When my oldest son was four years old he revealed to me that he recognized himself to be a non-White person. I was totally surprised because I expected a conversation about his race to surface at a later time; perhaps a year or two in the future. This particular moment of self identification is one of my favorite memories for two reasons: (1) it was so sweet and innocent in nature, and (2) it was so complex at its root.
When my oldest son was a toddler we lived in a small three bedroom house that had one and one-half bathrooms. Each night after I would put him to bed I would shower in the one full bath in the house, which was across the hall from his bedroom. I always knew that he was still awake when I would come out of the bathroom because he would either tell me goodnight again, or call me to come into his room to talk or read another story before he went to sleep.
On this particular night, however, the talk proved to be quite memorable. He beckoned me with a quiet rhythmic (almost song like) “moooommyyyy, come heeerrrre.” I opened the door to see him propped up on one arm with a huge grin across his face, baby teeth spread from ear to ear. He gently pat the bed for me to come in and sit next to him, so I did. We talked for a minute or two about why he was still up, and then he began to randomly point at my leg, which was partly viewable because of my night gown, and count aloud.
The hall light made for a low, warm glow, which span a few feet inside the otherwise dark room; the light was just enough for him to see my leg clearly. All of a sudden he stopped counting, looked up at me, and asked in toddler style broken English, “What all those spots on your leg?” A little surprised by the question I answered, “Freckles.” He immediately asked, “Frecks?” And I corrected him, “No, they are freckles.” “Oooohh,” he said.
After a moment or so he asked, “Why you have all those frecks for?” So I gave what I felt at that time was a good child friendly answer. I said, “I suppose God thought I needed a few extra decorations.” He smiled, looked at his own leg and said, “God didn’t give me no frecks.” I noted that he was right and with a smile on my face I shrugged and said, “Well, it seems to me that God must believe that you don’t need anything more.” I was pleased with myself after this answer, believing that the answer would do it for the night.
But, that notion on my part was disproved quickly; He wasn’t finished just yet. With an enormous smile that now spread all the way to his little eyes so that they squinted up at the corners he announced in a most pleased manner, “I suuurrre do like your frecks and your lellow too!” I laughed and thanked him for the compliment. I told him that it sure made me happy to know that he like my freckles.
He paused for a minute and looked back a his own skin, appearing now to scan arms and legs alike. When he looked up this time he asked, “Well, do you like my brown?” With a smile of pure astonishment and delight at his acknowledgement of self, something that I had not considered that he had even thought about before, I answered, “III looove it!” He smiled back at me, giggled a little toddler giggle, and as he laid back to put his head on his pillow he said, “Yeah, me too,” still smiling from ear to ear.
Once again, I thought he was finished talking, so I started to get up to leave the room when he asked, “Mom, did you know dad is Black?” With that question, I lost my forward momentum and fell gently back to my previously seated position. “Yes, I do know that dad is Black,” I answered. He immediately inserted before I could continue speaking, “Not really. He’s really brown, but Brandon said he’s Black.” “Yeah,” I said, “people do say that your dad is Black and that I am White.” Again, before I could continue to speak he said, ” You’re not even White. You’re lellow. I don’t think people know their colors very good. Why would Brandon say Black when dad is really brown and White when you are really lellow?” I immediately thought to myself that this was clearly a conversation that would have to wait for his years to catch up to the seriousness of the issue. Frankly, the politics behind that kind of question are way too complicated for many adults to handle, never mind a four year old child.
However, given his thoughts at four, I knew that we would have the conversation in time, but for today it could and would wait. So in an effort to satisfy his four year old mind I answered, “You may be right about that, darlin’. But one thing is for sure; you know all of your colors! You know what? You sure are a smart boy, especially to be only four years old. Now, go to bed my handsome brown boy.” He laughed, said goodnight again, and I closed the door, excited to go share the story of our child’s realization of self with my husband.
Later during the course of my son’s childhood other conversations involving race took place in our home many times, perhaps more times than are typical of race conversations that take place in monoracial homes, but none of those conversations stand out in my mind in quite the same way. All of our children (we have three) have grown to embrace that they are both Black and White. In fact, they have all self identified socially as Black/White Biracials.
Identification of self in the world is a powerful concept that is known to profoundly impact one’s worldview. The freedom to choose also implies freedom to think in unconventional terms.