Talking About Martin Luther King Jr. and Race With My Biracial 5 Year Old
It’s interesting being a parent of biracial children in that -- like with most things with motherhood -- I’m fumbling around in the dark.
Digging through my five-year-old’s backpack, I ran across a worksheet on Martin Luther King, Jr. Curious, I asked him what he learned about King in school.
He told me that white people used to not let brown people do things, and King made a lot of white people mad because he was helping the brown people.
Hmmm. Well, kinda.
Since my husband is a blond-haired blue-eyed Norwegian and I am a black girl from Kansas, I’m always curious as to how our biracial kids perceive themselves when it comes to race. So the conversation began on this day as it has many times before:
“Do you know any brown people?” I asked.
He rolled his eyes and pointed at the chocolate side of my hand. “You.”
“Do you know any white people?”
He smiled: “Daddy!”
“Right.” And then I waited. I waited because usually at this point in the conversation, he gives me a glimpse into his curious little mind.
“Mommy, am I one of the brown people who can’t do anything or the white people who get to do everything?”
My heart sank a little. All the talks we’ve had about the importance of content of character, how President Barack Obama had a white parent and a brown parent, the books we’ve read about King, Rosa Parks, Obama and kids of every hue and belief. Did they not stick?
My niece and nephew are also biracial and they’re college students. I admire how their generation doesn’t seem to feel the need to check the white or the brown box. They are who they are and that’s it. I too am trying to keep my kid “box-free” while also instilling a sense of knowing where one came from.
That’s why my response to whether he was brown or white was another question: “What do you think?”
He studied the backside of his hand. “I am both, it’s like a mix.”
“You’re right!” It’s true, he is. His caramel-colored skin and loose and profuse sandy brown curls are a perfect blend of my husband and me.
“What if I was on a bus though, would I have to sit with the white people or the brown people?”
“Uhhh,” I admit, I fumbled for words. He’s five years old. I want to protect him from the ugliness of racism. But I don’t want to lie to him as there’s no stronger weapon against racism and other ignorance than the truth. But, really, he’s five. It’s not like it’s time to have The Talk, which for generations has been a rite of passage for many brown boys.
Thankfully, my husband came to the rescue.
“Well then, we’d move to Norway!”
The conversation then moved elsewhere, but inside I wondered. Why had I stalled? I’m a parent who prides herself on her candid and honest relationship with her kids, why did I fumble to tell my baby had he been born in another time he’d be in the back of the bus with his mama?
I’m not ashamed of our history, quite the opposite in fact, but there’s something about telling your child that he was viewed/could be still viewed as a second-class citizen. I never want him to feel “less than,” but I also want him to know of his rich history, both the African-American and the Norwegian.
Later that evening, unsatisfied with how I handled it, I brought up the issue again.
“Remember when we were talking about segregation and you asked me if you would sit in the front of the bus or in the back of the bus?”
“You’d be in the back with mama.”
His eyes widened.
The words spilled out: “But that’s only because of those old rules. What really matters about a person is what’s in his heart and in his mind. The color of their skin doesn’t matter, we all just have to be good to each other and know that as long as you put in the hard work, you really can do whatever you want. I mean, look, Barack Obama would have been sitting in the back of the bus with you and your mama.”
His eyes widened again.
“But now, because of people like Martin Luther King, those rules have changed.”
Then to drive home the point, I used the six-lettered s-word in our home that is considered profane.
“And besides, those rules were really, really stupid.”