My oldest son scrunched up his nose and said, “I’m not black.”
I was immediately filled with anguish and dread. My worst fear was being realized.
I have been having race conversations with both of my boys for as long as I can remember. Sometimes because I had to and sometimes just to have an open and honest conversation.
But this…this was different. My 11-year-old, 5’6, 130lb, Autistic son; who looks just like me, my Dad, and most of the other members of my dad’s side of the family, didn’t think he was black.
The world would see him as nothing else.
Anxiety filled me as I quickly went through all the things I was doing wrong as a mother.
I’m not black enough.
I’m not teaching him to love that part of himself.
He hates black people. If he hates black people, he hates himself.
I’m raising a bi-racial son, who looks black, who the world is going to treat as black, and he hates his blackness.
I quickly recovered and began to do what I thought was damage control. “Well bud, I’m black. My Dad is black and my Mom is white. So if I am black, you are black. Do you understand?”
He scrunched up his nose again and had this determined look in his eyes, “Mom, I’m not black.” He said it so matter of factly and with no room for argument.
I sadly dropped it. I didn’t want it to turn into a meltdown.
But then began this months-long look into me. Which I have done before. As a bi-racial child, questions about identity are not new to me. Because being bi-racial is so complicated, you are, from a young age, between two worlds. Neither side is really sure what to do with you.
I asked my husband for advice.
I asked friends for advice.
I asked my support group.
I asked my therapist and my son’s therapist.
I was lost.
The news. The deaths. The hope for change.
I needed to find answers for myself and my sons. Even for my youngest, who is his father’s son through and through, and whose skin is fair enough that he could easily “pass as white”.
I brought it to my therapist again. He challenged me to connect with that side of myself. If I felt more connected, then maybe I could more easily help them connect.
I told my husband about the conversation with my therapist and he lovingly asked what he could do to help. I love him for that. He knows my struggle and never made me feel less than or ‘wrong’ for not having the answers.
And then he said something simple, “Did you ask him why he didn’t think he was black?”.
And stunned for a second by the question, I realized I didn’t. I was so struck by his body language, that I felt compelled to simply ‘convince him’ that he was in fact black.
And so I decided I was going to ask him the question. “Why didn’t he think he was black?” The next day on our way home from his bi-weekly CBT therapy appointment, I decided to ask him.
Me, “Hey, bud can I ask you a question? It’s nothing serious, I am just curious about something.”
“Yes.” He answered.
Me, “Why don’t you think you are black?”
I could feel his eyes on me, I looked at me in the eyes and he said it so matter of factly “Mom. Because look at my skin, I’m cream-colored.”
I was stunned. I instantly felt like an idiot! A fool!
Of course, it was something simple. Something ‘black and white”.
I made it complicated. He didn’t make it emotional or complicated.
He is Autistic.
As I breathed a sigh of relief. I quickly realized that nothing, not a single conversation I have EVER had with him about race, meant anything to him. My youngest took it all in, he always asked follow-up questions, because he is neurotypical. He got the nuances surrounding our discussions about race. He understood that I am his mother and what that means for his identity, despite what the world will tell him. I have always encouraged both of them to celebrate everything that makes them unique and resist the question: “Am I black or white?”. Why should you have to choose?
I rebounded quickly, covering my smile, at my sweet but oh so serious boy, who was thoroughly confused by what he perceived to be an obvious question and answer.
Me, “Okay. So I could see how that would be very confusing. But the color of your skin doesn’t determine your heritage or race. I am going to try and explain as simply as I can.
I am your mother. I am black and white. I am black because my Dad is black and so is all of his family. I am white because my Mom is white and so is all of her family.
So if my Dad, your grandfather, is black, what do you think that makes you?”
He was deep in thought and then answered about a minute later, with a confused and reluctant response of, “I am black.”
Me, “Yes! Genes are crazy bud! Do you want to know something even crazier? Even though your brother’s skin is a lot lighter then yours he is also black because I am his Mom.” He sat there even more confused and deep in thought, then said something that made me want to belly laugh.
He asked, “Does everyone know about this?!”
Me, “Yes, (trying very hard not to giggle), everyone knows about this. But I could see how it could be really confusing though. I am sorry you have been so confused. If I am being honest bud, I am confused. It’s hard for me to help you learn how to be a ‘black man’ when I am not sure how to be a black woman. But I can promise you this we are going to figure it out together!”
I retold this story to my husband, my therapist, and my son’s BCBA. And we all got a kick out of it. I told them they were free to re-tell it and I am telling you the same. Because, oh man the innocence of Autism. It was so simple and matter of fact for him. His skin color didn’t look black so how could he BE black. It has NOTHING to do with anything else. My own insecurities and anxiety made it more then it was.
I was relieved, tickled by his amazing brain, and then all at once lost again!
How do I help him understand? He needs to understand. I want him to connect with this. And so we came up with a plan for therapy strategies, books, and more ‘black mirrors’ in his day to day life. That tip came from a new friend, a couple of weeks ago, before I realized what was really the issue for him.
She said, “Surround him with mirrors of himself and he will begin to embrace that part of himself.”
I am excited about where the conversation is going to go now. Not just for him but for me. Now that I can see from his unique perspective and what he was struggling with. I won’t be able to give them easy answers to questions about their racial identity. As second-generation mixed kids, there are no easy answers or boxes to check. But I am ready to begin again with my oldest, take things slow with him, so that he truly understands this important part of himself. Wherever this journey takes us, I am happy to help learn with them.