I’ve Got to Pop That White Bubble (or, The Rap Incident)

We were driving along in the stupid beige minivan, windows open to the lovely fall air. We stop at a stoplight beside a Black man with his windows down too. He is playing rap music. My Black son said, “Momma, that’s bad music.”

WHAT?! I whipped my head around to face him. I try to act casual, but I’m shocked. “No, that’s not bad music. It’s called rap.” I turn back to face the wheel. The light is still red. I see my son in my rearview mirror. He is still staring at the Black man. I twist around to see him. “Baby, why did you say that is ‘bad music’? There were no bad words. Who told you that was ‘bad music’?”

He stared at me with a slightly alarmed look on his face. I knew he would never be able to answer my question. Whether someone had given him that idea, or he somehow inferred it on his own, he would never be able to explain it to me. I had to let it go. But I couldn’t.

I zoned out as the light turned green. Why did he think rap is “bad”? Is it because we only listen to rock? Is it because only white people listen to Radiohead? Is it because we never play anything that resembles hip-hop? The Beastie Boys must be the closest we get.

Or worse: did he say the music was “bad” because it was being played by a Person of Color? Is my son already an accidental part of implicit bias? That is not okay.

I have failed.

Our world is white. So white. Yes, I have plenty of racial mirrors for my son, if you count dolls. Or if you count armfuls of carefully chosen and well-reviewed books – books that  both feature kids of color, and also overtly explain race. Not good enough. Our real world? It’s white. All our family. Our entire church. All our friends. And apparently, all our music. Despite living in an extremely diverse part of Virginia, we have managed to raise him in a white bubble. Our white bubble.

I’ve got to pop our white bubble.

I’m gonna start by changing the station.

What Happened When I Made “Black Lives Matter” My Profile Picture the Day After the Election?

meme4I lost friends. That’s what happened.

Two hundred comments in 24 hours. That’s what happened.

I made people very, very angry. That’s what happened.

All because of a simple black meme with three powerful white words on it: Black Lives Matter.

You know what else that profile picture did? It defended my Black son. And it defended every other person made to feel an “other”. I took a stand. I silently protested against the election of a deplorable man. I faced off against people who don’t agree with me, and I didn’t back down. I turned my back on the dirty parts of my Southern heritage. I let go of people who shouldn’t be around my son anymore. I sifted the wheat from chaff.

Did I do it on purpose? Yes. Did I know what would happen? Yes.

I have friends who, right after I did, also changed their profile picture to that same exact black meme with three words on it: Black Lives Matter. Do you know what happened to them? Nothing. Not a thing. Not a single comment. What does that mean? What does that say? Maybe it says that my friends list needs weeding. Sifting. Maybe it says that I live in the South and they don’t. Maybe it says that I have more right-wing conservatives on my list. Or maybe it says that I have extremely vocal acquaintances (not sure “Friends” is the right word anymore) who aren’t afraid to yell at me – in all caps. If I dig really, really deep and try to be optimistic, maybe it means that I have some friends who are also willing to engage with me and ask questions.

Yes, that’s true. I did spark lots of discussion – some of which was even productive. I had people who asked questions, who genuinely were seeking to learn and do better. There were people who thanked me for helping them process some stuff. I didn’t change everyone’s mind. I don’t know if I changed *anyone’s* mind. But I made some people think, and allowed them a space to do so in depth.

The best part? I had people rising to defend me. There were six types of responses to my photo:

  • The silent “like”
  • The scream-at-me-in-all-caps-and-then-disappear
  • The I-disagree-and-I-will-keep-disagreeing-with-you-and-never-hear-a-word-you-say
  • The I-disagree-and-here’s-why-and-what-do-you-think
  • The please-explain-why-and-where-can-I-learn-more
  • The Defenders

Some defended me eloquently. Some defended me with (sometimes justified) cursing and name-calling. Some defended me eloquently until they bloodied their knuckles against walls of ignorance and then defended me with cursing. (By the way, “FFS” is my favorite new curse word acronym for extreme frustration.) Not gonna lie: it felt really freakin’ good to have people have my back like that.

I take that back – they weren’t defending *me*. They were defending MY CHILD. They were defending all People of Color. They were defending the Black Lives Matter movement. They were defending everyone who has been silenced and discriminated against and made to feel fear at the outcome of this election. (Okay, there was one friend who was actually defending ME. She said something like, “Melissa is too nice to cuss you out, so I’m going to do it for her.” HA!)

I’m an introvert. I can be a shrinking violet at times – but not when it comes to my kids. Like any mother, I will morph into Mama Bear in milliseconds when the need arises. I’ll cut you. Watch me. Electing a man who has emboldened people to use the n-word with glee, scream at minorities, make children fear that their undocumented parents won’t be there when they get home, grab women, taunt the handicapped, graffiti cars and homes and lockers with swastikas and epithets, cause people to hide their sexuality again,  and cause women to take off their hijabs for the first time…. Well, that is not acceptable. My child is one of those. And this is one pissed-off mother.

If you don’t agree with me that Black Lives Matter, we have a problem. If you are willing to talk to me, ask questions, message me privately, read an article I send you, explain your side calmly and then ask me to explain mine…. Well, then, there is hope for us. If you refuse to do any of those things, I have swiftly realized that you are not allowed around my son.

I need to be more careful. We do not feel safe.

Change starts with me. My first change is tightening my circle of friends.

BLACK LIVES MATTER.

mlk-silence

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But, yeah, also, 200 comments in 24 hours? I didn’t get nearly that many when we adopted a surprise baby with no notice after six years. I also didn’t get that many comments when I died and came back to life during the dramatic childbirth of my twins. Pfffft.

White Parents, Black Child: People Ask Us the Tough Questions about Race

imageAs a parent of one black son and two white sons, many of my friends have asked me questions about race during the past few months. I feel grateful that people trust me enough to ask the tough stuff. I feel grateful that we can “have a dialog” (ugh!) about race and the events in the news… as long as you’re not a stranger in the mall.

The mere fact of having children of different races does not make me an expert on race. I am not a college professor or a news reporter or a humanitarian worker or a politician. I am a stay-at-home mom who is not as well-versed as she would like to be in current events, because most of my current events involve poop.

The only thing I know for sure is that the world feels different when you are raising a black son. Black parents have conversations with their black sons that white parents do not have with white children. That leaves my husband and me to straddle two worlds.

I just want you to know that the world looks different to us than it did before we adopted.

Here are just a few of the questions we have been asked recently:

  • How do you explain race to kids? When my kids were younger asked these questions, I always acknowledged them, and said that people come in different shades, from very dark brown to very pale almost white, and that there is beauty in diversity. What do you think of my approach?

Your approach sounds like what I have read: acknowledging color is best. What I have read (often) is that we were all taught “colorblindness” in the 1970s and 1980s, and the research now shows that this approach does NOT work. That is why my son and I talk about skin color outright. “Your skin is brown, like your birthmother’s skin.” Sometimes it’s hard for me to do that, but I am practicing while he’s young, so it will get easier. Adult black adopted children raised by white parents have stated that if their parents taught colorblindness, then they felt like their parents were ashamed of them, just because they never acknowledged the differences. Their adoptive parents were probably not ashamed of them, of course, but the children made their own assumptions. Parents need to help them navigate this stuff with proper language and outright discussions.

  • Have you felt that your son is treated differently?

No one at church or preschool treats him any differently, as far as I can tell. Our friends are very accepting, and I welcome any and all questions and discussion from them. If you are close to my family or my son, you have the right to ask *anything*, but not the right to treat him differently.

It’s mostly in public that we get stares, comments, and questions, some of which are inappropriate. My goal is to teach him which questions deserve answers, and which questions deserve nothing at all.

Beyond that, though, we worry about subtle racism. From what I have read, subtle racism, also called “everyday racism” or “covert racism”, is as damaging as outright slurs and Jim Crow laws. I think –and much of what I have read backs this up – is that believing racism doesn’t exist is the most dangerous thing of all.

Subtle racism is when someone throws their keys to President Obama, even though he was dressed in a tux at a gala, because they assumed he was the valet. (That actually happened to him, when he was a senator.) Subtle racism is when we let ourselves – or our subconscious – make immediate assumptions about others. I worry about these assumptions that people may accidentally make about our son.

  • I know you get weird responses from people trying to figure out your relationships, beyond that, just in how people interact with your son, do you see him treated differently? Or do you expect that to happen more when he is grown?

As I hinted above, a woman at the mall, who was cooing over my adorable (and white) twin sons, saw my adorable (and black) oldest son call me “momma”. She looked at me with surprise and exclaimed, “But he’s black!” Right in front of him. (I wrote a blog post about it, of course.)

I expect that a lot of the subtle racism he will experience will be in his teens, as I have heard black mothers explain. My husband and I feel that we are going to need to teach our black son a few different things than we teach our white sons. We feel that it will be our job to defend him, teach him to defend himself, and also teach him when to walk away.

  • How do you, as a white woman raising a black son, feel about what happened in Ferguson and other cities?

It makes me feel scared. I feel scared because I am raising a child of a different race and I have no idea how to do that. Will he be angry because he has white parents? Will he be angry because he experiences racism? Will he be angry because I don’t understand the racism he experiences? Will he be angry that he has to experience this racism alone, without black parents to guide him? Will he be angry that he is being raised in a racist culture that claims not to be racist?

If he does feel angry at any of these things, then I feel scared for him. How do I raise a boy to not act on his anger?

I just want people to know that my job of raising a black son in America is complicated.

There is no other way to make any progress in a country as complicated and divided as ours, other than talking and trying to understand more, just more, about each other. What do you teach your children about racism? Have you experienced subtle racism?

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This post was originally posted as members-only content on Beyond Infertility, where I am a regular contributor.

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For further reading…

Recent articles that I have read have really helped me put my feelings into words. The following three posts affected me deeply. They have given me the courage to understand and write what I’m thinking:

Cute Little Black Boys Do Grow Up to Be Black Men, Part II (from Johnson-McCormick Family Blog)

Black Moms Tell White Moms About the Race Talk (from uexpress.com)

Screw Kids Understanding Race (from the Scary Mommy Blog)

For more information on today’s subtle racism:

Definition of “subtle racism” from UnderstandingPrejudice.org

“The Invisible Discriminator”, a PSA from Australia about Aboriginal people, with a universal message