Saturday, June 13, 2015

Carrying Cute

I've been reading Katherine Schultz's "Being Wrong"; I'm really enjoying it. A point she makes repeatedly is that one of the main mechanisms that causes us to blunder into mistakes, inductive reasoning,  is the same mechanism that helps us to learn things quickly.  Inductive reasoning allows us, for example, to distinguish "dogs" as a breed through seeing diverse examples like Chihuahuas, Golden retrievers, and Scooby Doo.  But inductive reasoning also teaches us to generalize a bit too much -- for example, to think that computer science is a man's career.  She encourages us to appreciate the former while learning from the latter.

This weekend, in that vein of appreciating inductive generalizations, I have been enjoying the power of stereotypes.  I know I have to be careful about how I say this, because falling back on stereotypes can be pernicious in so many ways.

Pernicious indeed.  My family has spent a bunch of time in recent years talking about adapting our behavior in response to stereotype.  As my sons grow from adorable little boys into powerful and tall teenagers, public impression of them has understandably changed.  We've had lots of discussions about what it means to walk around downtown.  When my six-year-old ran and wrestled and yelled, he was cute.  But when my teenage boys do the same thing, it worries on-lookers, especially when the teenage boys are black and the on-lookers are white and elderly. [And yes, I know that sentence contains more than its share of pernicious stereotypes.]   Even after lots of family conversations about Trayvon Martin and Ferguson and Baltimore, I have had to caution J-son that scooping snow off of cars we're walking by (so that he can make snowballs) might look to other people like an act vandalism (as though he were keying cars). I have had well-intentioned passers-by worry for my safety, thinking my boys were attacking me when they raced me to our car and yanked on the door handles to get in. All this is just to say that walking around town, especially after dark, is a different experience now for my family.

When my fair-skinned daughters were teenagers, of course nobody worried that the girls were going to attack them (or me). Sometimes, when the girls carried their infant brother, people would give them nasty glances, assuming they were unwed mothers. Mostly, the girls found this amusing -- especially my youngest, who has blonde hair, blue-eyes, and alabaster skin, and who is only seven years older than her mahogany-colored baby brother.

And this leads us to this weekend.  My granddaughter, Baby A, is with us Friday through Sunday.  The boys have delightedly taken on the role of uncles: tickling her, making faces,  explaining to me that the baby was crying because I was feeding her wrong, so they'd do it right.  They are amazing with the kid.

When the boys walked with a friend named JJ to the convenience store, I asked if they wanted to take a baby along, and they jumped at the chance.

And all of a sudden, walking the streets became a whole new experience again.  Because Baby A is adorable.  She's so obviously not the biological child of these boys, so there's no chance of mistaking the boys as unwed teenage fathers.  And did I mention she's adorable?

With Baby A in their arms, my boys had the unusual experience of strangers approaching them (not retreating, and not even merely ignoring them).   And people approached with a smile.  And they said encouraging things:  "oh, what a lovely baby!  She's so beautiful!".  And they beamed at the boys.

Who would be nervous about walking alongside this trio?
N-son told me that the boys had made jokes along the way to the store:  "If the police stop us, we're going to have to tell them that JJ is the father".  JJ is, in their minds, white.  But he's "white" in a swarthy, Mediterranean way, with beautiful olive skin and a bushy black head of hair.  Baby A is clearly not his kid.

Still, the fictional father story wasn't even remotely necessary.  My boys were surprised by the kindness of strangers.  Heck, we ourselves were delighted by the many ways this grouping breaks from the pictures we carry in our own heads, too:  That it's girls who like playing with babies.  That clumps of teenager boys are trouble-makers.  That race plays itself out the way we read in the newspapers, instead of the way it plays out in our living room.

I loved having my white teenage daughters help me care for my black infant son.  But I think I'm even more intellectually delighted by watching my black teenage sons care for my white infant granddaughter, precisely because of all the stereotypes I know that I carry around in my own head.   It's such a treat to be able to hold both images -- one, the image of my own implicit biases, and the other, the reality of my family -- to hold these in front of me and revel in the dissonance this creates.

Not to mention, they're so darned cute.


  1. As far as I'm concerned there is only one race of humans, we just come in an astonishing variety of colors! I love seeing boys learning to be tender with babies, what good training for future fathers. And you're right, your granddaughter is a real cutie. But then so are your sons.

    1. You're a good person, Rozy. Unfortunately, my experience has taught me that we can't assume that everyone we'll meet acts out those ideals. -MM

  2. Wow, what a lovely post. Thank you for sharing your experience of raising your different race sons and daughters.

    The photo of your two boys with the baby in the sling is precious. My nephews are about the same age and there is something so heartwarming about seeing teenage boys be nurturing to babies.

    What fun for your clan to get to love on this sweet babe & how lucky for her to have doting uncles and aunties (& grandparents!). Best wishes to your whole crew.

    1. Thanks! And yes, we had great fun. It's a hoot to have the boys tough-talk each other before the baby arrives ("I aint changin' no poopy diaper!") and then follow me around the house whenever I pick her up ("Mom, do you need someone to hold the baby for you? I'll hold her for you!"). And the goo-goo faces, man, the goo-goo faces.