Some days I forget that I am raising a Black boy. Some days I erase my knowledge of the world around me and get in my bubble and live the day as if it doesn’t matter what race is attributed to my son and that who he is and what he is capable of and responsible for and expected to be is solely based on the truth of who he is. Some days I parent him as if his chances of living up to his highest potential are the same as any other boy’s chances.
I did not experience the world the way my son is experiencing the world. I did not expect to be raising a Black boy. And in this country. Thus, I did not prepare myself for it. I did not ask questions to try to understand. I did not listen intently to experiences that were shared with me. I didn’t seek out books about Black boys and Black men in the United States.
But here I am, as on most days, carrying this weight of knowing that my son is a Black boy in the United States. I understand this weight is only a tiny fraction of the weight he will carry. And Tamir Rice is on my mind.
In an ideal, truthful world, my son would not be any race. He would not be any race because race is not anything – it’s not genetic nor biological nor anything at all other than a social construction. Something we made up and agreed to and live by as if it’s something real.
In a slightly less than ideal world, my son would be multiracial (I’m Indian and his Daddy is Black). He would be seen as multiracial because everyone would acknowledge the deep influence of each of his parents’ ancestry, culture and experiences.
In the far from ideal world we live in, my son is Black. He’s Black because the influence of the one-drop rule STILL legitimizes race as biological. His Indian ancestry and the influence of his mother having been born and growing up in Tanzania and Zambia is often overlooked unless I am around to state it.
Call it serendipity, but well before I even dreamed about the funny, loving, witty and loyal man that I married, I became aware of and was disturbed by my experiences as a teacher and what I became conscious of concerning Black boys. I had no idea, at the time, how personal this would all become for me.
“That little Brandon is just so cute, I could eat him up! Guess what he did today?!”
“Oh my gosh! Kevin said the funniest thing today. He is so cute, that boy!”
“I just loooove K.C! I can’t get enough of his cute little personality!”
I was in the teachers’ lunchroom and once again subjected to stories about another “cute little Black boy” told by a White middle class teacher. More often, the stories were told by my White, female colleagues talking about Black male students in their Kindergarten classes for whom they had developed a special affection. It was always the younger grades, never 3rd-5th grade cute little Black boys. The cuteness seemed to have disappeared by the time they got to those grades.
One teacher in particular, Belinda, regularly talked about a Kindergartner in her class, Ronnie, whom she thought, was “just the cutest little Black boy in the world.” It wasn’t unusual for her, like it was for several other teachers, to have had much contact with the child outside of school. Belinda had, on various occasions, invited Ronnie on a family outing to a basketball game, for lunch on a Sunday, the zoo on a Saturday and for various other activities. Always on Belinda’s turf. Never on Ronnie’s. I certainly could not imagine her going to Ronnie’s church on a Sunday or spending time in Ronnie’s home other than the time it took to pick him up to take him somewhere on her turf.
As comfortable as my colleague was with Ronnie, I was aware that outside of school, Belinda had practically no contact with other Black people – nor any other people of color for that matter. Her life was quite typical of many White, female teachers who lived in suburban areas that were a fair distance from the diverse (read NOT White), low-income schools in which they worked.
I was torn. On the one hand, it was pleasant to hear a teacher enjoying her student so much that she was compelled to tell stories about him to the rest of us. It should have been especially pleasant considering all the negativity associated with low-income, Black students, particularly Black, male students. But on the other hand, something about the frequency of these stories from the Kindergarten teachers did not sit well with me. I could not, at the time, articulate what is was, but something about their attachments to these particular individual students – cute, little, Black boys- and the general under performance of these students on standardized tests did not make sense to me. It would have made more sense that if White, female teachers so easily connected with and loved on little Black boys, then it would set them up to be successful in school from an early age. But the numbers did not show that to be true.
I often wondered how long Belinda would continue her relationship with Ronnie. At what point in the lives of these students, I wondered, did teachers’ perceptions of them change from “cute little Black boy” to “scary, criminal Black man?” At what point in Ronnie’s life, I wondered, would Belinda begin to see him as a Black man, and, therefore, one whose reputation is questionable according to society’s stereotypes? At what point would Belinda (or would she?) become fearful of Ronnie? Might there be a day when Belinda would find herself in an “urban” area and see, but not recognize a fully grown Ronnie, and clutch her purse a little tighter while crossing over to the other side of the street?
I wondered these things because Belinda is a not bad person with bad intentions or even someone I would label racist. Belinda was a likable, competent teacher. In fact, most teachers choose their profession because of their desire to do good and make a difference in kids’ lives. I wondered the same of all the White, middle-class teachers, as well as teachers of color, who work with “cute little Black boys” while consciously or subconsciously carrying negative perceptions of Black men. What causes teachers, and possibly society as a whole, to perceive the child version of Black males as a separate or innately different being from the grown version of Black males? And what influence do these teacher perceptions have on Black boys as they grow into Black men?
In an activity I do with my college students who are pre- and in-service teachers, I ask them to list all the stereotypes they know about various groups such as “Asian woman,” “Latina,” “Gay,” “Lesbian,” “White man,” “Black man,” etc. Prior to generating the list, my students always want to clarify that I am looking for stereotypes they’ve heard of but to which they do not necessarily subscribe. We are sensitive to accusations about prejudice. After they have silently written their descriptors under the headings on chart paper, we have a discussion about where they first became aware of the stereotype, the source of the stereotype, how the stereotype is perpetuated in society.
The list under “Black Man” knocks the wind out of me. EVERY time. No matter that I am aware of the stereotypes. It hurts. It angers. It saddens. It worries. It perplexes.
Inevitably, among the list of stereotypes of Black men, are the following descriptors: thug, lazy, playa, athlete, unemployed, drug-addict, rap artist, bling-bling, well-endowed….you get the picture.
It’s not this:
I could get carried away with opposite images I have…
On the flip side, the list for White man is usually more varied and includes: rich, can’t dance, hard-worker, good husband, privileged, provider, executive, regular guy, educated, etc. The world is far more open to different ways of being for White males. There are more options. More options that depend on the merit of the man.
It takes a lot out of me to see these lists. It’s become even more unbearable on the days I remember that my son is Black. I think of this list when I tune in to what people say and how they talk to and look at my son. I think of this list when I listen carefully to what teachers tell me about my son. I’m sensitive to hearing about my son’s behavior before I hear about his mind and his heart. I feel desperate and vulnerable because I don’t know what’s really happening in their subconscious. I don’t know if they see him as a child to be managed or as a child to be nurtured to his fullest, incredible potential.
I started writing this piece years ago and have sat on it and played with the words several times. But these last two days have had me thinking about Tamir Rice again. I was compelled to finish and share it.
We should talk about these things. We should ask questions and we should listen carefully to try to understand. We should take risks with our vulnerability and own our prejudice.
Black lives matter. Tamir Rice’s life matters. My son’s life matters. Yes, he’s a cute little Black boy. The cutest one I know. He’s also funny and witty and loving and generous and thoughtful in the most delightful ways.
Some days I forget my son is Black. Today, I’m thinking about Tamir Rice and remembering ever more seriously that my son is a Black boy.