My Biracial Son…and Me
“A mother’s love for her child is like nothing else in the world. It knows no law, no pity, it dares all things and crushes down remorselessly all that stands in its path.”
I have never taken the easy road in life. I have always picked the path less traveled; I have always gone against the grain. I have always lived by my own rules, obliviously unaware of the rest of the world. Seven years ago, I found out I was pregnant with my only child; I naively thought that we would walk through this life together free of intolerance.
Wilson is half Italian; the other half complied of equal parts Puerto Rican and African-American. He has skin the color of a caramel latte, with an unruly mane of bronze curls. Depending on the way the light hits his irises, they reflect shades of blue, green, and grey. His features are remarkably symmetrical. Strangers used to stop me in stores to tell me how beautiful he was. Sometimes those comments were followed by, “Is he yours?” Or, “How long have you had him?”
My son is wide-eyed and curious, fiercely intelligent and incredibly intuitive. When he became poignantly aware that he didn’t look quite like the other kids at school, he took it much harder than I would have expected at the age of two and a half. No one of course, took it harder than me.
“Momma, why I am brown and you’re peach?” Wilson asked.
“Because Wils, Daddy is brown, and Mommy is peach, and you’re a perfect mix of us.” I replied.
“But I want my skin to be like yew skin.” His tiny voice protested.
“But honey, your skin is beautiful. Mommy lies out in the sun for hours to try to get brown like you!” He smiled, mildly appeased. Wilson had started a new pre-school about a month prior. I was eager for him to go to a real school, as opposed to a day care. It was in a great district and had real teachers. But as the weeks passed Wilson began to give me a hard time about going to school. He would cry and cry when I left, and I was getting daily reports of unfavorable behavior.
One morning as I walked Wilson to his classroom, dressed in scrubs, preparing to hurry off to work; I noticed a mother and daughter walking by. I turned my head and smiled in acknowledgement. Just a typical courtesy, like raising your hand to the guy who lets you pull out in front of him. I was taken aback when she turned her head away from me to avoid making eye contact. I thought about it and realized that none of the other mothers were friendly; the teachers weren’t even friendly to us. I’m personable, professional and well-respected in my workplace; not at all used to people looking down on me. I was in my early twenties and my hair was going through a platinum blonde phase. I assumed it was apparent that I was a single, working mother without a husband to depend on. I have never been one to care what others thought, so I didn’t dwell on it.
Wilson was tight-lipped about school; I tried to dig information out of him with no avail. But the constant discussions about his skin color and hair kept coming. His behavior at school was getting worse and worse. I asked advice from some of my colleagues who had bi-racial children. They tilted their heads sympathetically and promised it was a phase that would get better in time.
“Momma, yew look pretty-y today.” Wilson told me one day. “Yew hair looks like mine.” My hair is naturally wavy, so I put the straightening iron away and began to wear it like that every day, to show Wilson we were more similar than he thought.
“Momma, I don’t want to be brown anymore.” Wilson said.
“Honey we’ve talked about this, you’re incredibly beautiful the way you are.” I replied. I hugged his little body and filled his face with kisses.
One day my dad went to pick Wilson up from school, and Wilson went running toward him. His teacher intercepted, and began describing Wilson’s daily disobediences. He looked down at Wilson, disappointed, and started to calmly reprimand him. Wilson threw himself on the classroom carpet and proceeded to throw a world-class fit. Finally, my dad reached his limit, he picked Wilson up by his foot, spun him right-side up and carried him out on his hip.
In retrospect, I believe that Wilson’s classmates were verbally harassing him that day. I think Wilson lashed out and then was punished. To add insult to injury, when my dad went to pick him up, Wilson was searching for solace, and since this was all speculative and unbeknownst to us, when his Grandpa didn’t comfort him he lost faith in the world for a moment and reacted the only way toddlers know how to react.
This behavior became a trend over the next couple of weeks. He asked almost everyone he saw about his skin color; my parents, my aunts and my friends. My dad called me at work one day. “Wilson and I were in one of my stores…” He began. “And he went up to the cashier and asked her, ‘What color am I?’ She was surprised, paused and said, ‘You’re a beautiful color, that’s what color.’ Wilson replied, ‘I want to be your color. Brown is stupid and it’s ugly.’”
“That’s it.” I said. “I’m done. I’m pulling him out of that school. Today was his last day.” I hung up the phone and promptly vomited in the trash can. I buried my face in my hands and sat at my desk and cried, while my heart shattered into a million little pieces for my baby boy. I had come to the realization that he might suffer some racism in his life, but at two and a half? I was infuriated, appalled and disgusted. I withdrew him from school the very next day. The administration insisted that none of the children made any racial comments about him, and Wilson never gave anybody up, but I know it didn’t come out of nowhere. And when your child doesn’t want to go to school, you know that something is wrong. A mother always knows when something is wrong.
Wilson and I are so lucky; my family has picked up every ounce of slack that his father left. My dad has taken the place of his dad in every way, shape and form. We were actually living with my parents at the time, so even though his dad was not a strong influence in his life, he was constantly surrounded by so much love. He is the only grandchild, and he was the first great-grandchild in my family.
Fortunately, at the time my aunt was able to come to my house and watch Wilson for the next few months. I was happy that he could be in the comfort of our home while I worked, and it bought me some time to find another school. When it was time for him to go back to pre-school, I found a wonderful place with a caring and sensitive teacher, and an even more caring and wonderful owner. Wilson has always been a difficult child, and he tested the limits of his new school many times. They never gave up on him, they never threw in the towel, and they were patient with him and me. It is true that it takes a village to raise a child, I am so thankful they opened their hearts to us.
Our journey wasn’t over that easy, I imagine it will never be over. He still asks about our differences from time to time, but we’ve come a long way from stupid and ugly. I can only hope to lead by example, to teach him to see people for who they are and not how they look, that it doesn’t matter if you’re black or white, straight or gay, rich or poor, a Christian or an Atheist. People are just people; we should provide an empathetic love for one another.
I hope that my child grows up with a heart full of love, not a heart full of hate. I hope that he comes to realize that his blessings are not owed to him. I hope that he shares with those less fortunate. I hope that he grows up strong and secure. I hope that he is instinctively spontaneous and embraces every moment. I hope he picks a career that makes him happy every day; I hope he comes to learn that money isn’t real. I hope that he opens the door for women, and I hope that he stands up for the kids that are being bullied. God help him, if he never finds a woman worth making a fool out of himself for. I hope he grows up color blind, and I hope that his heart breaks a tiny bit when he sees an elderly man buying a single TV dinner at the grocery store. I hope that he never takes the easy road in life. I hope that he picks the path less traveled; I hope that he goes against the grain. I hope that he lives by his own rules, obliviously unaware of the rest of the world.
My dad has always taught me to do what is right. In any instance, just do what is right…a simple, unadorned truism. I hope that Wilson tries to always do what is right, and when he fails, I hope he steps back up to the plate and makes it right.