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Teaching My Child About Race
"Dad" I said frantically, "Am I in an inter-racial relationship?"
I was so unaware of race or racial differences it had never even occured to me that my future husband was not considered to be of the same race that I was. But my fathers answer confirmed why I was this way.
"Geez Annie, I don't know, hey Dee" he called to my step-mother "Is AnnaMarie in an inter-racial relationship?"
I laughed as did my fiance Rip. "Of course we are" Rip finally chimed in "I'm East Indian, I am not considered white, and in some countries I'm considered Black".
How unaware could another person be of someone's race? I just hadn't thought about it, not once. It never occured to me.
Until we were married and living in my parents house and I became pregnant with our son, Justin. One day as I waddled down the driveway and attempted to get into my husbands sporty little car without breaking my back I realized something. No one of color lived in our neighborohood. Only Rip. I looked around at all the houses and down the block and realized I couldn't think of a single person that wasn't white. I had never seen one. How could I raise an inter-racial child in a white bread neighborhood?
Okay, first of all I am English, French Canadian, American Indian and more than likely (as no one has been able to confirm this as of yet), 50% Puerto Rican. So my son is about, oh, 50% East Indian, 10% American Indian and 25% Puerto Rican which makes him 85% minority races and 15% white.
I look Italian. People think I am Italian. Except of course for Italians who think I am from Brazil, Spain, or Argentina. Hispanics talk to me in Spanish immediately upon meeting me.Everyone has an opinion of "what" I am.
In any case, my husband told me that his father said we could rent an apartment in one of his buildings in Yonkers, a city in Westchester County about 20 minutes north of new York city. I didn't like Yonkers all that much. I thought it was dirty and crowded and I wasn't used to apartments. I was a suburban Island girl, this would take some getting used to. But I loved that it had a rich diverse neighborhood and my son would not stick out but rather blend in with all the other children who were Korean, White, Black. Racially mixed, Hispanic and Italian.
We moved to Yonkers when Justin was a year old. By the time he was 5 we knew everyone in the neighborhood and were quite settled and comfortable. One day I was upstairs (second floor apartment in a 4 apartment building) when Justin was waiting outside for me by the fence to the park next store. His friend Jimmy was there asking him if his father was black.
"No" Justin said quite innocently, "My dad is brown".
"No" said Jimmy "I mean is he BLACK"
Justin was confused, he had just answered that question "No, he's Brown". he said again.
"You don't understand what I'm saying"
"What are you saying?" Justin asked
"I am asking if your dad is BLACK, you know, BLACK?"
Just then I emerged from the building only to hear Jimmy say 'Black'. Justin then said "Here's my mom. ask her"
"Ask me what?"
"Nothing" said Jimmy
"No seriously honey, you can ask me, what is it?"
"I was just asking Justin if his dad is black"
"Oh" I said confidently "No honey, he's brown".
Jimmy's jaw dropped, "Oh forget it" he said and walked into the park.
Once we were in the car Justin asked me why Jimmy had asked him that.
"Well honey" I said "You see how everyone is all different colors? Like your crayon box has all those different colors?"
He nodded. He was a coloring fool.
"Well, that's how God made people, you see how daddy is Brown and mommy is sort of a beige color, a light beige, and Poppy is sort of off white with a little pink"
"Grandma is kinda like that too only a little bit darker" he added.
"Yes, Oh and Jackie, she's a pretty color, I guess you would call that Mocha"
"I like her color the best" Justin said.
Jackie was racially mixed. Her father was black and her mother white. Jackie had a beautiful skin tone.
I explained to Justin that people that were like leaves on trees, Green, but all different shades of green. How boring would it be if we were all one color? He agreed of course loving shades as he did. You couldn't just tell Justin something was blue, you had to be specific and say it was sky blue, cobalt blue, periwinkle blue, etc...so this reasoning made complete sense to him.
Any topic of race or ethnicity did not come up again until he was 11 and we were in The Hamptons. Most the children were white of course with some Hispanic children from workers sprinkled through the grades. Justins first friend was from Guatemala and is still his best friend 10 years later.
I was in the kitchen when he came in and asked "Mom, what is race anyway?"
Clearly, he had heard something or someone had asked him about his own background.
"Race is a word to describe a persons background, where their families are from, like your dad is from India so he is Indian that is his race"
"ohhhh" Justin said "Thats it?"
"Yes honey, thats it, no big deal"
He nodded and left. I wondered though if it would be an issue. I was concerned about his ethnicty among mostly white kids but I didn't say anything. He was a good kid, fun, cute, popular. I was sure it wouldn't matter and it clearly posed no issues throughout his time in school. Justin never asked me anything about race again. It just never came up. In not teaching him or mentioning it, I think we also taught him that it wasn't important. We didn't give it any power.
His father and I had friends of all races and religions as well so to Justin this was how life is and there simply were no questions to ask.
His friend Jimmy in Yonkers asked him about color because these issues were brought up in Jimmy's home. More than likely his parents discussed "Blacks" and so Jimmy understood in his 6 year old mind that there was some difference. There had then been a seperation created between white and black. Once that door is open, it remains open. Jimmy would always see a difference between black and white. Creating the seperation in his own mind because of the seed his parents planted. We can teach our children without even knowing we are teaching our children.
My second husband is white. But he is also Jewish. Now I worry about my younger son Jadin and his last name being obviously Jewish, being treated a certain way because of his name. To conservative Jews or Orthodox Jews he is not even Jewish because I am not Jewish. To others, just by his name he will be considered a jew. It doesn't matter who his mother is or if he observes the Jewish religion. Now I have to worry about anti-semitism. Before it was race, now it's religion.
My children are not raised being taught the differences in the world around them but the similarities. We are all one. We interact with each other. Everything we do has a ripple effect and touches others so we have to be careful that what we are doing is the right thing. We have to make sure that what we put out there is positive. It matters because we are all connected.
I felt that by teaching my children religion I would have been teaching them seperatism. Like when one teaches them about race. Then their human mentality is one of superiority and they believe their race is the superior race, their religion is the better religion. Nonsense, all of it. It does not pull us closer together as people, it pushes us further apart, it builds up walls of division and misunderstanding.
It may sound arrogant, but sometimes I just wish more parents would raise their children the way I raise mine. No racial issues and no religion, just good human beings. Then their children wouldn't care what my children were. But there is a whole world out there. And it is filled with ignorance and there is nothing I can do about it. There are people who raise their children with abject hate, they want them to hate. Hate my children. Hate my family. Hate me (for what they call being a traitor) and hate people like us. Just for being who we are.
The best way to raise our children is with love and compassion. Most people know this. But as long as there are those who will teach otherwise, there will be mothers like me who will worry and fear for our children.
I promise you, we have not come as far as we think.