Damian: What color is Mommy?
Me: Umm…(how old are you again?)
Damian: Is she light brown?
Me: Uh, yes, sort of. (You are only 2 years old)
Damian: What color am I? Am I light brown too?
Me: Yes, you are light brown.
Damian: Are you dark brown, Daddy?
Me: Yes, I am dark brown.
Your large brown eyes linger. You are studying my body language. It’s as if you know there is more that I’m not telling you. How are you are already noticing the differences in color between your mother, your father and yourself? You are not even 3 years old. How did we get here so soon?
Damian, your questions make me uncomfortable. In fact, the entire question of color in America has always been an uncomfortable one. Where do I even start? Being Black in America is…complicated. Things will be even more complicated for you. You are biracial. It’s a beautiful thing. You will have the power to navigate between both worlds like some sort of racial superhero. At times, this will be an advantage, and other times it won’t.
Realistically, most people will take one look at your light brown skin and African features and quickly classify you as a Black man. That means that you will feel their eyes following you as you shop in a store. You will sense their discomfort in tight spaces. You will smell their suspicion as you approach them on the street. You will learn what it means to be Black and assumed dangerous.
When you are older, I will tell you about the time that your uncle, grandmother, her elderly friend and I were stopped by the police. It was close to midnight in the middle of nowhere Alabama. When I saw the police cruiser pull up behind me with their lights blazing, I made sure to pull into a well-lit gas station. I didn’t want the officer to feel threatened, and I wanted to make sure there would be witnesses if anything went down.
They still blocked our silver Honda Accord in with multiple units as if we had any intention of making a getaway. Two officers approached on both sides of our car. Although they blinded us with their flashlights, I could see their hands on their weapons. Primed and ready. Throughout the encounter, the officer addressed me with a hostile tone. He was obviously perturbed to be in our presence. I responded with an air of compliance and diffusion. He treated my family as if we were perpetrating a serious crime. All this because I forgot to turn off my high beams.
As we drove away, we were rattled. We felt lucky to escape with just a $129 ticket even though we weren’t criminals. But that’s the reality of police encounters for Black people. I will tell you how angry I was for weeks after that encounter and how I imagined ways to make that officer feel that same helplessness and fear. Unfortunately, this emasculation is something that Black men have been experiencing for centuries in America. You will learn that these fear tactics were born in slavery, transformed into overt policies like Jim Crow and still deeply engrained in our societal institutions.
I will teach you how to assuage their fear of you as best as I can. In light of recent events, this will be crucial to increasing your chances of survival during encounters with the police. I will teach you how to momentarily silence your inquisitiveness and desire to question authority. I will teach you how to be as unthreatening as possible to avoid triggering the flight or fight responses of the police.
As your father, I want to protect you from anyone and anything that can harm you. The reality is that I can’t. I can’t protect you from the systemic racism that plagues our country. All I can do is instill a healthy fear in you about what it means to be Black in America. Just like my parents did before me. Why? Because to be Black means, first and foremost, to survive. You will survive. At least I hope so.