By Adrienne Sciutto
Already, it’s begun. “Grandma, I don’t like my skin color.” On other occasions, it’s “Grandma, I don’t like my hair.” This week it was flat out, “Grandma, I don’t want to be black.”
I tell Jalen his skin color is a beautiful bronze, which it is, but I know he is already seeing something different than the richness of his skin tone. I frequently run my fingers over his fluffy, round head and tell him his hair reminds me of a buffalo, one of the strongest and bravest of God’s creatures. I point out that his beloved dog, Lily, is black and brown and white, and so is he.
Jalen is the son of Sophie, our adoptive daughter who was murdered 10 years ago.
When he and I consume heaping bowls of Fettuccine Alfredo, Ziti alla Norma, gnocchi with pesto and all the other ethnic food at our Italian-American table, I tell him, “Culturally speaking, he who eats Italian, is Italian.”
I am grateful for the melanin of my ancestors that browns my skin in summer to a tone darker than his is in winter. Often when we are sitting in the summer sun, I put my sunbaked arm down next to his hoping he will notice.
Jalen is nine years old, and I am afraid about what will happen as he leaves the primary grades and moves toward adolescence. What will occur as he approaches his teen years and seeks answers to the questions of his own identity? What suggestions, both benign and malignant, will be whispered to him, hurled at him, by his peers, by the American society, by his black father and by us, the white family he lives with?
My spouse and I are two white women in our 70s who are raising the child of our deceased adopted daughter. How much his father, currently on house arrest for selling AK47s, will be in Jalen’s life and what influence he will have on Jalen’s image of himself as a young black man is unclear. While he loves his son, he seldom calls him.
On his mother’s side, Jalen is Mexican, Irish, Polynesian and Portuguese with even a little Chinese and Swedish in the mix. On his dad’s side he is African-American. We no longer use words like Octoroon or mulatto. I guess it’s progress that now if you look black, you are black or at least it would be if we lived in a truly post-racial society.
Currently, Jalen attends the local public school which, while multi-racial, has very few African-American students. We live in a mostly white neighborhood. But I am grateful to have my neighbor, Roseann, two doors down who is helping her son who lives with her to raise her half-black grandson. Our dear friend Gaia and her African-American husband live around the corner. While all of this is important, as he sees mixed-race families nearby, I fear how peripheral it might be.
Jalen is not academically gifted. He did not walk until he was twenty-two months old. His mother used drugs while he was in her womb; he was enrolled in a preschool for children at risk for disabilities before his second birthday, just about the time his mother died. His teachers at his preschool warned us of learning differences by the time he was four and testing in first grade revealed a learning disability in math.
With the help of private tutors, he now reads at grade level and loves a new Diary of a Wimpy Kid or Magic Tree House book as much as a new toy. The times tables, however, remain something of a mystery and a query about 6×8 can get you a response ranging from 24 to 56. I fear the influence his future classmates will have on him. I recall my own teaching days in a high school that served San Francisco’s Bayview/Hunters Point neighborhoods. So many times I saw young black males in the hallways who were carrying textbooks being greeted by fellow African-American students sarcastically calling out, “What are you doing with those books, trying to act white?”
I cringe when I see the statistics stating that more African-American males spend time in jail than graduate from college, and I feel so fearful when I read over and over that homicide is, by far, the leading cause of death for young African-American males. Who will be Jalen’s models for being young and black in America? To whom will he be attracted in his most formative and dangerous years?
The analogous question is how will a white society view Jalen. In the wake of the Zimmerman verdict, President Obama recalled his experiences as a black youth, being followed by security in a department store and hearing the click of locking car doors as he crossed the street. Jalen at nine years old is five feet tall, weighs over 100 pounds and wears a men’s size seven shoe. How big will he be in the next few years? How will he be profiled because of his color, his sex, and his stature? How many locks will he hear clicking and how many old ladies will he see clutching their purses more tightly when he enters their elevator?
Meanwhile, I wonder how much the racism that lurks in my own heart affects my fears and judgments. I worry that others will judge Jalen by his skin color and not recognize his kind, generous spirit, his compassion, his expressive language and his old soul ability to speak his heart. But last week when my car was broken into while parked in my driveway, what color were the faces of the youngsters who came to mind? Black, of course, and what was the curse that formed in my mouth, “melangiani”—eggplants, Italian American code for guess who?
I had seen a small group of African-Americans strolling past the day before and, for no good reason, immediately suspected that they were up to no good. Why were their faces the ones who immediately came to mind? A short half-block from the front door of my home is a half-way house for people having trouble with the effects of alcohol, drugs and mental illness. Most of them are white. Why didn’t I imagine their faces? Why do I have to conjure faces different from my own? Why do I have to envision faces at all?
I think back to my adopted daughters’ teenage years, when I admonished them that if they ever got pregnant they had better be prepared to raise the child themselves because my motherhood had a shelf-life of one generation. To myself I said, “What would that child be to me anyway, no DNA connection, no responsibility.”
How could an adoptive mother have been so blind? What I have learned again in the last seven years is that clans can be made by more than religion or genetic code, and kinship can be measured by closeness to the heart and the ferocity of feelings of love and protectiveness.
I look forward to a day when we will all have someone precious to us whose skin color is much darker or much lighter than our own. Meanwhile, I will try to look at people whose skin is different through the dark brown lens of my precious boy.
Adrienne Sciutto, a 76-year old former San Francisco high school teacher of history and government, now gardens at home and at her farm in northern California. She and her spouse, Irene, adopted two little sisters in 1982. Their daughter, Sophia, was killed, and they are raising her son, Jalen. She loves politics, reading, gardening and wildflowers.
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