By Colleen Oakley
Right now, I'm four months pregnant with a biracial baby, and I live in the South. In a small town.
My husband, Fred, and I -- that's us, at left -- moved to Knoxville, Tenn., last September before I was knocked up, and I have to admit that I had my reservations (read: visions of burning crosses and white-hooded men protesting our union) while we were packing up the moving truck.
These fears weren't unfounded. Just over a year ago in Knoxville, a church which very openly welcomed interracial couples was burned to the ground
. In other news, a group of three black men tortured, raped and murdered a white couple for no apparent reason. Just down the road in Nashville, a man has a statue of the founder of the KKK in his front yard -- and it's a popular tourist destination.
To expect racial tension to be high in our new hometown seemed reasonable to me.
When we got here, I was pleasantly surprised. Our neighbors welcomed us -- not with pitchforks, but with open arms. When we go out downtown, instead of stares and racial slurs, we get smiles and nods. And then we found out we were pregnant. That's when I began to panic.
As a new mom, I'm sure that I have the same fears as most other new moms: Will I be a good mother? Will my child be healthy? Will I have to watch reruns of "SpongeBob Square Pants" ad nauseum? But being the mother of a biracial baby, I have another, unique-to-me-and-my-kid fear: Will my child feel like an outcast in our community?
Yes, everyone we've met so far has been lovely. And I've come to the conclusion that hateful, racist extremists probably settle in a wide variety of places, but, thankfully, they are few and far between.
Diversity, however, is another matter altogether.
I loved living in Atlanta and New York City (the two places I lived prior to Knoxville) because there were so many different cultures represented in those towns. Fred's and my social circle was like a "We Are the World" video, made up of friends who were black, white, Chinese, Turkish, German, Filipino, Mexican ... you get the idea. I loved the idea of raising our biracial kids in an environment where being "different" was the norm, not the exception.
In Knoxville (and I assume a lot of other small towns in America), there are a majority of white people, a minority of black people ... and that's about it. Whenever I see another interracial couple, I resist the urge to run up to them and say, "Will you be our friends?" When I was complaining to my husband that we couldn't find decent Chinese food in this town, he joked, "Have you seen any Chinese people here?"
It's disheartening to me that in an age where we have a biracial American president (that the majority of our population voted into power), I'm wary of raising biracial children in an American town. Why? Because even though we haven't
had crosses burned on our front lawn, we as a country are not "post-racial," as many people would like to believe. I believe that while there may not be all-out racial hate wars on our streets, we're not exactly all holding hands and singing "Kumbaya" either.
Since the Civil Rights movement, instead of becoming increasingly integrated, our country is becoming increasingly self-segregated, which wasn't apparent to me until I moved to a small town. I think political correctness is partly to blame: A lot of white people (especially in the older generations) are afraid of saying the wrong thing and being labeled as racist, so they confine themselves to the social circle they are most comfortable in -- an all-white one.
Being called racist in today's society is almost as bad as being called a baby killer. Just look at Trent Lott
. Yes, the comments they made were incredibly offensive: Imus (in)famously referred to the black members of a women's college basketball team as "nappy-headed hos," as recently as 2007.
But instead of taking the opportunity to turn a negative into a positive -- discussing the comments and why they were offensive, we stamped "racist" on their foreheads and shipped them away so as not to blemish our politically correct landscape.
In an effort not to be labeled racist, white people often walk on eggshells, uncomfortable and unsure of what to say to a black person. In fact, in a 2008 study on race
, when a white person was interviewed by a black person on racial issues they reported higher levels of anxiety than when they were interviewed by a white person. This effectively kills real communication, and true understanding -- the cornerstones of what is needed for our country to truly become post-racial.
Until that happens, I will worry about the future of my little one. Will he feel the need to choose either the white culture or the black culture in our small town to fit in? Will kids at school make fun of him because they've never been exposed to diversity by their parents? Will we be able to expose him to enough diversity to open his eyes to the various cultures and wonderful differences in our country and our world?
What's the solution? I'm not sure. We've pondered moving back to Atlanta, or New York, or another big city, where our children will be exposed to more diversity, less self-segregation and hopefully, less racism. But is running away really the answer? Don't we then just become part of the problem?
So, for now, I write articles like this one, hoping that people will be forced to take a look at themselves, and their lives, and wonder: Am I part of the problem, too?
Colleen Oakley is a freelance writer and editor in Knoxville, Tenn. Her work has appeared in Redbook, Marie Claire, Women's Health, Fitness and Martha Stewart Weddings. She is currently working on her first novel.
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