"We gotta get out of here."
My friend Allison was talking about the city we both live in, Washington D.C., where she and her husband were typical black strivers trying to do right by the race. Couple of kids, a house, advanced degrees, professional careers. Model minorities.
Allison and her husband were thriving professionally but felt suffocated by the U.S. education system, backlash against the Obama election, guns at town hall meetings, the inexplicably enduring public presence of a failed Alaska governor, the dueling Beck and Sharpton rallies — the nastiness that settled over us like an angry, evil cloud.
So where to? Maybe they wanted to join the bourgie reverse migration down South? "Mozambique … ," she said. "Maybe Venezuela. We haven't decided yet."
Huh? Crazy talk! But I couldn't fault her for wanting to flee the country. My son, an athletic bookworm, was having a rough year when we heard an NPR report in the car about black boys failing in schools. There was a long, uncomfortable silence as I searched for but did not find the words to say, "But they don't mean you!" without denying him pride in his racial identity.
My then 9-year-old spoke first. "That won't be me," he vowed. But the daunting results of that study — which showed that not even favorable socioeconomic "nurturing" factors were giving black boys a leg up — made me wonder at that moment if maybe they weren't just allergic to this country. So yeah, self-imposed exile is looking like a better option every day.
Amy Chua — author of the controversial parenting memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which gained notoriety recently when an excerpt from it, about the superiority of strict Chinese mothers, appeared in the Wall Street Journal — would agree that assimilation into the American system doesn't make much sense. In many ways, her experience as Tiger Mother represents both the disease of and cure for modern parenting.
Many have inferred from her much discussed new memoir that disproportionate Asian academic success can be attributed to a regimen of no sleepovers, no playdates, no quitting, no coddling, no praising mediocrity and lots of drills. The ancient Chinese secret is, in short, demand perfection and accept nothing less. Children are not so fragile that they will break under these expectations.
This is the same immigrant work ethic that catapulted my parents from poverty in Guyana to the country-club class of North America. Ditto for my husband's parents in Jamaica, and Allison's husband's parents in the Caribbean. Ditto, it should be said, for Allison's grandparents, who, as Isabel Wilkerson's brilliant book on the Great Migration showed, had their own immigrant experience moving from the South to Northern cities, where their achievements in culture and society forever changed America.
But Chua is also part of the disease, because she has essentially written a manual for how to create superior sheep. But I still share many of her philosophies on the sturdiness of children, and in general have enormous respect for her. There she is, a Yale Law School professor, married to a white professor at the same school — technocratic royalty in the land where privilege was invented — and yet she has not allowed that success to be a reason to lose her identity, melting away into the American pot.
Unfortunately, Chua does not challenge the basic paradigm of competitive-martyr mothering, filled with daily servitude at the altar of homework and "enrichment" activities. But she does dismiss, with a confident swagger, the overindulgent American, everyone-is-a-winner, smothering style. The Wall Street Journal headline for her essay declared "Chinese Mothers Superior" and poked a finger in the collective eye of formerly smug Americans, inflaming insecurities about the meteoric rise of the East.
Chua rejects the American middle-class, touchy-feely parenting style supposedly guaranteed to stack the deck in favor of the spawn of these hardworking mothers. Such a guarantee is a lie, of course. As my son learned from listening to NPR, this meritocracy works perfectly as long as you are not a young black boy.
Still, Chua reminds us that intelligence is not determined by the gene pool; it's made. That is the simple reason immigrants of all stripes do so well in this country. Immigrants outhustle, outgun. They work their asses off and never get comfortable or let up, or relax into American social excesses because they have "arrived." They hold their ground, remain centered in their own non-Western cultural norms, fending off child insubordination and rudeness.
I share my friend Allison's impulse to escape from it all. There is something to be said for living in a place where it is not normal for parents to schedule their children's friendships. Or where you are still considered a good mother if you don't micromanage your kids' teachers, principals and entire school district. Or where you don't find a generation of whiny, overentitled children who, when given a chunk of nonmediated free time, have no idea what to do with it. I shudder to think that this will be the generation that will someday be turned loose into the "real world" and actually be expected to run it.
For minority parents, the second we lose our "otherness" — the second the American status quo and its attendant racial pecking order makes sense to us — is the second we fail. For black folks, who have a much more complicated history in this country and blend in less easily than other minority groups, conformity is even more dangerous because that often means finding our "proper" places in rapidly declining segregated institutions.
When we get comfortable in the (also rapidly declining) Western world order — where, in America, at least, it is not normal for a president to be anything other than a white male — we stop living up to our potential. Barack Obama's life possibilities and worldview expanded from his time in Indonesia; from growing up off the mainland, in Hawaii; and from having a mother who refused to dim his prospects, no matter how badly he screwed up.
This is the challenge that we have raising children in this crazy global, technological age where life is moving too quickly for our traditional institutions to adapt. We should not forget for a minute how strange the age in which we are living is. But we also should not forget that our ultimate job is not to get our children to produce a perfect concerto or SAT scores — even if they might do so in the process — but to give kids the knowledge, leadership and social skills to one day thrive without us.
That could well mean spending some time abroad to allow your black children to be immersed in another language, culture, cuisine or education system. It's letting them know what it's like to taste something other than mediocrity, and taking our rightful places as citizens of the world.
Natalie Hopkinson is a contributing editor to The Root. Follow her on Twitter.
Natalie Hopkinson is a Washington, D.C.-based author whose current projects deal with the arts, gender and public life. She is the author of Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City. Follow her on Twitter.