by Anti-Racist Parent columnist Tami Winfrey Harris
When my husband and I began making plans for my 13-year-old stepson to move from Chicago to live with us in our new home in central Indiana, I was ambivalent. I promise I am not a wicked stepmother. I love J. He’s a caring kid with a fun personality and he is a joy to be around. As a matter of fact, we moved to a smaller city with affordable suburban living, so that we could provide my stepson with a safe space, a good school system, and a yard with a dog. But there is one important thing our town does not offer–racial diversity–and I was suddenly concerned about how this child, raised until then in a predominantly black neighborhood, would adapt to a new environment.
I remembered my experience in college at an Iowa university with about 27,000 students and less than 1,000 blacks who were recruited mostly from Midwestern urban areas. Each year, a new crop of black freshman would arrive on campus from Chicago, St. Louis, Kansas City, Omaha, Des Moines, Detroit and Gary, Ind. By winter break, many were gone. Adjusting to college life is hard–more so when, for the first time ever, you are an “other,” surrounded by a majority who has even less experience with you than you have with them.
I worried for my stepson. And worst of all, I was unsure how to help J navigate his new environment. Should my husband and I warn him that he will be different, that his surroundings will be strange, that some kids will ask seemingly silly questions about his blackness, that some kids may dislike him because of who he is? I knew from experience that J would likely face all these things and I wanted to protect him or at least make the experience as painless as possible. But then, It seemed wrong to make J wary of his classmates.
Ultimately, we opted to say nothing. I hoped that over the five years I had been part of J’s life, I had helped his parents reinforce to him that he is a unique and valuable human being. I hoped that we had taught him respect for people of various races. I hoped that we had taught him that people who ask intrusive questions about race usually honestly want to learn. I hoped that we had taught him that sometimes being “other” is enjoyable; it allows you to experience another culture different from your own. I hoped that we had taught him to speak up in the face of discrimination. And I hoped that he would remember all of these things.
We sent J off to his new school. And I watched and I worried a little. But J seemed to thrive. Sure we struggled to get him to study, but that was an old battle. Socially, my stepson seemed more than happy. The phone buzzed with calls from new friends.
“You know I’m a member of two groups at school,” he excitedly told me. “I’m one of the jocks (He had joined the football team.) and I’m one of the popular kids.”
Ah, to be a teenager again.
I am very proud of how J adapted to his new surroundings. He’s an even cooler kid than I thought. But you a know a mom likes to feel needed. Did I do anything to make his transition easier? As I sat down to write this post, I asked J about his early days in his new school.
Me: Was it hard in the beginning?
J: A little…I didn’t know anybody here.
Me: So, what did you do?
J: Well, you have to be outgoing, introduce yourself to people, put yourself out there. You have to be willing to try new things.
Me: Were there any problems with you being only one of three black kids in the school?
J: Not really. It was just really different from my old school.
Me: Is there anything your dad and I did that helped you adapt?
J: Well, you guys just taught me that I am good and smart no matter what anyone says.
The kid is smart.
When I was around J’s age, I transferred from a suburban mostly-white school to a better, mostly-black school across town in the city. My challenges with racial identity were different from J’s, but similar. It occurs to me that my parents never gave me a lecture on navigating racial issues. Instead, they built my self-esteem, and reinforced an appreciation for black culture, while teaching respect and openness to other cultures.
I think maybe good parenting isn’t what you do in the moment, it’s what you give your child over time. Good parenting is also–I’m learning as a relatively new mom–a lot of trial and error. I’m glad I got it right this time.
Tami is a writer,and communications and marketing professional living in the Midwest with her husband and stepson. She blogs at What Tami Said and is a contributor to the upcoming anthology, What We Think:Gender Roles, Women’s Issues and Feminism in the 21st Century , coming to bookstores in March 2008.