Do you remember the infamous Tom Cruise-jumping-on-the-couch interview with Oprah Winfrey in 2005? Most people remember him jumping on the couch, but I remember what he said when Oprah asked him about his biracial son.
Oprah said, “You never mention race. You never say anything about it, yet your son is obviously of a different race.”
Tom answers, “He’s from the human race. He’s mankind.” The audience applauds.
Oprah asks, “Was that ever discussed in the family? Did you have a conversation with him about it? Was it never even discussed in the family?”
Tom, “What’s there to talk about? He’s my son. I love him. I’ve never thought about color, I’ve never thought about that at all, race I’ve just not thought about that.”
Oprah, “Listen, obviously, I know you haven’t thought about it. I mean, it’s not an issue for you.”
Tom cuts in, “But not even for him. It’s not a point of . . . I don’t believe in that. We’re all here together; we have to work it out together. That just brings about understanding.”
My black twins were still under a year old, and as a white mom with black kids, this stood out to me for a couple of reasons.
I could understand how Tom felt. “Race doesn’t matter, he’s my son, I love him.” Yes! That is how I feel about my girls. I love them and I don’t care what race they are. They are God’s children, mankind, the human race. It makes no difference what color of skin they have.
But then I thought about Oprah, a black woman’s reaction. She seemed stunned that race was not even a topic of discussion in their family and said, “Obviously it isn’t an issue for you, but . . .” I wish Tom hadn’t cut her off there. I think what she may have wanted to say is, “You are white and race isn’t an issue for you, but your son is black and if you don’t talk to him about it, how do you know it isn’t an issue for him?”
As we’ve raised our children, we encourage talk about race. At the dinner table on Martin Luther King Day this year, we had a different conversation than you may guess. One of my children of color stated, “I hate Martin Luther King Day.” I thought that was odd coming from her and asked her why. She replied, “Because whenever we talk about Martin Luther King and how black people used to be treated, everyone in my class stares at me.” My other two children of color chimed in, “That is so true! Everyone stares.” One added, “One year a girl in my class told me she felt sorry for me that my people were treated that way.”
My Caucasian daughter chimed in and said she never stares at black kids in her class when they talk about Martin Luther King, then she suggested maybe they just imagine it. I cut in, letting my children know their feelings are valid and none of us (white family members) know exactly what it is like to be black living in a largely white community.
An incident happened in my daughter’s 5th grade class recently. They were making charcoal art and one of the girls in class had her hands covered in charcoal. She held out her hands and loudly exclaimed, “Look everyone, now I look like _________ (my black daughter)!” My daughter’s feelings were hurt, she was embarrassed and began to silently cry. Her teacher called me and told me what happened and she addressed it with the class and called the girl’s parents. I tried to talk to my daughter about it, but she didn’t want to talk. I didn’t try to force it. Sometimes you have to have racial conversations when they are ready to have them, not at the height of a conflict. We talked about it a few days later.
Listen to your children of color for their perspective on race. Validate their comments. Talk about intent. Not every comment about race is meant to be negative. I remember one of my children coming home from Kindergarten and telling me, “So-and-so from school said my skin is black.” I asked her “Well, what did you think about that?” She said, “This girl is my friend and when she said it she rubbed my arm.” I asked, “Is your skin black?” She replied, “It’s more brown, but my hair is black.” I asked her if she thought the girl was teasing her or if she thought she was just seeing that the two of them looked different from one another. She believed the latter. So, it became a non-issue. We talked about this: It’s okay to notice race. It isn’t okay to treat someone differently because of race.
This is only the beginning. My children are still in elementary school. There will be other issues. I never thought about “white privilege” until I had black kids. When I first heard the term, I thought it was just another thing to divide us as a nation racially. Now I know differently. When my girls were babies, strangers would stop me to see my beautiful children. Little black girls are safe, nonthreatening. But those little black girls grow into black women. My 12-year-old looks like an adult. When she goes into a store, I’ve noticed how employees look at her and watch her with suspicion. I have had to tell her to keep her hands out of her pockets at all times and never appear to be hiding anything. To me, it is sad to have these conversations, (something I’ve never had to tell my white daughter), but I’d rather have this conversation now before it’s too late.
I recently watched a short video about a young black man who was raised by white parents. Race was never discussed. The adoptive mom admits that she thought love would conquer all and that skin color didn’t matter. But when this young man was pulled over by police, he learned the hard way that to some people, skin color does make a difference.
Tom Cruise said, “What’s there to talk about? He’s my son. I love him.”
Love them enough to have the sometimes-tough conversations.
Love them enough that they know home is a haven, a place to feel safe and loved.
Love them enough to listen to them when they feel they are being treated differently.
Love them enough to advocate for them when they are too young to stand on their own.
Love them enough to teach them how to handle situations where they may feel threatened or unsafe.
Love them enough to talk about race.