Rebecca Carroll, New York Times, April 1, 2017
My 11-year-old is understated, but not shy. He likes to bake, loves video games, is loyal to his friends and, biased as I may be, is a pretty good-looking kid. He gets mad sometimes, though, that people don’t immediately register him as black. “You’re so lucky,” he said to me a few months ago. “People look at you and know that you are black.”
Being black in America has historically been determined by whether or not you look black to nonblack people. This keeps racism operational. Brown and black skin in this country can invite a broad and freewheeling range of bad behavior — from job discrimination to a child being shot dead in the street. For my son, though, being black in America is about more than his skin color. It’s about power, confidence, culture and belonging.
I was adopted into a white family, and the only black birth-family members I am aware of are no longer living. Every day I am saddened by the fact that I don’t have any black relatives for my son to know and spend time with. But my son has me, and I have him. And we are black. He also has his father, my husband, a white man of Italian descent, which accounts for our son’s light-skinned appearance.
My son is not the only light-skinned, mixed or biracial person I know who identifies primarily as black. Increasingly, I have observed my adult peers and colleagues who fall into this category not merely identifying as black, but routinely pulling out the receipts to prove their blackness.
Some of this may have to do with what the brilliant Jordan Peele, who is also biracial and black, tapped into for the plot of his genre-redefining box office hit, “Get Out” — that it’s cool to be black right now, that we are trending.
In middle school, I spent a lot of time trying to explain to my white classmates that even though I look black, I am actually biracial — my birth mother is white and my birth father is black — and so I wasn’t really as black as they thought. What’s more, my adolescent logic went, my adopted parents are white, so that should count for something, right? People were seldom interested. At best, I heard this: “We don’t even think of you as black anyway.”
So it’s profound to me that my light-skinned son, who identifies as both mixed and black, was upset when he started sixth grade last fall at a new school where his new racially diverse peer group expressed confusion about his background.
When my son first started to black identify at about 5 or 6 years old, an acquaintance of ours asked my husband, in my presence, if he felt like we were “depriving” our son of his “white side.” My husband, a sociology professor and the author of two books on the failure of housing and school desegregation in the United States, said: “If my parents had instilled any Italian culture in me, I might want to share that with my son. But if you’re talking about general whiteness, there’s nothing there to pass down.”
This acquaintance, it seemed, was suggesting that by encouraging our son to embrace his blackness, we were depriving him of something bigger and greater than the already big and great benefit of white privilege. That my son sees more power in centering his blackness over exploiting whatever white privilege he may ultimately be afforded is a thing of glory.