Monday, December 29, 2014

Some thoughts on race education...mine!

We--my wife and I--adopted a two-week-old boy 7 years ago.  She and I are both white, and he is black.  Or, if you prefer, Caucasian and African-American (well, technically, African-Jamaican-American).  Or, if you follow our son's lexical preferences, white and brown.

Since adopting him, we have been learning a great deal about race.  It all seemed interesting and even fun when our son was very young.  I could enjoy some sociologically forbidden fruit, such as reading the book N--ger:  The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, without apology, and, more to the point, have open and earnest conversations with friends and colleagues about topics of race.  The difficulties and distresses--about which my wife and I would ponder, read, talk, etc.--were still in the future, and we could delight ourselves that we were so very forward thinking about our son and his imminent race "issues," etc.

Seven still seems young, and the distresses still seem ahead--in the future, but that's probably more denial on my part than anything else, for that future intrudes more readily and more frequently.  Years ago, I heard a talk from a biracial man about the unique identity perspectives and processes that biracial and multiracial children experience.  I told him about our situation, and he said our son was biracial of a sort, and would have some of the struggles he detailed in his talk.  Specifically, once a child becomes aware of skin color differences the biracial child has to figure out "which" or "what" s/he is--a member of which parent's group.

This identification process includes the child into one set of sociological patterns while it excludes, at least in some degree, him/her from the patterns of the other group.  If the child identifies "white," s/he then identifies as "not black," or vice versa.  And that has implications for their sense of who they are and how they live.

For our son, this has taken the twist that he easily observes his difference from his parents, but does not have one with whom he can identify.  A few years ago, we could tell he had begun to notice skin color differences.  He would look at black (especially) men with an increased attentiveness--obviously greater than he attended to other skin colors.  This came almost right on schedule with what that seminar presenter had said.  First would come observation of the differences.  Then would follow active mental processing of where/with whom the child fits, which would instigate a kind of identity confusion and--possibly--anxiety that a child from a racially homogeneous family would not have.

Our son is supremely self-confident (sometimes too much so), so I'm not exactly sure how or to what degree this confusion will play out, but he already thinks about race in ways children from homogeneous families might not otherwise have to do, especially white parents and children, who--according to survey research--talk about race much less and much later than do parents of children from all the groups of "color."  

Our son has expressed some interesting thoughts on the matter--thoughts whose origins we do not fully understand.  For example, when I retold my son and his mother the sequence of a petty theft that I had witnessed at a local store, his first response was, "Were they brown?"  When I asked him why he would think of that and why it mattered, he rather nonchalantly said, "Brown people are tougher."

This, and many other race topics, fill up plenty of my wife's and my conversation.  Recent rumors in Seattle (near which we live) about black teammates supposedly questioning whether Seahawk QB Russell Wilson is "black enough" (which echoes the same discussion about Candidate Obama in 2008) reminded me of how central a role race plays in the self and group identification processes for people from all but the dominant race group.

When we asked our son's soccer coach--a 30-year-old black man--about this, his uncomfortably (for us) straightforward reply was "everything is about race."  Again, as a member of the dominant (in terms of social and political power) group, this is an idea I can think about, and possibly understand, but it is not an experience to which I can relate.  When Bill Clinton was oddly called "the first black president," white people might have been irritated--politically, but not racially.  But I heard no academic conferences, no media talking heads, no pundits wondering whether he was "white enough."  Perhaps, the comparable aspersion would be to say one is "white trash," but that is a claim about that (white) individual's character.  To wonder whether someone is "enough" of something is to question whether he's even part of the group.  Obviously, the accuser (if you will) is probably displeased with the target's character, but it's an even more powerful claim to exclude the person from the group.

These questions about color, identity, self-identification, etc., got no clearer when I asked my son about a series of stories I make up.  For several months now I've been telling an on-going story about "Ned," well, a series of Neds.  The Neds have seen and done almost everything, and it finally occurred to me to ask my son whether he saw Ned as brown or white.  He said white.  I asked him why, but he didn't really know.

We asked the soccer coach about this and he suggested that Ned is a white name and, besides, our son is being raised around primarily white people, so that's what he'd think of.  My wife has been pretty intentional to speak celebratorily about our son's skin, knowing that his observations of color and race would necessarily arise soon, but such discussions apparently cannot transcend the learning that his eyes have been doing these last several years.

I don't really know if the color-branding of names works with 7-year-olds.  My son is a big fan of the Seahawk Richard Sherman.  When I asked him if he would like Richard Sherman as much if he were white, my son uninhibitedly, and without hesitation, said, "No."  His explanation--Richard Sherman seems more like a black name, which is, I assume, his groping for an explanation to something that he really can't explain, but must try, for my benefit.

All this to say, I don't really know where to go from here.  We want to be thoughtful and foresightful about our son's life in this regard, but...I don't really know how to do that.  Are race issues ultimately insoluble?  Individually?  Socially?  Or, am I missing something?

Monday, December 1, 2014

My favorite poem...I think.

The Joyful Reality of Fatherhood

An old friend introduced me to this poem, and it reminded me that (nearly) every son has his struggles with his father.  And every father worth his salt makes the sacrifices he must for his children.

Robert Hayden
Sundays too my father got up early
And put his clothes on in the blueback cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I'd wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he'd call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love's austere and lonely offices?

A haiku in response...

Furnace blows heat now
Wages earned in warm darkness--
Lonesome bright future

Junior Achievement Poetry

Today, we played something called the Savvy Shopper game as part of our preparation for doing the personal finance simulation at Junior Achievement.  I handed out word magnets (for making refrigerator poetry) as game pieces.  Each group's words make up one line of the poem.  Word order within the line, and line order is up to me, the "poet."  Herewith, Savvy Shopper Poetry!

Version 1 
Purple Winter Evening, Erase Blossom
Water Spring Garden
Mushroom, Then Skin

Whisper, “Investigate Smile?!”

Version 2
Skin, then mushroom
Evening Blossom Erase Purple Winter
Garden Spring Water
Investigate Whisper Smile

Leave yellow happy side
Cloud soon beneath,
Birch dawn autumn song--
“Rise, cold grass!”