Tuesday, February 20, 2007
When A Delicate Balance Becomes A Double Bind
The WaPo has a story today ostensibly about a group of affluent, educated Black parents and their efforts to keep their middle school-age kids from rejecting academic achievement as something meant for white children. But I couldn't help but read it as a testimonial to just how complex a matrix racial identity has become in contemporary America. Take this paragraph, for instance:
But even with their advantages, these parents say they worry about the images of African American men that their sons absorb from popular media. Carter said he started noticing his son and his friends strutting, letting their pants sag and picking up slang. He became troubled when they started doubting their abilities in advanced math and science.
Now, my reactions upon reading those three sentences started out pretty high on the politically correct meter, steadily worked their way downwards, and then bounced back up a notch or two. So to begin with, I felt outrage, that the hard work of parenting should be subverted by a society's insistance on promoting racial stereotypes for commercial gain.
Then I wondered whether, in 2007, this is a phenomenon limited to black middle class families. In fact, isn't this what American middle class families in general have been dealing with since the days of James Dean and Marlon Brando?
Then I found myself feeling less sympathetic to the kids, who just happened to be adopting behaviors that come along with obvious social advantages within their peer group. Because let's face it. If you're a black nerd trying to navigate a white school at the onset of adolescence, playing up the hip hop angle is a pretty safe bet.
And then it occured to me that if you're a thirteen year-old white nerd, you're just a nerd. But if you're a thirteen year-old black nerd, well, you've got a whole lot of explaining to do. Because given the kind of racial conditioning we get in America, the assumption is that you had a choice. Between the bling and the books. And you opted for the books.
And that's what these parents are trying to do. Get their kids to believe that there's nothing un-Black about opting for the books. But given how much American pop culture has modelled its image of coolness on Black popular culture, it seems like it's a delicate balance they, and we, are asking these kids to strike. A delicate balance that's not at all lost on the kids:
Her son Alden was sometimes the only black student in his class in elementary school, and although he did well, she worried about how comfortable he was. In first grade, he got in trouble for pushing a girl who kept touching his hair. Another time, Carpenter asked Alden what color he was, and he answered, "Dark white."
Of course, when they do buy into the academic system, when they do excel, when they rise in their chosen careers and run for high elected office, aren't these the same kids who, thirty years later, are asked, "Are you Black enough?"