White Parents and Black Stereotypes

DadBabySilhouette[1]In this past Sunday’s New York Times, is an incredibly honest article entitled Purple Boots, Silver Stars … and White Parents, by Frank Ligtvoet, a white father about the budding racial identities of his two African American children: a daughter, aged seven and a son, aged eight.

Ligtvoet describes how the children—who have gone through various feelings about their identities, from “I’m not black,” to “I hate white people”—are beginning to emulate African Americans they see in their community, in various ways, from gait to style of dress.  The children, Ligtvoet explains have come to a place of accepting that they do not look like their parents (both white dads) and that they do look like others who are not part of their family at all.  Lately, both kids are trying to make sense of all that.

Ligtvoet describes a walk he takes with his children to the Fulton Mall in Brooklyn.  The children are wearing new clothes that they have chosen, in their father’s mind, to “assert their blackness”: purple canvas boots, tight jeans and a black t-shirt for the girl, low slung black and yellow basketball shorts and a cap turned backwards for the boy.  (Remember these kids are seven and eight).  Dad walks several respectful paces behind his children, amused by their independence, proud of their pride, and I imagine, at least a little proud of his own comfort with their experimentation.

The Fulton Mall, when I lived in Brooklyn, was shopping center frequented mostly by middle and lower income blacks and Latinos.  Though it was barely a hop, skip and jump from pricy, predominantly-white Brooklyn Heights, you were clearly in a different world here.  There were no posh bars or restaurants.  The smell of deep-fried fast food hung heavily in the air during all seasons.   The streets weren’t so clean either; garbage cans stayed full to overflowing and construction sites didn’t see much progress for months on end.  About once a week, I would take the long walk from our home in the Columbia Street Waterfront District over there, pushing my daughter in her stroller, aiming to check out the deals at the Macy’s of Downtown Brooklyn.

From the article, it sounds as if the Fulton Mall may have gentrified, like other parts of Brooklyn, but is still largely African American.  I can only imagine the reaction of two gaudily clad little ones being trailed by a white man.  (If he were walking by their sides, holding their hands, I don’t think they would get so many looks.  Brooklyn is fairly progressive.)

My first reaction to this article was: good for this dad, he is letting the children discover who they are, letting them explore and experiment with their identities.  I still think that, though after sitting with the article for a bit, I found myself hoping that Ligtvoet and his partner aren’t embracing stereotypes and confusing them with black culture.  For example I don’t think shorts pulled down to the hips are “pretty cool” on an eight-year-old.  Ditto tight pants on a seven-year-old girl—particularly if she is walking far ahead of a parent, appearing to be alone.

But I am not one to judge.  As a parent, you choose your battles and your priorities.  Every parent in a multicultural family has to strike his or her own balance, particularly when it comes to the culture that is not his or her own.

The comments following the article were also fascinating, some of them laudatory, but many others harsh and chastising.  Two examples:

 “…these children are emulating gangsters, not “black” people.  Hats need to be worn outside only by men and boys and brim should face forward, any other way is a gang symbol in the black community, same with the yellow(gold?) and black shorts.  Wake up before you get these kids killed.”

“As an African American who grew up in the ghetto …my mother would have never allowed us to wear pants partially sagged and tight jeans … Be the parents of your children regardless of skin color.”

These readers do have a point.  I cannot imagine any of the affluent, black parents I know allowing their children to wear the kind of clothes mentioned in the article, especially at such a young age.  These parents are all too aware of the stereotypes of blacks in the media as lazy, dumb, violent—even if that very image is celebrated by many white teens (and some adults) as “cool.”   Black parents do what they can, as soon as they can, to keep their children from emulating this image, pervasive as it is.  They know it is not just a “cool” costume their kids can remove when it’s time to apply to colleges and interview for jobs.

Nevertheless, I understand where Ligtvoet is coming from.   As parents, we’re supposed to smile when our kids let go of our hands and stand alone for the first time.  This is true whether our kids come to us genetically or through adoption, whether they resemble us or not.  What I think this dad is proud of is the fact that his children are safe enough with him and trust him enough to experiment.  They know, regardless of how far behind he walks, that he is truly in their corner and that his love is unconditional.

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4 responses to “White Parents and Black Stereotypes

  1. Pardon the pun but nothing is ever black or white is it?

  2. Great post. Thank you.

  3. I think it is always hard for parents to let go of their children and stand behind them, while still having their pack as it were. This father might do well to find role models for his children, people he wants them to emulate. I do see his point though.

    Lovely to read you, as always.

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