A few weeks ago my partner’s son B was here for the holidays, and as usual he and I spent a great deal of time together. I’m often curious about when and how kids learn about race, and I always observe how B discusses race. He is a dark skinned black child, and I am a very fair skinned white person, which makes it fairly obvious to any on-looker that I am not his biological mother.
In the past three years his understanding of race has changed. At the age of 4, he was fairly clueless about race. He knew people had different colors but had no concept of race. At 5, he used the racial terms “black” and “white” to refer to people on some occasions. However, his use of black and white didn’t necessarily follow with the rest of society. He called both the East Indian girl and the Chicano boy at the playground black. Basically everybody who wasn’t pale white was black, and the deciding factor was skin color. Anybody darker than honey was black. (At 5, I also remember him asking me why people were looking at us (he and I), but he never connected it to race.)
Now fast forward to our Easter Holiday this year. He is 7, and his understandings of race have changed. They conform more closely to social standards. His racial awareness is also heightened, when I am around him. I think there were a few interaction and exchanges where this was very clear.
In the first case, he and I had taken the train to pick up daddy from work. Since I have never ridden the train with a child, I was overcharged. The conductor told me to exchange the ticket for the reduced family fair when we exited at our stop. I went up to the counter, and said to the ticket agent, “I need to exchange this ticket for my son because I was overcharged.”
He was standing right by me, and started laughing, “Why did you tell her I’m your son?”
I said, “I know you’re not my son. I was just trying to make it easier for her to understand.”
B replied, “But she won’t think I’m your son.”
I responded, “Why do you say that?”
B said, “She might think you took me because I’m black and you’re white.”
I thought this whole exchange was revealing. He already has the sense that blacks and whites are separated–that black kids and white adults don’t look right to others.
The second incident was even more interesting. B and I were shopping at a drug store, and the following exchange ensued. When we went up to pay, he said,
“Why were those people looking at us?”
Rachel: “What do you mean?”
B: “Were they looking at me because I’m black and you’re white? They want to know if you are my mommy.”
Rachel: ”Why do you think that?”
B: (very matter matter of factly) “Because black kids have black moms.”
Rachel: “Can black kids have white moms?”
B: (laughing at what he thinks is a joke) “Black kids can’t have white moms.”
Rachel: “So if I have a kid, will that kid be black or white?”
Rachel: “If I have a kid with daddy, will that kid be black or white?” (For the record Daddy is black.)
Rachel: ”But daddy’s black, and he would be the daddy?”
B: “So the kid will be black.”
Rachel: “But I’m white, and I’m the mommy.”
B: (Telling what he thinks is a really funny joke.) “It will be a purple alien baby.”
Rachel: “Not it won’t be an alien. It will be black and white. Did you know that some people are black and white? And some people aren’t either black or white.”
Rachel: “Some kids have black mommies and white daddies, and some kids have white mommies and black daddies. And sometimes a black kid can have a white mommy and a white daddy, or a white kid can have a black daddy and a black mommy. That’s like adoption. Do you know what adoption is?”
B: “When a black kid has a white mommy?”
Rachel: ”No, adoption is when a mommy has and child but asks another mommy to take care of the child.”
I think this was the end of the conversation, but I found it interesting how conscious he was of other people looking at him and me. He very clearly connected it to race. On a few occasions in the past, I have had children ask me if I was his mommy. It was very clear that race had a factor in these questions because they were posed with a sense of doubt. B even struggles with his interaction around me, frequently calling me mommy and then correcting himself or having me correct him.
These are the kinds of issues that frequently come up in mixed race families. They are also faced by monoracial families even if they don’t realize it. The two white children who asked if I was B’s mommy were also confronted with their (mis)understandings of race. I do wonder if it would be different if I was the black one and he was white. Given that we live in a fairly rich area, where many upper middle class and upper class white parents have women of color as their nannies, it is not too uncommon to see black and brown women taking care of small white kids. However, a white women taking care of a black child is almost unheard of, which is why we probably get some many stares. To be honest I don’t notice the stares, but B does. I think I don’t notice the stares because having been in an interracial relationship for a while I’m used to stares. As a defense and coping mechanism, I tune out the stares. I generally act like I don’t see people starting because I don’t have the time or energy to explain to them why it is annoying. Moreover, you never know why people are staring. If the stare is the curiosity stare, I let it go, but if it is the hateful racism stare, I’m much more inclined to respond. It will be interesting to see if B develops the same defense mechanism. Hopefully, he’ll be here for the whole summer this year, which will give him time to get used to being with me
Personally, I think these kinds of conversations are important to have. I don’t bring up race too much with B, but when he brings it up, I try my best to get him to understand that many of the common understandings of race are wrong. I haven’t taught him about racism, yet. Well, I did tell him about Rosa Parks because he saw a book about her, but apparently at 7 Junie B. Jones and Captain Underpants are way more interesting than Rosa Parks.