There’s a conversation that nearly all African-American families have had for decades. Children were told they had to be mindful of all their activities around white people so they wouldn’t be judged to be a negative stereotype. That was because racism was ever-present. They were also told they had to be twice as good as their white counterparts to succeed.
Modern black families sometimes struggle with whether those ideas are still valid. I thought a good way to find out more about this would be to sit down for a talk with several generations of one family. I was friendly with a family perfectly suited for a candid conversation about the discussion of how they talk about race with their children. When I asked if they would participate, they said yes.
Janet Pena-Davis is the grandmother and family matriarch (and a good friend for many years). She and her family all gathered around a large dining room table at Jan’s house and spoke honestly about the topic.
Two of Janet’s three adult children participated with their spouses: daughter, Beth Philpotts, and her husband, Garfield Philpotts, along with their three daughters, Zoe, Zion, and Zinni; and son, Peter Davis, and his wife, Amy Davis, who is Chinese-American, who have a two-year-old daughter named Paige.
For many of you, this is a conversation you’d probably never get to hear, until now.
The honest opinions and thoughts of this family may shed some light on another chapter in the race conversation. After hearing what they had to say, I’m even more convinced that what we pass on to our children about race will have an impact on the future of the discussion.
Beth: There was never a major conversation on race, but it was very much a part of who you were, how you grew up. You were always taught to be aware of “You’re black so this may happen,” or “You can’t go into Walgreens or they’re going to look at you and suspect you if you’re black.” So there was no major conversation, it was an everyday dialogue.
Beth: We actually had a conversation that we were feeling like maybe we were teaching them about racism. Because it isn’t...I don’t want to say it’s not that obvious to them, but it’s certainly not that obvious to them. You know, on crazy hair day I have to make sure that my kids don’t want to go to school with the image of their hair sticking up on end like Buckwheat. And my kids have no idea who Buckwheat is. So we had to introduce the negative imagery on race to help them understand race.
Janet: Zin, you just said the other day…do you remember what you said about who Zoe liked? Zoe only likes…
Zinni: I don’t feel like saying it because it might embarrass her.
Janet: No, it won’t embarrass her because nobody can see her. Go ahead and say it
Zinni: Uh, that she really only likes people who are white…
Janet: Was it people or was it…
Richard: So now why did you think that, why did you say that?
Zinni: I don’t know any of exactly her crushes who aren’t.
Garfield: I don’t care who my daughters marry. In the heart of my heart. But I certainly want them to at least give someone who looks like me a chance, and to be attracted to someone that looks like me. That I do.
Richard: Well, wait until it’s Junior prom time and you’ll be put to the test.
Garfield: Whether I’ll accept -- whatever. But also growing up, let’s be clear. I’ve walked a different walk. I have walked a different walk. I was in a white fraternity, call it what it is. But here’s the thing: I also knew those guys—those people—who said I’m in it because I have a self-hate. Versus I’m in it because I’m trying to experience some different things. I like to think I was in it for trying to experience some different things. I want not to have self-hate.
Garfield (on a discussion he had with one of his father's friends, who is black): We talk about how we confine our kids, because if we didn’t, you know back in the day our kids could have gotten killed. Emmit Till—he looked at this white girl and he got hung up, strung up. But the world has changed, and he has said “I’m not stopping my child from doing this because I want them to feel that the world is their oyster.” And I’m like, “I gotta to think about that. I have to think about that.” Because how many times we’re in the airport and we’re in different restaurants, and we see…call it what it is—just white kids just RUNNING. The world is their oyster. So we have to think about: Why are we shutting down our kids so much, why are we locking them down so hard? Why are we locking them down so hard? Make the world their oyster!
Peter (who was asked how he'll explain his daughter's mixed ethnicity to her): Uh, you know what? It’s weird because I’m not really sure how we’ll address that. I think we…
Amy: Never thought about it.
Peter: Either I never thought about it, or I think one day I was like, “Well, what’s on her birth certificate?” So I’m not even sure what her race says, to be honest. I know that sounds bad…on her birth certificate…if we even had to put a race. I’m not sure. But I don’t know. I guess when it happens it happens, if it comes up, it comes up.