Care and Feeding

What Color Should My Child Be?

A black woman asks about the ethics and the optics of choosing a white sperm donor.

Photo illustration: Single black woman contemplating having a child (stock image).
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Thinkstock.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Email careandfeeding@slate.com.

Dear Care & Feeding,

I am a single black woman who is considering having a child. Since I don’t have a partner, I would essentially be choosing everything about my child’s other parent, including race. Which is a big issue for me. If I choose a black donor, I’d be consigning my child to the racism that I face every day. I’m proudly black, but because I am black I understand how difficult it is to navigate life as a black person. While I understand that being biracial comes with its own set of issues (like people asking “What are you?”) it still provides certain levels of privilege that I don’t have access to. If I choose a donor with lighter skin than mine, how can I then teach my child to be proud of their black roots? How would I explain that to my very black family?

—Donor Dilemma

Dear DD,

It is an unusual and amazing situation to be able to effectively choose the race of your child. And it is true that being a black person means that you are fated to face all kinds of expected and unexpected racisms on scales from micro to macro for the entirely of your life. You and I both know this.

But it is also true that blackness is a beautiful thing. Not the only beautiful thing, but a truly beautiful thing. Consider that to be black is to belong to a community—maybe even a nation—of gorgeous, gifted, resilient, and powerful people. A family. The difficulty we face reinforces that belonging, if we allow it to. Indeed, that belonging is how we gain the strength to face the world. And one magnificent side effect of this strength is that we can use it to face everything. Love. Life. Death. Each other.

And you don’t have to be 100 percent black to be a part of this. Not even 50 percent. The one-drop rule still applies. We have had to make it apply in order to survive. Biracial kids, black kids with light skin: They are still a part of this if we, their parents, teach them to be. So how do you teach your biracial kids to be proud of their blackness? You share with them your pride. You let them spend long periods of time around your black family. You make them watch the films, listen to the music, see the art. Even when they complain and moan and get annoyed, you do it anyway. Because you are teaching them how to love themselves and each other. You are teaching them how to live.

I wish I could promise that your family will be entirely welcoming of any choice you make. I can’t say that, but I can say that they will still love you. And I wish I could say that being biracial only brings with it privilege, but my own kids, now aged 14 and 12, would tell you very differently. For them it is an ever-unfolding challenge that requires courage. Love and courage is the stuff good parenting is made of, and if you can find those within yourself, no matter what you choose, then you and your potential child will be off to a great start.

Dear Care & Feeding,

I have a 4-year-old who, like every 4-year-old, has lots of questions. I have made it a goal to be as honest as possible with him, while remaining age-appropriate. The other day, after we read about Martin Luther King Jr., he asked how he died. After prodding, I told him that a white man who hated Dr. King made him die using a gun. I told my son he is safe, and he doesn’t have to be scared of that happening to him, that Mommy will always protect him.
But my son asked if he will die, and I said in a long long time, yes, he would. Everyone does. He was so upset! It broke my heart. I was hoping my son wouldn’t realize his own mortality for another year or two. 

I also have been honest about why I think the president does bad things, what transgender is, why I think God is pretend, and why some other people think God is real. I’ve gotten pretty good at putting things in terms he can understand, for the most part. But am I being too honest? Is 4 too early to be grappling with all of these tough ideas? Am I guilty of indoctrination? 

—Truth Teller

Dear TT,

You are really asking two questions here. One is, “Is it fair to fill my 4-year-old’s head with my liberal beliefs?” The other is, “How do I help my 4-year-old feel safe in a scary world?”

In asking the first, you conflate values and beliefs with politics. That transgenderism and transphobia exist is a fact. Not a political opinion. That racism exists and harms people is also fact. That the president is bad is a political opinion. And that God is or isn’t real is a belief, though an oft-debated one.

You are right to worry that a 4-year-old is too young for politics, but they are not too young for values and facts. So what, then, are your values? Is it a value in your home for people, even strangers, to care for one another to the very best of their ability? Is it a value for you that all people have a chance for love, connection, and fulfillment? Is it a fact that not all people enjoy that same chance? Do you think they should? If so, then these are things you can teach your 4-year-old.

And you don’t have to do it by discussing events that are in the news. They can be taught by how you treat your children, your partner, the people in your life. You can demonstrate them by the stories you choose to tell, and the ones you choose not to. In essence, you can live these values rather than teach them. He will see them. He will absorb them. And as he grows, he will decide on his own what to think (and what to do) about people, places, and things that don’t reflect them. This is not indoctrination. This is raising a child with values. And because it makes no sense to raise a child with other people’s values, then you can only raise him with your own. It would only be indoctrination if you were teaching these things, but you didn’t truly and completely live by them. And that’s not the case, right?

And yes, the world is a scary place. When my kids were much younger we defined whining as pointing out a problem without offering a solution. The reason whining sucks is that it makes people feel powerless and overwhelmed. And I think the same principle applies when it comes to talking to your kids about the world. It is not any more overwhelming for a kid to know about racism than it is for a kid to know about earthquakes. It is, however, overwhelming to talk to children about racism without talking about what you do—I mean really do, on a daily basis—to stop it. And what they can do. But this is where many liberal white parents falter. They don’t really know what it is they are doing to stop it. And while it is possible to shove that under the rug when you are alone, it is much harder when a kid is asking tough questions and waiting expectantly for answers. Children require you to dig deep. If there is a problem, you must teach your child how to be part of the solution. Which means that you yourself must be part of the solution.

Dear Care & Feeding,

I’m engaged to a wonderful woman who has two kids, 13 and 9. They’re good kids, and my fiancée is a great mom, but the kids have shockingly bad table manners. The 13-year-old boy will come to the dinner table when he chooses, often in nothing but his underwear, and sometimes he won’t even sit down. He’ll shovel in his food with maximum speed and volume. When he is entreated to sit down, it’s straight to the iPad and earplugs. With a final belch or fart, he’s off again as he masticates his final bite.

The 9-year-old will at least sit down, but she eats everything with her hands, sticks her hands in her water glass to get ice cubes, and uses a cloth placemat for a plate. Again, the omnipresent iPad. 

I’m not expecting Downton Abbey or anything—these are just kids. But how can I approach some level of basic humanoid civilization without alienating the new stepkids or having my fiancée take it as a criticism of her parenting?

—Giving Up on the Salad Fork

Dear GUotSF,

Ha. You can’t.

You can’t wade into step-parenting without somehow alienating the kids and your new partner, I can assure you. From these kids’ point of view, you are at best someone to be regarded with suspicion, and quite possibly someone to actively resist. I’m sure you’re a great guy and I’m sure they like you fine, but even if you’re the most awesome guy in the world—crafting startlingly life-like balloon animals with one hand and teaching them how to capture Starkiller Base in Star Wars Battlefront II with the other—they will still bristle the first time you try to lay down some kind of law. Step-parenting is all fun and games until you actually have to parent.

If it is important to you that the kids get their table manners together, then you must work slowly and patiently. Pick one thing, just one, to work on. I might suggest getting the youngest to use a plate, since this is probably the most value-neutral and easily justifiable proposition. (You’ll have to justify because you don’t have the parenting credits banked up to cash in a “because I said so.” You may never have them!) So you explain that it’s better to use a plate because the placemat is hard to clean. You may not get there right away, but you will eventually. And in the process, you will learn about your soon-to-be stepdaughter. And you’ll build trust.

Work on it slowly, dinner by dinner, until you’re there. Then take a breather. Then start working on the next item. If this process seems too slow, just remember you’re marrying into a family. Families are for the long haul. Get used to it.

One quick note about the iPad: I personally think that electronics at the table are abhorrent, though not everyone agrees. But a good technique to pry the screens away from their grubby hands—honestly, it’s a miracle those iPads still work, with all the food and ice water that gets smeared on them—is to supplement iPads with a story time in which they tell you stories.
They can even tell you stories about things they saw on the iPad before dinner. You get to ask questions, they get to answer them, and before you know it, you’re engaged in the dark and ancient art of Dinner Conversation. This is important because when you finally start floating a no-electronics-at-the-table rule, and they say “But whyyyyyy” and you say “Because I want to be able to hear you talk,” they’ll have an actual idea of why that could be a good thing.

But whatever you do, do not rush, do not lay down the law, and do not criticize your fiancée’s parenting. Try any of those things and you’ll get to see exactly how uncomfortable a dinner table can really be.

Carvell

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Carvell Wallace

Carvell Wallace is a father, writer, and podcaster in Oakland, California. He is a co-host of Slate’s Mom and Dad Are Fighting and has bylines in the New Yorker, GQ, New York Times Magazine, and others. The complete first season of his podcast on race in America, Closer Than They Appear, is available now.