Code-switching…

My boys are with me for three weeks, in Baltimore.

And, I enrolled them in Tennis Camp, at Druid Hill Park, right near my apartment.

Last week was their first week there.  They have three days to go…before we drive down to Harrisonburg, VA for our annual 4 days of immersion in Ethiopian culture, thanks to the amazing folks at Abshiro Kids, who have sponsored this amazing experience for our kids, and slowly, slowly, our boys are accepting their Ethiopian Heritage.

But, this past week, in inner city Baltimore, where the homicide rate is exceeding previous years (for 2017, so far, in my zip code, there are 20 documented gunshot victims), my boys who self-identity as “brown”, are getting acquainted with black kids who are a little rough around the edges.

The first day, my younger one was in tears.  “Why do they say the “N” word so much?” he wanted to know.

Sigh.

I don’t condone bad language.  But, at the end of the day, they are black kids, in America, and they need to navigate this terrain.

I harken back to my 5th grade experience, as a kid with a tan skin, and frizzy hair, at a predominantly African-American school in East Palo Alto, through the quixotic nature of my parents migrations, confronting Gloria, the “boss” of the 5th grade girls who challenged me, sometime in the first week of school, with the question “Are you black or are you white?”

I was one of only two white kids in the class.  The other kid was a so, so, so white kid – no question of whether he was white or black.  But me, who knew?

And, that’s the answer I gave Gloria – my dad is “black”, and my mom is white.  I’m mixed.  What do you make of that?

I was terrified.  Gloria seemed very threatening. But, in the end, my answer was deemed “OK”, and I was accepted by the cohort of black girls, and they helped me with my frizzy hair.  And the rest of my time there was peaceful.

And, now, my kids, who are authentically “black”, are confronting the same situation.  And, they are voicing to me a desire to stay in the comfortable “white” neighborhood that they are used to.  The kids at camp in Baltimore are using the “B” word, and the “N” word (tell me if you don’t know what words i’m referring to – i can clarify).  There are a bunch of other words.  And there is a tendency, among the counselors, to autocratic discipline, which I understand, but my kids, with their suburban “white” experience, have been exempted from, that they are objecting to.  I get it.

My heart aches when my “black” boys object to being with “black” kids.  I get it.  The other kids are less privileged, less educated.  But, I see, in my kids response to them, a separation, that makes my heart bleed.  I don’t want them to emulate the language, but I want them to know how to navigate the divide.

It’s so hard.  I get it.  I feel it every day – I’m so white.  With my patients, I perceive it to be so.  But, that doesn’t help my boys…

I wish I knew how to help them navigate this difficult terrain.  My dad did it so excellently, and I feel so distant from him, now, 35 years after his passing. He was undeniably “black”, but he was also educated…

I keep hoping that some of his wisdom can pass from me to my boys…We’ll see…

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