(I dedicate this post to my dad, Mel Williamson, who would have celebrated his 89th birthday today.)Yesterday, I was honored to be interviewed by Carol Morello, journalist for the Washington Post for an article entitled Number of Biracial Babies Soars Over Past Decade. Naturally, I spoke to Ms. Morello on the phone, during the after school hours while the usual mayhem was transpiring in my home–the little girls down the block ringing the doorbell looking for playmates, my own kids’ particular homework snafus. I had to interrupt the interview no less than three times: once to give my daughter my cell phone so she could call a BFF for the homework; once to drop said daughter off at a Girl Scouts and once because my son–who had proudly informed his 3rd grade teacher that he understood long division and could therefore skip the lesson–discovered that he did not in fact have the foggiest grasp of long division and needed me to teach it to him so he could do his homework. (Not that I remember how to do long division myself.)
In any case, I was a little distracted during the interview and rambled just a bit, though Ms. Morello was very patient. There was one question, however, that I wish I’d had more time to mull over, which was how my children’s awareness of race differed from my own growing up. (Remember, I grew up biracial in the 1970s; my children are “second-generation” biracial, growing up now.) My answer to Ms. Morello was fine, but I spoke more about the differences between the Upper West Side of Manhattan in the 1970s vs. Montclair, New Jersey right now. I stated that, in terms of the number of interracial families and the acceptance of such by the community, the difference is surprisingly minimal. But having had some time to think about it, I have to say that I was much more aware of race than my children are for a number of reasons.
1) I had a fully black parent (Dad), who had grown up on the South Side of Chicago during the 1930s, at a time where things were not so comfortable racially. Dad felt the need to arm me with information about race relations, so I would be prepared for racism when it found me (notwithstanding the fact that I took his warnings with a grain of salt, that his predictions never quite came to pass).
2) On second thought, our town and our time are actually quite different from the city and era in which I was raised. In Montclair, diversity–integrated diversity–is everywhere. In their public school, my children each have three or four fellow biracial classmates. My husband and I have never been to a restaurant in town where we were the only interracial couple. Everywhere you look are not only interracial families, but also adoptive families, families headed by same-sex parents, as well as transracially-adoptive families headed by same-sex parents. So, anyone inclined to stare at the family who stands out would be out of luck here in Montclair. Families who might stand out elsewhere blend right in. Since most everyone is different, there is less pressure to discuss race with young children, except in the interest of embracing one’s identity. When my kids were little, we talked about brown skin and kinky hair in relationship to our African Ancestry; we looked at photographs of great grandparents who arrived from Eastern Europe at the turn of the last century.
Now we talk more about race; I answer their questions about black, white, Asian and being biracial; they talk about what they see and hear at school and in the newspaper. But I am careful not to make my children anxious about race, not to make them fear that being black, or mixed will be held against them. (I address this in a talk I’ve done called Speaking of Color. See My Talks.)
3) The last the difference between my understanding of race then and my children’s now, has to do with our current culture’s increased tendency to protect children from hard topics. I consider my own childhood pretty sheltered compared to some, but still I watched the news every night with my parents. (They couldn’t get it on-line in those days as I do.) I also watched adult sit-coms produced by Normal Lear, as did many of my friends.
All in the Family, Maude, The Jeffersons and Good Times put race and racism out there with no apology. In one episode of The Jeffersons, the word “honkey,” meaning white person, comes up about fifty times. And talk about stereotypes; roughly half of what every black person says on these shows rhymes. And it wasn’t just race that the Lear line-up was candid about. Sexual innuendoes and booze were front and center too. I think there was an entire episode of All-in-the Family, where Archie is locked in the basement getting soused. Ned The Wino was my favorite character on Good Times. Drunk was funny. So was JJ, the most stereotypical African American character since Stepin Fetchit. So was Archie Bunker, the reigning bigot of 1970s prime time.
Come to think of it, growing up in New York City in the post-deinstitutionalization, post-summer-of-love, Vietnam war era, the images from the Lear shows didn’t seem all that far-fetched. (Except for Black people rhyming.) By fifth grade–my daughter’s age–I took the city bus home from school. There was always, always a drunk on the bus. Sometimes it was a white drunk, sometimes a black drunk, sometimes a woman who yelled and screamed and scolded everyone who got on, sometimes a man who sat quietly, smelled and snored. I traveled with friends, but most of them got off the bus before I did, so there was frequently a period each afternoon where I was alone on the bus with the driver, a handful of adult strangers and a drunk person. (In those days, the concepts of mental illness and self-medication, substance abuse, and hallucinations were not on my radar.) In person, I was afraid of drunk people because they were out of control, but they were always worth listening to for a laugh.
One in particular provided me with an early lesson on race. He was tall, lean and black, of indeterminate age, though he had a wild tangle of yellow/grey hair. When my friends and I got on the bus–showed our passes and found seats–he took a break from his monologue–or self-dialogue, to be accurate–to greet us:
“Helloooo, li’l ones!” and began talking about how lazy kids were today, what smart mouths we all had, how different from his day when he would have gotten whupped for saying the kind of things we said. Then he went off on graffiti, then he went off on dogs, and then we stopped trying to follow what he had to say.
By the time my friends had gotten off, the man had begun petitioning the bus driver to let him drive a while.
“I can really cut them corners!” I thought this amusing, but a well-dressed woman apparently did not. She muttered something under her breath as she exited the bus at her stop.
Insulted, the drunken man turned to me.
“You hear that? Lady call me a bum! Humph!” He straightened up, flipped the collar of what–in better days–might have been described as a trench coat. “I ain’t no bum,” he directed this at the woman’s retreating image. “Everybody know: bums is white. Winos is black. I am a W-I-N-O. Wino.”
Having cleared up the confusion, the man nodded self-approvingly and promptly dropped off to sleep.