Son’s First Racial Stirrings Cause Dad to Reflect on his Whiteness
At the dinner table the other night, my wife and I were giving our son Selby the usual grilling about his day at preschool. He told us his favorite activity of the day was playing with two of the other boys in his class. These weren’t two of his usual sidekicks, so we asked why he liked hanging out with those particular kids. He smiled and said, “Their hair looks like my hair!” My wife and I exchanged a glance. The fair-haired friends Selby referred to were the only other white males in his class. Did we have an unwitting, three-year-old segregationist on our hands?
The more I thought about it, the better I felt about Selby’s racial realization. When I was growing up in rural Wisconsin, it was pretty much a given that all the other boys in my class had hair that looked like mine. Hair colors in my elementary school class ranged from blonde to light brown, with Tim Schendel’s russet locks providing our only splash of exoticism. On the other hand, when we pick up Selby from his preschool in downtown Saint Paul, the parents with whom we exchange brief pleasantries embody a wide swath of humanity. There are black couples, white couples, interracial couples. Minnesota natives, transplants from the Deep South, immigrants from West Africa and Southeast Asia. Mommies and daddies, mommies and mommies, just mommies and just daddies. It’s like the boy attends preschool in one of those studiously diverse McDonald’s commercials.
Comparing Wisconsin farmland to Minnesota’s capital city is an apples and oranges scenario, but I do sometimes wonder if we’re doing right by Selby, bringing him up in an urban environment. My own isolated childhood in the backwoods is such a vital part of my identity that I often feel like I’m depriving my son of the wonder of nature. But I also remember how thoroughly out of my element I was when I first moved to Minneapolis for college. It took me a long while to acclimate to the opportunities, the dangers and especially the people of the big city. Minneapolis was teeming with people, many of who were unlike people I’d seen anywhere else. The moment I finally felt at home in the city was when I realized I no longer had to remind myself not to stare when a Muslim woman in hijab passed by. This will presumably not be an issue for Selby, whose first-ever teacher was a deeply sweet Muslim woman in hijab.
I will admit, though, that I was a little disappointed to hear that the boy was hanging with the other white kids. Again, this stems back to my rural upbringing. By the time I got to high school, I actually had a few classmates of color – not many, but a few. Once I was old enough to self-identify as a liberal, it became something of a badge of honor to be seen hanging out with my non-white friends. It didn’t take long for me to realize this was silly and more than a little racist on my part, but at the time it seemed like a rebellion against what I saw as the hopeless redneckery of my peers. As lame as I know it is for a white guy to brag about having a black friend, some small part of me still wants to be able to brag about my kid having a bunch of black friends. Fortunately, that nonsense doesn’t figure into Selby’s day plan. He plays with whoever strikes him as the most fun on any given day, giving precious little thought to his father’s creepy idiocy.
So I figure there’s no harm in letting the boy enjoy the company of his hairmates. The more I think about it, the fact that he finds that little pocket of homogeneity noteworthy is a pretty good indicator that embracing diversity isn’t going to be an issue for him. Hell, it probably isn’t going to even be a concept for him. I won’t pretend that external appearances will ever be entirely irrelevant – nor do I think they should be – but I have high hopes that my boy will grow up knowing that people are people above all else. I’m happy to be raising him in a world where otherness is only hair deep.