I must have been about six when I distinctly remember driving down a street in Mequon, Wisconsin with my father. He was strumming an air guitar as he drove, which was commonplace, and he was listening away. That day I learned about Fleetwood Mac.
I grew up in a profoundly amazing household. I didn’t know it at the time, but my parents either deliberately sketched out how to raise two black kids in the 70s, or they had some mighty good luck.
We just so happened to be one of the only middle class black families in Mequon, Wisconsin in the 70’s. My parents, both from modest beginnings worked hard and graduated from college. They decided to start a life together with careful financial planning and a “to do” list of the steps they would take to prosper in a country that had not really been so kind to them.
When I hear stories of my father having to go to the back door to get a sandwich at a restaurant in the South because of the color of his skin, or my mother being a nanny and housekeeper to a wealthy white family, or the two of them trying to navigate the back roads of the south fearful of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, I’m perplexed. How could both of them come out of that experience not jaded and bitter?
Now that I’m a Mom raising two of my home with my husband, I asked my parents this very question. Their collective responses put it all in perspective for me. They absolutely had been deliberate about it because they believe that well-being and happiness is a choice, that the teachable moment is paramount, and that for the most part, people don’t wake up each day trying to be offensive, rude or malicious.
In some ways those days they lived through have changed drastically, but in many ways they have not. In recent months we have heard so much in the news about racially charged cases and an explosion of raw emotion that almost everybody is afraid to even talk about.
Let me be straightforward, navigating the world as a black person can be equal parts mysterious and scary. Just when you think you’ve got it all figured out, someone will say something or better yet assume something about you that is steeped in a stereotype. When you add to the mix trying to raise black children these days, buckle your seatbelts, it is like navigating a bumper car on a glass obstacle course.
So as I reflect on what is the beginning of Black History Month, I want to share with you some things to consider, not only because it is black history month, but because we have an opportunity to open our eyes and be a little more deliberate in our actions. The world will only become a better place one household at a time, one question at a time, one deliberate, thoughtful, small, step at a time.
1. Enter into a mindset of exposure– just like my father thought it was important to expose me to Fleetwood Mac that day, my parents went on to expose us to all sorts of music, art forms, musicals, plays, operas, Chinese New Year celebration, a variety of international cuisine, black history month programs, poetry and literary reviews, St. Patrick’s Day celebrations and many more. They were never afraid to enter a room where they may be the only faces of color in the name of exposing us to a variety of experiences. It not only broadened our world view, it made us recognize that although we are indeed black, it isn’t the only thing that defines us and there is a lot to appreciate from other cultures.
2. Call it By Color– one of the first things all kids learn is their colors! I still get excited when a new box of crayons is opened around here. Color is beautiful! With this in mind, please stop saying you are colorblind. My parents always encouraged people to see color, but not allow that to be the only defining factor. We were raised to be proud of all of who we are, to include our skin color. If you say you are colorblind, then you are essential saying you don’t see something we were told to be proud of. And frankly, if you are able to physically see, you realize we are black!
3. Delve into Diversity– if you want your children to have a broad perspective of the world we live in, encourage them to have a diverse group of friends and start doing this early. Please note that if you survey your own group of friends and they are not diverse in a variety of ways, this is a problematic. I’m not saying to force diversity but I am saying to model it. This also goes for their toys, change it up, to include gender and ethnicity to better reflect the diverse world we currently live in.
4. Don’t TUIS- (Think Under the Influence of Stereotypes) this is particularly challenging. We all have preconceived notions that can creep into our minds, it is when you act on them that creates the challenge. So, don’t assume a black person wants fried chicken for lunch, voted for President Obama, can dance, sing, play football, or likes watermelon. Ask questions of the individual, get to know them for who they are.
5. Embrace the Unsung Heroes – while Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of the most impactful civil rights leaders of our time, he wasn’t the only successful black person. My parents spent time telling us about so many other important people, of all faith traditions, cultures, and yes black ones as well! Dig deeper and explore the contributions of others like Lewis Latimer, Madam C.J. Walker, Dr. Patricia E. Bath, and George Washington Carver and share these amazing historic people with your kiddos. Don’t forget the heroes right there in your own community too!
Wednesday as I was driving to school with my daughter she was singing away…
Oh mirror in the sky, what is love?
Can the child within my heart rise above?
Can I sail through the changing ocean tides?
Can I handle the season of my life?
I just smiled as she sang one of the best Fleetwood Mac songs of all time. And yes, of course I played the air guitar.