When I was a child, my parents did not talk about race. They did not talk about black people or white people or or any other group of people. Therefore, they also did not talk about how these groups dress, look, act, talk, and are “supposed to be.”
This does not mean that my parents did not talk about their life experiences, though these discussions happened when I was a teenager. I can remember a few times when my mom talked about desegregation, which occurred when she was in high school, or how some of her relatives were so light that they could pass as white people. One relative was in the Coast Guard, and no one knew he was actually a black man. Other relatives could try on hats in stores without placing a piece of paper between their heads and the hat. Once, my dad mentioned that when his family took long car drives, they packed food because they could not stop at certain restaurants along the way. The stories they shared were nestled into historical contexts, and therefore, they were not designed to shame any particular group. My parents simply stated what happened.
Because my parents did not talk about race, I learned about it at school. My first encounter was in the first grade. I remember standing by a bookshelf with a poster taped on the side. It said something about friendship, and two characters shaped like jellybeans, which had eyes and stick figure legs and arms, were featured on it. One jellybean was tall, lean and purple, the other was short, stumpy and yellow. Looking back, this poster was obviously a commentary on diversity in friendship.
My classmate and I stood beside this poster. She asked me very directly, “Are you mixed?” I had no idea what she meant.
“Mixed?” I thought. “What does that mean?” Then, I gave her the answer I thought she was looking for, “Yes.”
Others asked me the same question in elementary school, and still not understanding what they meant, I responded in the same fashion: I provided the answer I thought my classmates wanted to hear.
I was in the eighth grade when I realized why people asked me if I was mixed. I was at a family reunion in North Carolina standing beside a cousin. Our arms were close together, and I stopped to consider our complexions. Suddenly, I understood, “I’m so light. I thought I blended in with everyone else. I stick out so much.”
I was shocked, disappointed, and felt rather silly. I felt different in a way I had not before. I didn’t feel like I blended into my black extended family, which I really wanted to do, or like I blended in with my white friends anymore. I felt like I was in limbo, and on many days, I still feel that way.
Also, why had it taken me so long to consider how light I am? I wondered if that made me naïve, but looking back, I think it was a blessing because I could form my opinions about race on my own terms. Besides, I grew up in a family in which various shades of blackness was normal, and I wasn’t taught to regard our family as an anomaly. My core family is a variety of colors ranging from lightly tan to pecan tan, which is what my mother calls my dad.
As a kid, I knew we were black—it was what we checked on forms—but other than that, I never considered that my skin tone would confuse the outside world. That it would make people think random things like I was dating my brother or even married to my father because they are much darker than me. I didn’t realize that people wouldn’t look beyond our skin tones and see that our noses and cheekbones are structured similarly. I didn’t consider that all they would see was color.
When I was in college, Barack Obama ran for president, and race emerged into the sociopolitical arena more than it ever had in my lifetime, and people I respected suddenly expressed opinions about race that baffled and offended me. I asked my mom, “Why didn’t you and dad talk about race when we were growing up?”
She responded, “Because my parents didn’t.”
I was partially satisfied with her response. I liked that her family didn’t fuel racial stereotypes at home and that my parents continued that tradition, but I wondered if they should have prepared me.
When Donald Trump ran for president, the race issue exploded again, and I asked my mom the same question as she stood in front of the kitchen sink wearing yellow rubber gloves. “Why didn’t you and dad talk about race when we were kids?”
“Because my parents didn’t,” she said. “And because you would see how people were.”
Have I seen how people are? I think so. I have had a fair share of encounters with racism that made me realize that we are all raised differently and develop notions about “the other,” whether “the other” be white, brown, yellow, black, rich, poor, or any other classification. I’ve encountered many people of all backgrounds who’ve projected the stereotypes they learned onto me. (I talk about my experiences with racism in “Racism in America: The Wound that Festers.”)
I often wonder what I will say to my kids. Will I not talk about race and allow them to learn about it for themselves? Or, will I warn them that some people will carry unfair notions about the color of their skin and that they must learn to navigate those encounters with wisdom and grace?
If our country continues to segregate along the lines of race, I may have to break the family tradition.