The Color of Family
Courtney was obsessed with Whitney Houston and George Michael. She had both on cassette tape and we would spend hours dancing around my basement singing How Will I Know? at the top of our lungs. Courtney had fashion sense. She could rock hot pink leggings one day and smiley face suspenders the next. She was hilariously funny, loved Girl Scouts, easy bake ovens, and could play Heart and Soul on the piano at warp speed. We were 9 years old and she was my best friend
When asked about Courtney, my father always marveled that I never mentioned her skin color. At age 9 I don’t know if I noticed, but for my father who had come of age in pre-Civil Rights Movement East Texas, not noticing the color of someone’s skin made him proud. We lived in Reston, the first integrated community in Virginia. My parents chose this town because they wanted their children to grow up in a place filled with diversity. Where you could look beyond someone’s outward appearance to who they are as individuals.
My son runs up to me and proudly holds out his arm. “I am brown and you are white.” My mind races as I consider how to begin a conversation about race with a three year old. My son plows on: “Daddy has blue eyes, I have brown eyes, and you have brown eyes.” I take a deep breath and begin. “You know honey, people come in all different – ” My son stops me. “ But you have brown hair, I have brown hair, and Daddy has no hair.”
It occurs to me in that moment that for my son, skin color is no different than any other characteristic of his physical appearance. He has not experienced the qualifiers that others can, and inevitably will, place on him. Inside he is “Just Jack.” But outside? Outside he is Chinese. Outside he is an immigrant. Outside people look at our family and see “one of these things is not like the other.”
A friend recently shared with me an occurrence that happened in a neighborhood not too far from my own. The family, a white adoptive family with a Vietnamese son, came home from vacation to find a political sign on their front lawn loudly proclaiming “Ban Them All.” The political sign faced outward towards the street. The “Ban Them All” sign faced towards their home – straight into their living room window to be precise. Their 9 year old son knew exactly what that sign meant. The message was clear.
The family immediately pulled down that hateful sign. What ensued were days of their friends and neighbors putting new signs in their front lawn. Signs proclaiming “We Are Better Because YOU Are HERE” and “You Are Loved!” The rally of support was beautiful. And yet….
As an adoptive parent I can’t get that first sign out of my head. I hate the idea that someone will look at my son and see “The Other.” But to remain color blind at this point in our nation’s history is like living in a world of pink cotton candy. It’s just not real.
When the time comes, I will have a conversation about race with my son. I will tell him that I am proud of who he is. I am proud of his Chinese heritage. I will tell him that he comes from a city known for their Emperors. A city of dragons. I will tell him he should never let others define who he is. And I will tell him that if they do, I will always be here to support him.
I will tell him all these things over and over again. And I will work to ensure he grows up in a community, and more importantly a country, that welcomes diversity. Maybe then, and only then, will we come to a place where we truly can be color blind. A place where everyone can dance to How Will I Know? no matter what their color, race, ethnicity, orientation, or creed may be.
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