Let’s start with a story, in the words of Kelly Ouattara, wife of Ibrahim Ouattara, mother of 9-year-old Souleyman and 7-year-old Djeneba:
“My kids were about 3 and 4 years old and we were at a park. A little boy came up to Souleyman and said, ‘Why is your skin that color? You need to change that color. You need to be white.’ I didn’t want to panic my kids, so I quickly picked up all our belongings and headed to the car, but I knew I would be so full of regret if I didn’t say something to the mother. I quickly walked back with my kids. I was shaking, but I told her what her son said to my son before saying, ‘I do not blame your kid. It is not his fault. I blame you. You have taught him this. You need to do better.’ And then we quickly left the park. I remember never wanting my child to feel that again and vowing to teach my kids to be proud of who they are so they can face people like that.”
When Kelly and Ibrahim met one day out and about in Broad Ripple, they were engaged just three weeks later. “We didn’t get married for another year, but yes,” Kelly says, sheepishly. “We were engaged after three weeks.”
Fourteen years later, the couple is still happily married, now with a son and daughter in the mix. While their lives are full of love, laughs and lake days, the Ouattaras also face the unique challenges that come along with being in a biracial marriage and family. Kelly is a white woman, born and raised in Indiana. Ibrahim is a black man, born and raised in the West African country of Mali.
“In many places when you’re an interracial couple, you get more attention,” Ibrahim says. “People’s eyes stay with you, and sometimes you can see them talking about you. It makes you feel like you don’t belong, like you’re not accepted. Also as an interracial couple, you never feel like you fully belong to either side, and you have to teach your kids that they will stand out.”
As a black man in America, Ibrahim experiences bias and racism. He recalls walking into a Chick-Fil-A with the family and feeling all eyes bore into him, while a girl fawned over their young daughter, gushing about how much she “loved mixed babies.” He tells story after story of being pulled over for no reason, only to be asked by the police officers where he’s going and why. He remembers going to a wedding and being stuck in a conversation with a white man who insisted on telling him about every black person he’d ever met. This seems to be the Black Man in America Starter Pack, and the Ouattaras do their best to stay positive about it.
“We get angry about these things sometimes, but we also try to see the positive. Brownsburg is pretty diverse now, but we do have neighbors that we know are not used to it yet, based on what they post on Facebook. But they have been nothing but nice to us face-to-face, so we try to ignore what we see online and go by how they treat us,” Kelly explained. “We hope that we can be the people — especially my husband — who expose them to black and multiracial people in a positive way.”
If this seems like a large burden for a family to bear, it is. Luckily, every family has the opportunity to help lighten their load. Explaining what’s going on in the world to kids can feel really difficult for many parents, especially white parents. But what families are now understanding is that it’s never too early to start honest conversations about race in your home.
Speaking from experience, Kelly and Ibrahim have some thoughts on how and when parents should teach their kids about race and racism in the United States:
Kelly: It’s a conversation that parents need to have with kids no matter what, sooner rather than later. I hear white parents say, “But I don’t want them to see color.” You can and you should see color. I don’t like when white parents think that they shouldn’t talk about racism with their kids because “that might teach them to think like that,” because you should also be living by example. If they’re seeing you treat people right every day, they’re going to do the same thing. But they need to know about race and racism because it’s there. It’s our world, so we have to start talking about it early. You can explain all sides! Kids understand good guys and bad guys. There are bad guys who treat people differently because of their skin color. But there are good guys who do the right thing, treat people fairly and try to help. Those are the people you should teach them to be.
Ibrahim: Lead by example. Abide by the code of respect. Respect every creature and person you encounter, and respect yourself. The kids learn more from the way you live than by what you tell them. Every decision you make is going to affect someone somewhere, whether you like it or not. If you’re always talking badly about a specific group, your kids are going to naturally assume they are bad. So, be kind. As parents, it’s your responsibility to teach your kids, so you need to self-educate. If you’re not teaching yourself, what are you going to teach your kids? Learn more about the globe. Get out of where you’re from. See different worlds and cultures. Sign your kids up for student exchange programs so they can see other parts of the world. Show them that there is beauty, wealth, love everywhere. For example, Americans usually associate Africa with poverty, disease, war, illiteracy, nothing good. But that’s not what Africa is. I know that.
This is a ground-shifting moment in our country’s history. We have an obligation – especially those of us who have benefitted from the systemic racism that has for so long held black and brown communities back – to shift with it. It probably won’t be perfect and you definitely won’t have all the answers, but you can and should start the conversation about race with your kids today. In doing so, you’re helping to build a brighter and more just world for every race. A world in which a child isn’t confused by another child’s skin color on the playground. A world in which black mothers don’t worry about seeing their child’s death on the national news. Because yes, all lives matter. But all lives don’t matter until Black Lives Matter.