If Calling the Cops for a Noise Complaint Kills an Innocent Black Child, We Need to STOP.CALLING.THE.COPS.

Would Jordan Edwards still be alive if neighbors hadn’t called the cops with a noise complaint? I don’t know who made that call, but someone did.

Tonight, the cop who shot Jordan in the head with a rifle for no reason has just been charged with murder. I am overwhelmed with relief to see the justice system maybe start to work this time. But we need to stop for a minute and think about the person who made that call in the first place. Who was it? Was the person white? Was there another way this could have been resolved? Does the person who called realize what he or she has done?

We need to talk about this. We need to talk about the fact that we – especially we white people – need to carefully consider the impact of calling the police. One phone call can and will have much further-reaching consequences than we may ever know. (Or maybe we will know when it’s on the news that night.)

If calling the cops for a noise complaint can cause the death of an innocent Black child, we need to STOP.CALLING.THE.COPS.

Would the best-case scenario have been one more Black male sent into the prison-industrial complex? (See the documentary 13th if you haven’t already. Like now.) And the worst-case scenario is an innocent child murdered by a police officer in front of his two brothers. Who were then locked up in jail all night for no reason. While the father of those three boys drove around town searching for them.

I’m not going to describe Jordan with any word other than “innocent.” We know he had no drugs, no alcohol, no guns, and certainly no “driving toward the officer in an aggressive manner.” He was trying to leave. Jordan was undoubtedly innocent. But I refuse to describe him any other way. I’m not going to say he was well-liked. I’m not going to say he was a sports star. I’m not going to say he was popular. I’m not going to say he came from a good family. And I’m sure as heck not going to say he was an honor-roll student.

Every single article I’ve read about him has said all those things. As if that’s a way to prove to white people that he didn’t deserve to die. NO CHILD DESERVES TO DIE.  If he was unpopular, socially awkward, from a broken home, or in Special Ed, or flunking out, maybe living with autism or was intellectually disabled or wore his pants too low, then what? Every time the media says he was an “honor roll student”, we send the message that any child who isn’t any of those things isn’t worthy of protection from police violence.

My own son is sleeping safely in his bed right now. He’s seven years old. It’s nearing midnight on a rainy Friday spring evening. We live in the woods and the sound of the frogs is mesmerizing right now. We have soccer practice tomorrow morning. His white parents will drive him there in our stupid beige minivan. His grandma may come cheer for him. He’ll eat a dye-free and preservative-free organic lunch when he gets home. Will those things keep him safe from a police officer’s rifle through his side-window of his dad’s car when he’s a teenager who is trying to leave a party?

What if my son isn’t popular? What if he isn’t on the honor roll? What if he’s not good at sports? Then will the media report on him at all if he encounters police brutality in his adolescence?

One of the many reasons I can’t get Jordan Edwards out of my head is that I recently went to a Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) teach-in about – you guessed it – NOT  CALLING THE COPS. SURJ is a nationwide network that helps “organize white people” and educate them to help make changes. I see it as a way to teach white people how to support (and not take over) the Black Lives Matter movement. I try to go to their monthly meetings, where I have been learning so much. I’m just a baby in my own progress and in my understanding of the organization*, but so far, SURJ is a very valuable resource to me, and thus, to my son.

Anyway, after the teaching portion of the class (which always detonates all I thought I knew about the world and makes me rearrange my entire brain), we had to get in small groups. We were given various scenarios describing reasons for which white people might call the cops. Our assignment was to brainstorm all the different ways we could handle the situation instead of calling the police. My group was given the scenario of “there’s a loud party in the apartment next door and it’s really late” or something similar. I was in a group with my brother (who takes to radicalism very well, by the way) and a good friend. Being the shrinking violet that I am, I really had nothing to offer, other than something super helpful like, “put in some earplugs?” My brother and my friend were far more competent and, well, brave. They added things like:

-knock on their door and talk to them yourself
-call the building manager
-publicly shame them the next day with a letter on the communal bulletin board
-make more noise yourself to drown them out

Okay, okay, these were silly and tongue-in-cheek. But it was a brainstorming session. Now? Now it doesn’t seem like anything to take lightly. Now it seems like life and death.

BECAUSE IT WAS LIFE AND DEATH FOR JORDAN EDWARDS.

As a white girl, I have always believed – and  been taught – that police are the good guys. (Okay, okay, maybe not completely – my parents were hippies!**) We can go to the police for any help we could possibly need. That they can find my parents, fix my boo-boos, drive me home if I’m lost, and of course, “get” the bad guy. I am not anti-cop. Like most of us, I have friends and acquaintances who are police officers. But I DO have to unlearn what I’ve been taught. And I DO have to be careful how I teach my sons about police officers. I DO need to have “the talk” with my Black son. And I DO need to consider what could happen if I ever called the cops on my neighbors.

We need to know our neighbors. We have a responsibility to build a community. Not just live in a community, but build one. We need to solve our own problems. We need to lean on each other, instead of getting authorities involved unnecessarily. If we knew our neighbors better, wouldn’t we be better able to knock on their door and ask them to keep it down?

I’ve never called the cops on anyone. I’ve also never needed to call the cops on anyone. But now, my mind is opened. Thanks to SURJ, and thanks to Jordan Edwards, I can see farther. I know that one call could possibly put my neighbors into a system that could be inescapable.

And it could also possibly put a bullet into their heads.

We need to be accountable. If any of you white people have been saying that you want to help and you want to be an ally, well, this is one way: think twice before you call the cops. You may be protecting my child. And Jordan Edwards would still be alive.

Say his name.

*******

*I want to point out that I do not speak for SURJ and I do not necessarily represent their beliefs.

** I want to point out that I do not speak for my parents and do not necessarily reflect their beliefs. My parents would counter my hippie statement by saying they are too young to truly have been part of the hippie counter-culture. But you get my point.

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.

wp-1488304222360.jpg

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.

 

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

***

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.

 

 

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?

***

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

***

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

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.