Helping My Fair-Skinned Son Embrace His Blackness

He identifies as African American, but it’s a constant struggle to get his peers and teachers to see him that way.

Ashley Seil Smith
Editor’s Note: This article is part of Parenting in an Uncertain Age, a series about the experience of raising children in a time of great change.

I recently confessed to my son that I would have to miss back-to-school night for a work trip. Most parents can expect one of two reactions from their children to this news: relief or a guilt trip. My son’s response was of the second variety, but with a particular twist. “You can’t miss back-to-school night!” he said. “How else will my new teachers know I’m black?”

For my husband and me, back-to-school night is not only about establishing what kind of parents we will be for the coming school year—it is also about establishing our son’s racial identity and sense of belonging.

I am a black woman married to a white man. Our 13-year-old son looks white—blond-haired, blue-eyed, straight-nosed, thin-lipped, fair-skinned white—but he identifies as black. Our daughter is much lighter than I am, and is often mistaken for Middle Eastern or Latina, but I cannot help but see traces of my paternal grandmother’s high cheekbones and wide nose in her round face.

Some queer people talk about the existence of “gaydar”—the ability to identify one of their own, whether they are out or closeted. As the child of a white mother and a black father, I have whatever the equivalent is for being able to spot black people no matter how fair their skin or how European their features. I could always claim my people, I thought. But when our son was born, I realized that no special power was going to help me see his African heritage. My husband thought our newborn was albino the first time he cradled him in his arms. He was that white.

I stayed home with him until just before his first birthday: Nursing was my defense against strangers who assumed I was the nanny. I weaned him just as he learned to say “Mama.” Now he could claim me as his own to the skeptics at the playground or when we were out running errands.

For the most part, the neighborhood in New Haven, Connecticut, where we lived for the first 11 years of our son’s life was a refuge from such skeptics. Sure, the new crop of Yale grad students and junior faculty who moved in each year often looked askance when our son would yell “Mom” to me across grocery-store aisles, but they soon caught on. Everyone in our neighborhood knew us as a family.

Like other mixed-race children, our son started his journey to figure out his racial identity early. From kindergarten through about third grade, he would say he was African American. Then, the summer before fourth grade, he switched to identifying as biracial. When my husband and I asked about the change, he said no one at his day camp believed him when he said he was African American. He thought laying claim to a biracial identity was more likely to be accepted. But he soon learned that biracial seemed just as implausible as African American to his peers outside the neighborhood.

School is the place where kids navigate their identity and relationships apart from their families. In our children’s case, school was also separate from their neighborhood: Each day, they boarded a bus to attend a diverse magnet school about five miles from our home. It was there that he would make his black identity known. His older sister’s being there certainly helped serve as a marker, but she, too, was navigating what it meant to be a racially ambiguous child. Each year, I made a point of chaperoning the first field trip of the school year. My volunteerism was as much a display of parent engagement as it was a subconscious way of helping my children assert their blackness.

We moved to Washington, D.C., after 16 years in New Haven, and mere weeks before our children started high school and middle school. As the moving day approached, our son’s concerns intensified. One day, while sorting through old picture books, he revealed the root cause of his anxiety. “How will they know who I am?” he asked me. I reminded him that middle school would be new to every sixth grader. He replied, “No, how will they know who I really am? How will they know I’m black? I’ll have to start all over again. This time no one is going to believe me.”

Around that same time, we took a week-long road trip through the South, culminating with a family reunion on my father’s side. Our son sat alongside his cousins of varying hues of black and brown as they listened to stories about how their great-uncle was fired from his factory job after he told his boss he supported Martin Luther King Jr., and how he later sold scrap metal to send my eldest cousin to college. Our son roared with laughter as his mother and aunties stayed up late singing and dancing to soul, R&B, and old-school hip-hop. This was his family, and he belonged.

If only other people knew, if only they recognized him for how he and his family see him. I long for him to share in the sense of belonging I feel as a black person in this country. Only we feel the bond of kinship that comes when another black person dips her head to give you “the nod” as you pass each other on the street. I have always given and received the nod. Our daughter is now starting to do the same. Our son gives the nod, too—but he doesn’t want to receive it as an ally when he knows himself to be a member of the family.

Of course, blackness is more than a nod of kinship. Being black also means bracing ourselves for the vagaries of racism every time we walk out of our homes or, in the case of Botham Jean, leave our doors even slightly ajar. As much as I long for our son to enjoy the full privileges of being black, I am equal parts relieved and guilt-ridden that I do not have to worry about his interactions with the police the way I agonize over my male relatives in the same situation.

There is no question that the current president’s racial divisiveness has hastened and intensified our son’s formation of his identity. Donald Trump was elected president on his 11th birthday. The next day, he asked for a Black Lives Matter T-shirt for Christmas, and he wore it a couple of times a week for the rest of fifth grade. Everyone at his school and in our community knew why he wore it. And I understood, then, that he had shifted from seeing himself as biracial to seeing himself as black.

But after we moved to D.C., he suddenly stopped wearing the shirt: It lay folded in his dresser for a few months until he came down the stairs wearing it one Monday in early October. I was worried about him all day: How would the other kids react? That evening, he came bounding to greet me when I walked in the door from work. He couldn’t wait to tell me about the group of black boys who walked up to him and gave him dap. Or how the assistant principal, a black man in his late 30s, asked to take a photo with him during recess. Privately, my husband and I wondered whether the enthusiastic response was because they thought he was a white ally or whether they were seeing him as one of their own for the first time. It didn’t seem to matter to our son. They saw him.

But that was last year. Each year brings a new group of teachers and peers, and a new set of introductions. The threat of Hurricane Florence turned my out-of-town meeting into an all-day conference call, which meant I was able to attend back-to-school night after all. Unlike most parents who rushed out of the room at the end of each teacher’s spiel, I lingered to introduce myself. As soon as his homeroom and English teacher finished her presentation, I walked up to her, hand extended, and told her my name and my son’s name. His teacher, a black woman in her mid-thirties, paused, took a slight step back, and looked at me more intently. “Oh, yes, I see it right here,” she said, using her thumbs and index fingers to form a frame from her brow to her nose. “Thank you,” I replied. “I will tell him you said that. It will mean a lot.”