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.
But until my son started likening dark-skinned humans to animals, I hadn’t given any thought to how ridiculous my stated intention was. After all, the phrase itself is almost deliberately noncommittal. A multicultural environment? What does that mean, exactly? Proximity to black people? Dinner table discussions about Martin Luther King? Suddenly, my husband and I found ourselves having to spell out all the vagaries of our own aspirations – a task that forced us to confront some ugly truths.
For starters, I had to come to grips with the fact that we aren’t the people we imagined ourselves to be. There are many neighborhoods that are more integrated than ours. We didn’t choose to live in one. We told ourselves that it was because of important factors – proximity to work and our friends, to a good subway line and great schools, and open, green space. And all of those things were true. But it is also true that in choosing them, we prioritized those factors above living in a more racially balanced neighborhood. So our commitment to diversity, which I am certain I am guilty of having bragged about at cocktail parties, was not as important as, say, being near the park.
Moreover, I had to accept that my notions of how we pass on values to our children are preposterous. Diversity isn’t contagious; being near it isn’t enough to make it rub off on you. And equality isn’t a theory, like algebra, that can be learned at homework time. For our son to have a significantly different worldview, we had to commit to changing our lifestyle, to selecting institutions that were broadly inclusive, to living in a different neighborhood, to interacting with different people. In short, we’d have to introduce a degree of intent into our parenting, rather than a kumbaya-inspired sense of hope that he will see the world differently simply because we ask him to.
Realizations are one thing; transformations are another. Our transformation has yet to happen. We are starting to look at other neighborhoods, and to figure out ways to socialize with different people. The need to make a change feels urgent right now. But will that urgency remain with us? I honestly don’t know.
I had to come to grips with the fact that we aren’t the people we imagined ourselves to be. What I do know is that the “doggie” phase will come to an end. My son’s vocabulary will continue to grow, and he will learn some semblance of manners, which will include keeping his observations to himself, or at least to a dull roar. Other people and sounds will occupy his interest – and other issues of parenting will no doubt rise in prominence. Perhaps my husband and I will slide back to the pre-Fishburne days, when we thought the question of our son’s character was something that we could muddle through, and we’ll tell ourselves that we have more time to figure all this out.
But on some afternoons, when I walk by the public school complex in my neighborhood, I feel the clock ticking. The elementary school is one of the best in the city, boasting two different gifted and talented programs. The high school across the street, on the other hand, has a four-year graduation rate of 35%.
Each day, I watch the largely white student body, some of them bused from all over the city, filter out of the elementary school, and then I see the high school students, who are almost all black and Latino. Both sets of children stream out opposite school doors, a jostling mass of backpacks and blue jeans, so alike in fundamental ways, and so different in others.
And I wonder – if my son goes to one of the programs in that elementary school, how will I answer him when he asks why the kids in his classes are mostly white, but the high schoolers across the street are not?
Or worse, if my husband and I simply put our heads in the sand, do we risk raising a child who never even thinks to ask?