If you are the parent of a child who is the Other, what if any special obligations do you have to prepare them for the world as it is--as opposed to the world as you would like it to be?
Lawrence Otis Graham, author and public face of the black bourgeois, shared a very sad and honest story about how he failed to properly prepare his child for life in an America where racism and white supremacy remain powerful social forces.
I would think that the boule would be very embarrassed and upset by the following anecdote about how the black rich have discovered that money is not a shield against white racism.
While the observation may be impolitic to some, to me, the following scene is high comedy straight out of Chappelle's Show:
Not many months ago, my children and I sat in the sprawling living room of two black bankers in Rye, N.Y., who had brought together three dozen affluent African American parents and their children for a workshop on how to interact with law enforcement in their mostly white communities. Two police detectives and two criminal-court judges — all African American — provided practical suggestions on how to minimize the likelihood of the adolescents being profiled or mistakenly Tasered or shot by inexperienced security guards or police officers. Some of the parents and most of the kids sat smugly, passing around platters of vegetables and smoked salmon — while it helped to have the lessons reinforced by police officers, we had all heard it many times before.Lawrence Otis Graham's son is broken by a direct encounter with white racism.
This is just sad and pathetic:
The boarding-school incident this summer was a turning point for us — particularly for my son and his younger siblings. Being called a nigger was, of course, a depressing moment for us all. But it was also a moment that helped bring our surroundings into clearer focus. The fact that it happened just days before the police shooting of Michael Brown increased its resonance for our family. Our teenage son no longer makes eye contact with pedestrians or drivers who pass on the street or sidewalk. He ceased visiting the school library this summer after sundown, and now refuses to visit the neighborhood library, just one block away, unless accompanied. He asks us to bear with him because, as he explains, he knows that the experience is unlikely to happen again, but he doesn’t like the uncertainty. He says he now feels both vulnerable and resentful whenever he is required to walk unaccompanied.
I understand Lawrence Otis Graham's temptation, that somehow money is insulation against life's travails. In most arenas of life, money and wealth insulate us from the consequences of our poor decision-making, provide life opportunities that are denied to others, and in a highly class segregated society the rich do in fact live in their own parallel and separate world.
Race is how class is lived in America. For the black and brown elite this rule holds true with an asterisk--they may see themselves as "our kind of people", an elite class who by training and habitus are not like "those people". However, white society still defaults to a racial frame that links all black people together in one undifferentiated mass of impenetrable, foreign Otherness and negritude.
I am a product and member of the black working class. As a child, my family did not have the resources to entertain the lie that money is insulation against white racism. My relatives who could be categorized as "upper class" or "new money" also did not entertain such foolishness--if anything they were even more race conscious and direct in their alertness to white supremacy and white racism than their less well-off kin.
My racial and class background have placed limitations on my life chances. They have also given me a certain amount of armor and common sense that have proven invaluable: for example, I am rarely if ever surprised by racism or other types of bigotry and poor behavior.
As such, when I have been called a nigger to my face by white children, white adults, white students, and even a former boss, I am taken aback--momentarily--by their capacity to risk their personal safety by making such an utterance. I am not surprised by the existence and fact of white supremacy.
The distinction is an important one.
Lawrence Otis Graham's story about he and his wife's decision to raise their children in a cocoon of naivete, one that is lethal to black and brown people, was more disturbing than his son's experience with a minor dose of white racism.
I am incapable of relating to Graham's son. Why? my father (and mother) would have hit me upside the head if I came home and told him that I was afraid of a white person who called me a nigger, was now going to avoid making eye contact with white people, and am traumatized to the point of being perpetually afraid and subservient to the White Gaze. His advice would have been simple: if you spend your life running, you will always be afraid and a coward.
Graham has failed to prepare his son for life as a black person in a racist society. He has compounded that error by failing to pass on one of the most important lessons of black manhood to his son.
Graham's son is not predestined to be a "race man".
He is however, a soon to be man, one whose racial identity will be central to his life.
For those of you who are members of the black and brown elite classes, or know folks who can claim such resources or birthright, how are they preparing their children for life in a society where the color line still matters? Is the notion that the black and brown rich are "leaders of the race" now antiquated and dead?
And more generally, am I being too harsh on Lawrence Otis Graham? How do you suggest that childhood innocence be balanced with the training necessary for life in the real world?