Raising A Race-Aware Child

When we were expecting our son — back in 2001 — it was still relatively rare for lesbian couples to have children. Or at least it was rare to have a child that was not the product of an earlier relationship with a man. People were worried on behalf of our unborn son; one friend actually asked, “Have you thought about this?” The concern as expressed was over the possible prejudice our son would face, and maybe about how he would turn out, “without a man in the house.”

But I was never all that worried about a child of ours struggling to navigate whatever homophobia he encountered; somehow I knew that our own experiences and unconditional love would give him the foundation he needed. And as for the man in the house… well, we’d make sure he had plenty of men outside the house who loved and cared for him. “I’m actually more concerned about teaching him about racism,” I started saying to the concerned friends and strangers. Because even then, I had a sense of the enveloping and repelling power of whiteness and male privilege — if we did nothing, it would be only too easy for our white boy to skate through life neatly tucked into a bubble that had been created especially for him. Racism would be someone else’s reality, and someone else’s problem.

From his earliest days, we talked with our son about racism, and sexism, and homophobia, and we framed these conversations in terms of history and change… we told him that from our perspective, these were outdated lenses, destined to go the way of the dinosaurs, and that there had always been people working for change. He loved hearing what we called “true-life stories.” He could not get enough of Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat on the bus, and was shocked to learn, just as he was excitedly learning the rules of chess in second grade, that Jim Crow practices had prevented black and white children from playing chess together, from swimming together, from playing together at all.

We hoped that painting these prejudices as fading and on their way out would make being the son of two moms a little less scary, and during the course of his young life our boy was able to see real progress, as his parents were finally granted access to the full set of federal rights that marriage confers upon legally married couples in the US.

Our family portrait by Zina Saunders

Racism, though, had been underestimated in my telling. I hadn’t learned enough about the long reach of systemic racism myself, hadn’t grappled with the ramifications of multi-generational exclusion and trauma. I hadn’t reckoned yet with the extent to which I was gliding through life in my own personal bubble.

As has been true of so many phases of my life as a parent, I found myself racing to learn enough so that I could feel useful, or at least competent. In the wake of Trayvon Martin’s death, I re-tuned my Twitter stream to include more Black perspectives and voices. When Mike Brown was killed, I watched the stunned and angry responses flood in, in real time, and helped to curate a list of people and organizations in Ferguson that concerned citizens could support. I talked with my son about the criminalization of black bodies.

When Tamir Rice was killed, I sat grieving at the kitchen table. As our son came downstairs for breakfast, I said, “Buddy, I have some really disturbing and sad news to share with you.” “I’ll bet some Black kid who wasn’t doing anything got shot, right?” he said with bitter sadness.

The truths about racism in America are hard truths. And now that I was more open to hearing them, they were everywhere.

In the face of inescapable pain, I went looking for celebration. When the stars seemed to align to make it possible, I volunteered at and attended the Mixed Remixed Festival, which is expressly dedicated to “celebrating stories of the Mixed and multiracial experience.” While there, I was reminded of the first spaces in which I’d been able to feel truly celebrated as a lesbian, and tried to share the unalloyed joy of both experiences with our son.

When the weight of all that I hadn’t learned and didn’t understand seemed crushing, I gravitated towards the comfort of community, and accepted a friend’s offer to join Not In Our Town Princeton. As I became less sure of my own competency, I sought out learning opportunities: reading, watching videos, attending talks, and opening myself up to challenging conversations. I see myself now more as a lead learner than a teacher, and I have invited our son to accompany me on my learning journey.

He knows that justice is something we can all work for. We marched on Washington in support of marriage equality for the LGBT community when he was just eight years old. He knows who Bree Newsome is, and what she risked. Our son joined me at the Tiger Park vigil in memory of those lives lost to the shooter in Charleston, SC. We both attended Debby Irving’s talk — based on her memoir, Waking Up White — at the Hun School this year. We’ve talked about the fact that his grandfather’s obituary included a reflection of his role as an early fighter of red-lining in residential housing.

Meanwhile, a hand-lettered Black Lives Matter sign has joined the rainbow flag that has long been displayed in our second floor window. In less than a month, our son will be 15 years old; within a few years’ time it is likely that he will no longer be living under our roof. It’s too early to tell how my journey as a racial justice activist has shaped him. Like every parent, I can only watch and hope.

No Justice, No Peace
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