Monday, March 16, 2015

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. He is usually able to go right back to bed and tonight he couldn't. 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 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 read a lot.  We took seminars at our adoption agency. I am on many blogs and webpages for transracial adoption and for raising a child of color. It is a bleak world.

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 an asian child or 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. I get that it is not every single black person, every single day.  I also realize now, more than the majority of white people, it is way more black people and way more often.  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.  Whomever wakes up first, always the first thing out of their mouth is a request to see their brother.  They spend most days together all day, yet, when they are separated there are often many hugs and kisses, accompanied sometimes by whining and tears, as they leave each other.  They crawl into each other's beds. Tayo follows brother everywhere.  Hartly is constantly frustrated that his two year old brother does not always follow the myriad of made up rules to made up games that Hartly creates, yet the thought of not playing with him greatly upsets Hartly.  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. Tayo will knock over a project Hartly has been working hard on and Hartly will swat or pinch his brother and send him into tears... yet as I try to separate them, Tayo will cry to get back to his brother.  Hartly will grab something from Tayo's hands and Tayo will scream and push or kick Hartly and Hartly will cry and they will both be crying and I suggest them going to different rooms to play or I will be lecturing one about hurting the other and the other will always, always forgive and forget and want to be with his brother again before my lecture is through.  They are best friends.

Hartly's reaction to his new baby brother 

When we were in st lucia last year a lot of people stopped us everywhere we went to ask about our family.  St. Lucia has a very rich and diverse and mixed race population.  People, on the whole, are very lovely and open hearted.  It is not unusual for godparents to be a different race than their godchild.  It is not unusual for parents to be different races.  What is unusual is adoption.  Many people asked us if we were Tayo's godfamily?  They had seen so many different combinations but adoption is not one.  One 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.  Actually, everyone was very sweet and I was not defensive or offended once.  But 3 year old (at the time) Hartly was.  Finally, after many days and, at least, one inquiry a day, Hartly sunk into my arms in tears.  I had no idea why he was upset.  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 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 and people and blogs that I read say - do not be colorblind.  Talk about it.  Prepare him. Expose him to other people who look like 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.  Silence followed in the car.  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 how much is enough? My family is already off the grid.  We did a home birth with Hartly. We are Vegan. We don't do sugar.  We don't punish. We home school. We don't lead a typical life… How do we ensure we get enough diversity for both of our boys?  How do we make sure we are fully delved and committed to making sure that Tayo is not always the minority.  Because it is not just important for him and his self esteem and self awareness and confidence but it is really important to me and to Frank and for Hartly as well.

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 sex 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 Robison shooting a few days ago, a black garbage man put in jail for 30 days for picking up garbage too early, A racist fraternity in Oklahoma chanting all sorts of atrocities, a A black boy 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 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 the dress/world 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.

My husband is always telling me to write.  I love that he values me and my opinion and viewpoint and thoughts.  I tend to think, it's already been written about and it's been said much more succinctly and eloquently.  But maybe I shouldn't worry about that.  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 Tayo to grow up in a different world than the world we live in now. I 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!..." 


  1. Such a beautiful and eloquent post, Carrie. You express yourself so well and it's true that things are horrible and complicated and need to be better. And it's true that your voice is unique and valuable and powerful. Keep writing!! ~ Nina

    1. Thank you Nina. I hope you have open conversations with people. I know your voice influences a lot of young people. The more we talk about it, the better chance we have for change! xoxo

  2. This is so beautiful and something we have experienced as well. This Thursday our Adoption Talk blog link up is sharing about adoption and siblings. Your post would be perfect if you'd like to join us.

    1. Thank you! I have my hands full with my littles but will try and check it out. Thank you for thinking of me!

  3. I want to encourage you, that you are approaching this right. It certainly isn't easy to raise black kids when you're white, or even to raise white kids with black siblings. I sincerely appreciate the awareness and thought you and your husband have put into the differences our culture has created between black people and white people. I wish my parents had been this open and aware as they raised me and my siblings. It is hard, but it is necessary, and not just for your black son, also for your white son. When I moved away to college I really struggled to figure out where I fit because I couldn't just fit in with my family anymore. I didn't fit with the white kids because of the way I thought and approached racial issues, and yet visually I didn't fit with the black kids either. It is vital for both of your sons to be raised to know the differences, but also to recognize the differences as injustices. It is insanely hard, but you're on the right track and I respect you for trying.

    1. Thank you. I appreciate your viewpoint. Nothing is more important to me. I know I have much to learn but I will continue to reach out and educate myself to try and do the best by my boys. And, yes, it is just as important to me that my white son learns just as much as my black son. Herein may be one of our biggest failures - it is important to all of us. We are all connected and even if different cultures, races, religions etc, love connects us all and it is so important to inform everyone and try to make this a better world for all of us. xoxo

  4. Reblogged this on my autism blog. It's just too important not to share. Thank you for your words.

  5. Thank you so much for this. This is lovely and honest and open-eyed. I am mom to white boys, but my heart aches every day about this. I worry for my children and their darker skinned friends as they reach middle school, high school, and beyond. Your boys are so lucky to have each other and you. Keep talking!

  6. please keep writing. i'll be a monkey with you!

    1. Awww!! :) Thank you! Thank you! Spread the word and maybe we can change the world. Much love!

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  7. We have adopted two black children in the last year. We are white. As much as I want to be colorblind, now I can't be. And I feel guilty for thinking, "Are they looking at us because they are black?" "Am I dressing them too white, too black?" "We can't move to that school, because it doesn't have enough diversity." Inside our walls, we think we're colorblind, but because I don't know what others are thinking, and what a black person thinks, I'm over-thinking things outside our home. The line between raising them in a white world and protecting them from a white world is blurry. They don't seem to have fears at 10 and 6 years old. Why should I? Should ? Your writing hit a chord.

  8. You are me, I you. These are my thoughts all the time. Every one. Thanks for helping me (and surely so many others in this fight) reach our critical mass. Keep writing. Keep reaching out. I will, too.

  9. I love ❤ your blog .i am a black mother let me know if you have questions

  10. beautiful words and beautiful kids!!!