"I like that character because he's brown like us... I hope the black guy wins."
These are some of the statements I can hear my 5-year-old son make while watching TV or playing video games. He's been doing this for some time now, verbally identifying with brown-skinned people. In these moments, I think back to my suburban upbringing where I was the minority in almost all settings. It makes me glow inside to see him responding positively to images that resemble his own. It's particularly comforting when this occurs at home with his father and me.
However, I'm surprised by my own thoughts to direct his focus away from skin color, especially when I think about him in the presence of others, and when mom and dad are not physically there to support him. The socially innocuous side of my brain suggests that we teach him to curb unprovoked, pro-black sentiments when he's with white people. Yet, if and when race becomes a point of contention, I want him to be able to defend himself and his beliefs with as much passion as his young heart can muster. But as I process this for myself I can imagine how difficult this could be for a child to negotiate -- having to turn it on and off, express it now, then bottle it back up. At 37 years old, it's challenging enough for me to regulate myself appropriately where race is concerned, and I've had lots of practice. Just as quickly as this thought to contain his racial and ethnic pride comes to me, I ask myself why I should feel funny about the fact that my little brown boy identifies with people and characters that look like him.
Before he was able to express or understand this dynamic of color and ethnicity, I worried that he wouldn't identify with images that favored or even acknowledged him. What would we do if he wasn't able to assess his worth and assert himself as the minority within his social environments? How would we explain why people might be inclined to treat him as inferior? I won't forget the day he told me he wanted to go on a date with Lola, a white classmate. I just imagined her overlooking his strengths but noticing foremost that he's black and she's white, and then expressing discomfort with that. My apprehension around this was so palpable, and this was only pre-school. While Lola didn't dismiss our son on the basis of race (or any other, for that matter), that didn't make me feel any less anxious or protective. Racism and its related injustices are just additional things to protect him from, even knowing that we can never fully accomplish the goal.
I can't say I've ever heard our son share these sentiments of black allegiance in the company of his friends. I'd like to think that he's got a mature level of social intelligence, but maybe in those moments he's actually unaware of color dynamics, which don't seem to have arisen yet between him and his young buddies. But we know that one day it will, and because we know this we have to prepare him for and against it.
The reality is, our son shouldn't and doesn't have to hide his enthusiasm for positively identifying with blackness. Inevitably, there'll be so many places in society where that pride and feeling of kinship will be curbed for him, despite his own desires and tendencies. In those moments his defenses are going to kick in. Quite probably, our son is more wise than I give him credit for. My adult overthinking could just be complicating things. Maybe it's as simple as this: if he wants to celebrate being black, let him. If he's not thinking about it, don't bring it up or put boundaries on his racial expression. Meanwhile, we continue to provide him with the tools to love and value himself, understand societal systems and his assigned, achieved and divine places in and around them, along with his role in improving them.
To not be conscious of race in America is to be unaware, and perhaps dishonest about the fact that race matters and affects the way this society functions. And for brown-skinned people, being unaware is dangerously irresponsible. Like so many others, our son fits the profile of boys and men victimized by other's fears. We don't have the option of ignorance, and unfortunately, the sooner we become aware, the more time we'll have to make sense of and act upon the realities that exist around race.