Navigating Race, Class and Sexuality as an Interracial Family
John Hart, a white gay man, writes about navigating race, class, and sexuality while raising his black 10-year-old son.
"Am I the only black person here?" my son leaned over to ask me quietly. We looked around the hockey arena which was filled mostly with men and boys. And indeed it was pretty white. And I didn't get a single ping off my gaydar.
"Am I the only gay person here?" I asked back.
It was a bonding moment for us, a little inside joke, and we smiled in amusement.
We were in a local hockey arena for a championship celebration. After the Washington Capitals won the Stanley Cup in 2018, right winger Tom Wilson brought the trophy to his childhood arena where my son was slated to start playing in the fall. I knew my son, a hockey nut, would want to see the Cup and meet a real NHL player, so I took him along. Everyone there – mostly fathers and sons, and sometimes a mother too – were excited and friendly. Although we didn't feel unwelcome in any way, my son and I were both conscious of our differences in such a homogenous crowd.
Last weekend I again felt like an outsider when I took my son to get his hair cut. My partner and I had taken him to places closer to home but the stylists treated his mixed-race hair like a perm and he always ended up with old lady haircuts. We were overdue to search out a black barbershop that would know his hair better and found one not too far. When we entered, we saw two black barbers and a line-up of black men waiting. We sat and waited for my son's turn. I watched as new customers came in, as they greeted the barbers and other customers with ritual handshakes and shared idioms. I didn't know any of the codes.
I was keenly aware that my differences set me apart – my race was obvious, my class I'm sure was apparent, and my sexuality was fairly obvious too, I bet. I wasn't made to feel unwelcome in any way but I recognized that the space wasn't meant for me. It was a space for my son, however shy he felt going in, to feel included and recognized. And his hair was cut into an awesome fade.
As a gay man, I am constantly aware of my surroundings – am I in a positive space, am I in a safe space? – and how I negotiate the space. I seek out spaces that are predominantly gay or gay friendly when I need that kind of environment. I am also able to negotiate around more neutral spaces and I understand that my race gives me privilege to do so. I try to avoid spaces and situations where I might feel unwelcome or threatened.
The past school year was an occasion when we assumed the space would be positive but the reality proved much more complicated. My partner and I were initially happy that my son's class was made up only of black boys and therefore our son would be with peers. But the school year proved to be worse than terrible. The teacher (a straight, white female) told us our son was struggling with his identity so she was taking it upon herself to "introduce" him to black culture.
It took more than a year after we left the school to find out even more of what was going on as our son has slowly opened up to us. The other boys teased him daily for having two dads, called him a faggot and threatened violence against him and us. Our son was torn everyday – in order to fit in with his peers he had to reject his parents; to stand up for his parents meant he'd risk bullying, violence and being ostracized from his peers. No wonder he was confused about his identity! He was anxious for his safety and ours throughout the school day which affected his behavior and performance. But he wanted to protect us from the homophobia so he didn't tell us any of this until only recently. Ultimately in this instance, his differences set him apart and made him a target. He was made to feel excluded and an outsider when we hoped for the opposite.
Our son feels different in so many ways, including his race, his adoption and his two dads. He longs to fit in — so much so that he wanted to make both his peers and parents happy. Instead he struggled and no one quite knew how to help. And no wonder – with all the complications of intersectional discrimination, how could a 10-year-old boy stand a chance?