From the mouth of a babe (Alright. He’s really a teen.)
There have always been challenges for young African American males in our country. Although we have a President who is biracial and considered the first African American President of the United States, there is still de facto segregation in our schools and neighborhoods. With all of the progress that has been made, thanks to the sacrifices of people who joined the Civil Rights Movement and participated in civil disobedience and acts of protest over fifty years ago, some of the struggles underprivileged or non-white young people encounter make the movement of the past feel closer to today than it should. As Martin Luther King, Jr. and others were accosted with violent acts and threats, the goal of securing individual liberties for people of color with a chance at self-determination may have seemed distant. With every step that those leaders took, whether it was the first, second, or third time from Selma to Montgomery, their goal of voting rights for all qualified citizens was always in sight. As a 15 year old, I realize that I will also be taking many steps and may even have to repeat some of the same routes in my life before I get it right, but I have learned that each small step leads to a bigger step and more goals, and my future is always in sight.
Sadly, just as geography and race led to oppression, violence, and even death during the marches of 1965, geography and socioeconomic circumstances today can provoke tragic endings. I am fortunate enough to live in a diverse middle class suburb next to Cleveland, Ohio. Haunting my comfortable existence is the fact that a young boy, named Tamir Rice, was shot outside of a Cleveland recreation center by a police officer, and bled to death on the ground. His self determination had not even had a chance to begin. That is just one story of many with similar horrible endings, as the people in Ferguson, New York, and other cities across America know all too well.
I know that as a teen male who appears African American, I am held to different standards. The first appearance I make to people who do not know me gives an impression that I feel like I have no control over.There is a perception that African American males are prone to foolishness. Yet, I can determine a lot of what happens next. My behavior and choices are directed by how I was raised and the community that surrounds me. Showing respect in order to earn it, courtesy, celebrating academic as well as athletic accomplishments, and speaking with confidence and self assurance are qualities that currently help me defy stereotypes, and should lead me to a promising future. I have the ability to determine positive next steps for myself.
Just twenty or thirty minutes away from where I live, young African American males, who look a lot like me, do not necessarily have the same circumstances that I do. The police presence in areas of poverty restricts individual liberties as often as it protects them. Education is uncertain. Schools are treated like solutions to homes without heat, electricity, food, or access to medical care,and as mental health providers rather than as a step to a goal that can lead to more goals. In my school, house, and world I have art, music, parks, and recreation at my disposal to enrich, encourage, and inspire me. That access should not be a privilege. I feel safe the majority of the time and do not worry about my basic needs being met. That security provides me with liberties that should belong to everyone.
I think Martin Luther King, Jr. believed that the indignities and injustices of poverty were preventing self determination for people trapped in it. Before his assassination he seemed to understand that poverty is not only harmful to the poor, but that income inequalities hurt all of us. In a TED Talk, Richard Wilkinson explained that we can improve the quality of life for everyone in developed nations by reducing economic inequality. Although I am not sure where all my steps will take me, I would like to build on my experiences, keep developing my leadership skills in my community, and find a way to reduce income gaps in our country. When our economics are more equal, our liberty will be too.
I live in a unique community in which I am surrounded by many other interracial families. It is one of the many reasons that I chose this liberal, progressive city, that is also the location of a small university, when I was seeking to purchase a home for our family with four sons. Yet, with all of the comfort that accompanies our suburban, diverse, and sheltered community, members of families here, or not here, that have a composition of members with multiple race labels and appearances sometimes feel the discomfort that the social construct of race perpetuates.
Let me begin by explaining the heritages of my family. I am of European ancestry and receive the majority of the privileges that white, middle class women my age most likely frequently take for granted. My oldest son is also of European ancestry and is very aware of the privileges that can be affiliated with the label of “white, college-educated, male.” My bonus son from my former marriage and three other sons that I gave birth to are biracial with white mothers and an African American father. Their whole lives my children have heard the questions from acquaintances and strangers “Are they all yours?” and “Is he yours?” Sometimes my reply of “Yes” was not enough to satisfy the inquiry and a form of the additional question and statement would follow: “I mean, did you have all of them?” Because I try to believe that people’s intentions are positive, I reply patiently again, and explain that I knew what they meant and that “Yes, I gave birth to them. They are mine.” Occasionally, I try to insert some humor to eliminate some of the lingering awkwardness, and I add a silly comment about pushing the size of their large heads out. I might even attach some gentle sarcasm to my reply about not being able to put them back where they came from even if I wanted to.
At first, the question stung. Although I am always as polite as possible on the outside, on the inside I feel rather indignant. What do they mean are they mine? Who the hell else is around making high pitched cooing nonsensical statements to entertain them while we shop? Do you see anyone else around here wiping their noses or leaking from their nursing bra when they hear the baby’s cry? Doesn’t it look like they love me and I love them? Of course they are mine! After a while, I thought I got used to it, so I thought the question had less bite. I tried to come up with standard comments for when I am not in the mood to be conversational, comments for when I am feeling sassy, and replies for when maybe I am misinterpreting a person’s intentions and take it a little too personal. We even laugh as a family at the time we arrived at our favorite Ethiopian restaurant and the boys ran into the place so excited about being there that the owner asked if they were from Ethiopia. I rationalized their excitement as the owner’s reason for asking about their origin, not the fact that they were browner than usual because of baseball games in the July sun. We can even chuckle now about how the woman at the specialist’s office asked me at least three times after she asked my son twice if I was, in fact, his mother. After being a mother for 24 years I thought I had a handle on this “Bringing Up Biracial” in an interracial family thing. Until tonight.
Let me preface this narrative by stating that the person involved is completely innocent and meant absolutely no harm, and I am positive she has no idea that the incident had any effect on me at all.
Not having to wash my long, thick, curly brown hair myself is actually a treat, so tonight I stopped by a local franchise for a quick wash and trim to reward myself for the work I have put in so far this week. I was operating on a time crunch between picking up and dropping off boys. My second youngest son was with me, but opted to eat dinner at the Subway next door rather than sit in the salon and watch his mother get her hair done. As I was sitting in the clever beauty chair that seems to go up and down easily no matter how much a person weighs, the cell phone in my coat pocket began to ring. A nearby cosmetologist asked if I would like to get it. I replied that it was probably my 15 year-old, and that he could just come to me if he really needed me because he was next door at Subway. Near the end of my very-well-done-wash-and-trim my head was down and I was facing the woman caring for my hair, while she was comparing the hair on each side of my face to make sure the hair lengths were even. Simultaneously as my head was down and my back was facing the front, the door to the salon opened and I could not see the person who entered. The cosmetologist mentioned to me that she thought my son had finally decided to come to the salon. She said she wasn’t sure, but that she thought so because I had stated that he was about 15. I replied “Yes, 15” and asked her “Is he tall?” She nodded in the affirmative at my question. In my mind, as I am asking, I am picturing my 5”11 beautiful son with a heart-shaped face like his mama and a smile that matches mine also. Yet, there was a nagging thought that was also clawing at the back of my brain begging my consciousness to take notice. Remember your son is brown. And you’re not. Stop being a nit-witted optimistic, Pollyanna-rainbow-and-crystals, dummy!
As the chair spun around and the hair-covered cape was lifted off of me, I rose from my seat and began walking towards the front where a young man, who appeared to be white, was waiting for a haircut. In an attempt to avoid or alleviate any possible awkwardness, I said to my cosmetologist as I was paying at the register “Not mine” and smiled. I am not sure she understood what I meant until I left the salon without the young man because she didn’t immediately respond. A little part of me was charred with disappointment as I scurried to my vehicle with wet hair in the icy temperature outside. When I got in the car, my son was stretched out in the passenger seat with his empty Subway wrapper in between us. I recounted the story for him and told him how there was a moment when my spirit was elevated in one of the many sections of parental joy that my heart holds, because I thought that someone may have possibly recognized my son as mine without knowing our family background. I had all sorts of applause and cheers in one part of my mind for the progress that has been made in our country these past couple decades, and it was temporarily drowning out the harsh reality voice that doesn’t want to ever let me get too comfortable.
I’m not positive, but I don’t think that uni-racial families have to constantly explain to people they encounter that the children with them are, or are not, little beings that they had a role in biologically producing or not biologically producing. There was absolutely no malice in the entire salon encounter. Her assumption was completely reasonable based on the information she had from the twenty minutes she knew me. Anyone could have arrived at the same possible conclusion that she did; except possibly a member of a family that is multi-racial. From the moment that a child is welcomed into a family, parents are overwhelmed with love and an instinct to protect and nourish, but only parents of biracial, multiracial, or other race children understand that from that day forward there will also be another aching desire: to have that child (children) recognized as belonging to them.
Yes, they are mine. Yes, I carried them 40 weeks or more, gave birth to them naturally, nourished their bodies and souls inside of me, continue to cultivate their bodies, minds, and spirits even if they were not inside me 40 weeks, have the stretch marks to prove it even if they didn’t cause them, and don’t you recognize the all encompassing, all consuming love that connects me to them and them to me?
For one fleeting moment this evening, I thought someone who didn’t know us was able to validate my motherhood like so many other mothers have theirs confirmed every day as they walk through the store or play at the park. This motherhood of mine that so many strangers have questioned for over a decade and continue to question is obviously real to me and those who know us, but the disappointment of not having someone else recognize it was a surprise to my consciousness. This experience didn’t have the sour taste that I get when people ask me if my children belong to me. It was just a balloon of hope that I let get too close to the stingers left behind by the questioners of my motherhood, and it burst. Luckily, the reality I have returned to is full of all of the things that remind us of how real parenting is when you sign up for it, regardless of whether or not you contributed biologically to the new human that you are charged with rearing. So, I am ending here to review homework, force hygiene upon the unwilling, call time out on the wrestling match on the sofa, kiss warm dimpled cheeks, and secure us all for bedtime, which is enough affirmation for today.