We say Black people are not a monolith. That we represent a variety of perspectives, opinions, and experiences. And yet, in times of solidarity it is hard to admit certain things.
Like, I hate potato salad.
Like, I don’t really love Prince’s music.
Like, I’ve never been called the N-word.
Like, I’ve never had a negative police encounter.
I can’t explain why these last two things haven’t been a part of my Black American experience. I am not special. I am, perhaps, an exception to the rule. Certainly other aspects of my identity, like class and education, afford me tangible privileges and mobility. Anecdotally, those only get you so far away from the persistent and insidious layer of discrimination that lurks under most systems in the US. Moments like these remind me that it’s probable I have just been lucky. The Black Lives Matter movement has been mobilized around the the idea that anyone of us who look like us could be the next George or Breonna or Sandra or Tamir or Trayvon. And so, despite a lack of personal experiences with overt racism from police or other white people, I stay on edge.
Part of staying on edge as a Black parent of a Black child is thinking about when to give them “The Talk”. There is a lot of talk about “The Talk”. A friend made this award winning commercial. This video of parents talking to their children went viral. Even thought I know it is never too early to talk to kids about race, I’m not ready to give “The Talk”.
One reason is that I never actually got “The Talk”. I grew up in very diverse suburb of Los Angeles and loved everything about being Black. I loved my hair and my skin. I loved our music, our dances, and how we spoke. My dolls were Black. Santa was Black. My grandmother even colored her nativity scene Baby Jesus in with a pencil. We were part of a large Black family, went to Black Church, and joined Black social organizations. At one point we attended a Black Saturday academy with a Black textbook. My family helped run a Black family camp that still exists today, 60 years after it was started by my grandmother. I learned to get along with lots of different people at school, but socially we surrounded ourselves with an incredible array of Black people. When I felt like I didn’t fit in, it was usually that I didn’t fit in with the really cool Black people – the ones who liked potato salad and Prince and who didn’t put sugar on their grits. (I know…I know…)
My parents never explicitly talked about the possibility we would be affected by racism or named it as an oppressive force in our lives. They never told me anything about working twice as hard or being twice as good. They never warned me about the police. What white people (or non-black POC) thought or did simply wasn’t very relevant in the context of our home. A negative encounter could be rude or inconvenient or an obstacle, but it rarely had power. We always had a way around or over. Perhaps we were sheltered, but mostly we were just happy and proud to be Black. Even as a middle school student processing the beating of Rodney King, the acquittal of those officers, and the riots, I still loved being Black. There was pain, there was danger, and there was injustice. Through it all, our Black community was beautiful, and I was glad to be a part of it.
I had developed a positive racial identity.
Embracerace.org is a great resource for learning about positive racial identity development. They explain that “because of raising their children in a racialized society, in a racist country, black families have the extra burden of actually helping their children to survive and thrive physically, emotionally and psychologically in an environment that does not value blackness”.
I look at what my parents did – deliberately place us in environments where our Blackness was valued – and I have to thank them because my sisters and I did thrive. I’m sure things happened to me. Discriminatory things. Prejudiced things. Racist things. Certainly there were microagressions, but I didn’t internalize them at the time, and I don’t remember them now. The counternarrative about my worth was too strong, and it still is.
I am currently trying to reconcile parenting for a positive racial identity and preparing a Black boy for the potential pitfalls of living in America. He is five and entering kindergarten this fall. At some point, he may be confronted by another child, teacher, or other grownup. How do I get him ready without scaring him or causing anxiety? He is still forming ideas about community. We frequently walk and bike around our diverse neighborhood full of different languages and foods from around the world. We socialize with all kinds of people. He is obsessed with heroes and bad guys. He is still learning about who the helpers are and how to find them. At times like these, I am conflicted. Whose experience do I share with my son? He was in the car the time I got pulled over by a local (Black) cop for Cali-rolling through a stop sign. It was an annoyance for me and a story he enjoyed telling everyone at school. And yet…we are Black in America and recent history makes it clear that any interaction with the police could suddenly go left.
The only thing I am clear about is that I am not alone in asking these questions. There are great resources being developed and shared in this moment. The National Museum of African American History and Culture released this Talking About Race Guide. Sesame Street did a special anti-racist townhall episode. I just attended a terrific talk for parents hosted by PBS Kids and learned about the work of the P.R.I.D.E Program at the University of Pittsburgh. Luckily, none of us have to do this on our own.
I think for now, in terms of talking about race, I will continue to focus on building my boy up. I love being a Black mother to a Black son. I want him to love his Blackness as much as I love mine. His father and I control most of his world at the moment. This won’t always be true, but while it is, I claim the power to keep the monsters at bay. We tell him he is beautiful from the top of his quarantine afro to the soles of his feet. We tell him he is a good thinker and hardworking and helpful. We fill his bookshelves with our heroes and characters who inspire him to point and say, “That’s me!” We teach him to nod and wave at other brown people, make Black power fists, and do the Wakanda salute.
I also want to focus on making sure my son understands what it looks like to be an ally to people who are different from him. Other people deserve to love themselves as much as he loves himself, and each kindness we give someone else contributes to a world of good. We should expect that people will treat us well, and they should be able to expect the same of us. As an able bodied Black cisgender male (at the moment) there are going to be other marginalized people who need his support as much as he will need theirs.
I’ll reiterate that I am not advocating ignorance. My son will know our history and that we come from some of the strongest survivors the world has ever known. Resilience is in our blood, and we have outlasted and overcome all who wished us ill. He will find out sooner than I like that there are people who have a problem with his Blackness. However, I never want him to think his Blackness is the problem. When I think about “The Talk” I want to give my son at this stage in his life, it goes something like this:
You know how sometimes we go outside and the sun is really bright, so bright it hurts your eyes so you squint and look down and have to go get sunglasses? Maybe you even hope for a few clouds or find some shade or go inside where there is air conditioning to get away from it?
Sometimes you are going to feel like that sun. You’ll be shining so bright and so beautiful, and some people won’t appreciate it. They may tell you to go away or try to minimize you. They may try to show they are more powerful than you. They may even try to hurt you.
But just remember, the sun doesn’t stop shining. Ever. Not even when it’s night – the sun just goes to the other side of the world and shines there for a while. If someone thinks you are too bright and tries to say or do something to make you feel less than them, you be like the sun. Keep shining. They’ll figure out how to deal.