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