America's Not Here for Us
"Mom-are we still slaves? Do people still hate us, African-Americans?"
Brennan asked me this last week while driving home. A few days before while shopping in HEB, he asked me questions about Abraham Lincoln freeing the slaves, the Civil War, why "brown" people were slaves...the same questions he's been asking me since he learned about all of this and Martin Luther King Jr in kindergarten this year. In the store, I answered them as best I could, bearing in mind to keep it age appropriate, yet honest. I don't believe in glossing over or hiding history from my kids or relying on the public education system to tell one version of it.
However when he asked me in the car if we were still slaves, if people still hated us, I faltered. The only immediate response I had for him was "let's talk about this later with Bertski, ok? I think we should talk about it together, alright?" He agreed and went back to watching Fantastic Four, going back to being the innocent 6-year-old boy I wish he could always be but know he'll grow out of.
I faltered at answering his questions because they caught me between two parts of myself that both bear a particular responsibility. As his mother, I carry the responsibility of trying to keep him as innocent, carefree, and sheltered as possible while encouraging him to grow into who he is, be inclusive with others, and have some responsibility for how he carries himself and interacts with the world around him. I want him to enjoy the freedom that comes with being a child...yet teach him what he needs to know about the world around him in stages of understanding that aren't marred by the ugliness that can come with increased knowledge about the world he lives in and life in general.
But as a woman of color raising an African-American son who has a Puerto-Rican stepfather and half-Puerto-Rican brother, I (and my husband) also bear the responsibility of teaching him about things like racism, white privilege, equality, how black and other brown men have been and still are perceived in American society, and really just about being a person of color PERIOD in the United States of America. I have to explain to him why "peach" people think he looks suspicious even though he might be doing the same exact thing they are doing-walking through a neighborhood, shopping in a store, hanging out with a group of his friends, wearing his favorite hoodie.
As a mother I have to worry about my child's quality of life, his education, his growth as an individual, how he treats others, help him shape a worldview that is hopefully inclusive, healthy, well-rounded, educated, rooted in morality...I have to help him navigate the nuances of engaging with the world around him and the people in it, the ups and downs of life, and everything that comes with being a man. But as the mother of a brown boy in the United States of America in 2013, I also have to worry about how to keep him out of prison, where a disproportionate amount of black and brown males are sent to and reside these days, more so than their white counterparts. I have to worry about him walking down the street or driving in his car and being profiled simply because he is a black male. I have to teach him how to carry himself, talk, express who he is, and how to dress so that he's not viewed as "threatening," "a thug" "a criminal"...."an animal" even.
I have to teach him how to work that much harder than his peers just so he can *maybe* stand a chance at having the same benefits they do. I have to teach him that he can be more than an athlete, a rapper, or some other occupation white people have deemed "ok" for brown people to succeed in. I have to teach him that even if he became the President of our United States, he'd still have to prove himself worthy, articulate, capable, and not some terrorist hell-bent on destroying the country. I have to basically teach him that when he's done his very best, to dig deeper and push harder to do even better because our society (unfairly) demands he be more than just a human being. I have to teach him that because he is not "peach" others will deem him unworthy and dismiss him just by looking upon his face; that they will still feel they have the right to call him a nigger because "that's how they were raised," they "don't mean any harm by it," their black friend says "nigga" and Jay Z & Kanye have a song called "Niggas in Paris."