Last week, while it was still Loving Day in the US, my son (AM) celebrated his 20th birthday. Loving Day commemorates a landmark US court case in 1967 which made laws against interracial marriage unconstitutional. Continue reading
Crime fiction is not my favourite genre. Just ask my friend Gas Wylde, whose novel based on the Wanda Beach murders I have been struggling to finish – just because I’m afraid it will get too grisly. I confess, I never really graduated from Agatha Christie.
I’m not averse to broadening my literary horizons though, which is why last year I joined a book club that some friends had started. I thought it was time I got out of my literary comfort zone (fantasy & non-fiction, and yes, I know those words sound odd together). We have read & discussed some great books, and the latest was – wait for it – crime fiction: African-Aussie Malla Nunn’s A Beautiful Place to Die , set in South Africa in the fifties, not long after apartheid was made law.
The other day I was reading an article on Intermix by Canadian ‘Piss’ comedian Sabrina Jalees. (Piss, by her own definition = Pakistani/Swiss). She listed all the pros and cons of being mixed race. The one that struck a chord with me was “Your innocent mother-daughter love is easily mistaken for a ‘creepy sugar momma and her young misguided brown girl’ lesbian fling.” Not that AM and I have ever been mistaken for lesbians of course, but there was that time in Germany last year when the hotel proprietor seemed to think we’d be needing a double bed … ick. AM was only 13 at the time.
Anyway, her comment prompted me to think of the three major ways in which white mum’s relationships with our kids get mis-identified. From birth through primary school people think you’ve adopted them. (Aren’t you good!, they exclaim to you beside the swings).
Then there’s the Cougar phase I just referred to, starting sometime during puberty and lasting, I assume, a very, very long time.
And finally, I’m guessing that when I’m old and decrepit, people will think he’s a kindly care worker or volunteer at an old people’s home. (Isn’t he good!, they will think to themselves).
I don’t really hold it against people. They’re usually just curious about us. I’m sure it’s good for my patience. This pic at right from when he was little, is for everyone who wonders who we are.
Get used to it.
I was at an Australian African Network picnic on the weekend, and got to appreciate once more the benefits of being a member of this organisation. AAN is a group for people in mixed relationships and families, where one of the partners is of African background, and meeting other people at picnics & social events means you get a chance to share stories and experience with people who actually understand the challenges you face.
I took AM’s (half) brothers 50 Cedis, Abrantie and G Ketewa. AM, being now 15, scorns the whole concept of picnics – unless organised and attended by his friends – so of course he wasn’t there. Lucky I carry his pic in my wallet or no-one from that part of my life would recognise him anymore. In fact, when he got take-away from the latest AAN dinner party, one of my friends didn’t recognise him.
Another reason he doesn’t come to AAN events these days is because they are connected to what he considers my obsession with all things African. I was explaining this to someone at the picnic and she just nodded and laughed and said, “Yes, I’ve got friends who are going through exactly the same thing with their teens”. Well, it’s great to hear this from another source! I am not the only white parent who’s copping criticism.
I guess to AM it might look like I’m obsessed. I’m very involved with AAN, and as you can tell from this blog I love African music, dance, fabrics, food, etc, etc. I explained to him one day that with limited time on my hands, I usually choose to enjoy those things when I get the chance, rather than doing something more mainstream. Especially when African musicians like Salif Keita only come to Australia once in a blue moon! And also I like to learn about African history, politics and culture because – well, it helps me navigate all my different friendships and relationships. But there are also things about my own culture that I love just as passionately – literature, language, roast dinners, sponge cakes, bagpipes, Irish music, Dr Who, dry humour – the list goes on and on.
I like to think I’ve got a balance. But I’m not sure. Maybe he’s right to call me on it. It hasn’t been awful, angry criticism – more teasing really. Sometimes when watching TV he’ll accuse me of having a crush on a black character. “Don’t deny it, you know it’s true! Racist, racist!” he’ll crow. My denial only feeds his triumph over having scored against me. Or the other night I was helping him with a school assigment about gender and suggested he search online for pictures of super models – like Naomi Campbell. His response was something like “Ha! gotcha! You only thought of her because she’s BLACK! Ha ha!” I hurriedly cast around in my mind for a white supermodel. Ok, I confess, it took a minute or two to come up with Elle McPherson. “Racist, you’re racist!” he accused. “Oh yes, I’m so sorry, I do my best not to be, please, please forgive me!” I cried, pleading on my knees.
Now before you start worrying about us both, please note that this was all quite playful, even though the content might sound harsh. It ended in laughter, not tears. Play has always been an important part of the way I parent since AM was a baby. Kids are naturally playful and I believe that play helps them work through things that trouble them, express things they can’t in other ways, experiment with roles and power, become closer to their parents – and of course have fun. If as the adult you can stay light and relaxed when kids bring up hard stuff in play you can build trust, gain a lot of insight into their lives and help them heal from hurts. AM’s no longer small but I think these things about play are still true for him.
As well as that though, what he’s raising in this case is a real issue for me too. After all, he’s the black person in this scenario, so perhaps – probably? – he’s got a clearer perspective on my interests than I do. And it’s certainly true that white people often do objectify black people as exotic, fascinating, sexual, other. I’m sure I’ve been guilty of that at times. It may not be vilification, but it is still a kind of racism because it gets in the way of us seeing their full humanity. This has been historically embedded in my culture for centuries, it’s part of how we see and think of black people. As white people we need to be aware of that, reflect upon it, and stop doing it. Self-awareness and a willingness to change is more useful to everyone who cares about equality and justice, than getting defensive about a spot of unaware racism.
So when AM accuses me of being racist I don’t worry about the truth of it, I don’t take offence. Instead, I try and figure out how to keep the playfulness moving us forward. I take it as a good sign that AM can raise these issues with me in this way. A very good sign. For him, for me, for our relationship, and for the future.
Here are my two favourite resources on how play helps build closeness between parents and children:
And an article about the role of white people in ending racism: http://www.rc.org/uer/index.html