A few months ago, Steven Fujimoto’s 5-year-old son, Alex, tapped him on the leg and asked a question.
“Do you think my skin color will turn darker when I grow up?”
Fujimoto didn’t make much of it.
You see, all of his son’s friends in their East Point neighborhood are black, as are nearly all but one of Alex’s pre-k classmates at the School for Creative Achievers.
In fact, Fujimoto himself, a first-generation Japanese-American, grew up on hip-hop and Mike Tyson.
That’s why he wasn’t fazed about how his son answered a question from his teacher, who was preparing a presentation about her students to be used in an educational social media campaign.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” teacher Janise Baldwin-Brewer asked.
“A black man,” Alex responded.
Baldwin-Brewer, or “Ms. Nene” as she is known by her students and parents, wasn’t fazed either. She just wrote down Alex’s response, took his picture, posted it on a board to be used in her presentation, and moved on to the next group of students and their dreams to be zookeepers, Spider-Man, nurses and Ninja Turtles.
“I personally told Ms. Nene that it was wonderful,” Fujimoto said. “No matter what, my wife and I respect and support our son’s decisions. Whatever he wants to be, I will support his dream.”
By all accounts, what Alex said was cute, sweet and uncoached. But in a nation that remains hypersensitive about race, even after the 2008 election of President Barack Obama, Alex also started a discussion that he can’t fully understand.
Illya Davis, a philosophy professor at Morehouse College and Clark Atlanta University, said even with the changes over the past eight years, the country is not ready to be fully post-racial.
“Avoidance and disfavor with frank discussion regarding the impact and prevalence of race is the tenor of these times,” Davis said.
Still, adults who hope for a post-racial America might wonder what’s wrong with Alex or any non-black child declaring a desire to be black.
Not a thing, said Baldwin-Brewer. Throughout the year, as she teaches about occupations and money, she asks her students what they want to be when they grow up, and how much they think they should be paid.
She has been doing this exercise ever since she began teaching toddlers 28 years ago at her mother’s daycare center in Charlotte, N.C., where she worked while still in high school.
“I try to teach them that firefighters are not just men, that teachers are not just women,” Baldwin-Brewer said. “In the midst of that, we talk about money. What is a dollar? That is how they learn the value of money.”
As each lesson progresses, she repeats the exercise throughout the year. For her current class — part of the state-funded Georgia Pre-K program located on Cleveland Avenue — she did it four times during the course of the school year that ended May 26.
“I like to see if the answers change,” Baldwin-Brewer said. “Most of them do.”
But not Alex’s. Each time the son of two first-generation Japanese-Americans was asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, he said, “A black man.”
“He sees color, but he doesn’t see color. … He is 5 years old,” Baldwin-Brewer said.
That is how Steven and his wife, Saori Fujimoto, designed it.
Steven Fujimoto, 47, was born in the Netherlands and moved to the United States at age 8 following a few years in Japan.
His family settled in Queens, N.Y., where he attended Jamaica High School. He quickly fell in love with New York hip-hop legends Whodini, Run DMC, LL Cool J and Public Enemy.
When he studied martial arts, he wanted to beat his opponents as quickly as possible, so Mike Tyson became his standard-bearer.
He moved to Atlanta in 2004 and settled in East Point, a south Fulton County city of 35,500 residents, 75 percent of whom are black.
“A lot of my friends just happen to be black, and we live in a mostly black community that we love,” Fujimoto said. “People treat us like their family here. My parents feel the same way. My wife feels the same way. And my son feels the same way.”
But Fujimoto hasn’t abandoned his Japanese heritage. He works as a salesman for a Japanese company and is a minister in the Japanese-originated religion of Tenrikyo. His wife was born in Okinawa and moved to the United States only five years ago.
In fact, Japanese is the Fujimoto family’s first language, including Alex’s.
“Raising our son in the United States is a great opportunity for him,” Saori Fujimoto, 40, said. “In Japan we pretty much have one race, so we wouldn’t have a chance to meet different groups. Here we have black, white, Mexican. We have all kinds of people here and, who knows, maybe in the future he might fall in love with someone of a difference race. There should be no walls between anybody.”
Civil rights attorney Helen Kim Ho, founder of Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta, agrees. Alex’s story is eerily familiar to her, as she attended elementary school in Columbia, S.C., as the only full Asian-American in an all-black school.
“I never said I wanted to be a black person, but I know what it is like to be Asian in the Deep South in an all-black neighborhood,” Ho said. “It had a lot to do with forming what I chose to get into and my ways of seeing things. Because I grew up living with and being friends with mostly African-American peers, when I got older and started thinking about issues on a broader level, what I was hearing became believable. You can feel more of that sympathy and empathy.”
And Ho predicts such cross-racial empathy will become more common.
“This isn’t that Rachel Dolezal mess, or cultural appropriation or the Kardasians,” Ho said. “But the lines are being blurred, and I think in many instances it is not a bad thing.”