In Helping My Fair-Skinned Son Embrace His Blackness, Myra Jones-Taylor recounts her efforts to support her son, whose appearance leads virtually everyone he encounters to assume he is white, in resisting that denial of his self-definition as black.
In trying to provide my perspective on Jones-Taylor’s account of race, racial identity, and parenting, I feel I must tread lightly –and I fear that might not be possible when the terrain is racial identity and a non-normative view is being erected on it. I worry that what follows will be received as a trespass and a trampling. I’m certain that many heads were sympathetically nodding in response to Jones-Taylor’s moving testimony of her son’s struggle with racial identity. But my head was shaking the other way. Is that OK?
I want to make it clear that I do not present my perspective as a rebuke or denial of Jones-Taylor’s experience or choices, and certainly not of her son’s arduous journey towards a settled identity. I hope this essay will amount to an alternative way at looking at race and racial identity, not a repudiation of anyone’s choice to identify one way or another.
Identity is predicated on a constellation of aspects of personhood (e.g. age, heritage, sex, gender, sexual orientation, ability, socioeconomic status, race, and worldview). Often one’s full personhood is reduced to one or two of these aspects – e.g. white man, cisgender woman, smart kid, or exotic foreigner, obscuring the ineluctable complexity and intersectionality of selfness. Some of these identity aspects are easier to see, define, understand, and negotiate than others. Race is arguably the most problematic because it has become a predicate of identity despite being a product of the imagination.
It’s the fictive quality of race that challenges Jones-Taylor’s son. He has fallen into the trap of feeling forced to choose between one side or the other of a false dichotomy which itself is founded on a false construct. He “looks white blond-haired, blue-eyed, straight-nosed, thin-lipped, fair-skinned white—but he identifies as black.” He is the victim of a truth about the lie of race. As articulated by Audrey Smedley, anthropologist and race historian,
Race as social status is often in the eye of the beholder. “Mixed” people will still be treated as black or Indian if their phenotypes cause them to be so perceived by others. Insistence on being in a separate classification will not change the perception or the reaction of other to them (Smedley, 2012, p. 317).
As his loving parent, Jones-Taylor seeks to uphold her son’s right to do what Smedley rightly declares is impossible, that is to get his beholders to abandon the racial calculus (a fuzzy math for sure) of ascribing a racial identity to him based primarily on appearance, and then, if necessary, factoring in lineage if phenotype and ancestral racial assignment conflict.
Jones-Taylor’s strategy is to accompany her son to school at crucial points to use her race-concordant skin color to counter what his skin color says about his racial identity. My son looks white, but I’m his mom and I am clearly black. Ipso facto of the one-drop rule, he is black.
By taking pains to literally be by his side in order to represent the lineage factor as a trump of the optical factor, Jones-Taylor functions as her sons living voucher of his racial identification. She nobly endeavors to protect him from one kind of victimization, the denial of his self-identity, while abandoning him to the precursor victimization of the racial worldview, in which everyone must come to with having a racial identity of one category or another. I shake my head.
I’m a dark-skinned male, teacher, writer, social justice advocate, psychotherapist, and parent. My two babies (both adults now) look like me in many ways and don’t look like me in one way that matters far too much. If I were to say that difference inheres in our heights or the shape of our ears, I’m pretty sure you’d wonder why anyone would make any kind of deal out of such things. When I tell you that the difference is in the color of our skin, I know you’ll register that difference as much more significant than differences in other superficial physical qualities. Skin color difference is about race. And race matters.
Like Jones-Taylor, my skin is brown. Like her, I married a person with pale skin. Like her and her partner, my partner and I created two people whose skin colors are quite natural variations of their genetic sources.
Apart from me, and especially next to her mom, you would likely register Lauren as “white.” Standing next to me, you might register her as “mixed race” or “mulatto.” She has my eyebrows and my brown eyes. Her hair is a mix of her mom’s straight and my supercoiled strands. It flows in loose curls that seem to have a will of their own. When she was younger, I loved nothing more than braiding her hair into long, lustrous coils, quite distinct from almost every other girl at Buckingham Brown & Nichols, the school she attended from preschool through high school graduation. Sometimes she wore her hair out in a fro that would make Pam Grier nod in admiration. Once, at BB&N, that fro got her in trouble. It was too big and blocked the faces of peers assembled on the rafters for a performance of holiday songs. This resulted in a bit of talk with the music teacher. Sigh. However else you might categorize Lauren, whether in cornrows or rocking the fro, you’d undoubtedly register her as gorgeous.
When my son, Evan was born, I referred to him as my blond, blue-eyed boy. His hair became dark brown quickly, but his skin has remained fair. His hair, which he wears closely-cropped these days, was a cloud of loose dark curls in his childhood. His eyes remained blue. He is a beautiful human being.
Like Lauren, Evan also has my thick eyebrows, and my mouth, and my ears. In fact, we are craniofacially quite similar. But the difference in our skin color is, well, like black and white. Side by side, despite sharing many similarities in physical features, the difference in our pigmentation leads just about everyone to assume we are not only not related, but members of different human subspecies referred to as race.
Unlike Jones-Taylor’s son, my kids never struggled with getting folks to acknowledge their blackness. Evan and his sister were taught that race is a delusion. They were encouraged to understand race, racial identity, and racism as misguided and malicious products of racialization. Just as they learned that they live in a world where many people adhere to religious beliefs that are exempt from scientific challenge, they learned that most people adhere to a racial worldview within which people are relegated to empirically false but socially powerful categories that connote hierarchical differences that have life or death consequences.
Unlike Jones-Taylor’s son, my kids didn’t struggle with getting people to acknowledge a racial identity they came to identify with. Instead, they’re on a lifelong journey of navigating raised eyebrows, cocked heads, and, too often, dismissive objections when they try to explain to friends and teachers that race is a problematic social construct that they don’t subscribe to. “My dad says race is a lethal absurdity.” My children were never the victims of folks denying their racial identity because they were never the victims of the precursor oppression of self-racialization. They’ve certainly had to contend with the arrogant ignorance that is part and parcel of the racial worldview, but that’s a far cry from facing an identity crisis.
Like Jones-Taylor, I and my children have suffered the ignorant and hurtful assumptions of people who sized us up based on skin color and assumed I must be their driver when I showed up at their preschool to take them home, or perhaps that the fair-skinned child in the car seat in the back of my car was a kidnap victim. Absurd, painful, true stories. Like Jones-Taylor, I’ve been a vigilant, vocal, and at times forceful presence in my kids’ lives to correct those who fail to recognize their identity – but not their racial identity.
I champion my kids’ right to be seen as mine, flesh of my flesh, no matter the variation in hue, blood of my blood, which has only one color. I champion their right to not be reduced to a false notion. I champion their right to defy a lethally foolish social convention that leads young people like Jones-Taylor’s son to have to try to make sense of the senselessness of race. As Walter Ben Michaels points out in The Trouble with Diversity,
Treating race as a social fact amounts to nothing more than acknowledging that we were mistaken to think of it as a biological fact and then insisting that we ought to keep making the same mistake. Maybe instead we ought to stop making the mistake (Michaels, 2006, p.39).
I took it as my role and obligation as a parent to make sure that my kids understood race as the fractious fiction it is, and I tried to teach them to actually live accordingly, not to know better psychologically and do otherwise socially.
I hope that in sharing this I have not trampled on the terra firma of anyone’s sense of identity, solidarity, and pride. I respect everyone’s right to choose the identity constructs they find most meaningful and comfortable for them. And I know both intellectually and experientially that that right is too often oppressively superseded by the claims others make on one’s identity. I just wanted to offer an alternative to the dominant narrative of race, racial identity, and how we conceive it, discuss it, and live it. It is possible to go about this differently, to teach our children differently, and to protect them differently. My babies are now 28 and 25 years old. They know who they are, and who they are has nothing to do with identifying as something they’re not – something no one is.