When my son was three years old he got chicken pox on his birthday. I cancelled his party, but I gave him the present he most wanted – a Barbie doll. To be honest, I was a little uncomfortable giving him a Barbie, so I gave him a Barbie and a Ken; and, since he is an interracial child and I wanted to be politically correct, I gave him a black Barbie and Ken (although Barbie did have a blonde streak in her hair). My son loved his gift and I can still see him, sitting in front of his cake with a birthday hat on, his face speckled with pox marks, holding up his Barbie (Ken had already been relegated to the unused toy box).
For the next two weeks, while he was recuperating, Barbie was his constant companion. When he went back to daycare, he wanted to take his Barbie for show and tell. While I had my misgivings on how the other children would react –would they make fun of him—I stuck to my feminist principles and didn’t discourage him. That afternoon when he came home, he threw his Barbie angrily in the corner. My first thought was that he had been teased or called a sissy. Then he tearfully said the words that are still imprinted in my mind. “I want a white Barbie.” He had never used the word white to refer to a person before. Years later, I learned that it was actually Jessie, the dark-skinned black girl who lived down the block, that had taunted him about his “black” Barbie.
I hate the word “bi”. Like in I am the mother of a biracial child. I keep expecting to see a child that is painted black on one side and white on the other like those mimes you see in the park standing like statues. It comes from that d puritanical Calvinism where everything in America is bifurcated, cut in half, polarized: like either/or, good/evil, male/female, black/white. And you are always expected to come down on one side or the other.
Murphy Brown was very big on TV when my son was in elementary school. After his Dad took off, I played the Murphy Brown role – the fast talking, independent woman who raised a child on her own. It worked very well until they found out I had a mixed race child. Even then, it worked if they thought he was adopted. Once they found out I had him the old fashioned way, I was relegated to the welfare Mom role –the woman who was too stupid to keep her legs together and was dumped when she got pregnant.
My son is grown now – a muscled young man with light golden skin, deep dark eyes, the somewhat round features that compliment his dimpled smile. His dark curly hair is slowly turning into male patterned baldness -- a trait which I think makes him even more handsome, but I suspect he is embarrassed by it, as he has taken to wearing a hat. It is hard to believe that he is actually a grown man, living on his own, who has to lean down to hug me instead of looking up at me.
A couple of years ago, my son called me up and invited me to a movie which he said I would “just love”. He had already seen it twice. The movie was Blindside. I sat in horror as I watched a white Republican mother take in a young black man so the local football team could have a winning quarterback. Was it just me or did others find it a little uncomfortable when she single handedly used her NRA gun to face down the black “degenerates” in the ghetto to “ save” her boy from his black crack-head birth Mom. Naturally, she helped him win a football scholarship and become an NFL star. As the adored white Mom in the movie said to her son’s football coach,” My son will do anything you tell him if he thinks he is doing it for me.” My son looked at me proudly and said “She reminds me of you Mom.” All I could think of was that there had to be other role models. “But it’s base on a true story” my son said. True. But there have to be other stories for white Moms with black children. Or, for that matter for white children being raised by black Moms (who are not their nannies).
A couple of weeks later we were watching the Oscars where Sandra Bullock got the academy award for best actress as the mother in Blindside. The best supporting actress went to Monique for her role in the movie Precious where she plays a welfare Mom who beats her child and lets her husband sexually abuse her daughter. The whole academy rose and cheered the reinforcement of the prejudicial stereotypes of black and white families. There have to be other role models for our children.
People now a days, including my son, talk about a post racial society. Personally I think they’ve just moved the goal posts. Now instead of categories like “white and “black” the color line is drawn at “white” and nonwhite”. I know that my son has spent much of his childhood longing for some traditional nuclear all white family that he will never have (as do many children from all black families). But our society is much more multicultural now than it was when my son was born twenty-six years ago. These days he self identifies as a German Haitian Dominican Jew. And we do have a “biracial” President. So why am I still so worried?
Sunday afternoon a couple of years ago, my son called me from the police station. He was picked up at 6am in Harlem in front of his house. When he protested that he had rights, he was arrested. After two days he was released. He spent two days in jail, lost two days work for which he was not paid, his only good winter jacket was destroyed and he saw a homeless man in his holding cell beaten down by several police. When he finally was arraigned, the charges were dismissed and he was told he should file charges for false arrest. He made some halfhearted attempts about filing charges, but never followed through . He seemed defeated and depressed by the whole experience. I told people about his arrest when it first happened, indignant at my son’s mistreatment. The first question most people asked was what did he do wrong? After awhile, I kept quiet about it, somewhat ashamed that he had been arrested. I began to believe that maybe he had done something wrong. And I wondered if he would have been arrested if he had been white.
My son tells me I worry too much. And he’s right. I do worry. Before he was born and before his father took off, I thought I understood racism and in my idealistic way, and with righteous good intentions , I believed I was going to make a difference in breaking down the color line by having a racially mixed child. While I would like the black and white of it to go away, for the past twenty six years I have watched my son struggle with the subtle and not so subtle racism that still permeates our society, knowing that I can’t protect him.
Recently my son came to me and told me he was glad that he had been raised in an “alternative” family. That he felt I had given him a more worldly and tolerant outlook on life. I wonder if this is true. I hope so.