At our engagement party, my mother-in-law gave me two little
dolls. Action figures posed on a boat—the Love Boat, of course. The female doll was
black and the man, white. They were cute, these Mini Wes, and I treasured them
instantly. When I was pregnant with our son, my mother-in-law giddily handed
over the additions to the doll collection: two babies in carriers. She had been
holding onto them for over three years. The girl baby, dressed in pink
everything, is black, while the boy is blond and sports a tiny blue outfit.
"That's all they had," she said, with a mix of annoyance and
disappointment (aimed at the toy manufacturers, I gathered).
One day our son, now 4 years old, was playing with the figures,
bending their legs, twisting their arms, and taking them to see the wooden
elephant at the zoo. He pointed to the doll family, "That's you, mama.
That's daddy. And ... " he paused, looking at the two babies carefully, "this is me." He pointed to the blond.
I asked him why he chose that one, trying to sound as
innocuous as possible while my heart raced and thoughts like, "We never
should've left diverse Brooklyn for central Connecticut—it's 82.3 percent white
here!" trampled over my good sense.
His answer to my potentially loaded question was casual and
plain, "Because this is the boy, Mom! And I'm a
boy." (Thankfully he's not yet old
enough to add in a salty, "Duh!")
I've thought a lot about race and identity as it relates to my kid even before he was born. Now that he's here, I still have questions. More specific, I have questions about how to prepare my son for The Question, that wildly disorienting question people of mixed ancestry will certainly face: What Are You?
As this kid moves (too quickly, sometimes) out of toddlerhood,
making a fast break toward Little Kid Ville, he's able to follow, interpret
and reason more. Along with an ever-expanding vocabulary, there's also a level
of cognition that surprises me daily. Yes, he's capable of understanding layered
things like how the seasons, sun and moon, and the year's calendar relate to
each other, but could he also grasp a more nuanced and intricate concept like race?
It's certainly not as simple or literal as black and white, and the only clear
thing about race is that it's often a murky subject for adults, too. How, then,
do I introduce it to a fresh, bright mind? Do I enter it by talking about skin
color or should I put the focus on cultural awareness instead?
Who knows what this kid will wonder about, regarding his identity and place in this world?
Granted, right now for a child his age the main difference in
people seems to be that boys have penises and girls do not. He's also noticed
that some of his friends have straight hair while others have curly 'dos like
him. Outside of that, I don't think any other variations register with the
little guy. My introducing all these other textures might confuse more than
enlighten, and the answer to this crucial question of identity—one that he
essentially needs to figure out for himself—doesn't need more convolutions.
I think about the reaction my Asian friend got from the 4-year-old
niece of her white fiancé when she said to the girl, in passing, "Did you know
I'm Chinese?" The little girl's eyes grew into moons, my friend said. It was if
she had said, "Did you know I'm a princess?" The girl was baffled, evidenced by
her followup question, "But why are you Chinese?"
Yeah, for some, 4 might be a tad young to broach this
potential Rubik's Cube. The best I can do is cobble together a plan—or at least
a raw blueprint—for when that part of my son's curiosity clicks on and he comes
up with his own questions and thoughts on race. From there, I'll play it as it
comes. Who knows what this kid will wonder about regarding his identity and
place in this world? However, I do know one thing: We won't be traveling down
the "we don't see color" road, because
that's venturing into the absurd and simply untrue.
I'll aim to be as open and forthcoming as I can be while
remembering one key point: I know what it's like to be a black person, my husband knows
what it's like to be a white person, but neither of us knows what it means to be
both of these things at once.