Do you remember the show “Kids Say the Darndest Things”? Well I want to turn that around and say “Kids Ask the Darndest Questions”. How do you respond when those questions lead to the subject of race? Here’s a recent conversation between my 5 year old son and his dad.
“Daddy, am I African?”
“Not really, but you are African-American. Your ancestors were brought to America from Africa”
“And I am half-Jamaican too. So is Mommy more African than me and you?”
“No son, all of us are just as African”
“But Mommy is dark”
“Son, it doesn’t matter how dark or light you are, all African-Americans are descended from Africans”
Now, to put this conversation in context, my son is 5 years old, soon to be 6. Very smart, enquiring mind. He reads well so if you want to keep something from him, don’t write it; it will get read. Children this age are very literal, you have to be so careful how you communicate with them because your words can mislead them, even though you have the best intentions.
The subject of race and color is probably going to be one of the hardest things we are going to have speak to him about. Question is how much and when. Too much too soon can be just as harmful as too little too late.
Let me backtrack a bit. I was born and raised in Jamaica; spent the majority of my adult life there before moving to the US. For those of you who haven’t met a Jamaican, we are a particularly unique people in many ways. You see, we have common threads with the US due to our history with slavery. Jamaica was also colonized by the British who brought slaves from West Africa to work on sugar plantations when sugar was king. Crops might have been different but the principle was definitely the same.
However, our journey through that era and process afterwards was little different. This will not be history lesson but the long and short of it was that slavery was abolished in Jamaica over 30 years before it was abolished in America. That is almost a lifetime. So needless to say the Jamaican journey of recovery from an oppressive regime started long before it did in the US. Of course, other systems followed that were as close to slavery as it could get, but the journey had started.
As you can imagine, by the time I made my entry into the world, most of that was distant history that we were taught in school. We did not have ancestors alive to relate these stories. Our motto “Out of Many, One People” was ingrained in us at an early age. Of course, everybody’s reality will be different and there are still remnants of the legacy of slavery and indentured servitude that still haunt us even today.
But my key point is that race was never something that was top of mind to be taught/made aware of to most of us as children. My parents never discussed this with me; and I doubt that was the case with most parents. I am by no means saying racism(or colorism) did not exist, but it was definitely not rampant. Not in a country where 95% of the population is Black. And it definitely doesn’t hold the importance that it does here in America.
More Questions than Answers
This brings me back to the conversation with my son. He is obviously smart enough to notice differences in skin color but he’s not knowledgeable or experienced enough to know that our glorious race comes in many different shades and tones. Visually, his skin tone takes him closer to his Caucasian friends but what he will eventually come to know is that there may come a time when he will be differentiated just because of his race. And we must prepare him for it when it happens.
When do I start to tell him what race is? How soon does he need to know that we are all the same but we are different? How do you educate him without leaving that huge chip on his shoulder? When do you explain why that random person was mean to him for no reason other than the color of his skin? Or why that lady grabbed her purse tighter on sight of him? Why he gets stopped by a police officer just for driving through a certain neighborhood?
I mean, this is America, a First World country, leader of the free world, developed. So why are basic human rights and equal privileges denied based on the color of one’s skin. What do I say?
The RACE talk
One night, he became very pensive during his bedtime routine. Then he called me over and said “Mommy, I want to talk to you about something”. Of course you know I tensed up. What could a 5 year old have to discuss with me that would require him to start a conversation like that!
During Martin Luther King Jr celebrations at school, he learnt about Rosa Parks who refused to sit in the back of the bus. He was distraught, worried for me. He wanted to know why dark people had to ride in the back of the bus. After all, he can see that I am dark and he’s not. They had used the word “dark” to refer to Black people. So that was his literal translation of what happened.
He asked me why. I stumbled. Honestly, I really didn’t know what to say. In between gathering my thoughts and shaking in my boots, I told him that everybody in America didn’t have the same rights and that African American people were treated unfairly. Luckily, he is aware enough; so I reinforced the fact that he was African American and showed him how proud he should be. He knew about and admired people like MLK Jr, Barack Obama, so on and so forth. I was so relieved and happy when he became so excited about that fact that he went to Sunday School and bragged to his teacher that he is African American, as if they didn’t know. I didn’t have to tell him the gory details, not yet.
There will come a time, and sooner than we think, when we will have to tell him the naked truth. How to behave under certain circumstances when he’s out there in the world by himself. But at this age when he’s building self esteem and confidence, how do you tell him the harsh reality of the skin he was born in? These are not rhetorical questions, I really want to know. I am out of my depth here.
My husband is American, born and raised here; lived here all his life. He might be able to do a better job than I can, but fact is, it has to be done. And with specifics too. That element has raised itself to the surface in this country and he is bound to encounter it. Whoever said parenting was easy.
What I really want to say is:
“Son, you are special. God made all of us special. No one has the right to make you feel any less than you are. And you shouldn’t make anyone else feel that way either. People will be mean to you, for no other reason than you might look different. Notice them, beware of them but love them anyway. You don’t need to be friends with them if they don’t or can’t be friends with you, love them anyway.
BUT protect yourself. Protect your body, but most of all protect your heart. Your first instinct should be self preservation. You might not be able to make things right the way you think it should be, so don’t try to fight that battle alone. It might not be the time or the place.
Feel free to share your experiences with us. We can give you perspective based on our experiences and what we have learnt. Things that you might not know or may never need to know. But just know we are here to equip you as much as we can.
This world can be a horrible place, but find the love in it. Love always leads us to do the right thing. So follow love, not hate.”
It’s a sad reality, but I know this is not enough. He will need specific tools, skills and strategies just to survive in this country.
Please share with me some of your experiences and strategies used in the comments. I really want to learn. Raising a Black son in America ain’t easy. After all Jackass was right, di worl’ still nuh level(Translate: Life just ain’t fair).
Thanks again for taking the time to share with me.
My name is Heather Newman. Please check out my blog at www.diaryofajamericanmom.com. It explores the challenges of a Jamaican transplant living in America and how I am facing them.