“Mommy, you’re honey. Daddy, you’re vanilla. And I’m café au lait.”
I was 23 when I first revealed my surprise pregnancy to my mother. She worried that I wasn’t ready to be a mother, and that I wasn’t prepared for the complexities of raising a biracial child. We live in Montreal, and my background is primarily Jamaican (and I look black), and my boyfriend’s is Quebecois (and he’s white).
Perhaps it was my mom’s childhood as a biracial, Chinese-Jamaican little girl in Kingston, Jamaica that prompted her concern. Or maybe it was her experience as a Jamaican immigrant in Toronto during the 1970s—not quite yet the “melting pot” that it is today. In any event, we were giddy in our naiveté as young, first-time parents, and neither my partner nor I gave much thought to anything other than being the best parents we could be, providing a stable and loving home for our son. And for the first few years, we were right: That was all he really needed.
But sure enough, as our son got older, he became more aware of the differences between his father and me. I spoke English; his father spoke French. All of his cousins on my side of the family were black and his cousins on his father’s side were white. As soon as our son was able to express his thoughts, he acknowledged our differences in skin tone in his own sweet little way: “Mommy, you’re honey. Daddy, you’re vanilla. And I’m café au lait.”
Racial and cultural identity was something that we wanted to leave entirely up to him to discover. We did, however, expose him to both of our cultures. Perhaps it was a lot easier for him to identify with his Quebecois side because we lived in Montreal, his first language was French, and for most of his life he had been surrounded predominantly by Quebecois culture. I often worried that he didn’t have enough Jamaican cultural influences, and that he didn’t have enough interaction with people who looked like me. We lived in a white neighbourhood, didn’t see my side of the family very often and he was often the only non-white child at daycare or his extracurricular classes.
And yet, even though he was lighter than me and darker than his father, he identified as being “brown like mommy.” He was very aware of different skin tones and would make comments such as “I’m brown, but my best friend, Edward, is white,” or “I played with a new friend at the park. He’s brown like me.” We were happy that he had a strong sense of identity and that he was also aware that even though people may look different, everyone can get along.
So it completely caught us off-guard when his first and only display of racial exclusion occurred last spring when we were visiting my (mostly brown) family in Toronto. As we sat down for dinner at a restaurant, our four-year-old remarked, “Daddy can’t sit with us because he’s not brown. He should wait at home.”
We were appalled. We certainly hadn’t taught him that, nor had he been exposed to anyone else with those kinds of racial prejudices. At least, as far as we knew.
The incident made me wonder if we were doing enough to educate him of the importance of tolerance and acceptance. We certainly didn’t want him making comments like that to other children. And we especially didn’t want him to think it was acceptable to exclude people who were different from him. We’d simply assumed that our multicultural city, and our interracial relationship, were enough of an example of racial harmony, but clearly it wasn’t cutting it.
We carefully explained that what he said hurt Daddy’s feelings and that it didn’t matter if he was white—he was a part of our family. We also explained that different kinds of people can be friends, love each other and hang out together and that it was important to treat everyone the same.
Then one night during bath time, he overheard his father and I discussing the shooting of Keith Lamont Scott in North Carolina, and the Black Lives Matter movement. He asked what we were talking about. I told him, in very simple terms, that some people did very bad things to other people because they had different skin colours. He thought about it for a bit, then said, “It doesn’t matter if people have different skin colours, as long as everyone is nice.”
Of course, I know that not everyone is nice. And if history is any indication—or current world affairs, for that matter—the many different people of the world will never be one big, happy family. This is why teaching my son about tolerance and inclusion is so important, especially now. I hope that when he ventures out into the world, no matter what people may look like or how different they may be, he’ll treat them all the same. As long as they’re nice.