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?

1 comment:

barry irving said...

...I read your article and you seem to preoccupied with Race as an adult...also with labels. That's the state of most of America who does not as a whole address the subjects very well or honestly. I would say from your grappling with terms the you are either unsure which term is proper or that you see the whole thing as trivial...a bit of an annoyance?

Just a clue from an African American who has dated and been married interracially, always be sure about terms concerning race. If you have socially conscious African American friends...see where they are on the Black V.S. African debate...that's is an important one particularly for the future.

"Salon 1/9/15 % reasons why White Pride is always Racist" offers some pretty interesting insights and truths about "WHITE" as a term. Causasian, White, Black are often used ambiguously. The adapted use of "Black" as a counter Racial term came in the 60's Civil Rights is however a Race term...Color caste, but with a different "pride" reference, that being countering the negativity of Society's Black negativity.

Caucasian is used as White, but in reality it references face and body type in humans. Some Africans and Indians from India are Caucasian too for example. my 8 year marriage to a German Irish fellow artist, I found that ethnically and culturally, she was not as informed as she should (could) have been...she didn't really get me...she loved me, but she didn't get me! I fond her 4 kids to be insufferably arrogant and entitled, they thought that I was mean.

..for instance when I (verbally)disciplined them for being arrogant or non responsive they saw any dissatisfaction that was expressed as "yelling" I would say( directly, not harshly or loud), "Athan, your mother works hard, why can't you mow the lawn like you actually care? Athan's recount to his mother? "Barry yelled at me"...they were only with us bi weekly, so I lived with it. daughter and grand daughter also lived with us...I sent my daughter back to her mother for disobeying house rules. My mate "never" disciplined her kids.

...I know that the though of living out my elder years with her kids being a part of our lives was a deal breaker..the cultural misunderstandings were another. I always wonder why European people adopt African or African American kids and then bring them up in their "White" communities. That's just my curiosity when their are European kids available.

...Your son will undoubtedly have the same reservations, social misunderstandings, and awakenings that every mixed Race person or person of one Race growing up in an all "Whatever" community will have. Just try not to add confusion or your own perception to his big job of growing up sane.Let him make his way and he should definitely have a well chosen African American big brother or mentor...that's a crucial thing. Without focus and good role models, he will grow up angry!