Very often, when black people see me alone with my white-looking biracial children, they demand to know that I’m going to teach them that they’re black. They do this with great seriousness, usually glaring into my eyes as if they caught me about to steal change from the collection plate. (Most whites, on the other hand, either think I’m the nanny or search for a polite way to ask if they’re my biological children.) This question is not rhetorical. They wait, squint-eyed and ferocious, for an answer. Much as I’d like to say, “Damn skippy they’re black. Holla,” the anal-retentive, extra-credit-loving hall monitor in me has to ask: “But why doesn’t my husband’s culture and DNA count?” Then, without fail, the hysterical, spittle-inflected tirade begins: “They’re just niggers to the cops,” such a person will say, or “Self-hating” blah blah, “You think whites will accept them?” etc. I can’t imagine a more pointless or less dignified discussion.
When I look at my kids, I see only my babies. People are always lying about how they don’t “see race,” but, in this world, that can really only be true when it comes to those you love. I don’t think of my children as black or white, so I can’t take the world’s attempt to superimpose its silliness on them seriously, though I know that as they get older, I’ll have to.
I make my living writing about race, but once I’m home with my family, I’m just a wife and mom. No one is more surprised by that than I am. When I was pregnant the first time, I subjected my husband to long lectures about being the father of black children. I gave the man homework, like reading Toni Morrison’s books and watching my bootleg Eyes on the Prize video history of the civil rights movement. Then, when each child was born Klan-robe white, my husband turned the tables: “Debra, we have to talk about you being the mother of white children.”
Blacks like those described above, truth be told, begrudge biracial people their whiteness, however attenuated, because it is they who are self-hating. They invariably end their tirade with: “You know they’re going to get darker, right? Their hair’s going to get nappy.” This is always said with relish, as if they were telling me that my winning lottery ticket was a forgery. I look away because I’m so embarrassed for them. I couldn’t care less what my kids look like. What I begrudge them is their privilege. Race schmace. The real issue is class.
Listening to my 3-year-old go on the other day about motor boats, preschool, lake houses, Vietnamese food, and skiing at Steamboat Springs, I felt a moment of vertigo followed by panic: The boy just sounded so, so … white. Worse, like a white woman, like the teachers who dote on him and his blond curls. He began every other sentence with an overenunciated, “E-actually, Mom” or, “In fact, Dad.” He referred to his chicken noodle soup as “the first course.” All at once, I could see my babies through a stranger’s eyes: My kids are the ones that made poor kids like me embarrassed of our threadbare lives. My kids, God help me, are rich, that birth defect for which I have only begun to forgive a chosen few.
In my mind, no one can begrudge me my success because I built this life for myself with a hammer and a nail. My parents were uneducated, Great Migration Jim Crow sharecroppers. Up north, in St. Louis, my father, a World War II Marine, drove a truck and did odd jobs. My mother worked in factories, waited tables, cleaned offices, and nannied. I started working at 13 and, after dropping out of community college, got my BA and MA at night while in the Air Force. Since I escaped the working class, everyone born outside of it has been presumed to be a lazy, weak oppressor until proven otherwise. (You motivate yourself your way, and I’ll motivate myself mine.)
But what about my own kids? If it’s true that George H. W. Bush, as Texas Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower * quipped, was born on third base but thinks he hit a triple, you could say that my kids were born on second base. My job is not to teach them that they’re black. My job is to teach them that they damn sure didn’t hit a double. I will not allow them to coast on that which they didn’t earn; they have to prove their worth to the world. And, frankly, to their mother.
Feminism and class consciousness have always come more naturally to me than race consciousness. Born in 1959, I was insulated from the most direct racism by the overt segregation blacks faced, even up North, but trapped under the thumb of any black person who peed standing up. In other words, whites weren’t the reason my brother was forbidden from cleaning up his own messes or why my mother slaved around our house until late in the evening—still in her pink waitress uniform—while my father puttered in the basement. Male privilege within the black community was, and remains, oppressive.
And the chasm between professional or light-skinned blacks (God help us if they were both) and us “cabbage and cornbread” broad-nosed Negroes was equally pronounced; these “seditty, high falutin’ ” blacks were as determined to segregate us from them as were whites. Our shared blackness never trumped gender or class. Few whites were in a position to exploit or despise me the way black men and the black elite were.
But now, not only am I sleeping with the enemy, I’m singing it lullabies and scheming to get it to the head of every line. I’m like those World War II vets who bemoaned our lost valor and patriotic unselfishness but then turned around and helped their own sons shirk duty in Vietnam. I’m going to have to find a way to reconcile my reverse snobbery with invoking, on my children’s behalf, the old boys’ network I’ve worked my way into.
I’m desperate to prevent them from becoming the kind of privileged snots with that disgusting sense of entitlement I saw in too many of my trust-funded classmates at Harvard Law School. Their (white) grandfather is tenured at a public Ivy. Their mother writes books and is on television. Dad’s an architect. My son’s godparents are Harvard muckety-mucks. My infant daughter’s are journalism big shots—can you say early admission to an Ivy, snazzy internships, and eenie-meenie-minie-moe-ing between cushy first jobs? I scheme and freelance so as to squirrel away money for them so they can have all the ski trips and concert tickets that their mother never had. And yet even as I do so, I begin to wonder if, on some level, I’ll come to despise them.
That last sentiment seems unnecessarily harsh—except when I think of a friend who is the child of his father’s second, young, post-success wife. This friend was raised in Europe, attended an English boarding school, then Cambridge University. He’d told his father about a brawl involving some friends that he’d witnessed but not participated in. Looking for absolution, he’d said, “I suppose I should have jumped in.” His father had grown up a poor immigrant Jew in the tough Irish slums of 1920s Chicago. Disgusted, Dad had snarled, “Yes, you should have” and walked away without another word. “He wrapped me in cotton wool,” my friend said, “but expected me to act like I’d grown up in the rough.”
Blacks like the ones I’ve described are trying to force me to say my kids’ real name is “Toby.” I’m trying to keep their real name from being Paris Hilton. I thought I understood how difficult that would be. Then, the other day, my black hairdresser kept affecting a Condoleezza Rice overarticulation in response to every thing I said to her. I paid little attention, until she said, “E-actually” for the fifth time. I asked if she could fit in a deep conditioner; “That could be problematic,” she orated, and cracked herself up. That’s when it hit me: The white woman my son sounds like is me.
Correction, September 10, 2004: Debra Dickerson’s article “ High Class,” posted Friday, September 3, 2004, originally attributed the “third base” quote to former Texas Gov. Ann Richards and indicated Richards was speaking about George W. Bush. In fact, former Texas Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower said it and he was speaking about George H. W. Bush. (Return to the corrected sentence.)