Alex Barnett shares how his interracial family is exactly the embodiment of the integration and progression forward for which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. so fervently fought.
I’m a White guy. My wife is Black. Our 3 year-old son is Biracial. Given recent news regarding race and race relations in this country, and with the approach of the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, I find myself thinking, and sometimes even worrying, about being the White dad of a Black son. At the same time, sometimes I wonder whether I’m worried about nothing. Race is an artificial construct. People are born colorblind in matters of race. If I don’t make a big deal of it, then it won’t be an issue at all, right? On the other hand, isn’t that incredibly naïve? Isn’t it ignoring the history of the country?
So, I think about this quite a bit, and even more so as we come to the day on our calendar when our thoughts rightly focus on questions of race and civil rights and equality. At moments, I feel like our interracial family is exactly the embodiment of the integration and progression forward that Dr. King so fervently fought for. Other times, I worry that it’s only a matter of time before race becomes a wedge between us.
Of course, it’s impossible to know what the future will hold for my son and me. He is only three after all. Right now, our relationship isn’t about race. It’s about he’s a toddler, and I’m the guy who doesn’t sleep because I can’t stop worrying about school and money and college and making sure he doesn’t run into traffic and that he has enough toys (but not too many) and that he has good manners and that he’s signed up for all the right extracurriculars (but not too many) and that I have enough money to provide for him and that we don’t go broke raising him and, oh yeah, did I mention the money part?
So, for now, at least, our relationship is not about race. But, as we commemorate Dr. King and his work, I am reminded that we are not far from the days when my relationship with my son would’ve been dictated by race. Fifty years ago, there were parts of this country where my son and I would have had to use separate drinking fountains. I can’t imagine that. We share drinking glasses, and he backwashes Elmo cookies in there. He’ll take food that he’s chewed and shove it in my mouth. And, as gross as that sounds, I love it because it shows how close we are. I’m not saying eating pre-chewed food will end racism. I’m just saying it’s a little hard to hate someone who literally gives you the food from their own mouth.
And, separate bathrooms? Are you kidding? Every time I use the bathroom he insists on coming with me. And, there have been many times when I had to pee sitting down because he’s fascinated by running water. He’s not even in kindergarten yet, and he’s taken my manhood by forcing me to urinate like a woman. And that’s just “number one.” I’ll spare you the details about “number two” except to say that because he mimics everything I do, he comes at me with baby wipes in his hand, and I have to shout “No! I can still do that myself.”
So, yes, segregation is over. But, racial tension is not. Right now, my son thinks roughhousing is hilarious. But, in a couple of years, he might not think it’s so funny to have an older White guy push him around.
I dread that day. Because I love my son, and I don’t want him to be suspicious of me because of race the same way that I, a Jewish guy, tend to get nervous around Germans. Yes, I know the Holocaust has been over for more than 70 years. I know, too, that I wasn’t even alive when it happened. Still, if I hear people speaking German, I definitely look around to see where the exits are. I don’t care if it’s a family of tourists wearing Mickey Mouse t-shirts and fanny packs. Unless they’re also wearing yarmulkes, I’m always a little worried that they’re gonna ask me for my papers (I’m joking, of course . . . sort of. Today’s Germans are very hip and cool and vegan and environmental. Still, when you hear a 6’5” blonde guy with blue eyes start in with those guttural consonants, it does get your attention).
And, I don’t want my son feeling like that around me. I don’t want him to fear or resent me because I’m White and I look outwardly like the people who enslaved people who looked like his Mommy. I don’t want him to fear or resent me at all. But, if he insists on fearing and resenting me it should be for the same reason that all sons fear and resent their fathers, simply because I’m his father, the guy who keeps telling him how to be a man, even when it’s horribly annoying and inconvenient and conflicts with his busy schedule of video games, hanging out, dating and engaging in generalized teenage malingering.
Yet, no matter how much I want to protect and guide and advise my son, race is one area where I can’t fall back on my own experience. No one’s ever crossed the street to get away from me except for an ex-girlfriend who just really didn’t want to talk to me anymore. The only time someone ever followed me around a store wasn’t because they thought I was going to steal something, it was because the clerk wanted to help me reach the top shelf. If I wear a hoodie, people don’t think “thug” they think “grad student who could use a shower.”
And, while we’re on the topic, what happens if he asks me for advice on how to be a strong Black man? I’m not even sure I’m a strong White man.
Some people will tell you that none of this matters, that I’m blowing it all out of proportion. Maybe. Maybe it only matters if you think it matters. Or, maybe, with the growing number of interracial and multiracial families and with a Biracial President living in the White House, this is exactly the kind of conversation we ought to be having. Certainly, recent news events demonstrate that as much progress has been made with respect to race relations in this country, much still remains to be done.
Ultimately, I see the Dr. King Holiday as an opportunity: to think about and discuss these issues of race openly, honestly and with respect; to note that seeing color doesn’t have to mean judging color; and to honor the work of Dr. King and so many others who fought so very hard to overcome racial injustice and set us all on a path to where a White man (and a Jewish one at that) could marry a Black woman and have a Biracial son, and their biggest problem, potentially, could be that they live in a too-small apartment in New York City.
And, last, because it is the Dr. King holiday, it is fitting to remember his words:
“I look to a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
-Martin Luther King, Jr.