March 22, 2010

Brown Like Me

Ash and I got to enjoy a beautiful Sunday in Central Park together last weekend, the kind that is so good that thoughts of a looming rainy Monday morning didn't even try to make an appearance. First day of Spring, sunny fresh air, street performers and dog walkers and ice cream sandwiches. You get the picture. Ash loves street performers, everything from the solo trumpeters belting swing tunes to acoustic guitarists in the subway tunnels to the kids in the subway cars doing flips down the isles while the train moves from station to station. We try to stop what we're doing and watch whenever we can, and Ash is well accustomed to the routine of dropping a dollar or two into the hat that's inevitably passed around. Just as we were about to leave the park for the day we came across a group of break dancers who's lead dancer was dressed in full-on MJ garb complete with the silver glove and black top hat. We stopped to watch for a while, and just when the lead was showing us his near-perfect moonwalk Ash turned to me and said, "Mommy! He's brown like me!"

Brown like me.

Now, keep in mind that we had spent the entire weekend in the city which Ash like's to refer to as his "Brookin (Brooklyn) House" where there is certainly no shortage of people who are "brown like him". According to the 2000 US Census approximately 45% of Brooklyn identifies themselves as Black. We have two African restaurants within eye shot of our apartment (one Ethiopian, one South African), a Carol's Daughter shop around the corner (for those unfamiliar, their hair/skin care products cater primarily to African Americans), and a significant portion of local shops are owned and operated by African Americans. Mike and I are the only white people in our building, and now that I think about it we may be the only white people if you include the buildings adjacent to us on either side as well. Long story short, there's no shortage of people who are brown like him in the area. So, I was intrigued as to why Ash would choose that moment, that particular African American MJ impersonator, to point out to me that they were brown like each other.

But the fact just is that he did choose that moment and the moment was had. He may only be turning 3 in May, but he's already starting to see it, to get it, to ask questions about it, to want to identify it. It? Race. Of course he may not understand exactly what race means, but he's starting to. If Mr. Break Dancing MJ is brown like him, then what are mommy and daddy? Obviously not brown like him. So... He's started to point out similarities. "Mommy! Your eyes brown like ME!" or "Daddy and Ashton don't have bellies, only MOMMY has bellies!" (Seriously? That's the similarity you came up with? Thanks darling...) And in conjunction, we get to point out what makes us different, like daddy's eyes being green and mommy's toes being pink and the boo-boo on Ash's right knee that's finally starting to heal. It's a start.

I frequently tell Ash how beautiful his chocolate brown skin is, but till this recent evolution he'd usually just respond with, "chocolate mommy? Where's the chocolate mommy?" But now it's taken on new meaning for him. A meaning that is going to continue to evolve forever and ever and and, one day, mean something to him that I'm not going to be able to fully "get". I'll try, but it just wont be possible. His personal experiences with race will always be different than ours, and understanding that and embracing that is another step forward. For now he knows that he's brown like MLK, brown like the President of the United States, brown like man who runs the dry cleaners down the street, brown like the boys at the park, brown not like mommy.

Unfortunately there's also going to come a time when he knows that being brown can bring on some not so nice behaviors. Discrimination, judgment, bias, inequalities, racism. Based on reading and my conversations with other parents that time is likely going to come much sooner than I would ever imagine. Although my little boy is just turning the corner of his 3rd year he's incredibly perceptive, and soon the conversation is going to turn from "he's brown like me" to "why do I have to be brown like him". And I'll remind him of how ignorant some people can be, how beautiful he is, and how how happy we are that he is just the way he is because who he is means so many wonderful things. We're currently exploring this with him through our travels, picture books, conversations with friends and neighbors, and other bits of life that turn themselves into lessons on a regular basis. And we can't wait to expand the exploration to more developed conversations about art, history, music, culture, and the eventual trip back to Ethiopia. We just hope it's enough for when the time comes when it really needs to be enough.

We're doing our best to raise him as a proud, independent, passionate, Ethiopian African American with a humanitarian heart and his first mother's soul. And in the meantime he's doing his best to raise us to be informed proactive parents who will know what to say as the "brown like me" conversations continue to mature. Because these conversations need to be exciting, not stressful. There's a great article on talking to our children about race and racism in this month's Adoptive Families magazine (the actual article isn't available online, you'll need to buy the issue) that contains the subtitle "Racism exists, and it's our job as parents to talk about it with our kids." I couldn't agree more, and for my 2 year 10 month and 9 day old son those talks just took one giant leap to the next level.


Kelly said...

Thank you so much for sharing this. It's interesting that he chose that moment to make that comment, when it sounds like it wasn't an unusual sight to see a brown person. But I suppose that's how the mind of a child works. It sounds like you are already talking about race in an age-appropriate manner, and that you are learning as much as you can about how to discuss it with him as he grows. That's so important!

As for the belly comment, I'm sure he just meant that *right now* Mommy has a belly. :)

Mamushsky World Headquarters said...

Wow, my heart is smiling! It is wonderful to read this and helpful, too. So many people don't get that our children will start recognizing, commenting and questioning so young.

I love that he chose this moment. I expect it was one of joy and pride -- a great dancer showin' his stuff lookin' beautiful brown just like your gorgeous son. It really drives the point of how important it is for all to see others who look like them - being, living, excelling.

Thanks for sharing so many important points here.

PC said...

Thanks for sharing this moment Jo. It's so hard to be seperated from you all on a daily basis. This helps me feel,and hopefully, relate to the experiences that I too will some day have with my (favorite) grandson.

It reminds me of when Ash's Dad first noticed the difference in skin colors. We were in a check out line and there was an African American man in from of us and Mike said, "Why can't I be chocolate like him..." or something to that effect. Unfortunately I believe he was referring to his, and his Mother's fondness for anything chocolate, but maybe he was trying to express solidarity with all people...

Keep up the grat blogging. It makes my day. Grandma C

Karen said...

Mia's talked about her skin color since she started talking - but it's mainly been because she has such a love relationship with all things chocolate - her skin included. When she starts being a little less self-absorbed and talks about others more, I'm anticipating the topic of others looking more like her than I do being more of a conversation point.

Thanks for the nudge to finally get a subscription to the Adoptive Families magazine.

Valerie said...

I just discovered your blog and its very inspirational. My husband and I are planning to adopt a toddler from Ethiopia and we're looking for a good agency. If you were to adopt again would you still use CHI? Any advice would be apprceiated. Thanks, Valerie
PS. We live in Brooklyn as well, Park Slope.