By NICOLE BLADES
I went to an all-girls Catholic high school, and it being Montreal, my friends and classmates were a wide mix of colors and cultures: black, white, brown — and one of them, beige. Yes, beige. There was one biracial girl who often said — insisted, really — that she be referred to as beige. (Yeah. My face was scrunched up when I first heard it too.) Now, decades later, with my own young, mixed-race child, I wonder what his answer will be when he bumps into The Inevitable Question: What Are You?
So far, at 8 years old, my son hasn’t shown any signs of disquiet or fluster around the topic of his race. Earlier this year while he was brushing his teeth, prepping for bed, I asked what his answer would be to The Question. He paused for a beat, letting the toothbrush dangle from the corner of his mouth as he searched the bathroom ceiling for a reply. “I’d probably say black … yeah, black.” I nodded and let the moment dissolve along with his toothpaste foam in the sink; I didn’t want to get into a long or loaded conversation before story time. Then he added: “Maybe I would say I’m mixed, because as you’ve explained before: My mom’s black and my dad’s white. So mixed.” I nodded again, and we walked back to his bedroom to continue with our goodnight routine.I hope my son leans toward blackness instead of riding down the middle of his biracial identity. Click To Tweet
There will be many more conversations to come. Ultimately, how he handles this crucial question of identity will be on him to figure out. However, truth told, I’m hoping he leans definitively toward blackness instead of riding down the middle of his biracial identity. In fact, an even bigger truth told, I plan to use a gentle but firm hand to make sure his identity gets slanted in the right direction.
This is not a case of my “denying” or disregarding the white side of my son’s heritage. This is a case of me being realistic.
The world will view him as African American. He needs to see himself as a young black man too.
Even though I was born and raised in Montreal — a cosmopolitan city in a country that prides itself on being more mosaic than melting pot — and I understood the merits of character weighed against something as insignificant as the color of a person’s skin, I’ve still known racism. I still saw it, heard it, both the raw, overt kind (Go back to Africa, monkey!) and the shaded, micro aggressions kind (No, but where are you really from?). For my son, growing up mixed race in New England, in a neighborhood and community that is mainly white, it’s not a matter of if but rather when he, too, will find himself staring discrimination and bigotry — naked or disguised — right in the face. That’s why he’ll need to have a clear sense of who he is. It can’t be scaffolding holding up his identity. As much as we want our son to be viewed as unique and individual, judged by the “content of his character,” facts are still facts: The world will view him and interact with him as African American, and that’s why it’s imperative that he sees himself as a young black man too.
Many people, both black and white, were all a Twitter when former President Barack Obama said that he checks the “black/Negro” box on the U.S. Census. “I identify as African-American,” he said, “that’s how I’m treated and that’s how I’m viewed. I’m proud of it.”
This — confidence and comfort and pride in his blackness — is what I want for my son.
Of course he will be the one to make that call, but I would lying if I said I wasn’t concerned about where he will eventually stake his claim. Saying he’s biracial, although true, feels vague and skirts the reality of how our very black and white world works. For instance, as a young man, if he were to step onto an elevator with an older white woman already on board and she gripped her handbag tighter, is it because he’s half-black and half-white? Or if, heaven forbid, he’s pulled over by the police because he “fits the description,” is the portrait he matches likely to be that of a biracial male? You already know the answers here.As his parent of color, I need to help my biracial son define what his blackness means. Click To Tweet
How others perceive him will undoubtedly influence how he sees himself, and it’s my job as his mother and parent of color to help him define what his blackness means so that he is wholly comfortable in his brown skin.
It’s also my duty to safeguard against simplistic, one-note perceptions about what Black Life means. The countless wrongheaded, derogatory notions and reductive portrayals of blackness continue to be perpetuated by the media. And society (more specifically white folks) continues to be informed by these faulty representations. My son will need to understand that there is no single definition of what authentic blackness is. There are layers and nuance and gradations that are as rich and complex and varied as a color wheel. I’ll need to educate him so that his confidence in his authentic blackness is unassailable.
Still, I grapple with all of it; how to come up with a plan to make him aware, but not suspicious; open not naive. How do I develop the right messaging so that he never feels like he’s not enough of one thing or too much of another, like he’s living at some drifting intersection, feeling unmoored and, worse, unwelcome by either culture? How do I make sure that he doesn’t start to question who/what he is after being accused of “talking white”? Or being told that he’s not “really black” because, for instance, he’s into skiing over basketball, punk rock music over hip-hop? He’ll need to know — and believe in his bones — that he can like all or none of those things and still be black. Black Life is made from a multitude of identities; there is no single, authorized way “to be black.”There is no single, authorized way to be black. Click To Tweet
Basically, how do I pre-empt the cognitive dissonance that can develop when a mixed-race person is led to believe that they have no claim to an identity; they’re relegated to a racial no-man’s land?
These heavy, internal questions are rooted in the same place: I want my young son to grow up always feeling like he belongs, like he’s part of a larger fabric than just his mother and father. And I think the answers to these will stem from one place too: my son. He will need to come to clear ideas and beliefs about identity on his own. I can only strive to provide him with useful tools to take with him on his journey.
“This article originally appeared on GoodHousekeeping.com”
Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.