I thought I could somehow shield my child from the ugly truth of racism just a little longer. But as a very public incident at Fenway showed, I was wrong.
Up to now, I’ve almost completely avoided discussing racism — or even race at all — with Nile. I know it’s something that will affect his life, but I also strongly feel that it’s just not his problem, at least not yet. He’s 5 years old. Until a year ago, he described people as “blue” or “gray” or “purple,” depending on the color of the shirt they were wearing. Recently, he’s begun noticing differences in skin color, but his descriptions are childlike and precise, and have nothing to do with the over-simplified labels and complex histories that inform grown-up conversations about race. Nile says that he’s “tannish,” that my wife is “brownish,” and that I am “kind of pinkish.” He notices that his mother has braids, that my hair is straight, and that he and his sister both have curls. It hasn’t occurred to him — because why would it? — that anyone might use these distinctions as an excuse to treat some people differently from others.
It’s impossible right now to know what sort of impact race will have on Nile’s sense of identity, or how it will circumscribe his ability to move through the world as he pleases. It is my whitest, most naive hope that my son will never have to worry about racism at all. I hope that we’ll make progress quickly enough that racism won’t affect him, or that he’ll be light-skinned enough that it won’t affect him, or that he’ll always be well dressed and well spoken enough for it not to affect him. I make up all sorts of reasons — the diversity of our community, the liberal politics of our state — that racism won’t touch my son in the way it’s touched virtually every person of color who’s ever lived in America.
“Twice as Good”
If you are a Black person over the age of 55, being told that in order to be successful, over and over again that you have to be “twice as good” was a mantra that came from parents, church, school. You inherently understood this message. It lived with you most of the time in study and other endeavors, as you entered a new world brought on my the civil rights movement. In many ways, the message translated into “twice as good and twice as right”. Overachievement and a lifetime of seeking perfection. Never letting up, always winning. Always running as hard as you can to beat the odds and avoid failure.
The mantra popped up in a recent episode of the ABC series, “Scandal” in a scene with Olivia Pope, the main character who is a “political crisis fixer” and her Father, Rowan, a powerful Washington insider. In this scene, he reiterates what we were all told, you have to be “twice as good to get half of what they have”. We were told this, even when our parents had no idea of what the really had. They did know, however, how far they were willing to go to keep it for themselves and from us.
I watched it with great interest, seeing yet again the damage that we inflict on our children in our quest to prove that being Black deserves respect, and that we are worthy. In the quest to prepare our children, foster their survival, prepare them for the duality and inequities, and on-slaughter . . . just what are we to do as parents?
The “brown-eyes” parents in the Jane Elliott exercises have no idea the corner in which Black parents have to paint their children to meet the challenges of race discrimination and the realities of an endless battle against white privilege in order to win.
For many Blacks, the “twice as good” worked. I wonder often at what price ?