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.