Category: biracial

Black and White

July 10th, 2011 — 11:19am

When my biracial African-Caucasian son was in preschool, I picked him up one day and he said to me, “Mom, we are all beautiful.” “Yes,” I responded. “We ARE all beautiful.” Then he said, “Even if you’re brown or black or whatever color you are beautiful.”

This was the first I heard him mention color. At his mostly white bilingual French preschool in Venice, CA, kids ran around the yard, climbed a sturdy old tree, boosted themselves onto the top of a plastic house, chased around a bunny, and sampled eclairs. The fact that my son was brown and most of the kids were white hadn’t really seemed to matter until around the age of 4, when suddenly the kids reached to touch my son’s curlier hair or would state matter-of-factly that he was brown.

He was brown, not black. That is until Obama was running for election, and then perfect strangers seemed to feel it perfectly acceptable to come up to my 5-year-old son and say things like, “Hey man, we’re gonna have the first black president” and try to give him five. He was confused. Why were people talking to him about someone who was black when he was not black, he was brown? It started to sink in that in the United States, there was a category called “black” that includes people of every different color from pale white to ebony, as long as they have a drop of African blood.

When Obama was running for president, I spent some time in South Africa. There, my Zulu taxi driver said to me, “In America you call Obama black. But here we would say he is colored.”

The first time Gabriel spent a summer away from his cosmopolitan Los Angeles environment, he attended a Jewish summer camp in Central New Jersey. It was there that he received his first racial slur – not merely the matter-of-fact preschool “you’re brown” which was merely stating a fact, but the meanness of boys calling him “brownie” and “Curious George.” He was good at soccer and swimming and most of the kids were nice, so despite the mean boys, he quickly adapted as the only brown kid at a white Jewish camp. He didn’t tell me that he had been called “brownie” for 6 months, but after that incident, I did notice a difference in him. He was aware that some people would judge him because of his color.

And not just white kids. He began to attend an elementary school that was mostly black and brown. When I would pick him up on campus, many brown and black kids would ask him right in front of me: “Is that your mom?”

Barack Obama was already President.

One day Gabriel came home and said to me, “Mom, when I was three did I know that you were my Mom?”

“Why?” I asked.

“Well because I’m brown and you’re white, did I know that you were my Mom?”

Most of the people around him really don’t see him only as a color. They love him for his quick wit and tenderness with toddlers and sharp math skills and the old soul wisdom he seems to harbor. So we are able to just be us, Mom and Gabriel and Solaris and Finn and Heidi and James and all of us who have formed a community of friends and families.

It was especially painful a few days ago, when visiting his Ghanaian dad who lives in Virginia, Gabriel attended a black church whose congregation is mostly made up of West African immigrants. He called me up to tell me that two kids at the church saw him and came up to him to tell him: “This is a black church. You are white. What are you doing here?”

Now my son is 8. Some of us can avoid thinking about race every day. Many of us can’t. Called brown among white kids, and white among black kids, my son is already learning to forge an identity for Gabriel that transcends color. He is neither black nor white. He is black and white. He is brown and he is colored. He is the kid who got up early to make me toast on Mother’s Day and picked a giant yellow flower to put on the tray. He loves to study fossils. He feeds his frogs crickets. He is fascinated by magic powers. He is my son, and his father’s. He is himself, he is Gabriel. May he use his own powers to help lead the world to a more understanding place.

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