It wasn't easy or comfortable, but most of all it was perplexing. I had always been American. I suddenly needed to embrace a hyphenated identity as a black American (we hadn't become African American just yet). And even though I was biracial, I had to identify as black.
As I grew older and struggled with the identity I'd been assigned (particularly because it didn't reflect my complete experience), I think I was most saddened by the realization that many of the black people I knew (in a mostly black neighborhood and school) could articulate a sense of uneasiness about being around white people whether in a business setting or a social situation. Their earliest experiences with coming into contact with white people had often been fraught.
I thought of this because of a Wall Street Journal article I read this week about the ways in which babies register racial difference. A new scientific reports has found something scientists are calling the "other-race effect".
"Our brains distinguish race insanely quickly, within tenths of a second. An other-race face tends to activate the amygdala, an ancient brain region central to experiencing fear and anxiety. Another brain region, the fusiform, helps us recognize individuals, read their expressions and make inferences about their internal state. When we see an other-race face, there is less activation of the fusiform, and we are less accurate at reading facial expressions."
It's disturbing to realize that babies are making their own meanings around difference at such an early age. But it does explain why some of my friends had those feelings of unease even when they didn't have or know of experiences that should make them feel uneasy.
I didn't have those kinds of uneasy feelings. I think because I was in a multiracial family where I was exposed to different kinds of faces and they all meant love. As the kid of an interracial couple and part of a multiracial family, I started to believe in "white goodness" from the very beginning.
The question is: is it possible to provide monoracial families the same kind of experience? Or is there a way to fill in the meaning of difference for children that are so young?
If we could answer those questions, we'd go a long way in healing racial divides. And as the journalist writes: "[I]f our early environment is racially mixed, race doesn’t become an Us/Them dividing line." Wouldn't that be a wonderful thing?