My Son's The Only Black Kid In His Class...Or Is He?

When I found out I was pregnant for the first time - OK, after taking seven pregnancy tests because I was in total denial- I went through all the, "OMG! I'm gonna have a baby!" feelings most moms-to-be do. But I also started thinking about something not every mom chooses to think about: What do I teach my kids about race and racism in our culture?

I've never believed in passively allowing a wholesale subconscious transference to my sons of the racial ideologies we all live with. Instead, I realized early on that I needed to consciously equip the boys with the knowledge and tools they need to be able to rise above and succeed in our culture's current racism.

They need to know that race is a social construct.

They need to know that racism is a spiritual as well as social disease.

They need to know that because they're two African American males, people might sometimes treat them in unjust ways, but 1) it isn't their fault and 2) they don't have to be suck it up and take it - unless law enforcement's got a gun in their face. In that moment, they better just suck it up and take it. We'll worry about speaking up for justice later after a lawyer's been hired and the gun is put away.

Anyway, last night I had a fascinating conversation with my six year-old, Mr. T, about who he thinks is black. Last time I checked, he's the only black student in his classroom at school. However, he claims there are other black kids in his class. Oh really?

I love how's he's still obsessed with the whole "Pumpkin Plate-Gate" from last Halloween, and he's more interested in who's his friend and who isn't. Except, I highly doubt that these kids from Mexican, El Salvadorean and Guatemalan backgrounds identify as black. I think Mr. T looks at them and looks at his own skin and says, hey, we're the same color so they must be black, too!

And this is where talking about race with my kids gets to me. How do I explain to my son who is pretty comfortable with the idea that he's black, and who, in general, is confident and thinks he's hot stuff for multiple reasons that have nothing to do with the color of his skin, that because of the way race works in America, depending on the circumstance, calling someone black who doesn't consider his or her self black could end up starting a fight. I don't like telling him that people don't want to be identified as black.

Later on I asked Mr. T if he had white kids in his class and he told me that all the other kids in his class are white. Hmm.

I remember teaching in Compton and having students from Mexico with skin browner than my own tell me that they were white. It wasn't because they spent hours in tanning beds either. Some of them didn't want to play at recess because they were scared of getting blacker. They begged to stay inside or hid in the shade against the side of the school wall. I never felt like it was my place to point out to them that if they headed over to the Westside of Los Angeles, over the hill to some parts of the Valley, or down to Orange County, a whole host of people would disagree with their self-labeling.

Those Westsiders would disagree with the students in Mr. T's first grade classroom, too.

The families from my son's class are mostly immigrants from Mexico, El Salvador and Guatemala. I'm not so sure they're used to identifying themselves as either black or white, or that they're even used to this idea that they have to lump themselves all together in one ginormous Hispanic/Latino box - especially when they're not required to do so in their country of origin.

However, it's undeniable that there's a pressure in this country to morph yourself into as close to white as possible, no matter where you come from in the world. In the 20th century the Irish and the Italians didn't become white overnight. It was a gradual thing that happened... and it was welcomed because if you're labeled as white, that means one thing for sure - you're not black.

Of course, we all come from Mother Africa, we're all one family. But keep it real, operating with that construct is not the way power is distributed in this society we live in. That's the "one day" racial unity dream we hope we live to see.

In the meantime, we pass along the same insanity, the same sickness, the same labels, the same black = bad / white = good to the next generation - and I feel the need to eventually explain to my son why the kids in his class aren't black.

How do we stop?


Bronwyn said…
I taught first and third grade in Oakland for 8 years and it was a whole new world for this (very white) teacher.

Kids got confused about why three people with brown skin were all called different things. They asked me if I was just REALLY light skinned because "ain't no white people here." Little kids sweated through the hottest days in long sleeves and long pants and skipped recess because their mothers didn't want them to get any sun cause they might get blacker.

And the arguments and insults about skin color and "good" hair...
Jen said…
I was thinking about this just the other day. I grew up in my all white neighborhood and the only kids of color I saw were on tv. I distinctly remember after my first day of kindergarten my mom asked me if there were any black kids in my class. I honestly had no idea what she was talking about. There were some south Asian kids and probably some Mexican kids. Little kids just don't know. Weird that I can remember when I didn't know what race was.
Sarah Auerswald said…
It's so interesting to parse through it all with my kids, especially since they are just about the only white kids in their school. They often ask questions about skin color, like the actual color of somebody's skin, but whether they identify themselves as black or not. It's confusing to them, and I struggle with how to explain the politics to children -- the absurdities of it defy explanation.

By the way, according to my kids, our family is actually beige, since only albinos are truly white.
Anonymous said…
I know people from Guatemala who are black. There are definitely Guatemalans of African ancestry, as there are Mexican, I don't happen to know any personally of the latter though. Not saying there are any in your son's class. Just thought I'd mention that in case that historical/demographic fact was not known.
Liz Dwyer said…
Those arguments and insults are familiar to me - and are totally internalized racism. For the most part, because of where we live in LA, my sons haven't been in a position to experience that kind of internalized oppression. Their school is predominantly Latino and in our personal lives, their African American friends are the kids of friends of mine and my friends do not play that kind of mess. That said, they're going to encounter it and we'll have to talk about it.

Isn't that a weird thing to remember? I remember the first time I was asked to choose which race I was and before that, like you, I'd never thought about it before.

I remember going around as a kid saying there were no white people except albinos. - It is hard to explain such an absurd system, and I often feel that explaining it perpetuates it on some level.

Yes, no doubt since most slaves did not come to the United States - but the truth and what people will actually admit are two different thinks.
nick said…
The obsession with skin colour and its social significance is just insane. I remember as a kid seeing white and brown kids and thinking nothing of it, it was just like brown eyes and blue eyes. Then gradually I became aware of all the negative connotations dumped on brown skin. It's a great shame your kids have to learn about all that but unfortunately that's the reality and it has to be dealt with. It stinks.
Anonymous said…
My non-substantive comments: you are the cutest and your son is even cuter than that!!! I expected to see "standard cute kid;" instead, I see DELIGHT and LOVELINESS. Kudos.
Liz Dwyer said…
From stories family members have told - like me being three years old and attacking the neighbor girl because she called me the n-word - I clearly had an awareness of race from a very young age. But I don't remember really noticing it till I started going to Head Start for preschool and then in kindergarten, it became very obvious that the white kids were and black kids were treated differently. And the black kids were definitely getting the short end of the stick. I often feel like by dealing with the reality I am replicating and passing on that reality, and that pretty much sucks.

Thank you for your non-substantive comment. It made me laugh out loud and smile! I'm nothing to write home about, but lil Mr. T is pretty cute in my book, too! ;)
Oh my goodness, I am pondering these thoughts constantly lately. My son is the same age, and he is always perplexed as to why he is called BLACK when he is the color BROWN, and why his equally-as-brown Korean friend is not "black", and why his lighter-brown Mexican friend is brown but not "black", and on and on and on . . .

It is so hard to explain it all at this age. He recently informed me that brown people are black if their hair is "crinkly" (his word). Fortunately he seems to have very little meaning assigned to any of it, other than color. Oh how I wish I could shield him from that inevitable weight of our society's racial baggage, but I know it will come, and we will have to prepare him.
Jameil said…
My mom was very pissed when she had to talk about color consciousness with my 5yo self after kindergarten. She definitely wanted us to know about our heritage and culture but didn't want it demonized. Craziness. So I don't even know how to help you with this one.
Unknown said…
It's fascinating thatyou have this on tape.
My 6 y.o. is the only Black kid in his class. The rest are ethnic White people, Asians and a couple of Latinos. Recently, he came home sad, because a little White girl said that he couldn't have any of his snack because he wasn't White. His response: "We're all the same inside, right?" Exactly.

As parents, if my husband and I can help him to grow to be a a proud Black man yet hold on to that simple truth (we ARE all the same inside), I will be SO happy.
Felicia Monique said…
I love this post, and the commentary that followed. Kudos to you, mom!
CallMeSu said…
I'm so glad to have come across this post. I'm a mom-to-be of an interracial baby boy and I constantly think about how we will approach this issue when the time comes. It's comforting to see that others are also grappling with this and that it is not a null issue as society would like us to believe. Even though we are becoming a more racially plural society, I still believe that there are serious racial strongholds that have to be addressed. I worry that I don't subconciously pass on some of the things that been drilled into me over my lifetime about my race and my self-identity. I guess this is going to be a lifelong process. My hope is to show my son that race does not determine the person.

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