Miles was crying mournfully in the parking lot of the American Red Cross where we’d just signed up for swim lessons. It took me a few minutes to realize he didn’t understand the distinction between signing up for swimming and taking a swim right then and there.
“I want to go swimming right NOOOWWW!”
Something across the street caught his eye. “Papa,” he said as a bubble of spit gently popped in his mouth. “Can we go to that playground?”
I really didn’t want to. I had other errands, and this is one of the playgrounds in town that feels vaguely threatening.
Our town has a large, white majority. There’s an African-American population, but it’s very small, maybe only 3%. The percentage is probably a bit larger among school kids. Miles is African-American and Latino, but most people around these parts probably read him as black. I’ve come across very few other openly gay people here, and only one other family with younger kids. As far as I know, we’re the only gay dads.
The work of sussing out what life is like here in this conservative Midwestern town for a kid of color with white, gay dads unfolds every day. Some situations feel more promising than others.
It’s not at all unusual to see people bust out in smiles when they see Miles. But there are lots of potential threats. How could there not be? Lately, as Miles develops into an independent social being, I worry more about the other kids than the adults.
They can be feral here. And I don’t mean free range.
When I was still systematically exploring playgrounds after moving here, Miles and I arrived at one to find a pack of white kids, probably all under the age of 10, no adult anywhere near by. They were laughing maniacally, running in circles, and screaming “fuck” and “shit” in a surreal snowstorm of shredded styrofoam. They’d tipped over two metal trash bins and scattered trash everywhere.
The scene made me think not of what they were doing right then, but instead of what their lives were like inside the walls of their houses, what else they’d learned from the adults in their lives.
I realize I jump to conclusions. That maybe I’ve become a little too refined and bougie. That I unfairly correlate this wildness with violence.
I want to protect myself and protect Miles, but I recognize I have baggage from my own experience being harassed practically every day in high school. I don’t want him to learn unfounded fears from me. So we didn’t leave that day. The kids mostly ignored us, and eventually a hunched man appeared from a back porch nearby and screamed at them to get the hell home.
We’ve lived here for nearly two years now, and fortunately, we’ve yet to experience overt hatred. I remain watchful, but I push past my fears more often.
Like the other day, when Miles was sobbing and spotted the playground.
“Okay, Miles. We can go–but we can’t stay for long.”
About 15 little kids, all white, scampered quickly up the ladder, one after another, and slid down together in a train. There was lots of shouting and pushing, although none of them seemed to mind.
As he joined the line, he found a sport sandal on the ground and handed it to the nearest boy, “Is this your shoe?”
The kid turned to Miles and slapped the shoe hard so that it almost fell to the ground. Then he climbed back up the ladder.
Miles turned to me with a perplexed look.
“I don’t think that was his, but it’s nice of you to try to give it back. Maybe you should leave it on the ground so its owner can find it.”
Miles dropped it and went up the ladder. As he joined the shoe-slapper at the top, the boy turned around and touched Miles hair. He said, “Is that your hair?”
Blood pulsed faster through my body. Maybe my instincts were right. Where was this going?
Then the boy turned around and slid down. Miles appeared to be unperturbed and was clearly having fun. Nothing else was said.
My state of high alert subsided, but I was unsettled by the boy’s question.
He was not the first to point out Miles’ hair, which is grown out just a bit. Since he was much smaller, a number of kids and even a few adults have reached out and touched it. (Both white and black adults have said they like his hair.)
In recent months, several kids have pointed out that his skin is different from theirs—and some have noticed aloud that his skin is different from his Papa’s and his Daddy’s. (His classmates know that he’s adopted and has a papa and a daddy.)
What is the cumulative effect of kids pointing out his differences to him? What kind of connotations will he start to absorb about brown or black skin and thick, curly, textured hair?
I’m scared shitless most days about how to best help him through this.
There is a spark in Miles, a thriving impulse toward curiosity and exploration, and a contagious joy. I know I can’t protect him from everything, but lately I’ve been consumed with the thought that something–or someone–could snuff out that spark. How can we instill in him an unflappable sense of self-respect and groundedness in who he is?
Blog posts like this over at Mama C and the Boys are helping me think through situations he might encounter in school and some of the questions I want to ask. A few months ago, I also read this helpful reflection, “Teaching Race to (Your) Children” by Oliver Wang who was guest blogging for Ta-Nehisi Coates.
And I’ve been reading some of the lit. suggested for white parents of children of color, like Different and Wonderful: Raising Black Children in a Race Conscious Society and Seven Tasks for Parents: Developing Positive Racial Identity.
Starting when Miles was about two and a half, we started talking about differences in a positive way. Some mornings, when we stand in front of the mirror, we talk about his beautiful brown skin. He smiles and makes funny faces.
As I comb his hair and massage in the hair butter, I tell him his curls are special and beautiful too. He tells me to be more gentle and takes breaks to run laps around the dining room table.
By deliberately choosing library books with diverse faces, I hope he sees that he is not alone in being different. A recent repeat bed-time fave was “I Love My Hair!”
The answers about how to raise him well are coming, gradually, but I know it will be a hit-or-miss endeavor.
I have to draw from my own experiences with bigotry but know his experiences won’t be the same. I need to be realistic about the challenges he faces but not project anxieties onto him. I have to be flexible and open to learning because something I think I know now is probably wrong.
I have to keep giving him love but know that he’ll need more than love alone.