Was he black or white?

As a middle-class black woman, I've had to deal with the intricacies of racial consciousness my entire life. Now my sons are part of an idealistic generation that believes race doesn't matter. Which of us is right?

Published May 9, 2005 6:55PM (EDT)

A few years ago, my sons and I were having dinner when Sam, who was then eight years old, told us about Dominick, a second-grade classmate known for his disruptive antics. When the Spanish teacher's back was turned, Dominick would rise and canter about the classroom, twirling an invisible lasso above his head. A God-fearing child, he punctuated the close of the circle with a rip-roaring "Hallelujah!" My six-year-old, Spenser, and I fell out laughing as Sam mimicked Dominick's escapades. When the laughter died down, a termite-sized query gnawed at me, so I asked, "Is Dominick black or white?"

Silence. Sam and Spenser looked at each other, a tacit conference. They were closing ranks and taking arms.

"What difference does it make?" Sam asked.

"It doesn't make any difference. I just want to know," I replied.

"But everybody's the same. So it doesn't matter." Spenser now.

"I'm just curious."

"Why're you curious?" Sam asked.

"Because I want to know." Great storm clouds thundered across their shared gaze: Mommy is a racist.

"I just want to be able to picture what was happening, that's all. Now, was he white or black?"

They crossed their arms. I crossed my legs. The stir-fry curdled. Everybody pushed back from the table. I drew the ace card: "I'm your mother. Tell me now."

Even as the conversation unfolded, I knew that it would change us. It was a turning point in the compass of our relationship: a black mother and her children having careless fun, and then the issue of race spins us clockwise or counter -- I'm still not sure which. That night, I stumbled upon the mores of a new generation that believed -- they didn't just say it, they believed -- that race didn't matter. My children's utter faith in this impressed me. They exhibited unwavering conviction and -- warming to a mother's heart, if contrary to my will -- they were fierce allies, utterly united. They fought me (me!) for an ideal world where they were ultimately human, and race was simply not worth mentioning. I had discovered the vast new territory of their idealism, as unspoiled and fertile as the Americas must have been to explorers of yore. Appraising that Xanadu, I stuck my flag of racial awareness deep and declared it mine. Is my influence civilizing or am I -- a black woman, the earth's earth mother -- just another conquering barbarian? I wonder still.

Sam, ever loyal to his mother, gave in. "He was black."

That's what I thought.

"You see?" I said brightly. "It's really no big deal." I shrugged elaborately, but I could see they didn't believe me. One of the veils from behind which we mothers appear so perfect had slipped away that evening. They saw me a mite more clearly as a flawed and perhaps even dangerous person.

Look, we all do it, don't we? We take note of who does what and what color they are, comparing them to what we know and expect, sizing them up to our understanding of their kind, the world. My sons felt that the mere mention of race poised one, teetering, on the slippery slope to bigotry. I did not agree. It's human nature to form some lexicon for understanding other people, and race -- a sociological construct, not a scientific term -- has traditionally been one. We use it to help us get a handle on the situation, to think we know whom we're dealing with.

It is how we behave when our attitudes and expectations go unmet -- when the person standing before us has defied the rules that supposedly define his or her group -- that tests us. It is the line of demarcation between how much we are trying to understand the world and how much we are trying to make it conform to our understanding.

When a white workman I called to fix a broken pane of glass arrives and rings our bell, he stares angrily at me for answering the door. He did not expect me. He has taken note of what is on the news, what he has heard and observed. He thought black people were in the ghetto and laid claim to an assumption that he is not entitled to but made him more at home in the world.

Nobody takes note of race more than we African Americans. A particularly gruesome crime occurs -- the killing rampage of the "D.C. sniper," for instance. The tacit but almost universal assumption among blacks was that the sniper must be white "'cause we don't roll like that." The idea that blacks were less prone to this kind of crime made us feel safer, even morally one-up to whites. When the sniper turned out to be black, we found ourselves more vulnerable to the idea that we, too, can produce and be victimized by serial killers.

African Americans feel the loss of these assumptions acutely. Our habits and cultural predilections have traditionally been our fortress, where we could feel at ease in a hostile land. To preserve that sense of security, we can be merciless enforcers of the rules: Our speech, dress, interests are expected to conform to the topography of "blackness" as we know it. In my mid-twenties, I attended the family reunion of a black friend and when asked how I wanted my steak prepared, I requested it medium rare. "Oooooh," a woman ejaculated, a sirenlike noise assuring that all eyes would turn in our direction. "Only white folks like their meat rare. We black folks like our meat well done."

My life has been incalculably altered by the fact of race. I am not angry about it; being born black in 1961 to educated, ambitious, and committed parents, I led a life that was in many ways charmed. I was poised to take advantage of the movements -- civil rights, women's liberation, affirmative action -- that provided opportunities my ancestors had dared not dream of. From the beginning, I sensed that it would be my generation's challenge to fully tame the wilderness of race, to build a "settlement" for blacks in America where we could completely embrace ourselves. That step taken, we could stand as equals and embrace others regardless of their skin color. It is a journey that generations before me initiated and one that I continue now as a mother. Having taken up those reins, I have turned often for direction from the map my parents drew for me, veering from it as needed.

My parents, who bore the burdens of growing up in segregation, raised us according to the exacting gaze of the white eyeball. They knew that to get ahead, we would have to be fluent in classical music, ballet, everything in the European tradition -- to show white America we knew what counted. Fervent integrationists, my parents resembled most ambitious black people of the Greatest Generation. They resented, feared, and always distrusted whites, but noted that the rare black person crowned as worthy was the anti-black, so they poured us into that mold. There were costs in many families. Nightmarish, secret costs: "too dark" siblings being marginalized; the very light ones passing into oblivion as they passed for white. And always, no matter what your shade, there was the pressure to conceal your interest in "black" things: tap dancing, basketball, gospel music.

The pressure to assimilate mounted after we moved from a street of respectable, middle-class Negroes in Cleveland to the predominantly white, affluent suburb of Shaker Heights in 1971. We lived in the center of town, so far from the vast majority of black families that we often felt like exiles in a strange, lovely Siberia. I suppose that is why, on Sundays, my dad would often listen to black gospel music on the radio. It was, in part, the black church and the influence of black music that enabled him to rise from being a poor foster child to a successful internist. While he and Mother knew we had to move up -- and urged us to adopt the "white" interests and mannerisms and friends to do so -- my dad quietly resented that certain "black" things would necessarily be jettisoned along the way: gospel music and a whole array of high-cholesterol foods among them. That music -- like the smell of chitlins cooking -- sent us kids diving under pillows. The sound molested us, leaving echoes of guilt and confusion. It made us uncomfortable. The more uncomfortable we were, the louder Dad played it. One day -- I might have been fourteen then -- a screaming fight broke out between my father and mother because Dad was playing gospel music so loud that it seemed our white neighbors (a Cleveland Clinic doctor, a law firm partner) could hear. Mother marched downstairs, snapped off the radio, and cursed Dad out in tones so voluble, I couldn't help but wonder why it didn't concern her that the neighbors might hear that. Eventually, Dad stopped listening to gospel music. Eventually, he stopped coming home. He had a life we children knew very little about -- one that included a "blackness" my mother despised and was determined, not altogether without cause, to banish from our lives.

Truthfully, I don't think my parents ever felt completely comfortable with or even fully recognized the complex duality of our lives, or the toll that never fitting into either world would take on us children. They had tried to give us a better life and were confused by our flailing, identity struggles and discontent. Who and what was responsible for our unhappiness remains a source of division in our family even now. There was then and remains today only one gospel song to which we collectively knew all the words, and sang and danced to with abandon every Saturday night. It was "Movin' On Up," the theme to "The Jeffersons."

As an adolescent in Shaker Heights, I tried to plot some middle ground between excelling like the white kids and being accepted -- or at least left alone -- by the black kids. At that time, there was no such Promised Land. So I conceived of my survival as a game: the Race Game. You pick up a card, a behavior or circumstance is described, you have to guess the race of the individuals involved. Sometimes I played for fun; sometimes I played as if my life depended upon it. White people often refer to the "race card," the excuse that blacks supposedly hold at the ready to explain away our failures. But for my generation, the first to embark upon the brave new world of integration, the Race Game was much more complex: an obstacle course, as intricate as chess, more exhausting than Monopoly.

Playing the game, I used my experience to guess not just who was what but how those people might think, feel, react. To hear the silent subtext, anticipate the racial insult that comes seemingly out of nowhere to hijack you, hold you back, put you in your place. Sometimes I still find myself playing it, though I also long for what is instinctive to my children: the freedom to take someone, anyone, at face value.

One day, in junior high school, I hear a group of students enter the school library -- cursing, bellowing, cackling -- and I don't even have to peek between the stacks to know: They are black. They won't linger here, but while they do, I stay hidden.

Years later, in my thirties, I am in a boutique on the Upper East Side of New York, and the well-heeled shop ladies are discussing some missing stock: ankle bracelets, cute erasers, kitschy stuff. I bristle, expecting an accusation. The owner senses this and explains with an indulgent laugh, "This time of year the girls from such-and-so academy come in and take things, a springtime ritual of the senior class." I don't have to wonder: These girls are white and rich. The offense that I had anticipated did not come, and the owner knew to explain the situation: move ahead one step. But because these girls are privileged and white, their crime will be dismissed as a prank: move one step back.

That incident recalled a family discussion about race in my own childhood, when my sisters, who were attending the Hathaway Brown School for Girls in the early 1970s, came home with a similar story. They were slightly breathless and impressed with the exploits of the white girls -- their friends -- who regularly shoplifted at local pharmacies. My parents, astonished by the idea that shoplifting was an amusing pastime and frightened that my sisters were impressed with it, launched into a harangue on how we could not -- should never even consider -- doing what they did. We were angry at their tirade, an anger that would magnify through the years as we attended schools with well-to-do whites only to be reminded that we did not have their privileges, their safety net, their freedom. Our parents would continue to insist, often at the point where we were our most daring or inventive, to take note of how differently things can be interpreted when color is involved -- their message aim high always diluted by the warning but don't forget that you're black. It was enough to radicalize many black children like us into the very militancy that our opportunities were supposed to render moot.

This is the part of the game that feels like Russian roulette: participate, work hard, move up, but act too much like everyone else and you risk losing everything. My husband, who was also educated in private schools and colleges, tells me that in the corporation where he now works, black people do not feel they have the same latitude as their white co-workers to read the newspaper half the day or "work from home." He is ever mindful of the way standards may unexpectedly shift when it comes to him, to us.

When I met him in law school, he was an artful tactician of pleasantness, managing to get along with everyone -- black or white, radical or conservative. But after years in the corporate world, I have seen him develop a rigid, potent suspicion and an impatience with the children's belief that they are no different from anyone else. When our son Spenser wanted to be in the same class as his best friend, Seth (who is white), with a teacher his father and I know to be a racist (though white parents think she is superb), I was astonished when his father exploded, "What works for Seth will not work for you!" Spenser appealed to me with tear-filled eyes.

"You must trust us," I sighed. "We know the score." By the end of the year, Spenser's encounters with the teacher at school were enough to make him glad he wasn't in her class. He came around to our way of seeing things. You cannot win the game with your eyes shut.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Of course, times are mostly better now, so are we wrong to pass down this sensitivity to our children -- so ready, willing, and able to greet all with open arms? Am I, mired forever in racialized thinking, dragging Sam and Spenser down with me? If I am on the side of caution, do I err? Will we all ever get beyond race if we don't stop making so much of it? Isn't there room for reckless idealism? If the Dominick of Sam's long-ago story had been white, I would have disapproved, but laughingly, part of me admiring the spirit -- and envying the freedom -- that it takes to be an irrepressible cutup. But because he was black, Dominick's bad behavior raised the ante and my antennae. I was less amused, more cautious, afraid for him and my sons and all the black boys who are too quickly discarded as trouble. As my parents had with me, I wanted Dominick to march boldly into the world, but not to take too many liberties, not to go too far. I've decided that a rigid, unedifying color blindness cannot reign in my house. It is by taking note of race and all that accompanies it -- the assumptions, the stereotypes flying to and fro like flaming arrows -- that we can achieve a transcendental compassion, a unifying respect for the power of experience. People are people, there's no doubt about it, but you have to understand why things are the way they are. Not to take note of race or, more important, discuss it, would leave my sons in the dark. They must know where they stand and what to look out for, welcoming the surprise of those who reject the rules attached to skin color because to cleave to them would frustrate their inner truth. Luckily for my children, those rules are eroding, but they will endure if not consciously challenged.

Now twelve, Sam attends a summer camp for the academically gifted. He asks me, "Why are so many of these kids Asian and Indian?" The first time he asked, I ducked the question, not wanting to deal with all that it dredged up -- the unpleasant racial competitiveness (we were here long before them), the bitterness of the black bourgeoisie toward blacks who, for myriad reasons, languish. But the second time he asked, I knew he wanted an answer, and why not? I have taught him to take note, and the exercise does not end with the observation. So I said, "In Asian and Indian cultures, learning has always been an activity for the elite and revered, and in America they know it is the key to upward mobility. For African American slaves, it could mean death, and until my generation, many blacks considered education worthless, since blacks were excluded from most gainful employment. Even today, higher education can have the effect of isolating many blacks from their community, leaving them to exist on the margins of a white society that is not yet fully inclusive." We talk and talk about the cultural differences, values and attitudes that are inculcated over time and passed down to one generation from the next. And the talking continues.

The years since our conversation about the unruly Dominick have fermented deeper queries, ones that I also struggled with while growing up, playing the Race Game. Who does what and why? And, most critically: Where do I fit in? The last question is the toughest to answer. Are you going to cling to the status quo, internalize the stereotypes and traditions? To be "truly black," will you avoid sushi, decline steak tartare? Or, because they symbolize the "non-black," dine on them until you are nauseated? To racially deny or neuter oneself, even to get ahead, exacts too high a price. I have searched for some compromise that embraces the reality of race but that challenges it too; one that leaves my children and me free to pursue a personal dimension but that sustains a keen political awareness of who we are, where we come from, and why.

I despised my parents for their mixed messages, the sleight of hand that always left us looking for the kernel of who we were under the shell of who we would never be. But now I appreciate that born of my parents' insistence on "white" things came a sense of new possibilities for me (proving, I suppose, the bromide that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger). Without their passionate, demanding myopia, I don't think I could have seen that I didn't have to wear the straightjacket of my color. Even as I sputtered and floundered in synchronized swimming and ran half-heartedly across the tennis court, I grew more confident in my determination that I didn't have to cast myself according to "script": to be a bump-dancing, loud-talking, finger-snapping black girl. If I could endure the unavoidable discomfort, the never fitting in or measuring up, I could go anyplace, learn anything, pick and choose from a constellation of behaviors and interests. I was free to explore my own way to becoming me.

For a while in college, I slipped and slid between an angry, brittle exclusion of white folks and a keen desire to find in my black compatriots -- smart kids who, in private schools and tony suburbs, were often lonely like me -- a sense of racial and personal unity. But I grew uneasy when my roommates, bourgeois black girls from nice homes, joined a black pride organization that required them to do penance for their light skin and privilege. It seemed plain crazy when they complied with the demands of the grand poo-bah to shave their "damnable" processed hair to "make up for" their tawny skin and privileged backgrounds. I believed that the people who ran this group were angry and disenfranchised. They were manipulating my roommates not because they were believers in black power, but because they were jealous and insecure. I had noted that even with whites out of the equation, the issue of race still dogged us: What was "black enough"? Who was "black enough"?

I slowly emerged from the cocoon we black students had created for ourselves in the misguided belief that we'd be safe from prejudicial judgments. I moved into a different suite and began talking to white students again. In time I realized that many people could teach me about who I was, and with that knowledge I shaped my future. To exclude anyone along the way would be to limit my own journey. In the end, it was at Harvard, ironically, that I enjoyed being black more than I had since I was a child in Cleveland. I had fun -- lots of heartfelt and genuine fun, with Donna Summer, Aretha Franklin, Sister Sledge, and Parliament Funkadelic providing a background beat. I tap-danced in my clogs across the Yard without guilt or embarrassment. I even grew to like gospel music, thanks to Kuumba, the black gospel choir. And from white students -- some friends, some passing acquaintances -- I learned about people I'd never heard of: Otis Redding and Stan Getz. I took quiet pride in the fact that nobody quite got me, but I was gradually getting me.

Dealing with race -- experimenting and exploring it, embracing and rejecting it, playing with it, parsing it -- turned it into so much more than a game. That was my adolescent way of experiencing my dilemma, of coping with the feeling that I had to manipulate people to see me the way I wanted them to in order to matter, to succeed. The Race Game was a necessary stage, a kind of puberty in itself. But my journey with race has, in adulthood and certainly with motherhood, eclipsed the metaphor of gamesmanship. It has helped me achieve something larger and far more important. My race has expanded the contours of my world and myself. My journey is inextricable from my race, and my race will be bound always to the journey. They are one. That, I think, is the way it's supposed to be.

My understanding of my parents, which grew with time and the forgiveness of one's parents that accompanies it, are gifts that I hope that Sam and Spenser will offer me. If I am wrong, and race doesn't matter to the extent that we should banish it forever from our conversation, I hope they'll understand why I thought it did. But for now, we routinely integrate race into our discussions. What I care about most is that these discussions are honest. Race doesn't determine the way my children see people -- I am proud that they continue to give everyone a chance -- but it is too potent to pretend it doesn't influence situations or alter lives. To grapple with it makes us better. My children and I don't always agree on what is racist, and they are free to say when the mere mention of the issue feels knee-jerk or inauthentic. When it is irresponsible not to discuss it, we face it together.

I have taught my children to note that other people -- white or black -- may think that being black means acting this way or that, but it doesn't have to mean that to them. I have exposed them to many things and have allowed them to embrace what they love. They have discovered that they prefer playing basketball to tennis or swimming, and that is fine with me.

I have dealt in the palindrome that race is involved in everything, but not everything is attributable to race. My theory is this: To realize how some people are likely to see you is an essential step to discovering and defending who you really are. I believe that I am, then, less a colonizer of my boys' impressionable minds than a tour guide to the world as it is, and it has been my job, in these formative years, to point out the major attractions, the time-wasting distractions, on the trip. Race is so many things along the way: a distorted fun-house mirror of misperception and depravity, a monument of cruelty and oppression. One must be familiar with the signposts of one's heritage -- to measure the progress made, avoid the mistakes of the past, and, ultimately, move to higher ground. So I stand by my flag of racial awareness -- an obstacle to progress some might argue, but perhaps I point the way. In either case, history cannot condemn me because, in the final analysis, I am a mother and I have only the best intentions.

Excerpted from "Because I Said So: 33 Mothers Write About Children, Sex, Men, Aging, Faith, Race & Themselves," edited by Kate Moses and Camille Peri, former editors of Salon's Mothers Who Think. Copyright (c) 2005 by HarperCollins. Published by arrangement with HarperCollins Publishers.

By Cecelie S. Berry

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