Columbia at Age 25: Racially Diverse But Far From Utopia

June 14, 1992|By KEVIN THOMAS | KEVIN THOMAS,Kevin Thomas is an editorial writer for The Baltimore Sun.

A letter to the residents of Columbia:

The other day, I asked my nine-year-old son what race he told people he was when he was at school.

I fully expected he would shrug and say the topic never comes up. I was hoping that the fact that he is a biracial child -- I am black and his mother is white -- made little difference to his classmates, several of whom are also biracial. I felt assured in my expectation because more than eight years ago, my wife and I decided to settle in Columbia largely because of its reputation for racial tolerance.

We now have two children, both of whom attend Columbia elementary schools. Our daughter is seven.

The ensuing years have been ones of relative comfort, where my wife and I have felt free to associate with whom we chose and to be out in public absent the stares that would be common in other communities. I must confess, however, that I have never been overly sensitive to perceived slights because of my race or my marriage, so I may not always have been tuned in to things going on around me.

But when my son responded to my question the other day, a number of things came sharply into focus.

"Well, I don't tell them anything unless they ask," he said. "If they ask, I tell them I'm black."

This was curious. We have always explained to our children their heritage, and while we never insisted they call themselves biracial or mixed, we assumed they might. Still, I didn't want to appear surprised, so I quickly asked my son why he was reluctant to say what he truly is.

The conversation that followed, with my wife and daughter present, nearly moved me to tears. Not because I had never heard these things before, but precisely because I had heard them all my life.

Always the observer, my son -- who is fair skinned, with golden-brown, tightly curled hair -- had seen other biracial children, whose skin was fairer and hair more straight than his, taunted about their mixed status. Always the taunts came from black kids.

Not wanting to be a victim, my son took the path of least resistance. He manufactured an interesting twist on "passing," the old practice of fair-skinned blacks living as if they were white. In my son's case it wasn't that he was lying, he was just omitting part of the truth.

"I wish I wasn't mixed," he said. "I'd rather just be one thing."

Then he began to worry that he hadn't told his friends the truth, and he wondered what would happen when they found out. He started to cry.

My immediate response was defensive, to protect my child.

And then it hit me. Protect him from what?

That is why I'm writing this letter. To tell you, the residents of Columbia and anyone with an open mind, how I truly feel and why, on the 25th anniversary of this city, I feel less celebratory than I would like.

Leaving Hartford, Conn. eight years ago was bittersweet for my wife and me. We married there, had our first child there. We left a lot of good friends behind. Some of the things we were leaving, however, we were not going to miss. Largely a segregated city with immense urban problems, Hartford offered few areas with the right mix of integration, quality schools and a black middle class. Columbia offered all three.

Having been raised in Silver Spring, I knew about Columbia, but even if I hadn't, the city's reputation was widespread and very positive. It seemed like a logical place to live -- not just for racial reasons, but because our children could go to good schools that weren't private and in an environment that was safe.

Still, the fact that Columbia had attracted a sizable black middle class and that its schools had blacks in position of authority had immeasurable impact on my family. For children of any race, having minorities as role models breaks the mold and counters the negative images of minorities that pervade city life.

So what has gone wrong in Columbia? Why are there signs that our harmonious environment is straining at the edges?

There is nothing terribly wrong. Columbia, as is so often said, is not a utopia. It is not immune to simmering racism, such as the incidents where white supremacists leaflets were left on the doorsteps of some Columbia residents.

Still, these are powerful forces that cannot be ignored.

Columbia schools, and therefore those throughout the county, are heralded for teaching multiculturalism. What may be missing are lessons on Columbia's rich history and the role so many minority groups -- including biracial families -- have played.

I need not travel much beyond my own street to marvel at the magnificent success that Columbia is. When my children play on their street, their friends include Indians, Vietnamese, Taiwanese, Caucasians, Africans, African Americans and other biracial children. There is no class system other than the one that results from child's play, which is usually based on who can hit and run the farthest.

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