Sunday, October 17, 2010
Seeing Color through a Generation Gap
Me and Lil Bit at the Nommo Akili Bookclub meeting 10/16/10
Yesterday, I had the pleasure of meeting with the Nommo Akili book club at the Barnes and Noble in Ellicott City, Maryland. The group, which has a couple of dozen members, has been meeting and reading together since 1989. I was thrilled that they had selected "Don't Bring Home A White Boy-- and Other Notions that Keep Black Women from Dating Out" as their bi-monthly selection.
In several of the recent speaking engagements I've done lately, there has been a great deal of interest in the more personal aspects of being in an interracial relationship and of being in a multicultural family. And always, we come back to the children and the questions of identity.
Whether these women-- and these groups have been almost exclusively women--are interracial relationships or not, they face some of the same issues in raising children to be culturally aware in a diverse world that my own family does.
"I know my son will marry a white girl," one woman shared. "And I confess I have mixed feelings about that. I've always put him in mixed race environments and taught him that everyone's the same. But when I'm confronted with his dating choices, I still have feelings. I really want him to bring home a girl who looks like me."
Another said she struggled to make sure her son appreciated what it meant to be a black American, while wondering if her definition really applied to him a rapidly changing world. "To all his friends, race is a big whatever. He has friends from all backgrounds. I keep thinking there's some racist moment out there for him-- subtle or overt-- but it really hasn't happened yet. It makes me wonder if I'm teaching him the right thing. Maybe what it meant for me to be a black American-- a person who was born in the 1960s-- is completely different for someone who was born in the 1990s."
"My daughter thinks I'm racist when I say things like 'look at that cute little white girl'," another woman said. "She's says: 'Mom, can't you just say, isn't that little girl with green dress cute?' Why is everything about color to you?"
I share my own stories-- stories you all have read already-- about the blue contacts and about Sisi's discomfort with the term "African American" cin the context of her friends whose parents are recent immigrants from that continent.
Although we started with the book, our discussion had taken an interesting turn: into a generation gap over black identity, over the definitions of "racist" versus "description" and over the questions of group identification.
We realized sitting there that we had indeed reached a generation gap wtih our children over their perceptions of race, over their definition of black identity, and over their expectations of how it would impact their futures.
As with many shifts of great significance, this gap arises over small matters: descriptions and the use of words, in conflicts over our children's choices of friends, and of course, blue contact lens. But those small things are are actually symbols for a larger shift taking place between those of us who are children of the Civil Rights Era and of the progessive initiatives of integration-- and our children, who consider all of that as ancient history.
This is not to say that they are ignorant of it, or that they are unaware of the tensions that still exist in the world. In fact, they are very aware. They just see different tensions as primary. One woman recounted a recent conversation with her nine year old who identified someone was "gay".
"You mean like 'happy', right?" this mother said, certain that was the only definition of the word in the little girl's universe. "Happy and gay, right?"
"No, I mean like the other way," the little girl said in the most calm and worldly of ways. "The kind that can't get married. Why not, Mom?"
They are very aware. They just see the black and whiteness of it all differently than we do-- and most of that is our own doing, as their parents. Perhaps they have that luxury because they are the children of educated black parents, living in the comfortable (and comparatively wealthy) suburbs of the Nation's Capital? Geography and the opportunities offered by comparative affluence do a lot for one's view of oneself.
And in addition to painting the world according to its possibilities rather than it's limitations, we've done a good job of teaching them that it's character, not color, that defines a person. Can we be upset that they've learned well?
And yet, it sometimes feels like something has been lost. Some idea of community, some group identity that, at least in memory, seems comfortable, nuturing and welcoming. Of course, further examination of that "glowing past" reveals it to be as complex and fraught with discension as any other time, but the idea of "belonging" to a supportive group is a powerful one.
Ultimately, we all create our communities based on the people we are exposed to and the similarities of interest and belief that those people project. In homogenous communities-- whether they be black, white, Asian, Hispanic, Muslim or Christian, gay or straight, those communities are limited and the people may look the same, but they still divide according to their personalities and affinities.
In diverse communities, of course, the groups look different, but the affinities and personalities that attract are the same. Our children celebrate diversity, and in doing so, see the world-- their community-- less in terms of color than we, their parents who lived through very different times, will ever be able to do.