I’m Raising an Introverted Black Son, so I’ll Always Worry

My son will have to learn to navigate this world as a black man, and as an introvert.

“Don’t worry, Mom,” he says. I realize he’s been saying this all the time since the pandemic began — to me, to his siblings, and even to his friends on his headset when they’re playing video games. I realized one day, with a jolt, that he’s telling himself not to worry. I’ve seen an uptick in “Don’t worry” since protests began across the United States following George Floyd’s murder.

He’s a worrier. And an introvert. And a half-black thirteen-year-old. My husband and I tell our sons all the time they’re both white and black. But at ages 11 and 13, they’re starting to understand that the world sees them as black.

I don’t think they comprehend all the ways we protect them from the outside world just yet. A lot of playdate overtures and sleepover invitations get declined. If I’m not completely confident other parents understand all the ways in which the world will treat my children differently than their white children, my kids will never be left in their care. My half-black kids don’t get the luxury of a free-range childhood. They shouldn’t be left alone at the playground. They can’t sneak out of the house at night to toilet paper a friend’s house. They don’t get to engage in pre-teen mischief or teenage hijinks. 

And conversations about police brutality toward people of color? They’re an entirely different proposition in our house. We discuss these incidents as they happen, with a frequency that makes my blood boil, but we don’t tend to elaborate with a lot of details. Because these conversations terrify my sons.

I’ll never forget seeing the realization dawn on them: These incidents aren’t a chapter in a history book about the civil rights movement. These horrors inflicted on black people could happen to them too. The conversations in our house aren’t abstract. As my sons become teenagers, these conversations are instructional.

As Introverts, Home Is Our Refuge

Reading Susan Cain’s book about introverts was a revelation for me. Her research and analysis laid bare all the ways introversion is a strength, not a shortcoming. Her book helped me silence the critical inner narrative I’ve always had around my introverted personality traits. I was thrilled to learn her book was adapted for younger readers. I bought my son a copy a couple of years ago, but I’m not sure he’s cracked it. A book about introversion is a hard sell when there’s a limitless supply of fantasy and sci-fi novels to dive into. 

I do my best to help him, because as an introvert myself, I understand him. We worked out a carpool so he doesn’t have to take the school bus because I know he’s completely spent by the end of the school day. (Is there an introvert on the planet who has fond memories of the school bus?) My husband worries we’re coddling him, but I can see him visibly relax when he gets in the car each afternoon. Middle school is a harsh proving ground; every kid is working through their identity and sorting out their interests. 

There’s an added complexity for my kids. We very deliberately chose a diverse neighborhood in Dallas, Texas, where we live, and worked hard to find schools for our kids with diverse student populations. This was no small task, since neighborhoods and schools have become more segregated in recent decades, after initial gains following the civil rights movement. We’ve been fortunate that they’ve found friend groups that are relatively diverse. I know mixed-race kids sometimes feel compelled to choose between cliques that center around race.

I’ve learned not to force conversations about race with my son. These conversations are fraught — equal parts confusing and frightening. I suggested he think about joining the African-American Awareness club at school, but he demurred. He’s not inclined to join many clubs or activities at this age. I don’t tend to push it, since I felt the same way at his age.

I very much understand that home is his safe space, as an introvert and as a mixed-race kid. At home, no one pipes up with uncomfortable questions like, “Is that your mom?” No one asks to touch his hair. If I’m honest, home is my refuge, too. 

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I’ll Always Worry

I’m on a constant hunt for nonwhite authors of young adult fiction. It’s a challenge to find books where a central character, not a sidekick, is black. (The author Jason Reynolds was a fantastic find!) Books are a frequent escape for him, as they are for many introverts. He comes home from school depleted, but diving into a book re-energizes him.

And when he seems to be brooding or stuck in his own head, we take a walk. I like to quote a favorite book series we read together called The Penderwicks: “Take a walk, clear your head.”

We’re trying to give him the space and time to get comfortable in his own skin, in his own way. He’ll have to learn to navigate this world as a black man, and as an introvert. Perhaps Barack Obama will be a role model, an intellectual with introverted leanings, by all accounts. Maybe he’ll find his way to an analytical job where he spends a lot of his day buried in data and reports, like his mother did. Maybe he’ll find his public voice, tap into the deep wells of kindness and concern for others I see in him, and become a fierce social justice warrior.

I’ll be haunted for the rest of my life by the image of George Floyd calling for his mother while a police officer kneeled on his neck. I’m trying to help my son understand himself, embrace his many strengths, and find his path in this world, without letting the worry take over.

But I’ll always worry.

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Joanna McFarland Owusu is a freelance writer/editor based in Dallas, Texas. A federal government analyst in a former life, she now spends most of her time wrangling two tween-aged sons and a preschool daughter. Her work has appeared in HuffPost, Scary Mommy, Bust, and Mamalode.