It's Time We Rejected the Racial Litmus Test: I Hoped My Sons Wouldn't Have to Prove Their Black Identity. despite Integration, the Struggle Continues

Newsweek, February 7, 2000 | Go to article overview

It's Time We Rejected the Racial Litmus Test: I Hoped My Sons Wouldn't Have to Prove Their Black Identity. despite Integration, the Struggle Continues


I recognize the sassy swivel of the head, the rhythmic teeth sucking and finger snapping. My son Spenser has come home from kindergarten talking like he's black. Never mind that he is black; somehow his skin color is no longer adequate to express his racial identity. Sometimes, in diverse schools like the one he attends, black children feel pressure to "act" black. My 8-year-old son Sam asks me to tell Spenser not to use "that phony accent" around his friends. "I'll talk to him," I say with a sigh.

"Be yourself" seems insufficient at times like this. I know from my experience with integration that it takes a long time to own your identity. In an all-black elementary school in Cleveland, I carried around a dogeared copy of "A Little Princess" and listened to Bach on my transistor radio. Nobody paid attention. When my family moved to Shaker Heights, an affluent suburb known for its successfully integrated schools, I encountered the war over who was authentically black. I had hoped that when I raised my own children there wouldn't be any more litmus tests, that a healthy black identity could come in many styles. But the impulse to pigeonhole each other endures.

As I considered what to say to Spenser, I recalled my own struggles over my accent. In seventh grade, I was rehearsing a play after school when a group of black girls passed by. "You talk like a honky," their leader said. "You must think you're white." In the corner of my eye, I could see her bright yellow radio, shaped like a tennis ball, swinging like a mace. A phrase I'd found intriguing flashed through my mind: "The best defense is a good offense." I stepped forward and slapped her hard.

I was suspended for that fight, but I felt I deserved a medal. My true reward came later, when I heard two girls talking about me in the hallway. "I heard she's an oreo," one said. "Don't let her hear you say that," the other replied, " 'cause she'll kick your butt!"

I hesitate to tell Spenser to be himself because I know it's not that simple. From integration, I learned that you have to fight for the right to be yourself, and often, your opponents have the same color skin as you. My sons will discover, as I did, that you can feign a black accent, but your loyalty will continue to be tested as long as you allow it.

In high school, I enhanced my reputation as an "oreo" by participating in activities that most black students didn't: advanced-placement classes, the school newspaper and the debate team. Mostly, I enjoyed being different. …

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