The “Where’s Your Mom?” Microaggressions

It happened again.

People who know us forgot that I was his mother.

IMG_20170303_171030I am white. My son is Black. This is a tremendous invisible burden for him. Being asked to explain yourself or justify yourself as an adoptee is called “narrative burden.” It’s not fair to him, but it is his albatross.

Every.single.time. we are out in public together, something small happens to make us feel “othered”. These tiny things add up, especially for a young impressionable child. “Microaggressions” is a term I have recently learned, and, while it applies to race, I think it may also apply here to transracial adoption.

Yesterday, after Cub Scouts was over, I was following my son out the door. We were close together. Another mother (who knows us) stopped my son from exiting and said, “Wait, where’s your mom?” WHILE HE WAS TALKING TO ME. I firmly said, “I’m his mom” and brushed past her quickly.

Last week, as I was checking my three sons into the gym daycare, the woman at the desk (who knows us) said, “How many children today?” while looking at only my Black son. WHILE HE WAS HOLDING ON TO ME. My white twins were probably doing cartwheels around us, but she wasn’t looking at them. She was looking at my Black son, who was touching me, and basically asking if he counted. I sternly said, “I have THREE CHILDREN.”

The week before that, I took my son to his school’s book fair. He chose his book, and we walked together to the cash register. I was right behind him in line. We were the only two in line. The teacher (who knows us) added up the total, and then said, “Where’s your mom?” WHILE LITERALLY MOVING HER BODY TO SEE AROUND MY HEAD. I followed her gaze over my shoulder and noted that she was looking at a Black family across the room. I said, “I’M his mom” while shoving my credit card in her face.

Yes, each of these things may be small to you. Yes, each of these things can be explained (“whitesplained”) away. Yes, each of these things might be understandable. Until you put yourself in my son’s shoes. Until you realize it’s cumulative. Until you realize that it happens every.single.time. Until you realize what that would actually feel like to be him.

It’s not fair. It’s a heavy burden. It’s a cumulative effect. It’s one more way the world makes him feel like an “other.” It’s just one more way he may feel he doesn’t belong. He’s getting old enough that this burden bothers him, but he’s not yet old enough to want to answer anyone himself. We talk about these things. I try to give him the language he will need, and the choice to answer when he’s ready. Right now, he is introverted and uncertain about everything. Wouldn’t you be, too?

These microaggressions are probably why he doesn’t want me to eat lunch with him, or chaperone field trips. Unlike white/non-adopted kids, he is asked by peers and adults alike basically to explain himself. No child should ever have to explain why he belongs with his own family.

We know the “colorblind” mentality didn’t work. It was a failure. It is not the goal, either. It is well-documented that children do better when diversity is acknowledged, voiced, and celebrated. Yet white people stubbornly hold on to that “I don’t see color” crap. If you don’t see color, then you WOULD see that he was wearing matching t-shirts with his brothers. If you don’t see color, then you WOULD see that he was holding my hand. If you don’t see color, then you WOULD see that he was calling me “momma” and talking to me and holding onto my waist. You would have already noticed and remembered that we are a family. If you don’t see color, then you wouldn’t make him feel so othered from his own family every damn day. Don’t you dare ever say to me that you don’t see color.

The Black Social Worker Who Apologized to Me About Her Own Hair

She had absolutely no need to apologize to me. What is wrong with this world right now?

When I opened my door to her, I saw that she was a large African-American woman. Large in stature and in personality. She had a loud, cheerful, and commanding voice. She was big-boned, and wearing high heels, and a huge coat and huge earrings and a huge purse. Everything about her was big. I liked her immediately.

In every way, she had the power in this situation. She was older than me; she was more lively than me; she was bigger than me. And most of all, she was a social worker who had the services that I need for one of my sons. I deferred to her in every way.

On her head was a scarf, or a headwrap, tied with a front top knot. It was beautiful.

As she stepped into my home, she immediately pointed to her head and quickly said, “I’m not Muslim. I’m sorry; this is just for my hair.”

My mouth dropped open.

“Ma’am,” I said, “You are welcome to be Muslim or not Muslim in this home. Please do not apologize for that. You do not owe me any explanation.” (Besides, we have Muslim family members.)

This happened just two weeks after the presidential election. Hate crimes are on the rise. Racism – and every other kind of “ism” – is out in the open. People are angry. People are scared. And people are apparently apologizing for things that they should not be.

A Black woman, in a position of power, was apologizing to me, a white woman, for wearing a head scarf. It was awful. I don’t know much about African-American headwraps, but I do know that they can be worn for reasons that are cultural, historical, religious, stylish, or just plain practical. And NONE of those reasons are any of my business.

wp-1488304372906.jpgAs she walked down my hallway, she looked at pictures of my transracial family on the wall and asked if my one of my sons was Black. “Yes, he is. Isn’t he handsome?” I invited her to sit down and we did an hour’s worth of paperwork together. She began to slip in a few questions here and there that I know had nothing to do with the paperwork.

I have noticed times when Black adult men and women have taken my son into their fold, if only for a minute or two, to reach out to him. To check on him. Not every Black family will like us, or even approve of us, but I often see them pay attention to my son. This was one of those times.

She asked, “What does he say about having different skin than you?”

She asked, “How does he feel about his white brothers?”

Later, she asked, “Have you and your husband had conversations about how the current political climate will affect your son?”

These were questions that had nothing to do with the Social Services paperwork we were completing. These were questions from one Black woman to check on one Black boy. And I appreciated it greatly. I love knowing that, even in this ugly world, he has strangers looking out for him.

When the visit was nearly over, she said, “You and your husband sound like you are doing the best for your son. I have experienced a lot of racism in my life and in my career, but I still have hope, especially when I see people like you.”

I was touched by her unexpected compliment. I could have just said “thank you” and sent her on her way. But I asked her if she could share any of her experiences with racism. I explained that I was asking not out of nosiness, but out of a desire to gather more information as a mother of a Black son.

She told me of a time that she was warned that a certain child’s guardians, the grandparents, were very racist, and that she shouldn’t go visit them. The social worker went anyway – because she had a job to do. When she knocked on their door, two angry-looking people opened the door. She quickly explained who she was and that she was there for their granddaughter.

Before she could finish talking, the woman said, “We don’t talk to no n*****s.”

Instead of walking away or cursing back, the social worker simply sat down on a chair on their porch. Since she knew she wouldn’t get into the house, she sat there on the porch and said, “Please try to see past my skin color and work with me for your granddaughter.”

The man said, “You have five seconds.”

That social worker didn’t get angry. (How?!) She didn’t even feel surprised. (Why?!) And she didn’t give up. She helped that girl graduate high school that year and even attended her graduation ceremony. The grandparents were there. The grandmother came up to her and said, “I still don’t like your kind, but I appreciate what you did for my granddaughter.”

You know what is the most shocking part of this story to me? It’s not even the use of the n-word. The most shocking part of this story is the fact that the social worker told it to me as an example of hope. She went on to explain how wonderful it was that the grandmother “came around.” To her, it was proof of the fact that people can change. Even though the grandfather wouldn’t look at her. Even though the grandmother wouldn’t shake her hand. Even though the grandmother still said, “I don’t like your kind.”

That’s hope?

It is my white privilege that I am shocked by that story.

The social worker told me that she predicted six months ago that Trump would win. She said her white friends laughed at her. She knew. She wasn’t surprised by the results of the election. Not like I was. Not like white people were. Her lived experiences told her that this result was likely.

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On our wall at home

And now her lived experiences were telling me that her “hope” and “progress” are not defined the same way as mine. And now her lived experiences were prompting her to apologize to me for wearing her hair the way she needed.

This world is just not what I thought it was. I’m so very sorry that it took me 37 years to see it. I’m so very sorry that I didn’t pay attention until I had to pay attention. I wish I had learned so much more before my Black son was placed in my arms. I’ve been blind.

How much more do I need to learn to keep my son safe? It will never be enough. My white privilege will not protect him. While he’s little and cute, my privilege may shield him like an umbrella. But soon, when he starts to look like more of a man, my white privilege will only hurt him. If my white privilege continues to give me blinders to the way the world really will be for him – if it prevents me from teaching him and preparing him to keep himself safe – then it will harm him.

I don’t ever want him to have to apologize for his Blackness. Or his hair. Or his head coverings (hoodies?). I don’t want him to define “hope” as someone who won’t shake the hand of his kind. But what I want doesn’t matter. I need to see the world through different eyes.

Her eyes. His eyes.

 

My Son and I Got Another Dirty Stare (and White Woman Socialization)

And old dude looked at my son and I with disgust last week. There’s yet one more way that the world is making my son feel like an “other”.

He was grandfatherly age, wearing a cowboy hat and a plaid shirt and jeans. At first glance, I liked him. Then he made eye contact with me, and then he looked me up down, then looked my son up and down, then looked me up and down again. And made eye contact with me one last time. With a look of pure disgust on his face.

At first, I assumed that he just has Resting Bitch Face. Don’t all grandpas look a little grouchy? That night, when I was home and my son was tucked safely in his bed, I couldn’t get that man’s face out of my head. So, I wondered if maybe he just didn’t feel well. The next morning, that look was still seared in my mind. So I thought that maybe he was confused by our transracial family. But, no. I thought about his face. He looked like he had just had a vurp (“vomit burp”) in his mouth and was also smelling poo. So maybe, I thought, he has acid reflux? Later that night, I just couldn’t let it go. I remembered the way he scanned us with his eyes, back and forth, up and down. I’m used to the “triangular stare”, but it’s not always followed by a look of disgust.My mind kept turning it over and over. My mind was searching for a way to make sense of this.

My mind was searching for a way to give this old man the benefit of the doubt.

Because I’m nice, right?

Or maybe it’s because I’m a white woman. My blonde self just doesn’t make people hold their purses tighter or lock their car doors. That is called white privilege, folks, and I have recently learned alllll about that. But, also, I’ve learned about something called “White Woman Socialization.” I fit the description perfectly. Guess what one of the bullet points is for White Woman Socialization? Giving people the benefit of the doubt (and too often).

Why is that so bad, you may ask?

Let me explain. When a Black friend tells you a story about getting pulled over by a cop and treated poorly yesterday, is your first instinct to say any of the following things?

  • “Oh, are you sure that’s what happened?”
  • “Maybe you misread him.”
  • “Well, I’m sure the cop didn’t mean it.”
  • “He was probably just having a bad day.”
  • “Don’t you think you’re being a bit oversensitive?”

If your first instinct is to say (or think) any of those things, then you are dismissing the Black person’s lived experience. You are silencing him. You are dismissing him. This may be the hundredth time this has happened to him. He has experiences that you haven’t. And you don’t get to explain those away.

That’s part of white woman socialization.

And I have it.

Something snapped. I remembered everything I had learned. It took me three days of rolling that old man’s disgust around in my brain before I let myself see what I was trying not to see: HE DID NOT APPROVE OF US.

I was done. My brain screamed, “I AM DONE GIVING PEOPLE THE BENEFIT OF THE DOUBT.”

Why? Am I meaner now? Maybe. But I’m a Mama Bear, and I’m gonna protect my kid, and, furthermore, I am not going to dismiss my son’s lived experiences. I am going to be aware of my white woman socialization. I am going to listen hard when he tells me about a feeling or a whiff or an actual experience of racism. I am a safe place for him. I will never know what it’s like to be a Black male in the American South, but I will be a safe place for him. I promise you that.

That old man doesn’t have to approve of my family. Not even every adoptee approves of adoption. Not every person – white or Black – approves of transracial adoption. And they all have their reasons, some of which may be valid. But, BUT, that man may NOT make my kid feel like an “other.”

I’m done. I’m so done. Tomorrow, Trump is in. Gloves are off.

Separating Adoption from Race – and a Momma’s Overdue Outrage

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Racial mirrors matter. Watching “A Snowy Day” together.

So far, the blog posts I have written about race have been placed in my “adoption” category on my home page. It’s not enough. Blackness and adoption are obviously not the same thing. In our house, maybe they have been the same thing, for too long now. But our son is getting older. He understands his skin color is different from ours.

He’s hearing what people say to him. When we are together, he gets a near-constant stream from white peers of “Is she your mom? But you’re black!” From Black peers, he gets “Is she your mom? But she’s white!” He already asked me not to come to lunch with him at the cafeteria again. He firmly asks me not to chaperone any of his field trips. That’s okay with me… cuz I have potty training twins… but I wish I could be inside his head for a little while.

It’s time to add a new category to this blog. Should I call it “Race”? “Black and White”? It can’t just be about one color, because I’m going to have to add a lot of stuff about my own white privilege. Remember, “if you don’t think white privilege exists, you are already enjoying it.”

Just because a problem isn’t YOUR problem doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

As my son matures, so do his understanding of adoption and race. As his brain or body has a growth spurt, so do his anger and his grief and his knowledge. But you know what? SO DO MINE! I have been living in a white bubble for 37 years and I think it’s finally popped. I think – I hope – my eyes are opened. And now I’m using those eyes to try to see the world through my son’s eyes, just a little. I am learning. I am asking questions. I am reading, reading, reading. I am listening. I am growing.

This growing hurts. And you know what? IT SHOULD HURT.

I SHOULD be uncomfortable. I have growing pains as I realize all the ways I’ve been ignorant. Downright wrong. I have regrets as I realize that I wasn’t paying attention until I had a Black son – until I had to pay attention. Where was my anger before?* Why did it take me so long? Because I have white privilege, that’s why. I was completely blind to that fact. Now, I am having growing pains as I realize just how different my life, as a white woman, has been from a Black boy’s life. (And it will continue to be different, no matter how much outrage I have.) I have growing pains as I realize just how incredibly hard it will be to raise a Black man in the American South. How much it’s going to hurt to do, and to watch.

I can’t ever go back. I have opened a door and gone through. My old life with blinders is completely over. As the inauguration looms over us, “Black & White Thoughts” is a now new category on this blog, and in my life. You are going to hear about it.

***

*This week’s episode of the TV show “Blackish” delivered a very powerful speech about this topic. The main character, Andre, addresses the way white people (including me) were more surprised by the election results than were People of Color. He wonders why we white people were not paying attention sooner. He says, “You think I’m not sad that Hillary didn’t win? That I’m not terrified about what Trump’s about to do? I’m used to things not going my way. I’m sorry that you’re not and it’s blowing your mind, so excuse me if I get a little offended because I didn’t see all of this outrage when everything was happening to all of my people since we were stuffed on boats in chains.” Read more about it here. Watch the full episode here.

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

***

New Year, New Haircut, New  President – and the Racial Mirror That Was

January. A new year. Everyone is all excited about kicking goodbye the dumpster fire year of 2016. But are we actually excited to welcome 2017? It is now the month and year that we will inaugurate … that guy. I can’t seem to remember his name.

No matter what your political leanings are, you can certainly understand that any mother of a Black boy will be saddened to see President Obama leave the Oval Office. My son has had a racial mirror in the President of the United States of America for his entire life. I absolutely cannot stress to you how important that has been for our family, and probably for millions of other families. I am overcome with emotion.

(When he was born, his grandma took one look at him and said, “My little Obama!”)

wp-1483411314734.jpgToday was haircut day for my oldest son. For certain sensory reasons, it’s not easy for him. He says he is not ready for a barbershop, so, as always, my husband was cutting our son’s hair in the upstairs bathroom. I thought my twins were playing in their room, but as I reached the top of the stairs, I saw Twin A perched on the toilet lid, holding my oldest’s hand. He was offering his hand of comfort to his distressed brother. No one asked him to do that. A fat little four-year-old white hand holding the shaky brown hand of his six-year-old brother. My heart melted.

The steady hand of his brother calmed my son, and the rest of the haircut went smoothly. They sat like that for about ten minutes, no one saying a word as the clippers buzzed.

There is a now-iconic image of a five-year-old Black boy touching President Obama’s hair in the Oval Office. Have you seen it? President Obama, the leader of the free world, is leaning over to let the boy touch his hair.

Photo credit: Pete Souza / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

I don’t know if the significance of this image can truly cross the racial parenting divide. I am no expert in Black hair, not by any means, but as the mother of a little boy who looks like the one in the picture, I weep every time I see it.

(I was thinking of printing that photo, to hang in our home, but what if I cry every time I walk by it? Hmmm.)

“I want to know if my hair is just like yours,” he told Mr. Obama, so quietly that the president asked him to speak again.

Jacob did, and Mr. Obama replied, “Why don’t you touch it and see for yourself?” He lowered his head, level with Jacob, who hesitated.

“Touch it, dude!” Mr. Obama said.

“So, what do you think?” Mr. Obama asked.

“Yes, it does feel the same,” Jacob said.*

Even if you are staunchly anti-Obama, can you see how important this image is to us? Can you walk with me for a moment and feel this? More importantly, can you walk with my son, who sees only white faces in his very own home? Can you imagine what it’s like to be him – or any other Black boy in America whose ancestors were probably slaves – and know that the most powerful man in the world has hair that feels exactly like his?

For eight years we’ve been able to hold up that mirror to our boys: The President of the United States of America looks like you.

And now, in this new year that is supposed to be new and fresh and better, we get to hold up … a man who… not only doesn’t look like our boys, but … nevermind. I can’t.

It was not just hair. It was hope.

 

***

*Source: Calmes, Jackie. “When a Boy Found a Familiar Feel in a Pat of the Head of State.New York Times. 23 May 2012. Accessed via Web 2 January 2017.

And the Washington Post says it better than I can: Photo Speaks Volumes About Obama and Race.

 

 

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

****

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.

When Only My Black Son Gets Assigned to the Wrong Family

wpid-wp-1425382344453.jpegThe gym daycare, where we have gone twice a week for a year, assigned my black son to the wrong family while he was wearing the exact same shirt as his brothers.

We came into the gym daycare together. My three children – one black and two white – were all wearing the same shirt that says “I Love My Bro”. I purposely dress them alike when we go out, for the express purpose of keeping them together. There were no other children being signed into the daycare at that time. None. Just my three in their matching shirts.

As I was signing their names into the registration book, the teacher was putting their numbered bracelets on their arms. Each child gets a numbered bracelet to correspond with his parent’s numbered bracelet, for the express purpose of keeping us all together. We do this at least twice a week, every week, and it is quite routine. (I get to lift weights with three paper bracelets on my arm!) The teachers know my children.

I finished signing their names into the book, and I bent down to help a twin take off his shoes. The twins had their bracelets attached by that point, and the teacher was just about to attach my oldest (black) son’s bracelet too. Just then, another mother and son came into the gym daycare too. They happened to be black.

I noticed a situation developing behind me. You know: some mumbling, nervous laughing, flustered-teacher type of situation. I looked up to see the teacher cutting off my oldest (black) son’s bracelet, with an embarrassed look on her face. She is apologizing. She had given him a bracelet to correspond with the black mother who had just come into the daycare.

Even though she knows my children.

Even though we’d been going there for a year.

Even though my children came in together.

Even though my children came in with me.

Even though there were no other children being signed in at that time.

Even though my children were wearing matching shirts.

Even though he had called me “Momma”.

The (black) mother noticed what had happened and she tried to make a light joke or comment. I guess she and I both knew it was an honest mistake. I am a teacher, and I’m sure I’ve made plenty of stupid but honest mistakes throughout the years. I am also not the kind of person to shame someone publicly. I let it slide. I made sure that my son got the right bracelet to match him to me, and I went to work off my frustrations with a barbell.

My friend had been standing off to the side and had witnessed the whole thing as she waited for me to sign my children into the daycare. I asked, “Did what I think just happened actually happen?!” She nodded emphatically. I knew I wasn’t imagining things.

Okay, now, I’m not angry at the daycare. I know not every child looks like his parents. But, dang it, what does this feel like for my son? What does it feel like to have people assign you to the wrong family in so very many situations? What does he think of these things? What is that like for him?

The part that hurts is that his skin color was what the teacher was using to label him. His skin color trumped the fact that he came in with me. His skin color trumped the fact that she already knew who his family was.

She saw his skin color before she saw that his freaking shirt exactly matched his brothers’ shirts.

It’s a slippery slope.

 

 

Guest Post: One Adopted and Brown, Then One Birthed and White

This article is the fouth in a series of guest posts. I have invited a few select friends and family members to contribute to my blog. I have chosen them based on two things: 1) I personally go to them for help; and 2) I am fascinated by their unique parenting challenges, because I want to hear how they make “okayest” work for them.

 Allow me to introduce you to my college friend Claire*. We lost touch after college, but found our way back together when we realized that both of us had our first child around the same time – and both those children happened to be “brown”, adopted, and male. We both went on to birth white children. Here in this blog post, she has the guts to say many of the things that are in my heart. It is good to have a friend with a trans-racial family. Here is Claire’s point of view:

I have two kids, both boys. One is almost four, and the other is almost two. The first and oldest is adopted and brown. The second and younger is birthed and white. There is a long version of how my husband and I ended up here, but I have a short version too. Essentially, my first post-college career was foster care social work, which led me to wanting to adopt through foster care and not have bio kids. My husband, Jim, knew this because we’ve known each other since always. He was totally up for adopting, though he did want one birth child so we could have a variety of experiences. After five years of marriage, we became foster parents. Our son, Nicholas, was placed with us as a baby, and we adopted him when he was a toddler (shortest version ever of the hardest 15 months of all of our lives). Shortly before the adoption was finalized, Jim convinced me that Nicholas needed a sibling close in age and whom we could raise from infanthood. And we were lucky, or whatever you want to call it, and became pregnant right away. Our son Alexander was born six days before Nicholas turned two. That’s how we ended up with our two sons. And yes, we do expect to foster and hopefully adopt again, though we want to parent a teen next. Our son Nicholas also has special needs, while Alexander does not. All of this about fostering and special needs kids is its own topic, however, and I’m here today to write about how parenting adopted and brown versus birthed and white. Nicholas is Cherokee, Korean, black, white, and Hispanic. Alexander is European white bread.

1. What goes on in my head around this topic?

On an everyday basis, I think a lot about books for my kids. I like to spend time thinking about the things I can actually control, and for me for right now that means deciding which books they borrow from the library or own. We read a lot at our house, and I like having books that align with the subjects Nicholas is learning about in preschool. For money and shopping week that meant books about going to stores, for October that mean autumn and Halloween books, and last week that meant books about different types of houses and house-building. The trouble has been that most books do not include people of color, and I’ve had to search to find the racially-inclusive books that I want in our home. I have found some good ones: Gabe’s Grocery List by Jenck; Fall by Roca; and Wonderful Houses Around the World by Komatsu. We also end up with a lot of books about animals because I just cannot buy another book with an all-white cast of characters due to how many we already own. I love having the opportunity to show Nicholas people in books who look like him, and I’m excited that Alexander is also being exposed to more racially diverse books.

In terms of books I’ve read, my favorite book on parenting in a multi-ethnic family is “Does Anybody Else Look Like Me?” by Donna Jackson Nakazawa. The book discusses the ways that multi-ethnic kids are objectified, and it provided me with useful ways to handle those situations. It helped me think and talk about things that were already on my mind, and it gave me more to ponder too.

I also think a lot about how the world sees my kids, in terms of the opportunities that are available (or not) to them because of race and racism. There’s so much to say here, I’m not even sure how to begin. I think about things that people talk about often, like hiring practices when my boys look for jobs someday. And I also mean things that I haven’t heard people talk about, like when Nicholas is older and makes new friends who are people of color, and those friends then learn he was adopted by white parents. What about when he is dating and eventually looking for a mate? What will those people and their families think of me and our mostly white family? Will he be seen as “other” because his identity is that of a multi-ethnic person in a mostly white family? What will they think of us white people? The stuff about employment opportunities and such bothers me of course, but I spend more time thinking/worrying about the implications for Nicholas’ identity and his personal relationships with everyone he’ll bump into in life. I have none of these worries for Alexander.

I sometimes think about Bruce Springsteen’s song “American Skin (41 shots)” and it gives me the chills and sometimes tears. I don’t want to talk about the particulars and the politics of the police shooting death of Amadou Diallo in 1999, but the lines that speak of a mother sending her son out into the world are hard for me to stomach. This is the verse that’s really hard for me, “Lena gets her son ready for school/ She says “on these streets, Charles/ You’ve got to understand the rules/ If an officer stops you/ Promise me you’ll always be polite,/ that you’ll never ever run away/ Promise Mama you’ll keep your hands in sight”” I would not have the same reaction to those words if I, as a white woman, only had a white child. I often think about my boys when I interact with authority figures, and I know that Alexander will be privileged in interactions with authority figures while Nicholas will not be.

2. What do we talk about with Nicholas and Alexander?

We have always talked to Nicholas about being adopted. And he was aware of his coming brother when I was pregnant with Alexander. Because of hard things about the situation and events that took place, Nicholas doesn’t yet know details that relate to foster care and his birth family. We have a good deal of contact with his aunt, whom both Nicholas and Alexander refer to as their aunt because we’ve encouraged them to do so. But other than that, Nicholas knows only that he came to us when a social worker brought him to our house. The story goes like this, “When you were a tiny baby, you needed a family and so Diane brought you to our house. She drove her car into our driveway, and Dad went out and took you and the carseat out of her car. He carried you into the house, and then we held you. You were so little that you needed to eat a lot in the middle of the night, so we would feed you and then change your diaper, and then put you back to bed. When you were older and almost ready to walk we went to the judge together and the judge said we were a family forever. That was when you were adopted and we knew that we could stay together forever.” Nicholas knows that story and loves to hear it, particularly the part about us feeding and holding him at night. He seems to find comfort in hearing about the care we gave him as wee one. He also knows that Alexander grew in my belly and then came out when he was big enough and strong enough. While I was pregnant, we had talked a lot about what it means to be a family and have a younger sibling. Nicholas understood more than we had guessed. When Jim first brought Nicholas (who was still a week away from turning two) to visit Alexander and me in the hospital, he was already protective of his little brother. He’d seen Alexander fuss and cry when the nurses came in to do all their checking. When another nurse entered the room, Nicholas pushed the bassinet on wheels away from the nurse, shook his chubby little pointer finger at her, and said, “No, no, no!” He did not want anyone else coming near his baby. And so Jim and I witnessed the first of many, many moments that have displayed the boys’ strong bond. On the one hand, sometimes it is odd to think of our boys as having two different birthmothers when they’re clearly so connected. On the other hand, it does make sense because it isn’t blood that makes relationships; it’s all the choices we make to love, protect, and serve one another.

Right around the time he turned three, Nicholas seemed to notice skin color for the first time. He and I were at the pool at the local recreation center, and he saw a boy with dark skin. I should say that we live in a state that is 80% white, with the other 20% being a fairly even mix of people who are black, Asian, Hispanic, and multi-ethnic. Our town’s demographics reflect that of the state in general. At the pool that day, everyone other than Nicholas appeared to be white. Then the boy with dark skin arrived. Nicholas soon noticed the boy’s father (a very dark skinned black man) and mother (an extremely pale skinned white woman). Nicholas was fascinated by the family and clearly had a lot of questions, but one of his challenges is an expressive language delay so unfortunately he didn’t have the language to express his ideas. We have learned Sign to enable Nicholas to communicate, however, so I gave him the language (in oral English and in Sign) to be able to communicate about skin color. I gave him the words for skin, dark, light, and brown. At the pool we had some conversation about the skin color of that family and our family, and that conversation ended up continuing for weeks. Mostly he wanted to review the concept that people have different colors of skin and that this variation, even within families, is fine and good. We still talk about skin color, of course, but Nicholas has moved on somewhat from his fixation on skin color and now has questions about eye color. Most people in our immediate and extended family have blue or blue-green eyes, and Nicholas has very dark brown eyes. He wants to know why he has dark eyes but pretty much everyone else has light eyes, and so I point to his birth aunt and also Jim’s sister-in-law who have brown eyes because we want him to feel like he fits. He also wants to know why Buzz Lightyear has blue eyes, Jessie has green eyes, and Woody has brown eyes even though they all have light skin. Preschoolers have so many questions and notice so many details! We work with an adoption/attachment therapist regularly, and she’s helping us traverse this complicated ground of having differences because of adoption. Being an individual and being unique is important, but so is fitting in and feeling like you belong. Alexander looks like Jim and me, especially like me, but Nicholas of course does not. It will probably always be easy for Alexander to feel like he fits. One of our main strategies, based in the work we do with our therapist, is to focus on the behavioral ways that we’re all alike. Nicholas is the one who has my temperament and interests, so we have no trouble identifying many similarities in those areas.

3. What’s it like to interact with strangers?

I very much like talking about adoption and foster care, but much of that conversation is not appropriate to have in front of young children because of the topics it encompasses (e.g., teen pregnancy, abuse and neglect, and choices about contact with birth family). Additionally, these aren’t topics I want to discuss with strangers! Anytime Nicholas is with me in public, which is pretty much all the time, people ask a lot of personal questions and objectify him because he’s obviously adopted and because he’s multi-ethnic. They act as if he is not right there, and they act as if he isn’t a person at all.

First, there’s the way people love to ask questions about adoption or make observations because we have one adopted and one non-adopted child. Here’s a common one, “I’ve heard of so many people who adopted and then ended up getting pregnant!” This is still completely offensive even to me as a person who hasn’t struggled with fertility challenges; a whole lot of assumptions about extremely personal things are wrapped up in this comment. It ignores the science that says you don’t actually magically become pregnant because you’ve “relaxed” (as people love to tell me) after adopting. Plus, it assumes that I wouldn’t have wanted to adopt Nicholas if I could just have had Alexander by birth first! In response, I always say something like, “Hmm, I have heard of that happening too, but I don’t think fertility is usually affected by adoption. And in our case we were really excited to adopt, and that was our primary goal. Alexander came along later because we found it so special to know Nicholas as an infant, and we wanted to be sure we could have that experience again.” Primarily, I want my kids to hear me, but I want to tell those nosy folks a thing or two as well.

Another topic on strangers’ minds is Nicholas’ ethnicity. One common question is, “Where did you get him?” This is framed in a way that sounds like someone is asking me where I acquired a pack of gum or maybe a pair of shoes. “Get him?” Is that really a way to talk about a person? Jim once told a woman in a store that we found him in a vending machine, and he told another woman, “You see, there’s this thing about a sperm and an egg…” but then she walked away. And there was also that time he told someone, “Earth.” Jim tells me that if they ask a stupid question, they will receive a stupid answer. Sometimes I wish I could be that sassy, but most of the time I just smile and walk away in response to those crazy questions.

“Where is he from?” is the same question but packaged slightly better. I always say, “He’s from here.” I mean, what are you even asking??? He was born in the capital of the state in which we live, so answering “here” seems like a good enough answer for a complete stranger. Okay, okay, I know what they’re asking: they want to know about his ethnicity and what country we adopted him from. It’s just none of their business so I mostly refuse to provide information. This is Nicholas’ story to tell, not mine. And I can’t imagine him wanting me to tell strangers all of this stuff. Another good comment along the same lines is, “He’s so exotic!” Oh, or the one we received at the hospital the other day when we were checking Nicholas in for surgery: “Are you his legal guardians?” Nope, I did not hear that one asked of the other families around us who had kids with matching skin color. And of course every person at the playground, grocery store, library, post office, etc. loves to ask me about our boys, “Are they both yours?”

But my favorite question ever was, “Are you his personal trainer?” Nicholas and I were at the pool together, and since we are different colors clearly I could not be his mother. Therefore, I must be his personal trainer. Because three-year-olds have personal trainers?! I would bet any amount of money (by which I mean up to $50 because I’m cheap like that) on the side that says I would never have been asked that question had I been with my white son.

Raising an adopted and brown child is different from raising a birthed and white one. We’re raising them together though, and I know that Alexander will benefit from the experience of having a more ethnically diverse family and seeing racism first-hand. I hope and pray that Nicholas ends up understanding that we’ve worked hard to do the best we can to protect him from being objectified by strangers, and we’ve tried to create a world in which he sees and knows people who look more like him than we do. Whatever happens, I know they have each other.

* Names have been changed.