Friday, November 9, 2018

Ethiopian pride

Birthplace of humanity?

Amazing food?

Gorgeous landscapes?




So proud of Ethiopia's recent strides toward gender equity!

Monday, October 22, 2018

How we got here (book and podcast recommendation)

I've been doing a lot of learning about the origins of race and racism in the United States, and want to share the resources that I think have been the best.

If you read only one book about how American racism was constructed, it should be Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi. The book presents three belief sets - segregationism, which says that Black people are inherently inferior and racial disparities are natural; assimilationism, which says that discrimination created Black inferiority and racial disparities will disappear when Black people are fixed; and anti-racism, which says that there is nothing wrong with Black people and racial disparities will only disappear when we stop discriminating. Kendi traces these three belief sets through the lives of five figures - Cotton Mather, Thomas Jefferson, William Lloyd Garrison, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Angela Davis (this last being the one weak part of the book). I learned so much from this book that I ended up underlining about half the text. It continuously made me realize that there is nothing new about our current arguments about race. Assimilationist ideas run as deep as segregationist ones - if Black people just acted the way White people wanted them to act, racism would be over. Kendi calls this "uplift suasion" - the idea that it is the responsibility of Black people to persuade away racism - and he shows how in the 500-year history of American racism, this has never worked. It hasn't worked because racism doesn't come from anything Black people are doing wrong, nor from White ignorance and hate. Racism comes from a tiny and powerful minority seeking to maintain their power.

If you listen to only one podcast about how American racism was constructed, it should be Seeing White, especially Episode 32: How Race was Made and Episode 33: Made in America. These two episodes will show you in a nutshell how it all began.

If you're looking for more, here are a few other books that I've read:
Race in North America by Audrey Smedley - comprehensive and well-written history.
Birth of a White Nation by Jacqueline Battalora - not as well written but useful focus on the origins of racism in colonial America.
The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter, The Invention of the White Race by Theodore Allen - I haven't finished either; the writing is a little dry, but both are worth a second look.
Slave Counterpoint by Philip Morgan - a close study of African American culture in the colonial South; I've only read part.

If, like me, you've looked at race relations in America today and wondered how we got here, these resources will go a long way toward answering your question.

Friday, October 12, 2018

'Those Kids Are No Longer Yours'

"The very concept of 'adoption' in the Western sense—one that involves the forfeiting of parental rights—is so alien that there’s no equivalent word for it in the local languages. It’s unheard of for family ties to be permanently severed."

‘Those Kids Are No Longer Yours’: An Investigation into Uganda’s Adoption Market - The Nation, 10/11/18

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Another check-in on family plan

As of today, a hateful reality-show D-lister has been president of the United States for 1 year, 5 months, and 15 days. How are we doing with our family plan?

One part of the plan was about emotions vs action. Outrage can fuel short-term action but can quickly lead to paralysis, and it’s also often not based on fact. The narrative that everything was fine in America before Trump, and that we have suddenly, precipitously turned into Nazi Germany, is not helpful. The first part is inaccurate and offensive – Clinton escalated mass incarceration and crippled the social safety net, W started an unnecessary war that led to hundreds of thousands of deaths and tanked the economy, and Obama separated tens of thousands of children from their undocumented immigrant parents. The second part, that we are becoming Nazi Germany, some days I believe it, like when the Supreme Court upheld the Muslim ban. Other days it seems that Trump is “only” doing what the U.S. government has done for most of its existence – enrich the wealthy, comfort the powerful, and use any means at its disposal to keep the rest down. But even if it is true that we’re turning into Nazi Germany, then the answer is not outrage, it’s resistance. Outrage is a brief flash of anger; resistance is enduring and strategic. The U.S. has a long strong history of resistance. Rushing out to start a new protest may make us feel like we’re doing something. Joining movements that have existed for years and are led by affected people with experience and a sense of history will get more done. We need to keep our heads in the right place if we’re going to be effective.

A main focus of our action has been to be more politically active. We are now both elected committee people in our local Democratic party. We have done a ton of canvassing for candidates at the state and congressional level. Some have been successful, others not, but one undeniable success has been an increase in voter participation. In May, Pennsylvania held primaries for congressional seats.  Typically off-year primary elections see very low turnouts – if 20% of eligible people vote, you’re doing well. Our statewide average this May was 18%. T and I canvassed all over town, and in our precinct at least, after two quick rounds of door-knocking, turnout reached 40%. Now we have a chance in November to turn both our congressional district and our State House district from red to blue. (As John Oliver points out, state races matter a lot. In my district, it’s a chance to kick out the guy who constantly tries to crawl into my uterus and replace him with a candidate who supports abortion rights.)

Our actions also focus on money. We are making more political donations than in the past, to both local candidates and candidates in swing districts across the country. We are continuing monthly donations to the ACLU and Planned Parenthood. And we have been giving more cash directly to people who need it. In my experience, the neediest people are the ones least able to access resources and giving only to programs leaves some people out. In the past year we have given about $1500 directly to individuals who need it. This falls far short of our goal and we need to step it up. I am thinking now about reviving the 10% challenge.

We also planned to take part in more protests and contact representatives more frequently. We have done some of that but not as much as we could. We need to do more.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

The creation of racism

I believe categorizing people into “us” and “them” is a natural human instinct, but racism is not. Racism was created. When my children have asked me where it came from, I have always told them that slavery caused racism. In scale and brutality, American slavery was unlike anything the world had seen. But European slave traders and American planters still had to look at themselves in the mirror every day. Because they couldn’t bear to face the evilness of their own actions, they created the myth of racial superiority to justify their actions.

If something was created, that means there was a time before it existed. That’s kind of an obvious point, but I had never really thought about the time before American racism existed and about how it was brought into being. Recently I’ve been reading a lot about that time. It’s a very specific time and place – a few decades beginning in 1620 in the English colonies of Virginia and Maryland. I’m learning about the very first time the word “white” was used in law in North America to describe a group of people – in Maryland in 1681.

Before there were “white” people, there were English, Irish, Africans, and Indians; “civilized” people and “savages”; Christians and “heathens”; free people, tenants, and bonded laborers. These were all categories of “us” and “them” and it cannot be overstated how much life SUCKED for almost everyone. A few English landowners grew rich and everyone else struggled to survive and often didn’t.  I am not romanticizing this as an egalitarian society. But in the time before racism, the categories were different, and an Irish bonded laborer aligned himself with an African bonded laborer, not with an English landowner. Before the creation of “white” people, Africans and Europeans in Virginia and Maryland shared experiences of servitude and land ownership, married each other, voted at similar rates, and were treated similarly (mostly poorly) by the law.

During Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676, European and African laborers united against the ruling class (to hasten the theft of native land - again, not romanticizing). To prevent these kinds of rebellions from continuing, the English elite made a conscious and deliberate decision to create the category of “white” and the myth of white racial superiority. It is this consciousness and deliberateness that is new information to me. In the mid and late 17th century, the colonial assemblies of Virginia and Maryland passed law after law establishing different treatment for Europeans and Africans in owning bond laborers, manumission, owning livestock, marriage, holding public office, voting, serving in militias, owning weapons, and punishments for transgressions. They then required parish clerks to read these laws aloud in church once every spring and fall, and sheriffs to read them aloud in courthouses during the June or July terms of court. Historian Theodore Allen writes, “We must conclude that the general public was regularly and systematically subjected to official white-supremacist agitation. It was to be drummed into the minds of the people… thus was the ‘white race’ invented.”

I realize, as I learn this history, that I have participated in a “great forgetting.” Even though I knew race was an invented social category and I could put the creation of racism into its historical context for my children, somehow I had never thought about the details. Realizing this makes me feel horrified at how successful the myth of white supremacy has been. But it also makes me slightly hopeful. If many of us have forgotten, maybe we can collectively try to remember. Life in the English colonies in the mid 17th century was brutal and oppressive, but “white” and “black” people lived and worked and resisted together with little awareness of our current racial divisions. That image, that knowledge that it happened, helps me visualize a world where it will happen again.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Talking to kids about race and racism

There are many great articles about the importance of talking to children about race and racism. Posting some links here, primarily aimed at White parents:

Are We Raising Racists? "White children are exposed to racism daily. If we parents don’t point it out, show how it works and teach why it is false, over time our children are more likely to accept racist messages at face value. When they see racial inequality — when the only doctors or teachers they see are white, or fewer kids in accelerated classes are black, for example — they won’t blame racism. Instead, they’ll blame people of color for somehow falling short."

Color-Blindness as Intellectual ChildAbuse: Raising Anti-Racist Kids in an Unequal Society “You know the explanation… Anyone can make it if they try.’ Problem being, when we teach kids this — the cornerstone of our secular gospel — and then they look around, noticing in the process that some have not made it to the extent others have, what do they then conclude? And can we be surprised when that conclusion might be one that serves to rationalize racial and economic inequities? To make them natural, normal, the result of some groups merely being better and others worse, some smarter and others less so, some harder working and others lazy?"

Your 5-year-old is already racially biased. Here’s what you can do about it. "The crucial question isn’t 'Why bring issues of racial, ethnic, religious and other kinds of bias into our schools?' It’s 'how do we constructively engage the harmful biases we know pervade our schools and just about everywhere else? And what can we do to shape our children’s racial attitudes before and as they emerge?'"

What White Children Need to Know About Race “Because white students receive color-blind messages, they come to believe that merely talking about race is racist and, therefore, something that should be avoided. Students need to learn that there’s a vast difference between talking about race and being racist. Racial talk leads to greater racial understanding and helps undermine the power of racist laws, structures, and traditions.”

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Moments in the life of a rule-following child

Me: Will you stop at the produce store and get me a lemon on your way home from school?
Him: We're not supposed to go into stores on our way home.
Me: The school doesn't want a bunch of kids going into the convenience store right after school. But this is just a lemon. At the produce store. For your mom.
Him: I'll get in trouble.
Me: How? By whom?
Him: The crossing guard.
Me: What will he do?
Him: Tell the principal.
Me: Really? The crossing guard knows your name?
Him: No.
Me: Then how will he tell the principal?
Him: He'll look through the yearbook until he finds me.
Me: The crossing guard will sit in the office and look at pictures of 500 kids because you went to the store to get a lemon.
Him: Yes.

                   *                     *                     *                     *                     *

Me: Here's a hard question. There's no right answer. It's supposed to make you think about power and responsibility:
Chris and Alex (insert any gender-neutral names here) live in a castle which is surrounded by a moat. There is one bridge, which is guarded. One day Chris leaves the castle, telling Alex that if Alex leaves the castle, Chris has instructed the guard to kill Alex. After Chris has left, Alex decides to go visit a lover outside the castle. In the evening, Alex needs to return to the castle, but the guard is waiting at the bridge. Alex goes to a boat captain and tells the captain the problem, begging for a ride across the moat. The captain asks for money, which Alex does not have. Alex goes to a friend, asking for money to pay the boat captain. The friend says they don't want to get involved and refuses to give Alex money. Alex returns to the lover looking for help, but the lover refuses to be involved beyond an afternoon tryst. Finally, desperate, Alex tries to cross the bridge to enter the castle before Chris returns. The guard kills Alex.
Here is the question - Who is most at fault for Alex's death? Chris, Alex, the guard, the lover, the captain, or the friend?

Him: (Look of relief on his face) I thought you said it was hard. It's Alex. Because Alex broke the rule.

                   *                     *                     *                     *                     *

Me: (Pointing to the left corner of the table) Over here are people who always follow the rules. They never cross against the light. They always drive the speed limit.
(Pointing to right corner of table) Over here are people who don't follow the rules. They want something, they steal it. They don't like someone, they punch them in the face.
Where do you think most people are on this line?
Him: (Points to a spot near left corner)
Me: Where do you think you are?
Him: (Points almost to left corner)
Me: Where do you think Martin Luther King Jr. was?
Him: (Points to air to the left of left corner)
Me: Nope. Martin Luther King Jr. didn't like the rules. He broke them so he could change them. He went to jail. He was here (Pointing to spot partway down on table).
Him: (Mind blown)

Friday, February 23, 2018

Centering whiteness

I have noticed something about myself, and I wonder if you, fellow White parents of Black children, will find this familiar. I notice that in conversations with Black adults about racism they have experienced, I have a tendency to try to signal that I am “a good White person.” I don’t do it consciously, and I usually don’t realize it until after the conversation is over, when I reflect on it and say, “damn it, I did it again.”

I have found it only slightly helpful to let go of the goal of not being racist and acknowledge that as a White person in America, I have been steeped in the toxic teacup of White supremacy so long that it’s impossible to not be stained by it. I will, whether I want to or not, at some point do or say something racist. There is no point in beating myself up over it, I need to acknowledge it, learn from it, and try to do better the next time.

But this has been only slightly helpful because in the end, it still makes the conversation about racism about me. It’s either “I’m a good White person,” or “I acknowledge White people's racism.” Either way, a conversation that began about racism against a Black person has now become about the White person’s feelings.

Centering whiteness – it’s a real thing.

Last week a Black child was the target of hate speech at my son's school and his mother came to me about it. My response was to speculate about what actions the White school administrators might take and to offer to go to the school with her for support. This response was not useful. What she really needed were my connections to the specific members of the school board who could most help her. But she had to push me to get what she needed because instead of focusing on her, I had once again centered myself and other White people. 

I had to sit down to figure out some concrete steps for how to stop doing this. Here’s what I came up with. It’s something really simple but I’m already noticing it changing my conversations. Now, when I am talking to a Black person about racism, I ask myself:
  1. What is their goal? Their goal might be, as in the situation above, to get help for their child, or to blow off steam, or to offer advice about raising my Black sons. I guarantee their goal is not to measure how good or bad a White person I am. Asking myself what their goal is keeps the focus where it belongs, on them.
  2. How can they use me? The syntax of this sentence is really important. Not how can I help them but how can they use me? Keeping “they” as the subject of the sentence keeps the focus where it belongs. If they can use me, great. I'll do what they need me to do. If they can’t use me, then I'll back off.
Like I said, very simple, but I notice it making a difference. What about you? How do you combat the centering of whiteness in your conversations about racism?

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

What he needs right now

When A was eight years old, I took him to Ethiopia. When he was ten, my mom took him and two of his cousins to Alaska. So when D's tenth birthday was approaching, T and I were very aware that it was time to give D a special experience of his own.

Enter my friend, S. Last spring, she and I were walking laps around the soccer field while our kids had practice. "What are you doing this summer?" I asked. "My in-laws gave us a Caribbean cruise," she said. "The only thing is, I wish we had another kid to take with us so our son won't be alone."

Ding, ding, ding!!! We have a winner!

Neither T nor I have ever had much interest in going on a cruise. But D? A week of unlimited food and five pools with water slides? Heaven.

So at the end of this past August, he went. S, her husband B, their 9-year-old son, and D. They flew to Houston and boarded in Galveston. They had such a good time. The boys spent their mornings and evenings in the funnest camp ever. In the afternoons they hung out with S and B at the pool. They had shore excursions to beaches in Honduras and Mexico, and they swam with dolphins. At the end of the trip, Hurricane Harvey prevented their return to Galveston, and they ended up with two extra days and an unplanned rerouting to Miami. It was a phenomenal experience for D and it definitely "evened the score" with his brother.

There was something else special about this trip. S and B are African American. S has a skin tone that is very close to D's. She told me that everyone assumed they were a family of four. For those ten days, D got to experience being in a family that looked like him. A family that drew no attention walking into a room. It was an amazing gift that S and B were able to give him.

After D returned I asked him how it had felt to be part of a Black family, and he said, "cool." That was about all he verbalized. But I noticed, as we moved into fall and winter, that his relationships with the Black adults in his life became more important to him. We had a wonderful fall soccer season on a predominantly Black team with many involved dads, including B, and D thrived. He discovered he had talent as a goalie and he played with a new confidence. I will never forget the pride on D's face as he blocked shot after shot while R, another Black man, literally shouted himself hoarse cheering for him (I should note that R's son was one of the top scorers on the team and also contributed heavily to his dad's hoarseness.)

I told R how much I appreciated his encouragement of D, and also of A, who unfortunately had a badly sprained ankle and missed most of his soccer season. R looked at me and said, "You know we're always looking out for them." I get teary-eyed thinking about it. Because he doesn't have to be looking out for my kids, but he is. 

Now we're in the middle of basketball season with the same core group of kids and the bond D feels with this group of dads is only getting stronger. He talks about them, reports on funny things they said or did, and has been trying out an exaggerated version of their speech patterns (one recent Saturday, he said nothing but, "yo, youngbo, chill, chill, youngbo" all day long).

I'm very thankful that T fully supports D's relationships with other dads. I can imagine an adoptive father feeling some jealousy, but T knows what his son needs right now and if he can't provide it, he's happy someone else can.

The other thing is that D seems to want me to be Black (just me, not T). Last month the basketball team had an outing to a university game and he told me I couldn't come because "ferenjis aren't cool." A couple of weeks ago, we watched a few episodes of Henry Louis Gates's "Finding Your Roots" and he turned to me and said, "What percent African blood are you? Like 90%?" It feels like, if he could will me into being Black, he would. 

This all seems pretty natural and OK to me. Children his age are figuring out who they are and for transracially adopted kids, the job is a little more complicated. When he asked if I was 90% African, I didn't say, "No, I'm White," I said that it was less than 90% but I probably did have some African blood in me, especially on my Mediterranean side. And look, my hair is curly like yours.

But part of me - the part that overthinks everything a million times more than necessary - wondered if I should feel that it's OK and natural. Maybe I should be concerned that my son thinks White people aren't cool? I looked up local therapists who listed racial identity development as one of their specialties. Should I take him to a therapist? I definitely overthink things.

Eventually I talked to S, who is a social worker, and she laughed and said, "No, it's normal." She shared with me a few things that her son, a Black child with Black non-adoptive parents, had said. 

So without reaching Rachel Dolezal heights, I will continue to minimize our differences and focus on what we have in common, and I will continue to surround him with Black role models. D will figure it out eventually.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Black History Month 2018

For my teacher friends - Use and adapt as you like

Black History Month – Scientists & Inventors Edition

1.    Have you ever thought about being an astronaut? Guion Bluford and Mae Jemison were the first African American astronauts in space. Guion Bluford was born in Philadelphia. He was a combat pilot before he became an astronaut. Mae Jemison was a doctor before she became an astronaut. The next time you look up at the stars, think of Guion Bluford and Mae Jemison.

2.    Have you ever traveled on a train? Elijah McCoy was a Black inventor who improved train travel in the 19th century. He received 57 patents for his inventions. We use his name today when we call the original and best thing “the real McCoy.” The next time you see a train go by, think of Elijah McCoy.

3.    Can you imagine what driving would be like if stoplights only had green and red lights but no yellow warning lights? Can you imagine a firefighter going into a smoke-filled building without a mask? Garrett Morgan was an African American inventor who created the first traffic signal with a warning light, and the first gas mask for firefighters. The next time you see a stoplight or a firetruck, think of Garrett Morgan.

4.    Have you ever seen a security camera? Marie Van Brittan Brown invented the first home security camera in the 1960’s. The camera looked through a set of peepholes and sent images to a TV monitor. It also included a two-way microphone to speak with a person outside, and an emergency button to call the police. The next time you notice a security camera, think of Marie Van Brittan Brown.

5.    Have you ever seen a big truck on the highway bringing food to the grocery store from faraway places? That food needs to stay cold or it will spoil. Frederick Jones was an African American engineer who invented the first automatic refrigeration system for trucks. The next time you eat an orange from Florida or an avocado from South America, think of Frederick Jones.

6.    Have you ever had your vision checked? Patricia Bath is an African American doctor who co-founded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness. She invented the Laserphaco (LAY-zer FAY-co) Probe to treat patients who are going blind with cataracts. The next time you visit the eye doctor, think of Patricia Bath.

7.    Do you know anyone with arthritis? Did you know that many medicines come from plants? Percy Julian was an African American chemist who discovered how to use cortisone to treat arthritis. He made cortisone from soybeans. If you know someone with arthritis, you can tell them about Percy Julian.

8.    How did we send astronauts all the way to the moon? Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson and Dorothy Vaughan (VAHN) were “human computers” who worked at NASA. They did all the math equations and calculations to figure out how to send a rocket to the moon – and they did them by hand. To learn more about Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson and Dorothy Vaughan, you can watch the movie “Hidden Figures.”

9.    Do you like peanut butter? George Washington Carver was an inventor and a teacher. He researched peanuts, sweet potatoes, soybeans, and other crops. He came up with 300 uses for peanuts, including fuel, soap, and peanut butter. The next time you bite into a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich, think of George Washington Carver.

10. Do you like ice cream cones? You probably do! Alfred Cralle (CRAWL) was a Black business person who invented the ice cream scoop. Before his invention, getting ice cream into a cone was a sticky mess! Cralle received a patent for his ice cream scoop in 1897. The next time you get an ice cream cone, think of Alfred Cralle.

11. Eat healthy food! Not too much fat! Not too much sugar! Marie Daly was the first African American woman to receive a Ph.D. in chemistry in the United States in 1947. She studied how the body's chemicals digest food. Her work led to a new understanding of how foods can affect the health of the heart. The next time you chomp down on a fresh, healthy vegetable, think of Marie Daly.

12. If you have ever watched a TV show about space, you may have seen Neil deGrasse Tyson. Neil deGrasse Tyson is one of the most famous scientists in the world. He has written many books and hosted many TV shows about science, including Star Talk and Cosmos. If you want to know more about space, check out Neil deGrasse Tyson.

13. Have you ever used a washing machine? Ellen Eglin was an African American woman who invented one of the first washing machines in the 1880’s. Her invention was a hand-cranked machine that passed wet clothes between two rollers, squeezing out the water and dirt. The next time you see a washing machine, think of Ellen Eglin.

14. Have you ever ridden in an elevator? Alexander Miles was a Black man who, in 1867, designed an important safety feature for elevators – their automatic doors. Before his invention, people had to close the elevator door by hand. If they forgot, they risked falling out of the elevator. The next time you go on an elevator, think of Alexander Miles.

15. Have you ever used caller ID to see who is phoning you? Dr. Shirley Jackson is a Black woman who worked at Bell Labs doing research on telecommunications. Her discoveries enabled others to invent the portable fax, touch tone telephone, solar cells, fiber optic cables, caller ID, and call waiting. The next time you answer the phone, think of Shirley Jackson.

16. Have you ever used a microphone? James West is a Black scientist who studied at Temple University and worked at Bell Labs. Ninety percent of microphones today, including in phones, camcorders, and baby monitors, use his technology. The next time you record yourself on your phone, think of James West.

17. Do you wear sunscreen in the summer? Jewel Plumber Cobb was Black scientist who studied skin cancer. She researched the effects of chemotherapy drugs on human cells, leading the way to better tools for fighting cancer. She spent her career working for more opportunities in science for women and people of color. The next time you put on your sun screen, think of Jewel Plumber Cobb.

18. Are you wearing shoes? I hope so! Jan Matzeliger (YAHN mat-ZEL-lig-er) was a Black shoemaker who was born in Suriname, South America, and moved to Philadelphia. At that time, shoes were made by hand and took a long time to make. Matzeliger invented a machine that could make 700 pairs of shoes in a day. When you put on your shoes, think of Jan Matzeliger.

19. When is the last time you used a computer? Mark Dean is a Black engineer who invented many features of modern computers. Your computer uses a color monitor. It can do a billion calculations a second. It can send files to a printer. Mark Dean led the development of all these innovations. The next time you sit down at a computer, think of Mark Dean.

20. Have you ever dropped off clothes at the dry cleaner? Thomas Jennings received a patent for a dry-cleaning process called “dry scouring” in 1821. He was the first Black person to receive a patent in the United States. His process cleaned clothes without using water. The next time you take a suit to the dry cleaner, think of Thomas Jennings.