A few years ago our family was sitting around the dinner table talking about slavery. For those that don’t know, I married a beautiful black woman and we have two handsome and intelligent boys. My oldest son,Tai, is my walking mirror. His personality and quirks were written on his DNA and given to him from me. He is very light skinned like me. Our youngest son, Zion, takes after his mother. His skin matches her mahogany tones.
My wife and I were explaining slavery and how people were seen as property. The slaves were bought and sold like we would buy appliances. We explained that black people were taken from Africa via large ships and shipped to America to do work for other people. Our son’s were listening very intently and asked a lot of questions. It was a good time to help explain the history of African Americans. During the conversation, we explained that the slaves that came from Africa were black and they were owned by their white slave masters.
At this point, Zion’s three year old face light up with revelation, and he said to me. “oh…so you and Tai would’ve owned me and Mommy.”
A burst of laughter rose from my chest involuntarily and jetted out my mouth. My wife and Tai also vomited laughter and Zion sat in the middle looking puzzled.
I had to explain to Zion that his brother and I were not white.
I often reflect on that conversation and wonder just what was going through Zion’s head. Zion has always been a free and different thinker. My wife and I joke that we would love to live five minutes in Zion’s head. It would be a crazy ride for sure.
We have summarized that because Tai and I are so fair skinned that Zion just assumed we were white. He wasn’t alarmed by it and it didn’t seem out of the ordinary for him. It was what is was and that was it. At three years old, genetics doesn’t make sense. So to him having a white father and white brother was normal and he was fine with it.
At three he was conscious of race. Although he had it confused a little, he understood the difference in skin tones. But at that age he saw the difference in skin as only a difference. It had no weight or meaning behind it. It was just like he noticed I was taller than his mother. It was something that made us different.
I walked away from the conversation saying, “Wow… he really thought I was white.” I couldn’t deny I was a little hurt that he didn’t see me as black. Although I am biracial I have always considered myself black because that was how I was perceived by most. There have been several comical incidents where I have been mistaken for Hispanic and one time I was asked if I was Middle Eastern. For the most part I have been seen as black and have embraced that I am black.
The meaning that I attached to skin Zion had not yet been conditioned to do. He didn’t understand that those differences in skin tone will be something that he can’t avoid.
It saddens me that I have to take rob him of this innocence. In a perfect world, I would let him think that skin color is only due to the amount of melanin in his skin and there is nothing attached to it. Unfortunately, the world does attach weight to his skin color and I have to prepare him for that. I have to replace his innocence with knowledge so he can function in a weighted world and I struggle with having to do it.
Racial identity and the meaning of race to a child is essential but just because I am black and my son is black doesn’t make the parenting decision to explain the rules of the world any easier. My wife and I both wrestle with explaining certain things about race to our boys. But we know from our experiences that it is better to prepare them than leave them exposed having to learn these things from the world.