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Race: Whose Problem Is It, Anyway?

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When I tried to have a discussion about race, the idea completely flew over my kids' heads.

amy brenneman

Amy Brenneman: My 8-year-old, Charlotte, had an assignment to do a book report on a President of her choice. She chose Barack Obama. She loves Barack Obama, gets excited every time she sees his picture or a news story, got REALLY excited when her dad and I were lucky enough to go to the inauguration a year ago. It doesn't hurt that we love Barack Obama, too. We are a loyalist family.

I told Brad to go to the bookstore to get a simple biography of Obama. The one he found was still relatively sophisticated, but even so Charlotte and I dove in one night and read it. Typically, I chose the wrong time. She was elbow-deep in imaginative play with trains, princesses and castles, but said she was open to talking about it, so I started plugging away.

I swear, the first chapter lost her. The biography began with his birth in Hawaii, and how he had a black father from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas. It talked about how unusual this was in 1961, and how the departure of his father left Barack with no role model for how a black man was to behave. It talked about his schooling in Hawaii, and the confusion over his racial identity that hounded him into college.

Charlotte listened to the story as Pocahontas boarded a Thomas train bound for the castle. I put down the book.

"Do you know what they mean when they say 'black' and 'white?'" I asked.

She shook her head slightly. Bodhi, from across the room (where he was building an airport to rival O'Hare), looked up, too.

"They're talking about different races. How people have different color skin, and that makes it hard for them sometimes."

My children looked at me with no response. I stumbled for more.

"Like Samantha?" I volunteered. Samantha is a dear friend of Charlotte's from church who is a dark-skinned African-American. "She's 'black.' And you guys would be 'white.'" Bodhi and Charlotte stared at me, waiting for the point. What was the point that I was trying to make?

I thought about all their friends. I thought about Charlotte's friend Jamie (who is Filipina), and Samantha, and Tommy (who is Thai) and Cole (who is in a wheelchair). I thought about my nephew, Granger, who is half Filipino and a quarter Jewish and a quarter vague WASP/Irish/Swiss combo (the polyglot being the Brenneman side of things). I thought about growing up in suburban Connecticut, in a town which put the lily in "lily white" -- so much so that in high school the "Project Concern" bus would roll in from urban Hartford to deposit 30 bewildered African-American students on our doorstep -- whom no one spoke to, and who spoke to no one. "Here are some kids who are totally different from you," the System said, "but we're not giving out any tools to help with the bridge-building. Good luck to you!"

I thought about the recent polls about gay marriage, which showed that most people under the age of 30 consider it an utter nonissue; we will look back at this moment of discrimination with shock, the way we do at the pre-civil rights and pre-suffrage eras. I thought about the wonderful polyglot of Los Angeles, where my children are being raised, where they have friends of every stripe and are at ease with differences in a way that I, as an adult, had to learn to be.

But still, those questioning eyes waited on me.

"Anyway," I murmured. "In the olden days, being half black and half white was hard. It's easier now, I guess."

They returned to the trains and planes. I wondered if what I'd said was true. But what I saw clearly was this: Bodhi and Charlotte are not at all interested in the color of someone's skin. Why would I ever want to change that?


next: 11-Year-Old Fights for Health Care Reform After Mother's Death
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