At work this morning, I asked a favorite coworker if I could tell her about what happened in the park this weekend. I relayed the story in a "just the facts, ma'am" style so that I could see her honest response. She is African, as is nearly everyone else at this office.
When I got to the "sweet little black boy" line, she sighed and rolled her eyes, exasperated. Apparently she's familiar with the experience.
We had an amazing conversation about it. She told me about a few incidences her children experienced in their mostly-white school in their mostly-white neighborhood. She gave wonderful advice on how to deal with it with grace. She doesn't let it go. If it affects her children, it affects her.
I so needed her to help me articulate what it was exactly about the seemingly well-meaning comment by the lady in the park that so rubbed me the wrong way. I told her what Stephanie and Joy wrote in a comment to my last post, that what bothered me is that she seemed to be putting my son into an unnecessary box or a category. Children don't do this. At least not at age three. They are all each other's friends. Period. It's the adults who need to start putting people in categories, not the children. And I know it's going to happen at some point in our childrens' lives; I just wasn't expecting it to happen at age three.
My coworker said that this is exactly why it rubbed me the wrong way. When I asked her to explain why I wouldn't feel bothered if people at work called me "the sweet white lady," she brought up the history in this country with "black boys." It's not a good history. Sweet white ladies have had it pretty good. Sweet black boys haven't. As she said, that history is there. It just is, and maybe with enough time and generations to pass, that dark history might fade, but now, it hasn't. Referring to a child as "black boy" brings connotations of a darker time, whether the lady in the park realized it or not.
My coworker also told me about how she teaches her children never to act in violence, no matter the situation because, as she said, "That's how society expects you to react" as black youth.
The whole situation has reminded me of a conversation some relatives and I had this summer about the state of racism in our city. One relative thought there was no more racism (bah!) and even told me that I was going to raise our son to have a "chip on his shoulder" because of my "oversensitivity." Well, the facts are that in our city, young black males get pulled over by the police exponentially more than young white males. The fact is that just this year, a few of these young black, unarmed males have been fired at by the police. The fact is that an old lady in our part of town sent out a neighborhood alert a couple of years ago because she saw a young man who she described as looking black or latino "casing" the neighborhood; she added, "he definitely looked like he did not belong here." The only thing this old lady had to go on was the man's dark skin. Nothing else. He was probably just walking to his bus stop, minding his own business.
In ten years, when our son is walking to middle school, is he going to have the police called on him because he looks like he doesn't belong? Call me oversensitive. That's fine. But I know the facts of our city, and my job as a parent is to protect my child from harm and prepare him to be a responsible citizen. The fact is that the standard for young black males is higher. My African coworker this morning affirmed this to be true.
I am digressing. These are the thoughts that occupy my mind a lot of the time. As a parent in a transracial family, I would be negligent not to consider these things seriously.
As my coworker said this morning, it's our job to educate those who use disrespectful, hurtful or patronizing language. We should assume the best about people who say such things, while letting them know how their choice of words makes the person-of-color feel. As the parent of an African child, I've known that this day would come. I guess I just wasn't expecting it to begin so soon.