Barack Obama has won the Presidency in a landslide. And as the historic implications of electing our first black President wash over me, I am tempted to join the pundits in declaring “a new day” in the history of American racial relations. But then my thoughts turn to my toddler and what I have come to refer to as “the Laurence Fishburne incident.”
Last summer, my seventeen-month old son and I were standing on the sidewalk in front of an outdoor cafe in New York, waiting for my husband. As my son watched the passing traffic, I noticed that the actor Laurence Fishburne was sitting at a nearby table. Silently, I added his name to the list of famous people I had seen in my neighborhood, and went back to waiting.
My son was less discreet. Following my gaze, he began the toddler version of revving his engine – flapping his hands, exhaling breathily, straining against my arms. Then, in all his full-throated glory, he called out “DOGGIE,” pointing at Fishburne. A handful of customers, Fishburne included, turned toward us just in time to see my son, now gesturing emphatically, yelling, “DOGGIE! DOGGIE! DOGGIE!!!”
Needless to say, there were no dogs in sight.
If only my son’s outburst were an aberration, his lips forming the word “doggie” when his brain meant “that guy from The Matrix.” But in truth, my son has recently developed a habit of calling black people “doggie” – on the street, on the subway, in our corner deli. And in response, I have developed a fear of leaving my apartment.
On the one hand, I know that my humiliation is an over-reaction. He’s a baby with a limited vocabulary, not David Duke. Naturally, his enthusiasm to speak sometimes results in using the wrong word – he mistakes planes for helicopters, buses for cars, and anything in a glass – coffee, orange juice, bourbon – for milk.
But, at the risk of reducing my son’s budding comprehension to a standardized test question, those verbal swaps represent items of a similar category, things that go, or things you drink. Finding a similar link between Laurence Fishburne eating a plate of pasta and a golden retriever walking on a leash is more problematic. And the fact remains, my son has never, not once, referred to a white person as a dog. So I find myself adding another anxiety to the already overcrowded catalogue of concerns I have about my job as a parent: is my son taking his first steps toward becoming a bigot?
When you are focused on the minutiae of raising a toddler – teaching him how to feed himself, or to play in a sandbox without mauling another child – it’s easy to forget they are becoming anything, much less a thinking, sentient being. But my son’s race problem has reminded me that his powers of perception, like those of all kids his age, are razor-sharp. Every day, the lens through which he sees the world is being crafted. So the question is, what does he see?
As parents, many of us tend to focus on what we want our kids to see and disregard what we are actually showing them. As in, “I want my kids to eat a healthy diet, and never mind the fact that they watch me skip breakfast, work out obsessively and complain about my figure.” Or, “I want my kids to be truthful and honest, and never mind the fact that I screen my calls, or encourage them to lie about liking a present they actually loathe.”
Or in my case, “I want my son to see that I have a library of books left over from my days as an African-American Studies major and a pictorial montage of him dressed in a series of Obama onesies and never mind the fact that I have no black friends, that we live in a neighborhood that is overwhelmingly white, and that the non-white people we meet are either delivering food, caring for other people’s children, or working behind a register.”
More than any experience I have had thus far as a parent, this sudden question of race has been utterly humbling. My husband and I have talked quite earnestly about our desire to raise our kids in a multicultural environment, as opposed to the lily-white suburbs in which we grew up. This aspiration is one that many of our white friends talk about, and many of us see it as one of the primary reasons to stay in New York City.