I’m a mother of two, Lorrin, my biological daughter, and Nathan, my “cardiological” son. Unlike his dad, sister, or me, Nate is African American.
I admit I was intimidated to raise a child whose ethnicity differed from mine. I didn’t know what to expect or if I should expect anything at all. I was worried about him feeling alienated, living in a predominantly white state, and losing a culture I could tell him little about.
As Nate grew up, I was surprised just how different he was from, well, everybody. His skin wasn’t the milk chocolate color it is now, but it wasn’t white either and would chap easily. His hair started out soft but grew in thick and wiry and painful when combed.
I was also surprised how much attention my family got whenever we walked into a store. Everyone stopped what he or she were doing and watched us.
Then people would gravitate to touch his hair. They’d come, walking toward him, hand outstretched, eyes unblinking, to run their unknown hands all over his head. That’s when I started putting him in hats.
One day I was shopping at Target and was confronted by an African American woman who yelled at me. She wanted to know who I thought I was bringing up a black child? It caught me off guard, and I almost started to cry. Words skipped my brain and tumbled directly out of my mouth, “Help me,” I said, “what should I be doing?”
We stood, staring uncomfortably at one another. Then the woman nodded. She assessed Nate, took his hat off his head. She told me the shampoo I’d been using was too drying and I needed to invest in a leave-in-conditioner. She noted Nate’s chapped hands and said I needed to use only mild soap and to put Vaseline on him after giving him a bath. I thanked her.
The woman saw I was relieved and pulled me into a hug. She told me I was going to be just fine.
This exchange turned out to be one of the biggest changing points of my motherhood. Why had I treated Nate like his Caucasian sister? Why had I thought hiding anything about him was a way to protect him, anyway?
I realized that Nate didn’t need my protection; he needed me to understand that he was noticeably different and not only was it okay, but that it was absolutely great! Afterward, when we saw people coming down the cereal aisle in a trance, and a hand outstretched to touch his hair, we let them.
Once when Nate was seven-years-old, he asked why so many people looked at him when we went anywhere. I told him it was because he was so beautiful and loveable. Why wouldn’t he believe me? It’s true!
Having a black child has changed my perspective about the people around us as well as their intentions. For the most part, people aren’t racist they’re inexperienced.
When my family and I moved to another city, a kid on Nate’s school bus said his skin looked like mud. All day long Nate thought about this, not sure whether to be offended or not. Later, he told me what had happened and asked if it was true, did his skin look like mud?
I couldn’t ignore the question or disguise the answer in any way—he had been comparing himself to mud all day long—so I said, “Yeah, I guess it is the color of mud. But it’s also the color of chocolate, so which would you like to think of it as?”
Nate answered, “chocolate.” Now I say my family is made up of three white chocolates and a dark chocolate, and that we’re chocoholics at my house. This statement is true.
The child, who pointed out what Nate’s skin color looked like, wasn’t being racist or even insensitive for that matter. He was stating what his experience said was fact. It was how I reacted and what Nate took from it that mattered.
If the woman who yelled at me at Target had offended me, I probably would have continued hiding Nathan in some way or another out of wanting to protect him. Or if I would have reported the boy on the bus in the name of standing up for my son, what I’d be doing is projecting a feeling onto Nate that something was wrong with him. That’s not true!
As parents, we want to do everything we can to make our kids happy—it’s innate! I think the best way to do this is to simply embrace that what makes them so different is also what makes them so great. And rather than using confrontation as a means to stand up for them, we use it to stand next to them while holding their hand.