LIVES; Black Unlike Me

I ”hate collars,” shouts my 7-year-old son into his mattress, where he has thrown himself, 20 minutes before we need to leave for school. I just woke him and we’re in the middle of a fight I can’t remember starting. It’s no surprise that a second-grade boy would prefer to wear an oversize sleeveless jersey — Chicago Bulls red, No. 23 — rather than a button-down shirt with a collar. But this is a school day, I explain to Ari, and you go to school not to play but to learn.

I didn’t like the mini-sermon I felt coming on, but I couldn’t stop myself. I chose that moment to make the connection between collared shirts and racism to my black son. I said that it was really important for him to look his best and do his best because there were idiots in the world who actually thought that people with dark skin were not as clean, or as smart, or as good as others. My son could prove them wrong on all counts.

Even before I finished, Ari crumbled before my eyes. From face down on his mattress, where he was trying to dig a cave under his blanket, came his muffled voice: ”I hate this.” And I knew just what he meant. He has heard me talk about prejudice since he learned his colors at 2 1/2: ”People with pink skin aren’t always nice to people with brown skin.” Truth is, the beginnings of this dawn-hour diatribe started many years ago, when my husband and I adopted our infant son. That’s when I woke up from a deep, white sleep. Suddenly, racism, which had always existed outside my focus, became my focus. When children of color become your children, anonymous struggles become personal ones with names and faces that you know.

I wanted to walk out of Ari’s bedroom and go back in as if none of this had happened. But it was too late. I had already done that thing again. That thing that white parents who have black children do: we move from racially clueless to racially conscious in the most clumsy of ways, never turning off our radar or putting down our dukes. Then we pass along our loaded agendas to our children and scare them with an edginess that is characteristic of late learners. I jumped in to fight the battle against racism with an indignation that was earnest but not earned.

It must be very hard for a child to have, as tour guides, parents who are tourists themselves. The risk is that the culture being visited will be reduced to its souvenirs. All I have to do is look around Ari’s room — past the clutter of Lego pieces, open books and plastic swords — to see my son’s life as a pathetic collection of props: the Michael Jordan poster on the wall; the knitted Senegalese cap hanging from the doorknob; the framed autograph of Tiger Woods by his bed. The process of becoming black must lie somewhere beyond ethnic tchotchkes like these. I’m just not sure where. Ari’s preference for peers over parents at this age gives me more satisfaction than most mothers experience as their young children mature. In looking toward his black friends for clues, he lands on the symbols that they value most, and he makes them his own. The day he got his hair cut exactly the way he wanted — a severe buzz on the sides with just enough hair left on top for the barber to carve a Nike swoosh — Ari walked out of that shop as if he had grown a foot taller. I had his buddies to thank for that boost.

I want to expand the ways for my son to be black, beyond cool haircuts and athletic heroes. The images of success in Ari’s bedroom invite him to aspire to narrowly defined black standards; I’d rather my son experience the white privilege of believing that there are no limitations on who he can be and what he can do. I want Ari to internalize truths that aren’t yet true: that to get straight A’s is a black thing; that to set a positive example is a black thing; that to be a success in any arena is a black thing. But you can’t decorate your room with these constructs. It dawned on me that morning that you can’t rely on collared shirts to ward off bigotry or enhance self-esteem. ”It’s O.K. with me, Babe, if you wear a different shirt.” Ari started heading for the dresser, when I added that it couldn’t be sleeveless and it had to be clean. From the top drawer he pulled out an oversize black T-shirt with Grant Hill’s picture on it. Then he sped downstairs for breakfast before I could change my mind or bring up the subject of racial pride again.

It is with a mixture of sadness and relief that I’ve begun to understand this much: becoming black is an inside job — my son’s job. I can help by bringing black friends and customs and even props into our lives, but Ari’s evolution into a proud black man will occur largely outside the walls of our home. And most of his growing, I’m convinced, will happen well beyond the reach of my loving white arms.

Jana Wolff, the author of ”Secret Thoughts of an Adoptive Mother,” lives in Honolulu.


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