Black Kids Growing Up in White Suburbs
Unlike the suburbs of larger cities like Houston, Atlanta, and Washington, the suburbs of Rochester, New York are very white and many who live here attended white schools, and mostly white colleges where they formed white friendships and then settled down with their white families in white neighborhoods. They’ve lived their whole lives hearing stories of all the crime down state, that is, in New York City, where the minorities live, and many fear Black people and have never known a Black person on a deep level.
This reality smacked Marvin and me in the face when we first moved here. We loved living in a larger area with more options, but we didn’t love the stares we often received when we walked into a suburban restaurant. And we also didn’t love, and we still don’t love, the effort we have to put forth making sure our sons grow up with a healthy Black identity.
From the time that they were young, my sons have experienced the pain of racism. I remember when one of them was three, taking him to a birthday party of all white kids. After cake it was time for Duck, Duck, Goose! and nine of the kids sat in a circle and tenth went around and tapped heads: “Duck, duck, duck…” The first little girl to be “it” tapped everyone’s head except my son’s. Then I observed this again and again, no matter who was tapping: not one child touched my son’s head; each one passed over his and touched the next child’s.
There is this mistaken belief that kids don’t see color. Of course kids see color! Kids notice color even before they know the names of the colors. They notice when someone is different from the rest, and if they are not taught that different is good, many will be fear different and reject different from their circles.
Several years later, on the school bus, an eight-year-old walked up to my other son, got within an inch of his face and said, “Your skin looks like POOP!” My son walked through the door, tears right at the surface, and asked why someone would say such a mean thing.
Over the years I’ve learned of birthday parties of alleged friends that my boys were never invited to and neighborhood social events from which our family was excluded. As a result, we have worked hard to counteract these slights with healthy, vibrant relationships, and plenty of discussions around the table.
We have also watched plenty of Black movies, read Black books, listened to Black music, and filled our home with Black art. My sons love and play Classical music like I do, but they also know plenty of Black voices like the Marley brothers and Lecrae. They regularly eat and laugh around our table with Black friends. They have been to Jamaica often enough that when we go, within a day or two, they can sift through the patois and understand their extended family again, and they relish in the attention, love and delicious food.
When we looked around and realized that despite all of these things, almost every person of influence in their lives was white, we changed our membership to a Black church with Black leadership so that every Sunday and sometimes during the week they are saturated in Black culture and witness Black excellence. They see Black achievement not just in books, but also all around them on Sunday mornings.
I recently spoke with a white friend who made a similar decision. She has a Black husband and four biracial children, and they live in a mostly white suburb outside of Chicago. For a while, they cast around for a good church and finally settled on a large, Black church in Chicago forty-minutes away. She knew it was important for her husband to find a place where he could exhale, especially after the racial turmoil of 2020. They both wanted a pastor who understood and ministered to the pain of racism. And they also wanted their children to sit under Black authority and more regularly experience Black culture. At first, my friend was very aware of how much she stood out and she wondered why the church, though affluent and progressive, didn’t provide hymnals or project the words of songs on screens; instead, worship leaders remained committed to the call and response worship style of old. Now she is used to it and considers the benefits to herself and her family far greater than any initial discomfort.
Our sons have a Black dad, a biracial mom and Black family over a thousand miles away, but that is not enough. To be grounded, stable and secure, they need more scaffolding, more folks who look like them surrounding them, loving them, encouraging them, and honoring them. Before they launch out into the world, they have to know that they are beautiful, smart human beings. Though some may clutch their bags or do a quick, nervous double-take when they pass, though a teacher or a professor may assume that they will underachieve, they have to know that they are not less. As a matter of fact, they are great.