The Discussion We Can't Have About Race In My Family

It is possible that there is a more white family in America than the one I hale from. I do have some multi-racial cousins. But my father grew up in the whitest part of Kansas City that could possibly exist and my mother from an equally white suburb of St. Louis. 

In my grade school, in the western suburbs of Chicago, there were two black kids, Byron and Amber, and they were, of course, siblings. There was one Jewish kid.

My parents seemed conscious that we lived in an all white bubble. To their credit, we judged the Jewish family, not for their strange beliefs, but because the father was a chiropractor and his children called him by his first name. Meanwhile, I was told to do my best to be a friend to Byron. It went without saying why he might need one.  

My mother had briefly taught fourth grade in a semi-urban setting and she reflected on the experience throughout my childhood. The lesson was explicit: some kids start off at a clear disadvantage and it had been my mother's job to do what she could about that. When I grew up it would be my job. 

This lesson was embroidered in virtually everything my mother said about the world. She literally cried when the son of the chiropractor lit a candle at a Boy Scout awards ceremony: the kid holding the other candle was Egyptian (and, given our suburb, the son of a heart surgeon). 

My mother died 15 years ago. And as clear as that memory is to me, I can't be sure how the rest of my family thinks about these things. Because sometimes, I hear them say things very similar to the white cousin in this piece

But then my 20-year-old white cousin, with whom I've only ever really bantered and exchanged pleasantries, inserted herself into the thread, angered and challenging the worthiness of our desire even to tell these stories about black men. "Will you be doing one with white people?" she asked. "Maybe a long time ago the life of a black man would have been considerably different at no fault of their own … but now I believe if the life of a black man is any different than any other person's life it is their choice and their doing. Your skin no longer defines who you are unless you let it."