Monday, October 18, 2010

"Sweet Little Black Boy," part 2

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.


Evelyn said...


Just wanted to share that this post has many similar elements to something we just recently experienced:

Yes, I didn't expect it at three either. :(


Rebecca said...

Thank you for sharing this. The few times I've had people make surprising remarks about Eli, I've frozen. I wish I handled it better. I wish I could educate people more on appropriate things to say. Ben, however, handles things so well. He's confronted people with grace and always protects our boy. I so hope I can prepare myself more so that Eli will always know how much we want to fiercely defend him.

You are a great mom to Abe, and will also be to your little girl.

Christine said...

Hashing it out here and sharing it has been so helpful to me, Lori. I found myself waffling about the woman's meaning, but now that you have made it clear what the issue is, I am also very clear about it. I guess because Abe is three, he's just a baby, I never imagined that it was there, that the 'black boy' thing was really there. I surprise myself sometimes with my wishing it was a different world.

Casa Bicicleta said...

"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."

That's my take away from this blog post. I thank you for sharing this painful and confusing episode and the follow up as well. I have really learned alot from this.

Emma said...

You are right, my experience being referred to as "that white lady" is sor dure not the same. EVen though the woman you met may not have meant anything by it, comments like thta perpetuate problems. I live near NYC and there has been a lot of talk lately about the "stop and frisk" policy enacted after 9/11. Minority males are stopped far more than whites and clearly racial profiling is alive and well.

coffeemom said...

I am so glad you talked to your friend at work. I agree and it's something we've had to deal w/ for years in very subtle ways. And folks have thought we were being oversensitive etc...but the facts are true. We DO need to train our children to the realities in the world and that they might be pulled over for nothing and so on and HOW to react. We can't close our eyes and wish for utopia. It doesn't exist. So we are honest and as fair as we can be, we give the benefit of the doubt when we can (especially in explaining to the kids in private) but we also don't just think it's nothing. It's a tricky surfing that won't end anytime soon. You will do it very well because you care.....
Well done.

Stephanie said...

Perfect! Whenever there's a problem like this, the best person in the world to talk to is someone who is so familiar with the problem that she's gotten all the way to "sigh" and "roll her eyes in exasperation." I'm serious. When a person's all the way to the eye roll, then that person has gone through the shock, and the bewilderment, and the tears, and the anger, and is now in reality and dealing with it.

Yay! That's a woman you want in your corner for sure.

I still say there's no better ambassador for "Your ideas about race and culture are totally screwy but we love you anyway" than Abe - even at three! lol! But you'd better keep up. You need to know what's going on so you can admire his bravery and learn from the very buoyancy you're giving him for the next few decades. (I could hug your coworker! And I'm of the frosty Norse variety - we don't DO hugs.) ;-)

Amy B. said...

Thank you, Lori. Your words ring so true with us too. I struggle and stay up some nights wondering about the future of my children. All moms do, I think. But, when you are raising a child that you know will be the target of keeps you up a whole lot more. I am going to share your writings if that is ok.

Carrie said...

Thank you for posting about this. I never know how to respond when someone says something that they think is well-meant but that comes out more as condescending and biased. Did your co-working have any ideas about to say in that situation?

Claudia said...

I've been out for a while so missed commenting on the original incident. It's so hard to know how to react - and where hte responsibilities lie between educating, walking away, and just slapping. Sounds like you've got some great teachers, though - totally agree with stephanie's point that someone who's already made it to eye rolling is definitely the one you want in your corner!

Julie said...

This reminds me of our Buckwheat incident; a well-meaning stranger. I think we all have to speak up, I'm just not sure how to do it. Maybe you should write the book Lori? I have always seen you treat people beautifully. You could guide us on a gentler, kinder way to inform someone that they are making a racist remark. The title should be, "WWLRD?" What Would Lori Rooney Do?

Anonymous said...

Hmm, I read this last night and wanted to let my brain settle around it. I have to say, I wasn't bothered by the comment about his good behavior. Maybe it's because I could care less about the other kids in the class, but would burst with pride knowing what a good little boy he is (as you already well know).

The first comment, on the other hand, would make my chin fall to the floor. I originally thought you should talk to the teachers, but now think this forum has probably helped you and the rest of us far more than a conversation with a teacher. (That being said, I think something like the "Blissfully Unaware" situation definitely needed to be addressed - holy cow!)

We struggle with the black child in a white world scenario daily. We recently moved our 3 older kids to a magnet school in a realistically racially and economically diverse town near ours (our town couldn't be more "white"). My best friend basically told me that we HAD to stay in town b/c Sophie needs to pave the way for other black children in the schools. #1 - I refuse to force her into being a trailblazer until it's a cause that she is championing and for which I am simply her cheerleader. #2 - there is no way that one "sweet little black" girl (whose entire family is white) is going to make other black families flock to our town to help her be that trailblazer. We couldn't be happier with our choice of this school, but I already dread the day when 8th grade ends and she has to come back to this town for high school (and she's only 3!!). We didn't have this magnet option when she first came home, so I continue to hope that something will just materialize that is a perfect solution for our family. I'm a half-full kind of girl and so far, that mentality has proven to work for our family. Unfortunately, school is only one tiny aspect of her life as an African-American child in our family. I hope I'm never under-sensitive or even over-sensitive in a way that negatively affects her. There will be so many situations in our children's lives to which we can directly relate. I can only hope that people like you keep blogging to help me through those ones for which I have no intimate experience and that will be much harder to tackle!!

Anonymous said...

This post and conversation is so helpful, and I'd really like to know what your coworker or others would say, like the actual dialogue. I know that sounds silly...but I don't know how I would start my response , and "are you frigging kidding me" doesn't seem like a good start.

"Are These Kids All Yours?" said...

YIKES!! Have never heard this? Of course our family alone has several children all have dark skin- and we have light skin.

It also helps that we live in an area where our children blend in! Praise God for this.