Newly Minted

Newly Minted
Right after I was hooded

Monday, January 2, 2012

Black like me...

The articulation of identity, for me, is the product of individual, familial and communal intention and cultural will. The expression of mixed race identity in its purest form was provided for me by my sons in the back seat of my Dodge Durango in 2005. In 2005 my oldest son was 15 and it was the last year that I drove him and his friends to football summer session. Every morning at 6am, I would get in the car with four or five smelly little boys. I am not sure at what point I realized that most of my son’s friends were mixed race children with intact mixed race families and households. So, in the back seat I had: Brian, mom was black Caribbean, dad was white, and stepmom was white; Michael, mom was white and dad and step dad were black African American; Terry mom was white, dad was black, orphaned Terrance now lived with his white aunt and uncle. Also along for the ride were my sons 15 and 13 at the time, and my daughter who was five.

The boys had what I would call a morning dialogue; it rarely varied. Once everyone was in the car, Brian would start counting. I am not sure he was counting people per se but he had a compulsive need to count races. I now believe it was a response to often, if not always, being the only person of color in almost any situation he was in. I see it in my lived experience more than that of my children as Brian and I were both the “first” mixed race person in our families. Anyway, the counting would go like this. “There are three black people, and three white people in the car. We are even.” “No man that is not right” someone would offer, usually my son. Then all hell would break loose as the boys tried to ferret out who was how much of what and how many “wholes” that made. They never got it right nor did they ever get the same answer day to day. The important point here is that they kept trying every day for four weeks.

I was more aware than usual of my children’s identity development around race as I was fully engaged in my critical race work at that time. The conversation that was taking place behind me was not only fascinating but really useful. Several things still stand out to me this many years later. First that the boys had a language and a contextual understanding of what race was what mixed race meant, and how to talk about it. For instance, bi-racial and mixed race were acceptable names for their socio-racial identities but mulatto wasn’t. The boys would talk about being part white and part black, but would never say they were white but would accept being called black. However, all of the boys were not comfortable with my daughter being called black as she, to them, was clearly white. What is exceptional here is the level of agreement on these things as they were never argued against. The race counting wouldn’t be the exact language, activity or framework I would chose as I don’t really like the baker’s method to race, but I don’t remember them deciding or having a conversation where they negotiated these terms either. I do remember the boys sharing stories about experiences they had in the community or at school where they agreed that these experiences were what made them mixed raced together. For instance around mulatto as a term, my younger son had a little friend named Jenna who called him mulatto at school and all the boys agreed that this was a racist behavior on this little girl’s part. “She should know better, we have all told her not to use that word a million times.” But when I asked them why this was a bad word they were not able to tell me except that my son said “it makes my stomach hurt when she says it. She means it mean.” and the older boys agreed.

Second, the boys agreed that race could be counted and that mixed race people could be counted in parts in such a way as to reinforce membership in both monoracial spaces. Each boy understood that they belonged to two or three different races and, for them; the “amount” of each race could be counted but did not restrict them from membership in one or another of those races. This particular attribute of these conversations stood out to me because it pushed against how race was being presented to me in the academy while it resonated with how I experienced my socio-racial location in my own intimate reality. One day Brian was talking about his step mother’s family and said “yeah they know I am black and they don’t like black people but my dad says I am his son and I belong with him in our [white] family.” All of the boys this sense that anyone could have multiple socio-racial memberships that the boys viewed the world and they were not to be swayed from that sense. One day my husband was in the car with us and Brian started counting. When he went to include my husband, who is Irish and English and whom my children suggest is the whitest man in the world, in the calculation Brian leaned his head up between the front seats and said “hey, Mr. P, what are you…half or a quarter black?” Despite the fact that all of the children in the car had a parent who was white, all of the boys wanted to know how much black my husband had in him including our own children. My husband remembers not wanting to break their hearts as they had these hopeful and excited expressions on their faces and because it was the first time the possibility of anything other than whiteness had been extended to him.

Finally, the boy’s assertion of their mixed race identities was strong. I believe that is because they had each other. With a community to think and process with, they boys were able to stand up to the pressure of identifying with a monoracial identity easier than mixed race people who are isolated from other mixed race identities. In high school I had two best friends one was Thai and United States white and the other was German and Greek. Our sense of having multiple racial and ethnic identities created the same space for our assertion of multiplicitous identities as the boys had with each other.

I also saw a reflection of what the boys did that summer in our community, especially at school. The students around them, through graduation, always spoke about race with context. The deeper learning here for me is that socio-racial identity and identity development is about context and that context is impacted by access to other people who share your identity experiences and intimate realities. I remember being none too pleased the first time I heard the phrase “black like [my son]” until my child explained to me that this was how other students differentiated between him and other students with various non-white identities. While there were deeper implications to the phrase that I won’t get into here, the innocence with which my son received this declaration was founded in being accepted as a mixed race person and not feeling like he was being forced into a box that didn’t fit.

When my husband and I realized we could not register our daughter as mixed race in school as the No Child Left Behind act had removed the possiblity of other or multiple boxes, we approached our sons who were registered as other about it. That is when they shared stories of having taken the standardized tests for years and being very aware that the teacher was marking the race box a) for them; and b) incorrectly. “But you don’t correct teachers” my eldest son said “and I knew you would freak out so I didn’t say anything”. My youngest son said, “I told them I was Italian and they believed me. I thought that was funny so I kept doing it.” I remember the shout of joy when my eldest son applied to college and there was a box for mixed race people. “Whew! Mom, I finally got a box!!!!” During the Obama election the boy’s taught their sister to chant with them “Obama is black like me”.

Most recently my daughter came home and told her brother, interestingly not me, that “there are no boxes on those dumb tests for me, its racist.”

I agree...

...more soon

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