The first time I ever remember making a distinction between “black people” and “white people” in my young mind was when I was about four years old. My mother was on the phone, and the subject came up between her and person on the other end of the line. It was never meant for my ears, but I picked up on it anyway. I guessed correctly that the “black” people they were talking about were the new neighbors who lived on the street just beyond the cul-de-sac. Of course, I saw the obvious error in that label right away. According to the Crayola 8 Pack I had spilled out on the table in front of me, those people were not “black”. They were brown. It struck me as kind of odd that grown-ups were failing to make this distinction. As I reached to grab one of the crayons, I noticed something else: a tiny freckle on my hand. A tiny brown freckle. Then it hit me that if I were that color all over, people would call me black! (And they would be wrong, because I would clearly be brown.)
I was soon to learn, as everyone has to, that it’s a lot more complicated than that.
As a true homeschool parent, my mother never believed in taking long weekends at the drop of a hat. Instead of letting us play in the snow all day, she used Martin Luther King Jr. Day as an opportunity to teach us about Dr. King and the changes he brought about in society. I was amazed at how many changes he helped bring about and how many injustices made them necessary. The message really hit home when my mother mentioned that the small town she grew up in had an anti-black ordinance on the books well into the 1960s. That news came as a shock to me because this is a small Northern town we’re talking about. In Illinois. With a Lincoln-slept-here house. Yeah, it was that complicated, and I realized it must still be, because I’ve never to this day seen a “black” or “brown” face in that little town.
As I grew up, the population of my own hometown shifted and racial tensions increased. People who had before been silent on the issue started reminiscing about how much easier it was to find jobs and safe housing when our city was “mostly white”. History taught me that they were fantasizing rather than reminiscing. Mid-sized industrial cities in the Midwest were almost never “mostly white”, and this one is no exception. The golden age that they spoke of was just a time when people of all races were more honest and better-employed, I thought.
Fast forward to my college years. I’m sitting at a table at a Greek Restaurant somewhere in the vicinity of Hull House, which we just toured. “We” consisted of a group of my fellow college students, my sister, a red-haired professor, and his two boys, who happen to be African-American. To pass the time before their food came, the two boys played I-spy with us. It was going like any normal game of I-spy, until the younger one said, “I spy with my little eye something . . . white!”
“Is it the flag?” we asked.
“Is it the tile?”
“Is it the sauce on that Gyro?”
“OK – we give up. What is it?”
“Your shirt?” someone asked innocently.
“No.” He said, pointing to the white of his eye.
I couldn’t believe it. Two kids raised in completely different families, twenty years apart, on opposite ends of the spectrum as it were, and we arrived at the same conclusion.
Of course, he already knew it was much more complicated than that. Can you image the kind of looks some people must have given him when he called a white man “Dad”? An Asian child wouldn’t get the same looks for calling someone like me “Mom”, and by “someone like me”, I mean a tallish pale person with wide eyes and a prominent nose. The realization eventually struck me that both types of mixed families would have been unusual in my grandparent’s era. This of course begs the question: what will the next fifty years bring?
The “kids” of my generation are slowly becoming parents. We were raised with Reading Rainbow, The Cosby Show, Corduroy, and Martin Luther King Jr. Day. We will know better than to give funny looks or make shallow judgements about “unusual” families, right? Maybe, but there are still many ways we could go wrong. It’s still a complicated world, and the population shifts and unemployment problems of my early teens are still with us, as are the tensions they bring. How will we explain all this to the next generation? How will we enlighten them without corrupting them? I don’t have the answer to these questions, but something tells me it might lie in our earliest conclusions. Every race contains parts of another race – parts that can never be removed. In some cases, these parts make us neighbors and friends. In other cases, they make us family. In all cases, they make us human. Even a child understands that.