The interracial experience is something, as a child, I observed from afar with a slight sense of envy. Children born into this life, intimately experiencing the best of many cultures, felt like an advantage that only a select few were chosen to have. With their curls so fluffy and mine so tight, growing up I admired my Puerto Rican & Black cousins’ hair. But admittedly, it would be many years before I considered how living within and between two cultures might affect a person in more ways than what I could see.
Yet, even as a young adult my grasp of interracialism was limited. I still couldn’t understand why anyone with hazel eyes and a silky mane would feel like anything but a Parisian model. As a confident, constantly uplifted and undeniable AFRO-AMERICAN girl, I never had to toggle with issues of being ostracized by one group in which I self-identified, let alone two. I never wrestled with having to choose one part of myself over the other because society never expected me to do so. Consideration of what it might be like to have the blood of the privileged and the often underprivileged concurrently running through my veins was something that wouldn’t ponder until I was much older.
When Brian Thomas, a well-known Chicago litigator and writer, reached out to me to participate in this series the first thing I thought was, “Momma, I made it!” I have followed his work since I joined ChicagoNow in 2012 and always admired the intellect, wit and balance that he brings to the wide array of topics that he writes about. I knew from his writings that he is in an interracial marriage and prematurely asked him to give his perspective on that topic. What I didn’t know until the conclusion of our Q&A was that Brian himself is interracial, which even deepens his perspective.
In true litigator fashion, Brian did not allow me to pigeonhole his responses. He was fully open, surprisingly authentic, refreshingly candid, and predictably passionate about shedding some light on what it is like to define his own life, (as an interracial man, in an interracial marriage, and as the father of interracial children), beyond the boundaries that society would like him to remain within.
Meet Brian Thomas
Kay: I’m assuming that you and your wife have been married in the last decade. Did you find that people were generally accepting of your marriage (which is interracial)? Or did you find that a surprising amount of people are culturally still living in 1954?
Brian: In September, my wife, Amy, and I will celebrate our ten year anniversary. I can’t say that we’ve experienced anything but what any “normal” married couple experience. I don’t feel us getting looks; we have never been approached by anyone. Whatever is said behind our backs is said behind our backs—so I neither know nor care.
One thing we’ve found is people remember us. We visit restaurants and on the second visit servers would comment that they remembered us from our last visit. So we’re memorable, I suppose. But we ended up building relationships that way—ultimately, it is a positive.
Living in Chicago, I have never felt anything untoward with respect to my marriage. But in Chicago you have a bit of everything; you see everything, so us walking down the street is not shocking anymore. We now live in the suburbs—we moved two years ago. In our little subdivision, we regularly hang out with roughly eight families with children. Of those families, four are in “mixed race” marriages. We have vibrant friendships and enjoy life here. Again, we’re more memorable, but being “memorable” has only been a positive.
On Growing Up Biracial
Brian: I am biracial; my father is Black and mother White. Growing up in the western suburbs, I certainly felt different at times. My family definitely got looks and very few of them were warm and cozy. Growing up, I didn’t know my father was Black and my mother was White until a couple kids pointed it out to me in kindergarten. To me, they were Mom and Dad—not Black Dad, White Mom. Today, it doesn’t feel like it did in 1980. My six year old son asked about our skin colors, but it was very matter of fact, without worry. It was similar to him asking why the sky is blue. Being 42 years old and seeing what I’ve experienced in that time, I feel confident that the emphasis his generation will place on race is much less than ours.
Relative to how I felt as a child, there is definitely much more acceptance from the public as a whole. Hopefully that half page of remarks answered the question!
On Being a Father
Kay: As a parent, which makes you more anxious: Teaching your children about the ‘Birds and the Bees’ or teaching them about race?
Brian: I’m not anxious about either because all I can do is be honest. My children are still a little too young to have either talk with them, but when I do, I’ll be honest with them, so I’m not terribly anxious about it.
My high school history teacher, Joan Davis, early on taught us to get information from different sources and then come to our own conclusion. She gave us three different newspapers from 1968 on the Tet Offensive and we got three wholly different stories about what went down. So when it comes to race, my children will be exposed to different perspectives and voices on race and racism. My experience will color my children’s concepts, but they will be exposed to different truths and voices and come to their own conclusions.
Kay: What is the most important lesson for you and your wife can teach your children?
Brian: Life will beat you up and you will fail. But after life throws that punch and you’re on the mat, you have to get up. You have to keep forward momentum. You have to keep moving forward. Work hard. Have fun. And don’t be afraid to fail. When failure happens, learn something and move forward. You end up in the right place in the end.
On Teaching Children about Race in 2015
Brian: [I] need to be sensitive to the fact that what happened to me in 1995 may not be as relevant in 2021. We need to remember, my children were born in a world where Barack Obama was President of the United States. Does that means racism doesn’t exist? Of course not, but it’s a different world because his White peers were also born in a world where a Black man was President of the United States. So the prism they see the world in is so much different from ours.
Kay: What are you the most hopeful about?
Brian: Personally, everything. I’m in a good place professionally where I’m stimulated and challenged. My family is healthy and safe and there’s food in the cupboard. Ultimately, everything on top of being healthy and safe is gravy.
For our country, I’m very hopeful on race relations. 2015 has been a momentous year culturally. It early could be another turning point. And when you couple it with 2008 and Obama’s election, I think the country, as a whole, has turned a corner.
Now, there are plenty of those that don’t want the country to turn the corner. And we’re hearing from them now. You’re seeing it. Racism is alive and well. But because we’re seeing it, you’re also seeing a condemnation of it. Proof? What happened in McKinney, Texas, is some proof of it. Older White woman is a racist and tells Black kids to go back to their Section Eight homes and a very unfortunate incident occurred. What happened after the incident is of import: the White kids at the pool came to their Black friends’ defense and told the story that this middle aged white lady started all of it. She gets publically shamed and suspended from her job. The police officer resigned (appropriately).
So I’m hopeful that bigotry will not be tolerated by our younger generations. And bigots will be called out. As the President said: Just because you can’t say “nigger” publically anymore doesn’t’ mean racism doesn’t exist. But, hopefully our children won’t tolerate it being said at all.
Kay: What makes you the most anxious?
Brian: The police. Like every other profession, there are good cops and there are bad cops. Bad cops can get away with murder—literally.
My anxiety comes from not understanding how Sandra Bland, an Illinois woman who didn’t signal a lane change in Texas, ends up on the ground in handcuffs, and later dead in a prison cell. I get anxious when Eric Garner, who says he can’t breathe, is ignored as the life is squeezed out of him by police. I get anxious when police shoot and kill Tamir Rice, a 12 year old boy, with a play gun, less than two seconds after announcing their office.
My parents taught me that if I get pulled over, put my hands at ten and two on the steering wheel so the officer can see my hands. If it’s dark, put the interior light on. DON’T FIGHT. If you’re being harassed, fighting it at that moment will only escalate the situation. A lawyer can handle that in the future. Answer with Yes/no, sir.
What do I teach my children? Am I doing enough to not end up dead?
Is that enough to not end up dead after a traffic stop? I like to think so; but seeing too many innocent Black lives end at the hands of police, makes me anxious.
And the (Really) Important Questions
Kay: If your family had a theme song, what would it be?
Brian: Excellent question— and I’m stumped. Songs that have entered my mind that aren’t fully appropriate: Theme to Diff’rent Strokes, Katy Perry’s “Firework”; Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger”
Kay: Complete the following sentences.
Chicago is a…city of broken beauty. It is a gorgeous city. For all the things the city is able to do, it should be able to keep our children safe and educate them. On those, we’re 0 for 2. Reading the tea leaves, the city will get worse before it gets better. Residents will pay more for less. I don’t blame Rahm. He inherited a complete mess. I blame Daley. I still don’t understand why that name is still etched on so many buildings/landmarks.
I sometimes think about relocating to… Florida. This is my every February fantasy. I’m more Florida than Arizona. But I’m more Chicago than both.
If I wasn’t an attorney…I would be a late night talk show host.
Barack Obama’s real legacy will be… as one of the best Presidents. Think about where unemployment was, the stock market, we were in two wars and the economy was in a horrific state. He comes in, puts the economy back on its feet. Has seen a sustained bull market; unemployment is down. So he is able to stabilize the economy all while getting universal health insurance enacted, which has been argued about since 1912. Even Clinton was unable to get done. He was president when marriage equality became the law. The cultural shift that is going on AS WE SPEAK is huge. Obama presided over that.
And he presided over all of these things (and I’m limiting it, there is much, much more) all while taking a whole lot of shit from Republicans. Think about how Jackie Robinson is revered. Now, multiply that by what’s appropriate for the President of the United States and not a respected baseball player who integrated the game. That’s what Obama will be. Imagine the respect he’ll get 30 years from now! It will be ridiculous. If Mt. Rushmore didn’t already exist, he’d be on it. Seriously.
Kay: Is there anything else you want to say about race relations in America?
Brian: I wish I had all the answers. I find the more I read and the more I learn, the more questions I have. I am hopeful though. Hopeful the discussion continues. I feel like we’re moving forward—I feel like our children view the world differently than our generation and that makes me hopeful.
I think society has moved as far as it will. I don’t think government can do much more, other than look at incarceration rates of people involved in drug crimes—which we’re starting to do.
Laws provide for equal access. But laws cannot change peoples’ hearts. So from here on out, I think it’s on us.
I’m curious about the socio-economic impact on racism. Does racism affect Michael Jordan like it did Michael Brown? How will overt and institutional racism affect a Black family who are millionaires? What about those earning $200,000.00 annually versus $20,000.00? $100,000.00 versus $35,000.00? What’s the income line? What role does education play? What can we do affirmatively to effect better outcomes? Is it as easy as getting an education?
With the answers to some of these questions, maybe we can look at racism as a disease process and defeat it that way. If we eat more fruit and more fish and exercise more, we have better odds of a longer life. OK, now translate that. Is it as easy as saying, if we obtain education can we lessen the impact of overt and institutional racism? What other things can we do to lessen racism’s impact?
I don’t know the answers to these questions; but for years we have fought to eradicate racism. That’s not going to happen. Racism will exist. Let’s accept that and figure out how to minimize its effects on us individually and thus collectively. Maybe the conversation moves that direction?
Kay S. is a freelance writer and blogger in Chicago, Illinois. Her debut novel, Lotus, is currently available through Amazon.com, iBooks and Barnesandnoble.com. If you are interested in participating in this series, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow her on Twitter @kaywillsmith.
“We Hold These Truths,” will run weekly on Tuesdays. To read previous posts in the series, check here.