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Deciding to start a family is, arguably, the single most anxiety-inducing, deliberative process most of us will ever go through. When we decide to buy a home it’s an exercise that includes a basic algebra equation, budget agreement and a discussion about neighborhoods. When we decide to change jobs we think about salary and benefits, work/life balance and fit. But for many people of color in Oregon, the conversation about whether or not to have children is a complicated, iterative and emotionally charged exchange. The topics of discussion tend to include finding culturally diverse and academically rigorous daycares and schools, ways to avoid having our children be the only minorities in extracurricular activities, and how to prepare our children (and ourselves) for racial profiling that can begin as early as pre-k in some schools.
My husband Charles and I both knew we wanted to be married and have a family; however, the lack of diversity in the Portland metropolitan area concerned us. We were worried about raising a child in a state where Blacks make up only 1.8 percent of the population (6 percent in Portland); yet make up 9.4 percent of the state’s prison population. And given the fact that we both serve on governor-appointed education committees (Charles is on the Early Childhood Learning Council; I serve on the State Board of Education) we were also concerned about the growing academic achievement gap between Whites and Blacks throughout the state.
I grew up in a predominately Black community in Michigan. Charles grew up in northeast Portland when the community was mostly Black. We both know the importance of being raised around positive community members who looked like us. We have also seen firsthand the detrimental impact of being in a community where your race and culture are not celebrated, and are instead questioned, devalued and stereotyped.
Armed with that context, we knew we didn’t want to send our son to a daycare where he was the “only one,” meaning he was the only Black kid. However, all of the “best” daycares were predominately White. We also wanted our son to take music, art and swimming lessons, but while doing so we wanted him to see other kids who looked like him and to have teachers that looked like his parents. Therein lay the challenge. There are many wonderful programs available to children throughout the metro region; however, if you value exposing your children to ethnic diversity, the quality and availability of the programs diminish significantly.
After searching to no avail for a daycare program that would provide the kind of great care, academic support and positive cultural imagery we sought, Charles and I connected with his family in search of a solution. His mother Cecelia became a stay-at-home grandma to take care of her grandchildren. Subsequently, she established a daycare business with her grandchildren in mind. Cecelia took education very seriously and created age-appropriate curricula. When we couldn’t find a program to fit our needs, we established our own and it was the best decision we could have made.
As for extracurricular activities, we, along with close friends, research great programs and invite each other to participate. Most professional and working people of color are sprawled throughout the region, so we don’t always naturally attend the same local activities at the same time. However, through concerted effort we attend swimming classes, art lessons, play dates, barbeques, family picnics and birthday parties together. We make the extra effort to ensure that our son gets the cultural exposure we believe he needs. It’s not organic, it’s very intentional and can be an exhausting task, but its well worth it.
The final big discussion we had was about the community in which we live. We are constantly reminded that Black men are treated differently in the Portland metro area. Recently, while taking our son to get a haircut, a barber and another customer were discussing being pulled over by the police while driving in downtown Portland. They were discussing the police profiling as casually as one would discuss going to the grocery store. One man explained that he doesn’t go downtown during the day because he always gets pulled over. The barber stated that he’s also pulled over every time he goes downtown. They began to exchange the unfounded reasons officers provide for pulling them over. Two additional gentlemen entered the shop and joined in the conversation without missing a beat.
As we prepare our son for school, we are determining how to socialize him to perceive the police and people serving in policing positions in the community (i.e. neighborhood watchmen and security guards). In the wake of Trayvon Martin’s murder, and amidst the constant reminder that Black people, men especially, are stereotyped and profiled locally and nationally, Black parents are faced with a challenge: How do we raise our Black sons to be self-advocates, to be proud of their ancestral background and to avoid being penalized for the stereotypes that exist about people who look like them? The discussions between Charles and I have morphed from ways to affirm and prepare our son to be a successful and loving Black man into how to protect him from people with the best intensions and the worst perceptions.
One of the greatest lessons Charles has learned through his work with families as president of the Black Parent Initiative is that while parents are a defining component of a child’s success, so are the community, public policy, the job market, and many other influences. Since the courting stage of our relationship, Charles and I have discussed raising a child in Portland, Oregon, which was listed as the Whitest metropolitan city in the United States by the Washington Post a few years back. We believed that raising a middle class Black child in this region could have a negative impact on his identity development. However, the fact remains that even in New York City or Atlanta, the outcomes for Black boys are still bleak.
Changing negative trends in Portland will take more than a few families working to piece together culturally inclusive events for our children. It will take everyone working together to identify and eliminate systemic biases, exclusive hiring practices, racial and cultural intolerances and all other prejudices that inhibit Portland from becoming a place known as one