My son is the only black kid in his class…or is he?

written by Love Isn’t Enough columnist Liz Dwyer; originally published at Los Angelista’s Guide to the Pursuit of Happiness

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?

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About Tami

Tami Winfrey Harris writes about race, feminism, politics and pop culture at the blog What Tami Said. Her work has also appeared online at The Guardian’s Comment is Free, Ms. Magazine blog, Newsweek, Change.org, Huffington Post and Racialicious. She is a graduate of the Iowa State University Greenlee School of Journalism. She is mom to two awesome stepkids and spends her spare time researching her family history and cultivating a righteous 'fro.
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