My wife is not black.
Our daughters, by no choice of their own, are.
Not when we’re at home or with friends and family or surrounded by people who know and love them. But when they’re out in the world, with their bronze skin and curly afros, when they’re seen from afar or described by others, they’re as black as me or any of my ancestors who toiled the Southern soil for free, felt the lash of the whip, suffered under Jim Crow, or confronts the daily microaggressions of being part of the tribe.
The world has made the decision for them. Outside of them stapling their 23&Me results to their chest, they are black and there’s not much they can do about that.
And, to keep it a buck, I’ve been guilty of doing the same thing myself.
Having grown up in the South. Having grown up with a certain perspective. Having been given a worldview of blackness that was always girded by the idea that one was either “in” or “out” when it came to their affiliation with the fam, I made the decision in my own mind to make my children like me. Honestly, I don’t know if it was because I was being culturally and intellectually lazy or if it was a result of my own desire not to challenge my personal conventions out of fear, but for longer than I should have, I made my children black.
And to say that I made my children black, I honestly forced a sort of exaggerated sense of black culture onto my family. I’ve been known to act as a ham-fisted mix between Dre from Black-ish, James Evans Sr., and Huey Freeman in trying to define, regulate and enforce a black perspective and aesthetic within my own home and onto my family out of a weird sense of duty. Like, if I’m not actively giving it as much black as I’ve got—frying bologna, playing Motown records on Saturday morning and teaching my kids the right way to play Spades (with proper Joker and Deuce order)—we’re somehow going to all wake up tomorrow and get our charter revoked.
Let me backtrack for a sec. While my wife isn’t black, she’s also very much not white. She’s Indian (see: Tandoori, not Thanksgiving), and she’s Canadian. So, a lot of the pathologies about race and place that I’ve wrestled with all my life are, in some ways, oddities to her. She didn’t know what an HBCU was until her first trip to homecoming. She doesn’t really care about the “our kind of people” accolades that the bougie black set have sought to accrue. While she understands and respects the culture, she has her own history, her own heritage, her own values and her own identity that she brings to our family. Again, in the spirit of honesty and introspection, I have and still do forget from time to time that she’s not one of “us,” and she has to remind me that, while she is a person of color and we kinfolk, sometime she can’t relate because we ain’t skinfolk.
But what I’ve had to reckon with is my own rudimentary understanding of race. That’s to say that I’ve had to wrestle with my own blackness as a dynamic factor in my life rather than some type of destination attached to my being. Because I’ve had to confront the reality that my daughters are going to have to define themselves past their own blackness, I’ve also had to think about how I define myself beyond my blackness.
Not to say that I’m any more or less black than I would have been if I’d married a black woman or had children that were exclusively black. But instead, I’m reassessing my own identity to align with the identities of those around me in a way I might not have in a more homogeneous family versus the ethnically divergent home we have now.
It’s forcing me to ask myself a simple, yet complicated question: “Do I have to be black all the time?”
I mean, I know the answer, but the deeper question here is, will I allow the pathologies and hangups that have come with my own blackness define how I will experience the world with my children who don’t have those same ideas or anxieties? When confronted with uncomfortable or non-negro-normative situations, will I be able to embrace the new without worrying about losing what I can only describe as my “street cred”? Can I relax and enjoy heretofore “white people shit” like listening to Natalie Merchant or wearing flip-flops as just a thing without quietly laughing at myself or subtly dying inside?
It happens a lot because of the diverse cast of characters that have entered our world as a result of our children. The white, Asian and Hispanic families from our school and play groups, and even the other multi-ethnic families in our inner circle, they do things that often run afoul of my black sensibilities. Think pushing the boundaries when it comes to potato salad ingredients or going to do things like apple picking (like, picking fruit, but for fun...it’s weird). Stuff I never thought to do because I just assumed I was too good or too hood to enjoy it.
Do I like camping? Hell nah. My black ass ain’t trying to be recreationally homeless. But will I go camping with my kids? Sure. They don’t need to think like me.
Do I like acoustic guitars? Not really. Gimme that No Limit or Wu Tang all day e’ryday. But am I OK with my kids learning how to play? Sure. Let them be great.
Reassessing my own cultural lens to provide these little blank slates of humanity with the ability to be curious without being confronted by my own skewed view of what is and isn’t black has opened up my world to experiences, friendships and understandings I would have been comfortable to have lived without but may well have been worse off for it.
I want my daughters to embrace their blackness, but that doesn’t mean they have to be black like me.
I don’t ever want my daughters to view their blackness as a burden, nor do I want them to negate their Indian heritage to placate society’s need to conveniently categorize people as one thing or another. I want them to be able to live in a place and space where they can enjoy and extol the benefits of both and more. Where they don’t have to choose and where their choice isn’t made for them. I want them to venture beyond my own understanding of self and being to become more than me or their mother.
They have the unique ability and live in a unique time where, while not post-racial, we can imagine a world that’s pan-ethnic, that will allow them to express both of their sides equally. Not that I’m not partial or biased in wanting to expose them to all of the benefits of their blackness. I want them to go to Spelman. I want them to feel comfortable in black spaces. But in their reality, outside of our home and under the gaze of the rest of the world, they are very much involuntarily black. I just hope that, unlike me, they choose to be black without all of the baggage. If they can be black and free, that’s alright with me.