Ask Lisa Advice: Rejection of Blackness
This week, I counsel the White mother of a young, Biracial man who expresses his anger toward his father in an utter rejection of Blackness.
I am a White mother of a nineteen-year-old Biracial son. We are close confidantes, but I believe I have done a terrible job in supporting his Black identity. His father, who was Black, has only been sporadically involved with us—my son has not seen him for several years—and I am remarried to a White man, whom my son now loves and considers his second father.
My son just began his sophomore year at an elite university that has a wonderful African American Studies department as well as several campus groups aimed at the African American community. My son wants no part of these, nor will he participate in any Black-focused activity at all, because he believes they foster more segregation. While my husband and I recently attended a BLM rally and invited my son to join us, he will not even discuss Black Lives Matter. I am very upset about this and feel he should participate in his biological father’s culture, to at least acknowledge the contributions and struggles of Black people in this country.
Unfortunately, I admit, this situation was not on my radar until pretty recently—with the killings of Michael Brown and many others being in the news. I did not do much to support my son’s Black identity when he was a kid. He looks almost exactly like his father, so I always assumed since he looks Black, that he would be connected with that heritage no matter what I did. But after his father left, I was not working and we needed to move in with my parents in a very White community, far from my ex-husband’s family. When I married my current husband, my son was sort of absorbed into a world that had no connection to his Blackness. I always thought I should do something about it, but life got away from me.
I thought in college, my son would connect with other Black students and find himself that way, but that has not happened. Now he says he does not identity as Black but only as Biracial. He does not seem to have Black friends or girlfriends and becomes angry if I question him about it. I recently reached out to a Black psychotherapist with an office in his college town, who says my son is internalizing racism and is at risk of depression. I doubt I can get him to see her, but I wonder: is she right? And if so, what do I do to help him?
As a mother myself, I am aware that the first impulse when a child is struggling is to search for ways to blame yourself. Please resist that urge. Could you have worked harder to prevent your boy’s rejection of Blackness? Yes, you probably could have, but you made the choices you made years ago for reasons that made sense at the time. You can’t go back and you must now look forward. It is not too late to help your son.
He is clearly, deeply angry, though he may not be fully conscious of why. I would wager that he is cheerful most of the time, that he keeps up a smiling front because, if he allowed his smile to waver, he might unleash some serious rage. Right now, his anger is directed at Blackness itself. It seems he wishes to rid himself of it altogether. But every time he looks in the mirror, every time someone calls him Black rather than Biracial, there it is. This is the meaning of internalized racism. Your son is not just shunning negative stereotypes of Black people, he’s denying the Black part of himself.
If we had a map of your son’s psyche, I have a feeling we could draw a direct path from his biological father’s exit from your lives to his rejection of Blackness. You didn’t say why your first husband left or how he has been sporadically involved or how sporadically, but I am sure your son has feelings about this. Putting it starkly, a Black father left his life and a White father entered it. Besides feeding the negative stereotype of Black fatherhood, your ex also left your son to make sense of being brown in a White world all on his own. As a child, I am guessing that your son made his own rules, developing his own narrative about his heritage. Black represented the object of his anger, something to turn against, as he embraced his White stepdad and his Biracial identity.
The irony here is that your son is indeed Biracial. And, while there are many who claim that being Biracial means something all its own—neither one race nor the other—I believe that Biraciality is inclusive: both/and. In your son’s case, being Biracial means that he is Black and White. His rejection of Blackness—the more marginalized and arguably complicated piece of his heritage—may haunt him until he is able to make peace with it.
One baby step—a lead-in to getting in touch with his Black side—might be to connect with other Black/White Biracial people, if he has not done so already. Multiracial people come in all shades and identify in multiple ways. Connecting with other Biracial people may help your son become more comfortable discussing his races in general.
Next, I agree that it would be great for your son to see a therapist. I think the woman you reached out to sounds like she has the right idea, but my wish for your boy would be to find a male therapist of color if possible. To develop a therapeutic relationship with an older, Black or Black/White Biracial male might provide a different perspective of Black manhood.
Before you sign him up, however, summon the courage to talk with him about all this. Be candid, loving and direct. Say:
“Sweetheart, your rejection of Blackness worries me very much. Maybe you feel this way because your father left. Maybe it’s because I didn’t expose you to your Black heritage when you were growing up, but it’s something I think you need to work on.”
He may deny this. He may become upset and argue with you. He may shut down. But don’t give up. Tell him:
“You deserve to love your whole self and right now, I can see that you don’t. It breaks my heart and I want to help. I’ve made you an appointment with Dr. Somebody. Talk with him. He’s got a lot of experience. Go just once and decide.”
It may take several discussions before you get through to your son. It may also take a few therapists before you find one that’s a good fit. In any case, with hope, time and support, your son will end his rejection of Blackness and take pride in his whole identity.