The first time was when Jake was in kindergarten. He was showing off the drawing of our family: father, mother, baby brother and himself. He’d even drawn the cat. I was perplexed that he’d colored three of the stick figures brown and one pink. I pointed to one, ignoring the names he’d written over each, and asked, “Who is that?”
“That’s me!” he said, with that mix of exasperation and long-suffering that only 6-year-olds can pull off and still be adorable.
“But why are you brown?” I pressed, ignoring his father’s “don’t go there” look.
Jake and his brother Sam are light-skinned. Not as pale as their father, who hails from the South and can his trace ancestry back to Colonial America, but still light enough that they get asked if they are Greek or Italian. Nothing close to my brown, the one who hails from the subcontinent, the land of spice and tropical sun. Yet he’d colored all three of us the same brown and couldn’t figure out why his mother was asking dumb questions.
When Sam was in first grade and he had to do a self-portrait, I was no longer surprised to see the brown figures. Still perplexed, but not surprised.
The next time it really stood out for me was when Ferguson was in flames after a police officer shot Michael Brown. Jake had heard some kids talking at school and asked me why people wanted to hurt the police. So I tried to distill years of American history (which he hasn’t learned yet) and race relations in a way appropriate for an elementary school boy. I explained that Black Lives Matter was important, and wondered if he was old enough to understand. I was trying to explain to a white boy that this was about valuing black lives. I wondered if I was doing it right.
We talked for a long time. When he walked off to do his homework, Jake seemed fine, just thoughtful. I was surprised to find him sitting on his bed staring at nothing. “What’s wrong?”
“I am thinking what to do if I see a policeman. Will he shoot me, too?”
I bit my tongue so that I wouldn’t ask, “Why would he shoot you? You are white.” Instead, I asked, “What do you mean?”
He looked down at his hands, his fair skin, and said, “I am brown, but if it is nighttime, the police wouldn’t be able to tell the difference, would they?”
That was the first time I really understood — truly understood — that even though my community treated these boys as white and the rest of the world would likely give them a pass, Jake and Sam identified closely with the experience of being a dark-skinned male in America. Perhaps they saw more than I’d realized in the minor frustrations I regularly encounter. Somehow, they’d internalized the lessons from my life more than what they see happening to their father.
I always planned to teach them about privilege, as there is a lot they need to learn. But I didn’t expect to have to convince them that actually, how they see themselves was the opposite of how they will be treated. It took me a while to come around to this view, but now I see that they don’t need to change. They can embrace their identity of being both, but decide for themselves which camp they want to be in. No one can tell them where they belong.
Now I focus on teaching them to recognize when they experience moments of privilege. We smile at each other because we know how silly the world is about giving advantage to some people instead of to everyone.
But I still have moments where I stumble. It’s an ongoing process. I am never sure what to write on forms that ask for the boys’ race and ethnicity. Many forms now let you write in multiple answers, or check off multiple boxes. As they get older, there won’t be any more forms where I have to pick just one answer, and this won’t feel like a trick question anymore.
But until then, we muddle through together, one race and privilege question at a time.