Monday, March 30, 2015

(Shortened Version) I Never Knew How White I Was Until I Had A Black Child

I Never Knew How White I Was Until I Had a Black Child.

I can't sleep.  Hartly, our 4 year old,  came into our room sobbing.  He'd had a nightmare. There was lots of tossing and turning but, about an hour later, he is finally asleep.

I, however, am not.

These days when I wake up in the middle of the night I am reduced to a ball of fear and worry.  The majority of this fear and worry reside around my youngest, Tayo. 

I am white.  Frank, my husband, is white (he is actually first generation Cuban but when people look at him, they see white). Hartly, my oldest, is white. Tayo, my baby, is black. And he is not just a little black. Nope. Tayo is a rich and beautiful and unmistakable dark black. And in 2015 his color is still not a safe color to be.

I never knew how white I was until I had a black childI grew up with 
black friends.  I went to a very prestigious private school that was also the first integrated school in Washington, DC. I have dated black men. I wanted a black child.  I knew adoption is a tricky world. I understood that adopting a black child would bring with it different things than if we had adopted a white child.  I did not, however, realize how different.  I did not realize that the fear of death, due to the color of my child's skin, while unlikely, is real. And, while death is avoided by most, racism, in the most subtlest to the most blatant, is unavoidable.  How do I prepare my children. 

Everywhere I look, everywhere, my eyes have been opened in a way that I can't ignore, to the continuing wrong done to black people...  Racism whether that black person did something wrong or not...  Racism whether that black person is a grown up or a child... Racism where it is not just verbal and physical abuse and mistreatment but can result in death as well.

I do realize that because my littlest love is black I am much more aware of these horrors. It is something my black friends and black boyfriends never discussed with me but now that I have a black child and I ask, the stories they tell and the life they lead is very different than the one I had seen previously. And that is not okay.  And that is not fair.  And, as a mother of a black child, that kills a part of me inside and keeps me up at night.

Hartly is a four and a half year old beautiful child with white skin and auburn hair.  He is long and lean. He is a first child and a people pleaser and rule follower.  He is sensitive and thoughtful and, usually, for a four year old boy, has a fairly calm and mellow temperament.

Tayo is a two year old beautiful child with dark black skin and dark black hair.  He is tall and muscular. Tayo, even at two years old, has a little six-pack and no baby fat of which to speak.  He is incredibly physical and strong.  He is a giggler and a runner and mischievous. He does not follow the rules and is incredibly funny and energetic. His temperament is that of a very spirited and joyful soul.  His smile lights up a room. 

Hartly and Tayo are best friends. They wake up wanting to be together. They spend most days together all day and this makes them happy. They do not like being apart.  They crawl into each other's beds. Tayo follows brother everywhere. Even when they fight and I attempt to separate them, they refuse to be apart and forgive each other very quickly in order to remain together. When Tayo falls or gets hurt, Hartly, even from another room, will drop whatever he is doing and come running to check on his brother.  Tayo can't go to sleep without hugs and kisses and another hug from his brother. They are best friends.

Hartly's reaction to his new baby brother 

Sometimes people inquire about our family, because we look different. One time a sweet little girl came over to us and she said as she stroked her arms as a visual explanation, "My father has very dark skin. My mother has very light skin.  This is how I came to have medium skin."  She then looked and gestured in turn to each of us as she said, "But you have very light skin, and he has very light skin, and the boy has very light skin. But the baby has very dark skin.  How did this happen?".  She was delightful and could not have been more polite. But 3 year old (at the time) Hartly got upset. Later on he sunk into my arms in tears. He said, in his sweet and young, but broken-hearted and wise-beyond-his years voice:

"Mommy.  Why don't they see it?  When they look at us, why don't they know we are all family? Why don't they know he is my brother?"  

We talked at great length and revisited the subject many times and since.  He understands logically but his heart doesn't understand at all.  Tayo is his brother.  From the moment he heard about him and the second he saw him, Tayo is Hartly's brother.  They are brothers.  Hartly can not possibly understand how people can't see this connection, regardless of their skin and body type and hair texture and skin color not matching visually.

My two gorgeous children 1/2015

But people look at them and often don't see brothers.

And as they get older they will experience different worlds. Because of their skin color and skin color alone, they will have different experiences unless our world shifts fast and soon.

What can I do?  All the websites, seminars, people and blogs that I seek out say - do not be colorblind.  Talk about it.  Prepare him. 

They go further to say things like I have to teach, and sooner rather than later, my youngest son to never question authority.  I am supposed to teach him to always have his hands where they can be seen.  I am to teach him to never make any sudden movements.  I am to teach him that it is best if he is not wearing certain things, like hoody's, at certain times or in certain places.  I am supposed to teach him, regardless of what authority figures say or do, comply and we will deal with it later because if he doesn't, there may not be a later…  The list goes on and on.  And none of it really applies to my auburn haired, white skinned son.  If we had not had Tayo, I can't picture any of the above ever coming up in conversation with my youngest, whom I talk about everything with.  It is not a talk my brothers or husband got.  it is not a talk I got.  It is not even a talk I knew about.  But every mother of a black child, especially a male black child, knows this talk all too well. It is sickening.

The other day a power line was down in our neighborhood (we live in a cul de sac) and the police officer was going to send us back home because the only exit out, he said, was unsafe.  As we were (unhappily) preparing to turn the car around, that same officer let a car drive into our neighborhood - the same exit he said we couldn't exit because it was unsafe, he was letting someone enter.  Frank got out of the car and, pretty aggressively, challenged the officer and said, if it isn't safe to exit than why was it safe to enter.  The officer ended up saying fine, we could leave.  Frank got back in the car and we drove off but the energy was different and we were both silent. Frank and I spoke later.  We both had been thinking, what if Frank had been black?  There is no way he would have gotten out of the car and aggressively approached the officer with his hand gestures and tone of voice.  It was eery and sad.  These are the things that we would have never thought about if we were not a transracial family.  And, again, that is not okay.  It is not fair.  It is just not okay.

And Hartly is starting to ask those hard questions.  I thought I was ready.  For goodness sake he knows, at four, exactly how babies are made.  We talk about death and afterlife and what we believe.  We discuss all this openly. We talk about families looking and being different.  But I find myself tongue-tied when my four year old asks me why people who look like is brother (whom he in fact has said he wished he looked more like because he thinks Tayo's skin is so beautiful and soft to touch), why would people not be nice to someone because they are black? Why would black people be treated differently? Why did there used to be different laws and rules?... Why is there still injustice today?  How do I answer these questions.

What do I want to do?  What I want to do is swoop them both into my arms and fly away.  I want to go to an island with only kindred spirits… Where skin color is loved and admired no matter how light or dark or what shade.  Where differences are celebrated.  Where people are judged for their actions and not appearance.  Where history is taught and acknowledged but people are not judged based on their ancestors but by their own character and choices.  I want to go a place where I am not scared that my son will be harmed or killed because of so much fear. I want to get away from the bad guys.

But I have learned, as I grow older, that the world is not made up of just good guys or bad guys.  It is way more complicated than that.  Oh, to be sure, I think there is a spectrum of sorts.  But what about the naive comments and what about borderline comments... I tend to believe that all people want love and want to be good.  How do I balance this and take care and protect my child? Because I have anger but mostly it is overwhelming fear and sadness that my heart dwells in when I think of the state of our world.

So most days we play. We laugh a lot.  We hug a lot.  We kiss and cuddle a lot.  We talk about everything. I spend much of my day in the present because how can I not with two beautiful and fun and energetic and creative little souls. 

But when I wake up in the middle of the night these days I often think about - the news I read of a 5 year old black girl put in the back of a patrol car left alone and crying for hours because of a misunderstanding, The Tony Robinson shooting a few days ago, A racist fraternity in Oklahoma chanting all sorts of atrocities, a A black boy, Jordan Davis  killed just days ago for playing his rap music too loud… the fact that I do not know one black male that hasn't been stopped and questioned (and sometimes worse) purely for being black.  Not for breaking the law or doing anything wrong but because they were black.  My white male friends did all sorts of nonsense as teenagers and in their 20s and rarely were there any repercussions.  

Black men are treated differently than white men for doing the same exact thing or nothing at all even. And those who say that if black people just follow the law and show respect, they won't get killed I say shame on you.  Is that the world we live in?  A world where if you make a mistake or are disrespectful or even break the law, you are as good as dead and you deserve it?  Because that is not what happens when white people are rude or do illegal things.  But, somehow, it is ok when it happens to a Black person.

So, I worry about things like - when Hartly is a teenager walking alone in a store in the middle of the day versus Tayo walking in a store in the middle of the day.  Hartly wearing a hoody versus Tayo wearing a hoody.  Hartly going for a run versus Tayo going for a run.  Hartly being pulled over for speeding versus Tayo being pulled over for speeding. The list is endless. And I ache.

And don't tell me I'm overreacting.  Please.  be respectful.  This is my child.  I guarantee if you had a child that was black, you would see a different world than you do now.  It is actually quite scary. It is like that blue and black dress phenomenon  where some people see white and gold because of it being backlit or different people's eyes not adjusting as quickly…  Just because you live in a world where you see the white and gold does not mean the world is white and gold.  Just because your eyes aren't able to see it, it does not change the fact that it is black and blue.  That is what happened when I became the mom to a black son.  My eyesight shifted and I see things now that I can't unsee.

So, I don't want to talk about it all the time.  But I am going to talk about it sometimes.  Because maybe I am a bridge of sorts.  Maybe a few more people will listen and maybe conversations will be had.  And maybe enough talk will happen that there will be a tipping point.  Maybe me mentioning or saying something will make me the one that triggers change and effect everywhere like, Hundredth Monkey Phenomenon.  This " a studied phenomenon in which a new behavior or idea is claimed to spread rapidly by unexplained means from one group to all related groups once a critical number of members of one group exhibit the new behavior or acknowledge the new idea." Wouldn't that be lovely. So one of the first steps is just acknowledging that things are not right.  Acknowledge that we can do better.  We need to do better.

Maybe I just need one, maybe two people that wouldn't have otherwise thought about these things to at least pause and think about it.  because it is not them, it is all of us.  And one person does make a difference. 

I want my children to grow up in a different world than the world we live in now. want it for all of us.  I need it for Tayo. Can you help me do that, is the question.

Hartly: "Tayo, do you love brother?" Tayo: "Yeaaahhh!..." 

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