I Taught My Mixed Race Sons to be Race Neutral

by Terry Baker Mulligan for Salon

One Saturday night in St. Louis about decade ago my younger son, then a teen, was driving around town with two white friends. I’m black and my husband is white, so our two sons are biracial. This particular son has his father’s straight hair and aquiline nose. His skin is brown like mine.

The friend in the back seat behind my son stuck a paint pellet gun out the back window and shot a stop sign.  He didn’t see two police cars parked just ahead. The cops hustled out of their squad cars and did the “Whoa, what the ‘F’ are you doing?” routine. The kids were taken to the police station, the gun was confiscated, and eventually all the parents were called to come to the station.

Back up about eight years. As a young family, we usually didn’t talk about race or even acknowledge it, because at the time we didn’t see the need. Then one night at the dinner table I got my first reality check when our younger boy, who was 7 at the time, said, “Dad, I want white skin and braces. And a new first name, like Michael.”

I wasn’t sure my husband understood the breadth of this comment. Like so many suburban St. Louis white kids in the 1960s, he grew up in a racially homogenous bubble, with no black friends until he went to college. Black children in St. Louis were in a similar bubble, except they mostly lived in the city because the suburbs were still white.

Things were a lot different where I grew up, in Harlem. My family was multiracial. Schools were integrated and members of the diverse community — white, black, Puerto Rican, Indian and more — mingled openly, with joy and ease. I received only the occasional reminder of the color of my skin.

In St. Louis, where I settled in the 1970s, such reminders came far more frequently. A store clerk once followed closely on my heels while I browsed an upscale furniture store, as if she found me suspicious. At times waiters or supermarket clerks have avoided looking me in the eye. And on more than one occasion, repair people have rung the doorbell of our home in a predominantly white neighborhood and, when I answered, asked if they could speak to the lady of the house.

While raising my boys, I often wondered: Should I have “the talk” with them about being black? The decision was complicated by our older son’s appearance. With his curly hair and rounded nose, he has always looked more like me than his dad, but unlike his brother, his skin appears completely white. This detail had always made “the talk” seem absurd. Should I poison the well of innocence by telling his brother that he was different? I decided that wasn’t going to happen because he wasn’t different. We were a family, and they were best buddies; smart, good-looking, polite kids, and also competitive as hell.

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Photo Credit: Terry Baker Mulligan

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