On Raising Children of Colour

Navigating drugstore dilemmas with my teen son
young black man laughing with his mother
© Can Stock Photo / creatista

Flashback circa 1986: The parking lot at our local drugstore is suddenly jammed on Sunday morning. Instead of hanging out at home prepping meals for the week and getting ahead on some family time, we—my older cousin at 19, me at age 10—see people jostling in and out of the automatic doors for more than just cough drops or their blood pressure meds. Suddenly there is an urgent need to stock up on kitty litter, greeting cards, ginger ale, and emergency toilet paper. Grown-ups and their hustle-bustle!

Myself, I recall strolling in to enthuse over Wet ‘n Wild lip gloss while our parents shopped at the Canadian Tire across the way. Our respective dads examined the different salt brands (boring!) for their driveways while we would evaluate each lipstick and every lip gloss on that drugstore shelf, putting them up against our faces, pretending to discern the true essence of bronze caramel or the deep blood red through the cellophane wrapping; fantasizing we were Whitney Houston and Janet Jackson getting ready to go on our world tour.

I have no recollection of ever having anyone follow us in the store or ask us if we were buying anything. I have no memory of CCTV cameras hanging above us. For my preteen self, those 15 minutes of freedom in the drugstore were a carefree respite from the drudgery of constant adult supervision, and they made my weekend. When our time was up, with whatever spare change we found at the bottom of our jean jacket pockets, we treated ourselves to some penny candy, sighed that adolescent sigh for good things that must end, and went on our way, leaving behind our drugstore makeup fantasies until next Sunday.

“My now-infrequent forays past the beauty counter have taken on a different quality from those halcyon Sundays of yore.”

Now, as a professional woman of the parental persuasion in her early(ish)-forties, running to the drugstore is about getting in and out as quickly as possible. I might swing by the toothpaste aisle and possibly do a walk-by for the 2-for-1 deodorant special, but in all honesty, I no longer have the luxury of time or patience to linger in the nail polish aisle. That is for online mommy time, after the kids are asleep and I am sipping some tea as an antidote to my own hustle-bustle!

Nonetheless, in order to pick up some Q-tips and feminine products, I do have to occasionally cut across aisles of cosmetics, since as of late these necessities have been strategically placed at the farthest end of most drugstores. These days, I walk by my childhood haunt and might notice security personnel, some discreetly dressed and others not so much, chatting with the “cosmetic specialist.” If on these essentials errands I do stop for a half-second, maybe just to get a quick nostalgic whiff (or little spray) of perfume, I am sometimes asked if I need any help.

“No, just looking,” is my quick answer and I move on.

On other days, my now-infrequent forays past the beauty counter have taken on a different quality from those halcyon Sundays of yore. I have noticed that depending on what I am wearing, the level of attention, whether unsolicited or desired, differs.

Running in with a glittery hot pink sari, the one I meticulously pleated and pinned for convocation at the university where I teach, and realizing I need hairspray immediately, I might do a B-line sausage-walk right through the perfume zone. Fully aware that the bundles of bracelets I am wearing sparkle and tinkle as I pace the hair products aisle, I brace myself.

“Are you getting married?”

“Can I see the henna tattoo on your hands?”

(It is not a tattoo, I will add.)

“Is it an arranged marriage?”

…are the kinds of questions I have been asked by the drugstore staff while I am desperately looking for strong-hold hairspray.

Post-workday, still in my professorial pencil skirt and heels, I am more likely to be asked if I want to see the more expensive, salon quality line of hair products.

“We have the good stuff over here Ma’am.”

Then lo and behold, the day I come in with jeans and a messy hair bun (still looking fabulous in every way, bien sûr), I am followed. It is usually a sturdy-looking woman—and not evidently an avid cosmetics user, yet still mysteriously drawn to exactly the same shelves I’m surveying—who is suddenly interested in my every move. I can sense her presence and may even turn around to smile. She knows I know who she is. We, people of colour, just know.

“Someone was always behind me or around me… It was pretty obvious what was going on.”

Most recently, as a mother raising three male children of colour, drugstore dilemmas take on a whole other order of complicated. My 13-year-old son is now the one going to the drugstore on his own, but these encounters bear little resemblance to my Janet Jackson-impersonating days. When he first started middle school, with parents’ permission, he could go out for lunch once a week. With many food options a block away, of course he and his male friends would choose the drugstore for chips and candy, because that’s where your $5 would go the farthest—kudos to my fiscally responsible, if occasionally nutritionally “carefree”, child. And then it happened:

“I just noticed all eyes were on me. Like, I had my hands out of my pockets, like you always say to do, and took my hoodie off my head, like you say to do, and I made eye contact with the cashier, like you say to do.”

“Yes, and then what?”

“Well, the other two guys with me, they were totally just buzzing around the store, kind of touching things, dropping bags of chips on the ground, like making noise and stuff. And no one was following them.”

“You were being followed?”

“Well, it was like someone was always behind me or around me. I just bent down to pick up the bag of chips I dropped, and I could see the same pair of shoes I saw near the Pepsi area. It was pretty obvious what was going on. I know you have told us this happened to you before but when it really happens to you, it is something totally different.”

“It is a scary and gross feeling, I know.”
“And my friends are white, with freckles, and I am not.”

How to respond to that last observation? Honestly and wholeheartedly has always been my approach. Yes, we see and acknowledge colour, even when our well-intentioned friends like to say, “I don’t see colour, I see just people.”

“No, you don’t identify as white and the world, without ever asking for clarification, and others will recognize that you are of colour and assume who you are, according to the acquired knowledge they have. You could be from Syria, India, Pakistan, Turkey or born and raised in North America but you will be perceived based on whatever cultural exposure the other persons might have of people of colour. Though it makes me want to scream, you will be indiscriminately generalized as ‘Asian’ which gets plastered wholesale on anyone from Central Asia up and over to Hawaii or down to Indonesia, depending on who is doing the labelling. This is your reality, and it’s not always pretty.”

With three of his grandparents with roots in South Asia and one from Spain, his almandine eyes and warm caramel skin make for a handsome dude! Like any parent, I reinforce self-care, but in particular, I want him to take care of his skin (moisturize now, I tell him, invoking my beauty counter youth, because you’re worth it!).

“And look at your skin,” I tell him. “Appreciate its roots. Think of those great great grandparents of yours who stood in Punjabi fields under British rule, who went to great lengths to cover their faces to prevent the sun from darkening it. Be proud of your tone, your hue, your shade. This is also your reality and it is gorgeous!”

“Is that white privilege?” she whispers. “Yes, your son navigates the world differently than mine.”

I have shared these conversations with the parent of one of the freckled boys who said her son didn’t realize my son had had that experience. She told me she has also reminded her son to act appropriately in stores, and to make eye contact—it’s only polite, after all—but she never thought about keeping his hands in sight or wearing his clothes a certain way, which means something else entirely. And she never told him that his friends of colour might have a different experience when buying chips and candy. Because, why would she? She genuinely had never seen the need to prepare for the world outside of her ethnic perspective. And when my son is with her son, though he is just one of the guys, his experience is different from her son’s.

“Is that white privilege?” she whispers.

“Yes, your son navigates the world differently than mine. And so, I parent accordingly. I must have the ‘hands out of pocket–hoodie off your head’ conversation every time I know he is going to the mall with friends or running into the drugstore to pick up some cough drops. Every time I remind him he needs to step-it-up just a little more than everyone else, just because. And someday, when he is driving a car, he will be asked to raise his hands above his head, high up, where the officer can see them, and your son, he may not even have to open the passenger door.”

She continued, her throat full of emotion, “Let’s hope that my son will acknowledge that if anything were to happen, standing beside his friend, no matter what he looks like, is the right thing to do.”

“Yes, that is where white privilege can provide allyship.”

“Ultimately, I don’t want to be that ‘snowplow’ parent, eliminating all the unwanted bits on his life’s path that he’ll run into every day and always.”

Since that incident, my eldest son is uncomfortable going into stores on his own. But rather than capitulate to the caprices of everyday racism, I try to help him build up some of the social resilience he will need in adulthood as a man of colour. Though I know it’s difficult (for him and for me), I do send him into the drugstore to grab something for me while I wait in the car when his two younger brothers have fallen asleep mid-drive.

“Should you just come inside the store with me? Let’s just them wake up and we can all go in together,” he says apprehensively.

“No, it’s fine. Just run in and pick up my prescription for me and maybe a little treat for your brothers,” I reply with imperfect confidence.

“I don’t think that is a good idea. You know what’s going to happen.”

And I do. Maybe not this time—though possibly. Eventually. But for now, I’m right outside.

Drugstore dilemmas will remain. The ones everybody knows: Do I stock up on paper towel now or later? And the ones only some know: Do I encourage my son to disregard his discomfort about what he is now acquainted with and go in on his own? Or do I protect him for as long as possible? Ultimately, I don’t want to be that ‘snowplow’ parent, eliminating all the unwanted bits on his life’s path that he’ll run into every day and always.” My job is to help my child to cope with and navigate the conflict and hostility he will undoubtedly face, as all parents must. What I can do is validate his experiences and give him the right tools: that is, the space to share and express his feelings, the foresight to anticipate the realities of being a male adolescent of colour, the confidence to recognize his human dignity and self-worth, and the courage to speak his truth.