It is a question I have asked my sons many times, usually before initial encounters with the parents of their white friends. It remains an unfortunate reality that Black people must announce our presence in new environments in order to prepare others for first-time appearances, lest we put ourselves in an uncomfortable, hurtful, or God-forbid, life-threatening position. The truth of the matter is Black people, young Black men, in particular, are still not welcome everywhere.
I most recently posed this question to my eldest, who is a college freshman, as he shared an invitation to spend Spring Break with a group of friends on a tropical island. The family of one of the young ladies owns a vacation home on said island and generously offered it up for a much-needed getaway. All the young men and women going on the trip were white, except for my son, so I had to ask him if the parents who owned the fabulous vacation home were aware of his race. He wasn’t sure. I told him it would be wise to make that clear prior to the trip. I did not want my son to discover that her parents were uncomfortable with his presence after he arrived. He needed to get things straight upfront.
I didn’t have to explain all that to him, of course. He was more than willing to have the conversation and agreed to ensure that the relevant information was relayed before departure. My son understood that the temporary awkwardness of the dialogue with his white friend was necessary to avoid a potentially far more painful outcome if he did not provide clarification upfront. You see, he had already been punched in the gut by the fist of systemic racism that had been internalized into the heart and mind of a white parent when he had the audacity to ask this man’s daughter to the high school Homecoming dance only to discover a week before the event, the father had forbidden her to attend the dance with my son because he was Black.
My then fifteen-year-old son was shocked that this young lady’s father made a judgment about him without knowing anything about him other than his race. As he repeated the father’s words, I could feel the tears he refused to show gathering up in his eyes, and it broke my heart. I was infuriated at this family for subjecting my boy to the particular and very personal pain of being devalued and demonized solely on the basis of his Blackness. I questioned whether I had adequately prepared him for the still-racist world in which we lived, and the environment in which I had chosen to educate him. I chided myself for believing that somehow, someway, he would be able to escape this sort of blatant racism, as if all the clutched purses and averted eyes and shifts to the other sides of the streets would be the extent of the attacks he would endure as a Black man in America. Surely, I hoped (wished?) we had moved past the kind of in-your-face racism that my son had just encountered. Of course, I knew that there were still racist people “out there”, but I lamented that this kind of ignorance remained alive in the hearts of white people who were the parents of the kids my child learned and played beside.
My son told me that the entire issue had caused a huge rift in the young lady’s household. The girl’s mother was angry with the father and the daughter had stopped talking to her dad as well. I really didn’t care about that. I understood that this was a debate that this white family could have, and then leave behind, not so for me and my son. While the father’s proclamation caused temporary tension in their family, it left an indelible mark on my son. I knew that this experience and the comments of this uninformed father would not soon be forgotten.
I set about the acute healing work familiar to many Black parents to remind my son that other people’s perceptions of him based on stereotypes and lies did not determine his value. I assured my son that this white man, who had never laid eyes on him, had never observed his well-composed carriage and delightful demeanor, nor had spoken with him to discover his thoughtfulness and intelligence, was absolutely wrong in his assessment. I explained that this man’s position was illogical and urged my son to not internalize the baseless rejection of his humanity. I wanted him to understand that his Blackness was a beautiful part of what made him, and it did not, in any way, render him deficient.
My son’s intended date remained determined to go to Homecoming regardless of what her father said. I admonished my son that to attend the dance with this young lady, given the totality of the circumstances, had now become dangerous for him. We discussed the long history of violence against Black men because of their interaction, real or imagined, with White women, starting with Emmett Till, another Chicagoan, until today. Without some reconciliation, it was not a risk I was willing to take. Furthermore, I possessed neither the interest nor capacity to disavow this father of his racist beliefs in order to convince him that my son was “worthy” of taking his daughter to the dance, I was too angry for that. I honestly would have preferred my son to find some beautiful Black girl to take to the dance instead and “show them all.”
I wanted him to move past this horrible and hurtful moment. But it was not my moment, it was his. I had to be careful to not let my pride override his simple teenage desire to just go to a school dance. In order for that to happen, some conversations had to take place, and I wasn’t going to be the one having them.
My son’s father magnanimously engaged in several conversations with the girl’s father and mother, as is common for Black people to do. When we are the object of oppression, we are often expected to be the restorer of the oppressor. While we are still nursing our own wounds created by white folks’ ignorance or malevolence, we are called upon to help them, educate them, and make our Blackness okay for them.
The girl’s father told my ex-husband that because of his work in law enforcement, he had developed a perception that all young Black men were “thugs” or “criminals”. My ex-husband, no doubt, was firm but compassionate in his rebuttal of these beliefs, but it broke my heart that such a conversation ever had to take place. The girl’s dad admitted that his decision was based on stereotypes and not in any sort of reality, knowledge, or experience about my son. I don’t know if his heart was changed, but his recantation was deemed adequate, so they went to the dance.
As it turns out, Homecoming was not as much fun as my son imagined it would be, as is often the case with these sorts of things. We all went back to life as normal, except my son did not forget his first and very personal encounter with overt racism. And so, he understands why, five years later, and many times in-between I have to ask him the question: Do her parents know you’re Black? Most of the time, the answer is: Yes, and they don’t care. I am acutely aware that to have to ask the question at all is a type of indignity. I won’t stop asking, though, because it is a precaution that I know is still, unfortunately, all too necessary, perhaps now more than ever.
Honestly, given recent events in our country, I can’t imagine a time when the question won’t be a requirement, however inadequate. It is, ultimately, an attempt to retain a measure of dignity in situations that could possibly render one painfully diminished. The goal, of course, is to create a world where such inquiries are unnecessary. It seems sometimes implausible that such a world could ever exist. I can only hope that maybe, by the time my son has a child of his own, he won’t have to ask him or her the same question.