The Powerlessness of Not Having a Voice

My son almost ran in the road, and I had no voice with which to stop him. My story is a literal one, but the analogies I take from it are numerous.

My sons were playing outside on a mild January day. I was sick that day, lying in bed, feeling guilty for being sick. (Ah, the perks of motherhood!) I had lost my voice, and my children had been uncharacteristically alarmed by my baritone squawking that morning. My husband kindly bundled them up and took them outside with him while he was working in the garage.

wp-1486487754623.jpgThis is my view from my sick bed. The boys were throwing sticks down that embankment. Yes, it leads to the road, and yes, I briefly wondered if they were going to hit any cars with that stick-throwing. My boys know not to go down the embankment, into the ditch, or into the road. However, Twin B is quite … forgetful. Suddenly, I saw Twin B follow a thrown stick and run down the embankment and out of sight. I raced to the window and threw it open, knowing full well I had no time to run to downstairs and to the door. I had no idea if my husband had seen Twin B, and I had no time to wonder. My body completely forgot about being sick as the momma adrenaline kicked in. As I slammed open the window and leaned out, I screamed, “STOP!”

Only nothing came out.

No sound. No voice. No nothing. Having forgotten I was sick, my surprise turned quickly to terror. My son was probably running into the road and I was completely powerless. I had no voice. At all. There was nothing I could do quickly enough. Panic.

Our dog is deaf, but she can hear loud clapping. So, thinking quickly, treating my children like dogs, I leaned out the window as far as I could and clapped as loudly as I could. My hands stung. My heart was on fire, too. Where was he? Would he hear me?

Once in a while, having twins is wonderful: Twin A, an obedient, empathic brother’s keeper, heard my frantic claps, looked up at the window, yelled, “What, Momma?” I pointed to the road with crazy gesturing. Bless his little four-year-old heart: he understood. He retrieved his twin. As soon as I saw them both come back up over the embankment, I raced down the stairs to yell at Twin B with my non-voice. They were fine.

Later, during a quiet moment (probably after they were in bed, because that is the only quiet), I reflected on that feeling of pure terror I had when I realized I had no voice with which I could protect my child. The fear. The helplessness. We often hear versions of the phase “they have no voice” when reading about oppressed groups of people. It made me ponder many of my favorite quotes with a new understanding.

wp-1489081129831.jpg

“In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” -Martin Luther King, Jr.

“Agitate! Agitate! Agitate!” –Frederick Douglass

“There comes a time when silence is betrayal.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” –Desmond Tutu

“White silence is violence” – my protest sign

“Hear Our Voice” –an official logo of the Women’s March

wp-1489081101207.jpgThat is why Black Lives Matter. That is why refugees matter. That is why Muslims matter. None of these groups of people have the same voice that I do. I am a middle-class white blonde American woman. Simply being born that way is privilege. I truly believe I am obligated to use that privilege to help others. I am obligated to use my voice for others who have no voice. Staying quiet is no longer an option. Change will not happen if we don’t speak up. Literally. Speak. I never want any mother to feel powerless to help her child.

 

***

“For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat. I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink. I was a stranger, and ye took me in, Naked, and ye clothed me. I was sick, and ye visited me. I was in prison, and ye came unto me…Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” Matthew 25:35-40

When I Learned about My White Privilege During the Presidential Election Month

As I strive to learn more about how to be a good parent to a Black son, I have joined a few online groups that have really been life-altering. “Groups” is really an understatement- they are essentially classrooms. Mentors and adult adoptees are there not for me, but really for my child. They teach us white adoptive parents about the things which we actually should have learned before we adopted transracially. They try to open our eyes and call us out on our mistakes. It’s been uncomfortable, but I see that discomfort as a good thing: growth.

When my mentors asked for volunteers to participate in a #MyWhitePrivilege Challenge every day in November 2016, I raised my virtual hand. Every day, we were to post one way in which we had learned that being white has given us an advantage. My goals were: 1) To try to see the world a bit more through my son’s eyes; 2) To learn more about white privilege in my own life; 3) Not to offend people of color; 4) To publicly state a commitment to anti-racism and connect with others who share that commitment.

What neither I nor my mentors anticipated were the implications of participating in this challenge during the month of the Presidential election. Emotions were running high – as were acts of violence against people labeled as “other”. What started out as an innocent learning experience for myself quickly became a means of defending my son’s very safety. It was also a great way for people to unfriend me – just like that time I changed my profile picture to “Black Lives Matter”. The emotional toll that November 2016 took on my family, and really on our whole country, was tremendous.

So, without further ado, here are my daily posts. The following are ways that my white life experience has been or will be different from my Black son’s lived experience.

/Day 1/ I could dress my white kids in a cute gorilla or monkey costume for Halloween without even thinking twice. #MyWhitePrivilege

/Day 2/ I can buy Band-Aids (and bras!) that match my skin tone. #MyWhitePrivilege

/Day 3/ I can use the shampoo and conditioner provided by any hotel if I forget my own. #MyWhitePrivilege

/Day 4/ Every prophet and religious figure in my church and gospel study books looks like me. #MyWhitePrivilege

/Day 5/ If I see police lights behind me, I am only fearful for my budget – not my safety. #MyWhitePrivilege

/Day 6/ I had never even considered the fact that my Black son has never been the majority in a room. Conversely, I can’t remember a time I was the minority in a room. #MyWhitePrivilege

(This one was a huge and heartbreaking revelation for me. Well, “for” my son, really. I can’t believe I had actually never realized that until some adult transracial adoptees shared their experiences of the first time they remember being the majority in any room. It was so rare and overdue, that each of them remembers the first time that happened with great clarity. I need to do better for my son.)

/Day 7/ I can probably get my hair cut anywhere, by anyone. I don’t need to search out a specific type of salon if I don’t want to. #MyWhitePrivilege

/Day 8/ I can dress my white sons in hand-me-downs, ripped pants, badly scuffed shoes, and not truly worry that people will actually treat them differently for that. #MyWhitePrivilege

—Trump is elected—

/Day 9/ I have never had to stop and think about whether the leader we elect will have a positive or negative affect on the people of my race or ethnicity. #MyWhitePrivilege

/Day 10/ I realized that my *surprise* over the racism I’ve seen during and after this election IS privilege. My Black friends, my Muslim friends, Latino friends, my mentors in adoption groups, white parents who have had children of color for far longer than I have – none of them are surprised. They have been dealing with this for their entire lives. They have survived worse. I was (am?) new and clueless. The fact that I am feeling any kind of surprise today is #MyWhitePrivilege.

/Day 11/ I could easily say “I’m done with this election” or “Nothing has really changed” or “Let’s all just move on and be nice to each other” or some other such nonsense and it would be true. For ME. #mywhiteprivilege

/Day 12/ I don’t have to think about racism if I don’t want to. #MyWhitePrivilege

/Day 13/ Until I had a Black son, racial injustice made me sad, not scared. #MyWhitePrivilege

/Day 14/ My behavior, accomplishments, and failures reflect ME, not my entire race. No one ever says, “You’re a credit/shame to your race.” #MyWhitePrivilege

/Day 15/ I don’t have to teach my white sons about hoodies. (But I will.) #MyWhitePrivilege

/Day 16/ I don’t have to teach my white sons about talking to police. If I do teach them about that, it will probably be for reasons other than protecting their lives. #MyWhitePrivilege

/Day 17/ Before I had a Black son, Confederate flags didn’t bother me. I grew up with them here in Virginia. I was taught “Heritage, not hate” and I believed it – because I could believe it. Everything looks different now. I steer my black son away from those cars in the parking lot or people who wear that shirt. #MyWhitePrivilege

/Day 18/ I never thought about how many black people were in any TV show or movie. Now I notice- and I count how many episodes or minutes in until I see a person of color in anything. #MyWhitePrivilege

/Day 19/ Genealogy seemed pretty straightforward when my ancestors were considered important enough to be recorded. #MyWhitePrivilege

(I just read this quote yesterday: “The ancestry of any black American can be traced to a bill of sale and no further. In many cases that cannot be done.” -Julius Lester, “To Be a Slave”)

/Day 20/ If my white children have a rash or other skin condition, a Google image search can help me. Not quite as easy to count on images to help my Black son. #MyWhitePrivilege

/Day 21/ I never wondered about or the origins, meaning, or appropriateness of songs like “Eenie Meanie Miney Moe” and “Five Little Monkeys Swinging in a Tree”, and would sing them naively to my children and students. #MyWhitePrivilege

/Day 22/ My appearance has never caused someone to cross the street, lock their doors, or hold their purses tighter.  #MyWhitePrivilege

/Day 23/ Before my Black son was born, I never thought about or checked diversity statistics in potential preschools and schools. #MyWhitePrivilege

/Day 24/ I never understood or noticed that the history I was taught was only from one perspective. #MyWhitePrivilege

/Day 25/ No one tries to touch my hair without my permission. #MyWhitePrivilege

/Day 26/ My white children are actually viewed as their age- and not treated as someone older. #MyWhitePrivilege

/Day 27/ My white husband has every other Friday off work. We can do errands without ever wondering if anyone assumes he is lazy or unemployed. #MyWhitePrivilege

/Day 28/ I never paid extra money to buy the more expensive/ harder to find baby doll to look like me or my white sons. #MyWhitePrivilege

/Day 29/ No one ever asks me where I’m “really from”. #MyWhitePrivilege

/Day 30/ I never noticed that all of our Christmas decorations feature white angels, Santas, and nativity figures. (Now that I am paying attention, I find it incredibly challenging to remedy this situation.) #MyWhitePrivilege

And that is the end of the My White Privilege challenge for the month. If you’ve read this far, thank you for not unfollowing me yet! I just have one last white privilege to share: I can stop thinking about racism now if I want to. I can ignore my white privilege for the rest of my life now that my challenge is over. I don’t ever have to revisit this topic again, really, and that’s white privilege. GETTING TO DEBATE THAT WHITE PRIVILEGE EXISTS IS A PRIVILEGE.

I know many of you were annoyed with this challenge. Some of you were even angered by some of my choices. I’m fairly certain that I was unfollowed by a large number of my friends. (My proof is that the number of “likes” on my innocently cute twin photos has decreased sharply. And permanently.)  However, many of you were engaged in lively discussion with me – which I appreciate, even if we don’t agree – and many of you told me that I have really made you think. A few of you have even thanked me for bringing these issues to your attention.

I started this challenge because my mentors asked me to do it for myself, to learn more about how my own life as a white woman has been and will be different than my son’s life as a Black male. I feel that my eyes have been opened quite a bit, and I can never forget what I have learned. This was for my son. The fact that so many of you have thanked me for making you examine your own privilege for the first time is icing on the cake. Thank you for reading!

***

Further reading

White Privilege explained: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/chris-boeskool/when-youre-accustomed-to-privilege_b_9460662.html

Post-election hate crimes: http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2016/11/12/post-election-spate-hate-crimes-worse-than-post-911-experts-say/93681294/

About day 22, Alligator bait: http://theundefeated.com/features/the-gut-wrenching-history-of-black-babies-and-alligators/

About day 22, Monkeys: http://www.authentichistory.com/diversity/african/3-coon/6-monkey/

About day 26, Things we teach black sons: http://www.upworthy.com/things-a-black-kid-is-often-taught-not-to-do-that-his-white-friends-can-are-heartbreaking?c=ufb4

About day 28, Black boys perceived as older: https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2014/03/black-boys-older.aspx

***

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

****

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.