Raising a black boy: Why I need to talk to my 5-year-old about race


I love my son.

He is not of me. Born of African parents. Birthed in Bemidji, a tiny thing, barely able to see.

I held him as soon as he came into the world. Perfect and beautiful. Curled up on my chest, fingers outstretched. Dreaming the dreams that sprinkle smiles on his face.

Ever since I was small, I collected ideas and stories to help me raise the child I knew I’d some day have. I learned the most from my mentor, a kindergarten teacher from my hometown of Roosevelt Island, N.Y. Her name was Pat Semenza.

Semenza taught me the importance of engaging young people as full humans. To treat children with respect and empower them to make their own decisions. To love them and see them for who they really are.

So with that tiny baby boy in my arms I thought of my mentor’s words. I remembered her graceful presence in my young life as I looked at my son.

As soon as that boy could walk, he ran. Family members and friends chased William in a constant loop around our block. Neighbors and strangers stopped and gushed over him. It was a stream of smiles and hi fives as he made his way around our Minneapolis neighborhood again and again.

I watched him toddle, walk and run, always stretching out the space between us. I thought how free he must feel. As he ran farther and farther, I thought how free he must feel, how open his world must be.

He loved the world and the world loved him back.

But for how long?

Even as I marveled at his joyous freedom, a dark sadness crept in. When will it happen? When will the world stop loving him?

He is a black boy. There is no hiding from it. His reality will change, and I am dreading that day because with it comes the death of his innocence.

His love of the world will be buried with one racist word or act. There is no escape. It’s going to happen.

For me as a black girl walking down the streets of New York City it was the sea of clutched purses and wide berths that changed me. The looks on faces telling me my presence was not welcomed.

Even when he was a baby, I wrung my hands in worry about how to best protect him from this. Not his spirit; there is nothing that can save the pieces that will be taken from him. This is just about keeping him alive.

He was still an infant when I started planning the conversations I will some day, maybe before middle school, need to have with him. I will have to look that boy in the eye and explain why it isn’t safe for him to wear the hood on his hoodie sweatshirt even though it makes him feel cozy.

That he will have to be careful walking around his neighbors’ yards even though right now they delight in his surprise visits.

That sometimes it will not be safe for him to run, the one thing he has done since he could walk.

Why? Because he will grow to be a tall, strong, black man and people who don’t know him might fear him.

I will tell him these things, and he will not understand. He is a boy who cares for his neighbors as much as they care for him. He is a 5-year-old who helps the seniors with small tasks and holds the hands of the younger kids to help them down the street.

This won’t possibly make sense.

Perception. Assumption. Fear. It’s the cloud that will engulf him and poison him if those of us who know and love him can’t help him navigate.

With every child comes a loss of innocence. That’s a part of growing up. A part of stepping into the world. The child must make mistakes, pick himself up and try again.

This is different. This is trying to save my son from people who only see him as a towering black man and all the assumptions that go with it.

I think of my neighbors and their son. He is six months younger than William with blond hair and blue eyes. Lovely boy, lovely family.

They do not have to think about how to protect their son from assumptions or perceptions. There’s a good chance they will never have to have these conversations. That’s a privilege.

What do I do? I do what all mothers try to do. Give him as much information as I can to prepare him. Help him become mentally, physically and emotionally strong. And love him as much as I possibly can.

And then I hope and pray for more people in the world like Pat Semenza, treating all people with respect no matter how tall or small, no matter how fast they run or how slowly they walk, no matter how dark their skin or blond their hair.

I pray that William can continue loving the world with the fullness he does now. And I pray that the world will recognize this quality and love him back

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