As the mother of two young mixed-race children, author Debra J. Dickerson is finding some of their questions a little difficult to answer. In this article, which first appeared on salon.com she comes to realise everything is not as black and white as she may have thought.
Out of the blue last week my son, who is 5, asked me if I'd ever been 'burned.' I thought he was referring to the tattoos that I always tell him and his sister are boo-boos (how else to justify voluntary scarring when I won't even let them use a butter knife?), so I repeated my usual lie and added that 'Mommy would never play with fire.' I thought this was a safety discussion. He looked confused.
'Oh. I thought that was why you were brown.'
My biracial, white-looking baby is discovering race. Granted, both of my children think my nappy, unprocessed, Sideshow Bob hair looks that way simply to entertain them, and never understand why everyone asks if I'm their nanny. I can't say I wasn't on notice. But I'd envied them their racial innocence. Too bad them days are over.
My son first brought up the subject of race two months ago. I took him and his 3-year-old sister to a concert at an inner-city elementary school right before Christmas. There were lots of cornrowed kids singing ‘Jingle Bells.’ My own child, as he sat fidgeting in my lap, stared at the crowd around him goggle-eyed and perplexed.
'Mommy,' he said, craning his neck to scan the room, just so he could be certain, 'everybody's brown. Really, look! They're all brown.'
We live in snow-white upstate New York, but was he really so clueless?
'Why is everybody brown, Mommy?'
Yup. He was. Caught unawares, I just gulped for air. But he was waiting for an answer.
'Really, Mom. Everyone's brown. Everyone. Why?'
Finally, I responded. 'Mommy's brown, honey,’ I said, and I covered his hand with my own. 'See?'
This did not compute. He blinked at me a few times and went back to squirming around and checking out all the brown people in the room.
The music was playing but his questions continued. I talked about how, like Mommy, these people had two brown parents while he and his sister had a brown mom and a ... 'not brown' dad. (My kids are not brown at all; homie's blonde and his sister has waist-length ringlets with natural blonde highlights.) I told him that he and his sister would likely get 'browner' as they got older and talked about variety being the spice of life. I analogised from the many colours in his paint box and reminded him that his Grandma Johnnie was brown but that his Grandma Ruth was ... not brown. Then, I took a deep breath and laid it on him.
'Honey. You're black. Did you know that?'
And even as the words left my mouth, I knew they made no sense. He was talking skin colour, I was talking politics.
Hopelessly lost now, he just gaped up at me. Then he pulled his black clip-on tie from his sweater and said, helpfully, 'My tie is black.' Still wriggling on his brown mommy's lap, he went back to staring in confused wonderment at all the Negroes.
Now, two months later, he has come up with an explanation. 'They' are all brown because 'they' are irresponsible with flammables. I know I need to nip this in the bud. But how on earth do you explain things as complicated as race and blackness to creatures who believe that the police will know when we need help because they all have baby monitors in their cars? They're so young; I'm still in the gooey, overprotective stage of motherhood wherein I shield them from knowing about crime, homelessness, war, rape, paedophilia and the horrors of capitalism. But I'm supposed to tell them that white people, their father's people, enslaved, raped, sold and Jim Crow'd us simply because we look burned all over? And I'm supposed to tell them now, when my 3-year-old daughter is still oblivious to the whole subject of race, that racism is far, far from over? Even if I wanted to tell them all this, I'm not sure where I'd start.
And then, last night, while still meditating on my son's burn theory, I located the true source of my ambivalence about helping my children discover their blackness.