The ‘N’ Word

n word nieema fosterAs a parent I want to protect my children from anything and everything that could hurt them, but realistically that’s not possible. The best I can do is prepare them as well as I can for dealing with and overcoming those issues as they come up. Of course some of the biggest issues that could hurt them come from factors they have absolutely no control over, a fact that hurts even more because, even though I wouldn’t want them to change to fit someone else’s standard, at least it is a flexible thing. When someone hurts either of my children, for whatever reason, though, I am like a papa bear who wants to rip down the entire forest to get justice.

I knew from a young age that if I ever brought children into the world they would be judged, not merely on their mental capacity, or on their empathetic scale, or even on the style of dress they fancied, but also on the color of their skin. Even when I grew older and married a woman who just happened to be white, I knew that skin color would still be an issue, because our children would never be “just” white, so they would be different, especially around here. Yes, we’ve made some great gains in race relations and issues surrounding the tension therein, but prejudice still abounds, even if it is done more subtly now than ever before.

In the class photos you can see the differences, in the abundance of curly, kinky hair, in the fullness of the lips, in the curve of the nose. These characteristics she inherited from me, and I’m proud of that, that I can see some of myself, and of my heritage, in her, even just physically. She gets so much from her mother too, but the one thing that stands out most, especially when looking at the class photos, is her skin color. There is a bit of a Mariah Carey light mocha coloring she has that is so beautiful to me, but I know when others see it they have their own ideas. I will honestly never know why, but some people can’t stand what they don’t understand.

When we are out and about without my wife, it’s interesting to see how differently people treat us, and how they treat me in particular. We are a black family when I am with my children on my own. It’s plain to see when older black women smile at the kids, as if they were their own grandchildren, or when we pass older white couples who look at us like we’re a completely new species. These same older black women, and these same older white couples, treat us differently when we are all together. In fact, they tend to ignore us and go about their business. They don’t “get” us. They can’t wrap their brains around an interracial couple, a mixed race family, even now, in this day and age.

The first time I heard someone use the ‘N’ word I was probably about 8 years old and it was on my block, a place comprised of all black folk, and the term was meant to be endearing. Continue reading “The ‘N’ Word”

Downplaying the Race Card

It’s interesting, this thing called race. I mean, most times I don’t even think about it at all, unless either someone brings it up or something happens that reminds me. Some people honestly think it matters. I remember when Obama was elected president, and all the news folk said, “We’ve just elected our first black president, which means race is no longer an issue.” That, of course, shows the statement to be false. Just the fact that they felt they had to say the word “black,” as if it was unique, and special, it shows just how far we still haven’t come in the way of race relations.

I was born brown. It’s one of those incontrovertible facts that I can’t, nor would I want to, deny. I was at my daughter’s school being a parent-helper, walking the kids down the hallway, when one boy in the back asked, “How come you’re brown?” That’s kids for you, and I could understand the question too. In this area, not being white is definitely different, strange, unique, and even special, so when this kid got his first shot to question someone who wasn’t the same color as him, he took it. I told him, “It’s because my mommy was brown,” and he seemed satisfied. But that made me take a look at it. Why wasn’t this kid exposed to African-Americans, or any other race besides Caucasian, during his five years of life? And how long would it have taken him to get that exposure if he hadn’t come in contact with me on that day? It reminded me of how long it took me to be exposed to someone who wasn’t black, and it made me sad.

When I first started dating, my mother was shocked at my choice of dating partners. You see, it works both ways. Because I was dating white girls, suddenly the race card showed up front and center for her. My mother isn’t racist. However, she grew up with a certain understanding that when it came to relationships and significant others, like stayed with like. Now, of course, this idea of “like” is limited specifically to race, not to any other defining characteristic of a person. For my mother, it was as easy as black and white, clearly delineated, but to me, it was about all those other things I found appealing. For some reason, these characteristics were to be found for me in girls who happened to be white. I dated one girl who was of mixed race, and my mother was over the moon about her, because she looked “black.” I don’t blame her, either. I’m just different.

So, now I live in a small village in upstate New York with my wife, who happens to be white, and my children, who happen to be of mixed race. I moved here 11 years ago, and it was quite an adjustment, because when I arrived I automatically created a new racial structure here. Of course I didn’t even realize it at first, because, as I told you before, I hardly think about race, but that doesn’t change my color and make others as forgetful as I am. Luckily, the world isn’t quite as segregated as it used to be, and that includes this country too. Over my time living in this small village, I have seen it change even here. More black people have moved here, but it’s more than even that. It’s all about perspectives, and the best perspective is when we treat people like people, regardless of race, because race is just one small part of us. Let’s look at a person as a whole, and judge them accordingly. And don’t look at me like I just swore. You know as well as I do that we judge others. Let’s just judge based on important factors, not on race.

It’s interesting, this thing called race. We tiptoe around labels, and yet we all label. Does race matter? Yes. It’s obvious it still matters to too many people, when what should really matter are our core values.


Between Two Races

My kids are amazing. I mean, sure there are some times when I just want to sit them down and read them the riot act, but that’s the nature of being children. They will try your patience. My kids are unique. I don’t know if I’ve ever met kids exactly like mine (and that makes sense because I see them in such a different way than I ever have any other kids). My kids are smart, and getting smarter every day. And I’m not talking book smarts. Sure, that can come in handy sometimes, but just having deductive reasoning and working toward accomplishing goals, that’s what I mean. My kids are creative. If there was an award for artfulness and craftiness, I would give them all away to my kids, and leave none for myself. And my kids are also multi-racial. But what can I say about that?

That’s the problem I was faced with when I sat down to consider what kinds of questions they might ask someday, about their heritage, about their history, about their place in the world. Their identity. How do they identify themselves, and how will they identify themselves in the face of so many others who will automatically slot them into a position and leave no place for wiggle room? Will they be strong enough in their own identity to shrug off the “haters” and make their own place. I’d like to think I’m preparing them for that and so much more, but like all parents I still worry.

I read this amazingly insightful book, called Does Anybody Else Look Like Me?, by Donna Jackson Nakazawa, that deals with just this topic. She talks about how people will automatically judge, even in our society, those who don’t fit into a certain mold, and they will force them into whatever mold they think is close enough, not wondering if what they’re doing is racial profiling, or worse. And I can’t begin to understand how my children feel when someone says something about them, when they’re pigeonholed like that, because while I can know what it’s like to be black and pushed into that box, I can’t begin to know what it’s like to be black AND white, and to be placed there too. I was talking with my sister tonight about it, and she said it all begins with strong connections at home to both heritages (and in some cases more than even two) and with communication from all sides when questions are raised.

“I can’t begin to know what it’s like to be black AND white…”

So my daughter asked me one day, “Daddy, if you’re black and mommy’s white, what am I?” I replied, “You’re whatever you feel you are.” Smart as always she said, “I can’t choose that.” And she’s right, but while she can’t choose what she is, she can choose how she defines herself, which is in some respects even better. While she isn’t white like the other children in her school, she can still identify with that aspect of her history and heritage because her mother spends time explaining that to her. And while she isn’t black like me, she still gets that aspect of her history and heritage from me. We both answer all of her questions on the subject, and I think she is finally forming connections that will help her define her own identity in the face of this changing world. Then this process will continue with my younger daughter and her own journey to self-awareness and self-identity.

The biggest thing you have to do if you’re in a relationship and considering having children, regardless of your ethnicity or background, is ask yourself if you know who you are, if your own identity is as well-formed as it can be, because your children look to you for answers, and waving them off isn’t good for them or for you. Whether or not they look similar to others around them, they need to recognize that they are loved for who they are, not for their appearance.


On Parenting and Parenthood

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