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Several months ago I was tired and feeling unwell when I called to chat with my 23-year old son. Somewhere in our conversation I referred to the “black mood” I was in.

“Mom,” he asked me, “Do you know what you just said?”

“No,” I said. “What?”

“You just said something racist.”

"I did not,” I retorted.

“You did,” he said. “You just said you were in a ‘black mood.’” Before I knew it, we were in a heated argument. His ferocity shocked me. I felt accused of a crime I hadn’t committed—at least not intentionally. In my mind there was no racial significance to the phrase I had just used. But my son, who is biracial, felt otherwise.

PoVRacistMood.jpg

Like any parent I loved my son and wanted others to see him as I did. I brought him up to see himself as a person whose story was rooted in family history, not color. His father, an Ashanti Chief and urban planner in Ghana, brought stories of Africa. My family came here in 1630 from England; we had a different set of stories to tell.

I was determined not to let color define him. I wanted him to judge others by their deeds, not by what they looked like, and I wanted the same for him.

Since I was a single mom, my brown-skinned son grew up in my world, which was white. He attended Jewish daycare and then Jewish day school. He lived in an upscale suburb that was mostly white. His friends were white.

I sidestepped the issue and never gave my son the tools he needed to make sense of his experiences or to prepare him for life outside the insular world I had created. I pretended color didn’t matter when it really did.

Not until high school did my son finally meet children of color and find friends with whom he could share his experiences. In college he took the confusion of his childhood and sought answers through his courses.  He joined groups representing minorities and surrounded himself with friends who were African American. In his junior year, he studied abroad in Ghana and met his father’s family. Today, he identifies himself as African American.

And I don’t pretend anymore.

I watch those videos of unarmed men being gunned down by police, and I see my son in each of them. I can’t say with any certainty this will never happen to him. I have brought my child into a world that doesn’t value him.

The person pulling the trigger will never ask who my son is or what gifts he brings to this world, he or she will only see his color: black.

My son was not being extreme or difficult or politically correct when he accused me of saying something racist. He was trying to tell how using “black” to mean “bad” makes him feel as a man of color in this country at this time. I didn’t listen. My failure to see the cruelty and power of language cut my son to the quick. And though he knows I love him and I know he loves me, it is not enough.

I owe him a mother who doesn’t stick her head in the sand anymore. Who has the courage to look at the real world in which he lives and see the racism in herself as well as her country. I owe him a mother who does whatever she can about it. Starting with her language.

Jane Reed is a graphic designer and freelance writer.

Illustration by Richard Mia.






Comments (1)
04/05/16
 
As a professional writer and Brown alum, I found this article sad and disappointing. Certainly words matter to me and certainly words must be a fundamental part of the racial healing that we all want so desperately. But "black mood" is racist?  
 
A few years ago, there was a media tempest where I was living because a reporter used the word "denigrate." The word has a superficial similarity to the "n" word even though the etymology of the word has nothing to do with the racism.  
 
And now we're told that we shouldn't say "black mood." But what is Ms. Reed's logic? That "black" has a negative connotation here and that negative connotation is somehow an attack on all African Americans. Her logic makes "black mood" the same as saying "Dutch courage" or "Welsh on a bet." 
 
Of course the same logic would apply to saying "a black depression" or "blackout" or "blackmail" or any number of other words. All these words join "black" with a negative experience.  
 
But there are thousands of words in English and every language that have multiple meanings -- meanings that make no reference to other meanings. Black is a color. Black is also a skin color, but in this situation it means a shade of brown. Black is the absence of light. When I say there was a blackout during the air raid, there's no connection with a particular race. There's just no light. 
 
And black, like most colors, has associations with internal moods. Red with anger, green with envy. Moods. People who are depressed reach for words to describe how they feel. And depression feels dark, overshadowed, sometimes even black. 
 
Is that person unconsciously attacking black people with those words? No. What they are feeling is a lack of inner light, a lack of hope. When a person has a concussion, their lights go out. We say they've "blacked-out." These are words being pure descriptive poetry. So I have trouble turning the infinite nuance of language into black and white. 
 
But I'm far more troubled by the idea that this young man who is making his first steps into the world would call his mother a racist for speaking of her "black mood." How is that going to play out in a job situation? His boss mentions a "black mood," a coworker says "blackmail." If these words are racist, the young guy would be wrong not to report that to HR. And pretty soon, people at the company are thinking a chat with Mr. Reed is a HR violation waiting to happen instead of seeing how much he has to offer. 
 
But the saddest part of this is that BAM and I assume Brown U, feel that this kind of wrongheaded hypersensitivity should be supported and taught to the rest of us. Is this what Brown teaches the students? Is calling your mom a racist for saying how she's feeling going to bring us together? Seeing racism where it doesn't exist isn't going to get us to the goal.
 
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