The Powerlessness of Not Having a Voice

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

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

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

Only nothing came out.

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

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

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

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

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

“Agitate! Agitate! Agitate!” –Frederick Douglass

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

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

“White silence is violence” – my protest sign

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

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

 

***

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

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.

 

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.

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*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!

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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

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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.