as humanly possible, no matter what. Stuff he already knew, but stuff that as his mother I had to say.
Stuff Trayvon’s mom must have impressed upon him, too. But Zimmerman wasn’t a cop, just a watch commander who had been told by cops to stop following Trayvon. Trayvon went out to buy snacks at a 7-Eleven, wasn’t planning any evil, and yet, just stepping out of his house to get treats caused him to be shot and killed.
Racism exists, but I hear others deny it. As a white mom of a black son, I have a different perspective. Like all mothers, I have that fierce drive to protect my child from dangers, and racism is a danger. When a new teacher, who was white, accused my son of cussing and he insisted that he hadn’t, my first thought was, “Is she racist?” Doesn’t mean I thought my son wore angel’s wings or didn’t want him to face consequences if he had misbehaved—but my racism sensors automatically went into action. When a CTA bus driver challenged his regular bus card, claiming it was stolen, my first question was, “What color was the driver?” If that means I “play the race card,” so be it. Racism exists.
In preschool, a little girl’s mom told me my son would date her daughter “over her dead body.” The kids were four years old at the time. In kindergarten, his teacher told me she would “tolerate” him; mid-year kindergarten, I transferred him to a different school. When my son won scholarships in later years, his godmother suggested I find that teacher and send her a school newspaper clipping. According to a University of Chicago study from only a few years ago, my son is much less likely to get called in for a job interview simply because he has an African-American name.
I can’t get away from my own whiteness, and I know I have racism in me, too. I think every American does. Racism is part of our national culture; our country was founded on genocide and slavery as much as on ideals of democracy and liberty.
I guess I’ve learned that for a person who is half African-American and half white, identity is complicated—it’s not so much about biological family or being raised in a particular culture, or my son would readily identify himself as Irish-American or biracial. Instead, the treatment he receives solely because of the color of his skin connects him to all other African Americans much more than to people who also have Irish blood in their veins. All the nurturing and love I’ve given him can’t shield him from racist treatment; it’s something he must and does deal with on his own. And because of my own light skin, I can never fully understand a huge aspect of my son’s life.
The summer of the Trayvon Martin court hearing, my son and I talked more than usual about race. I asked when he first started noticing racism. He said he knew from a very early age that other kids could get away with stuff that he couldn’t—that he was looked at differently than other kids, though he didn’t know why. Suddenly a memory flashed back, of sitting on a playground bench and watching my little son in the sandbox and feeling tense, somehow feeling that in any toddler disagreement about sandcastle or shovel, the blonde kid would be viewed as the cute, innocent one, not my darker-skinned child. Apparently my small child sensed that too, even while building castles.