by Anti-Racist Parent Columnist Liz Dwyer
I grew up being called, “white sugar” by my maternal grandmother. My cousin was the “brown sugar”. My grandmother would good-naturedly say that white sugar was the sweetest. Needless to say, my browner-skinned cousin didn’t like me very much.
I was the white sugar because I’m the child of an Irish-American father and an African-American mother. Growing up, I was asked by my black peers, “Why didn’t you get the ‘good hair’ like all the other mixed girls?” I remember the white girls who told nine year-old me that if I ate some of their hair and prayed really hard, my hair would turn long and straight like theirs. To my eternal shame, I actually tried this and almost stopped believing in God because it didn’t happen.
However, talking about racism and, more importantly, how to achieve racial unity, was normal in my Midwestern home. My parents are a natural model of racial unity just by being together. They included me in conversations about race and encouraged me not to be color-blind, but to instead see and love the diversity in the human family. But, please don’t think it was some easy utopia, because it wasn’t. It’s no fun to constantly watch your parents stand in line together at the grocery store only to get asked, “Are you together?”
I’m now married to a great African-American guy and we’re raising our own sons, ages six and three. After the birth of our first son, I was fascinated by the questions that we were asked by a few well-meaning friends and relatives phoning from the Midwest. Once they were assured the baby was healthy, they got to the real important stuff: Was the baby light-skinned or dark? Did he get some throwback blue eyes or red hair from those Irish roots? We had to think about what it means to raise a sane, healthy child in a society so steeped in racist ideology.
One of the things to know about our family is that we don’t live in some monochromatic suburb. We live in Los Angeles proper, one of the most diverse cities in the world. Our little neighborhood alone is roughly 50% Latino, 30% white, 17% Asian, and 2% black. Yes, this city has the historical legacy of the LA Riots and the OJ Simpson trial. Yes, last year there were rumors swirling that Latino gangs were going to target and shoot all black males they saw out on the streets, and city officials are now calling the animosity and violence between blacks and Latinos in LA the equivalent of racial genocide.
We are also Baha’is so our religious foundation is a belief that achieving racial unity is the most challenging issue facing our society. Modeling a vision of race unity is a social and moral imperative in our home. Our close friends come from all racial and ethnic backgrounds and my husband’s best friend here happens to be Latino. Our sons play with his son. Given what’s going on in LA, this is a big deal.
I know I need to prepare my sons for a world filled with negative images and beliefs about black men. My sons are likely to be treated as behavior problems in school and have low academic expectations set for them. Sometimes when people comment about how cute and sweet my boys are, there’s a voice in my head that says, “Yeah, and in ten years you’ll be scared of them because they’re black.”
I feel angry when I can’t shield my eldest son from the girl in his kindergarten class who told him his brown skin is ugly. That was bad, but then there was the day he told me he wished he could be like a snake.
“Why do you want to be a snake?” I asked.
He rubbed the top of my hand as he slowly replied, “Well, snakes shed their skin, right?”
I answered that they did and he continued, “So, if I’m a snake, I can get rid of my brown skin and be white like you.”
I felt like a failure. It didn’t seem like enough to explain that his brown skin is beautiful, that God made him that color…and by the way, I’m not white. It broke my heart because I didn’t want to have these conversations with my own kids.
I know that the things worth having in life don’t come easy. Even though there’s still a long way to go in terms of achieving racial unity, I have to keep going. If my two boys grow up secure in their inherent nobility as black men, and have love for all people, regardless of their skin color, then I’ve done my job as a parent. I just have to believe it can be a reality.
Liz Dwyer lives in Los Angeles with her husband of seven years, Elarryo Bolden and her two sons, ages six and three. Her great sense of adventure and desire to learn about diverse cultures took her to Guangzhou, China where she taught English to third and fourth graders, picked up some Mandarin, and managed to get into seven bike accidents. Liz also taught in Compton, CA for three years and now works for national education non-profit, Teach For America. She loves to write and reflect on the world around her and has blogged for over two years at Los Angelista’s Guide to the Pursuit of Happiness.