Sunday, July 24, 2016

White mom talking

This morning residents of 2 different towns in my county and the neighboring one woke up to racist white power propaganda on their front porch, distributed by the KKK. While I trust that sickens most of you, I cannot even start to explain what it feels like to explain to my child whose race is the subject of this hate. I am not a black man, nor am I a black woman. I do not pretend to be an expert on race but my life experience as the only white member of my brown skinned family has given me a unique life experience.  So this is just a white mom talking. A mom with experiences I’d like to share with you in case it helps any of you see things through a different lens. My hope is that this will help those of you that know me, know my family, see what is almost impossible for white families to see without families of color sharing it with you. This isn’t comfortable to share. I don’t want to be accused of making race an issue. It already is. I don’t want to share times that we’ve been humiliated or hurt. They aren’t easy things to talk about. These aren’t excuses either. My hope is that you may see things in a different way or believe my story so that you may also come to believe others. With all of the pain in our country right now, it is so imperative that we attack the root of the cause.  If race has placed this much a part of my daily life as a white woman in one of the wealthiest counties in our state, can you see how much it might play for our black brothers and sisters? Especially those in poor urban areas. Can you for a second imagine living under that microscope and understand where the fatigue and frustration come from? 

I have heard dozens of racist jokes in my lifetime. I have been told some bit of nonsense from an unsuspecting stranger that assumes I share their racist thinking because of our shared whiteness, more times than I care to count. 

I had dated a dozen other guys before I ever dated someone that wasn’t white. Not a single person had ever given me their advice on if I should date those guys or not. Not a single person had ever said they didn’t care if I dated them but they just wouldn’t. Until I dated a black man. I remember dating a biracial guy in college and a relative proclaiming with relief, “oh he’s not that black.” I've heard countless times that my husband isn't really black. He's Jamaican. It's said as if that is better in some way. Huh? 

My husband and I were just dating the first time I remember blatant in your face hate being thrown in our direction. We were sitting in a fast food establishment and the gentlemen sitting next to us loudly proclaimed "YOU MAKE ME SICK" and they couldn’t eat their meal with people like us sitting there. He threw around the N word and glared at us with hate.  I remember that was the first time I was afraid for my safety because of the way we looked. That was in 1993.

The next year we would be refused service at a restaurant. No wait staff ever came to our table. I had no idea why. I gave them the benefit of the doubt and went and let the hostess know we were still waiting. Still no one came. Later that year, I would hear on the news that restaurant would settle a 54 million dollar lawsuit for refusing people service based on race. Everywhere we went people stared. No one ever thought we were together. We were always brought separate bills or the bill was given to me. My parents would not have been legally able to marry if they looked like us. My parents. In our lifetime a black person could not marry a white person. 

After we were married, 30 years after it became legal for interracial couples to do so, we went to a local furniture store for a new mattress. We waited for 20 minutes without being helped. Furniture stores are a bit like car dealerships and you can’t walk two feet without being asked if you need anything.  I watched as no less than 6 employees ignored us. They would look our way now and then. Again, the benefit of the doubt. We laid on the mattress so they would know we were serious about purchasing. We walked to each of the displays and read about them. Another couple came in and they were helped immediately. And then another. And then another. 45 minutes and nothing. Nothing. We honestly sat around that long because I couldn’t believe it was so bold. I calmly asked to speak with the manager. I was told he was at another location up the road. I told them they could call him and let him know I was coming. I walked in and told that manager what had happened. He tried to explain it as an isolated incident and offered me 20% off. I assured him 6 employees with the same behavior was not an isolated incident and they would never even get 80% of my money. This was 1999. Attitudes take longer to change than laws do. 

As time’s gone on, we’ve gotten less stares or maybe we're just used to it now. There are way more couples that look like us. We have had less blatant hate thrown our way. Things are better in many ways. Better is always relative. You don't want your cancer to be better. You want it to be cured. 

We moved from a diverse community to a more homogenous white suburban area for my husband’s job in 2005.  I was told I’m lucky he is black because that’s why he made it through all the layoffs at his company. Told they must have been too afraid to let a black person go. I guess it doesn’t matter that he is the best at what he does and has never missed a day of work. Our children are a definite minority at their schools.  Our family has absolutely been accepted and welcomed beautifully by most. We love our community. While there have been few outright racist hateful interactions, there has been many times of being the spokesperson for all people of color or being the only one in a sea of white. People have always wanted to touch my children’s hair. Most without asking. While I have always taught my children it is just a curiosity and not meant to be offensive, it drives home that feeling of other. I had to laugh when the cheerleading team had to wear their hair in a ponytail with a matching bow and my daughter had only a short natural afro. None of that is overtly racist but I need you to see that race is an issue. I need you to know it is. While many things are not done from a place of hate or exclusion, it doesn’t change the effect it can have on a person of color.

Every book, every poster, every representation of a child they see at their school reflects the faces of someone other than them. Until they learn about slavery and the civil war and watch movies in history class where people are being killed for the color of their skin and they sit there as one of the only others. They sit in class while the movie is watched for it’s historical perspective and not once has any one considered the emotional implications for my child sitting there with brown skin.  So we have tough conversations at home about what that was like for them and they can safely let the tears come. Most kids are uncomfortable learning those things but it's next to impossible not to internalize the pain when it would have been you just years before. 

A teacher, that I trust loves and cares for my child, asked her not to describe another African American child as black. She said it wasn't a nice word. My child is black. It carries no shame. It is not a bad word. I have sat in the pick up line at school behind a truck with white power stickers covering it and wondered what that meant for the safety of my child. I have been told my children are athletic before they’ve ever seen them run. I have been told we have an advantage because coaches will want them on their team because of the color of their skin.  I'm guessing white family's kids make it because of their hard work, skill and passion for the game. All 5 of my children have come home from school and told me that one of their classmate didn’t want to play with them because of the color of their skin. All 5 of my children. This is 2016.

My nephews and my son’s friends all have air soft or fake guns that they play with in their neighborhoods. I will never let my boys participate. It’s not a chance I would ever take. Hoodies make me nervous for my child when my child is just trying to stay warm.

I have a hundred other moments I could share. Some of those are obvious and others I’m left wondering if race was the issue…if it played a role.  That’s the thing with brown skin. It makes a difference enough in this world that you don’t get the privilege of not having to think about it.

While I have seen great strides in racial understanding and acceptance, while I am so very thankful for those that have come before fighting for just that, it does not mean we still don’t have work to do. It does not mean it is over.  I know so many people that say it isn’t an issue. What that tells me is it isn’t an issue for you in your heart. What it also tells me is that you aren't listening. Please know, please believe that it still is for many people. It’s not on your radar because it doesn’t have to be. For us to live in unity, for us to move past the very real pain in our nation right now, we have to first acknowledge the root of this pain. We have to believe the suffering of others when they vulnerably share it with us.

When your life experience has given you a mountain of times your skin made a difference in how you were treated, perceived, spoken about or spoken to, hired or fired, esteemed or trivialized, made to feel less than or other…it needs to be recognized. It needs to be given a voice and heard. It needs to be believed. And we acknowledge it and we grieve with those wronged and we rise up together to work against it. We scour the darkness of our own heart and we bring the bias in to light. We continue to do the hard and the holy so that in 30 years my children and your children can talk about how far we’ve come. So that in 30 years racial unrest will seem as foreign to them as separate drinking fountains seems to us.  

I write this because I want you to see. I need you to see. I can’t convince any one I don’t know. I am not trying to. I’m desperately talking to the you that knows me, knows us. I’m pleading with you to see what the world has been like for us so you can imagine what it might be like for someone else. Try to understand where the fatigue and frustration might come from for people of color. I am asking you to try and hear my heart instead of defend any political position. I am not sharing this with you for sympathy. I am hoping for empathy for people you may not know but might look like my husband, my sons, my daughters. I am hoping for an aha-I-had-no-idea-moment. If even for just one of you. I'm hoping you can see how much a part of society it is that it is impossible for it not to also be a part of our social systems. 

This racial tension and unrest hurt my heart like nothing else. So many people trying to be heard and so many people worrying so much about their rightness that there isn’t any room for loving anybody. We all see color. Please don't say you are colorblind. It’s a descriptor. It’s impossible not to see. See it. No one wants to be unseen. Celebrate it. Revel in our uniqueness and beauty and differences. Being color blind should not be our goal. We need to recognize the beauty in the diversity of humanity. We need to affirm that each culture and color brings it’s own unique set of experiences in to our world and enriches all of our lives. We need to realize that every person is a person all their own and the sins of a few should not mar the integrity of many. We need to praise God for His design and that we are all made in His image. We need to continue the work that has been started and stand united in the worth of one another. Stand together in our humanity.

The issues we have seen in the news lately are a symptom. We are too scared to talk about it. We are too scared of the work to do so we watch as it divides. I can assure you that racial issues are playing apart in the daily life of almost every person of color in our country and it feels deeply personal. It is impossible for recent events not to feel personal to even me. Ask any police officer or their spouse. They will tell you how personal it feels. This violence has to stop. Let’s not be afraid. Let’s be bold in love and unity. Let’s stop dismissing the feelings of so many because of our fear of what that means for all of us. Let’s trust the intentions of others. Let’s address the heart issue we have in our country, in our own community, in our selves. Let’s have hard conversations, acknowledge injustice and ask forgiveness. Let’s say to the black community, we hear you! We believe you and we had no idea. We will teach our children differently. We will speak up when we hear hate. We will identify the dark corners of our own hearts. We will build relationships with others in an effort to work on our own biases. Let’s move toward one another in the spirit of Jesus and call on His power to heal our hearts. Let's do the work; together, in our hearts, in our communities. In Unity, in His name. 


Beth Kerr said...

Dear Jen....Your blog is excellent. Your family is so filled with love for each other. You and Trevor are the most amazing parents...your children reflect so many ways you have instilled in them. I feel so bad for the times you were ignored and for hateful things people have said to you. If they only knew...your hearts are so full of love and understanding to be there when your children feel the hurt and disbelief of how some people can be. Each of your children are so special...gifted... and talented. You are making memories that could fill books. You are all a blessing to me and your extended family and friends. God bless

Beautiful Mess said...

I love you! Thank you for sharing!

Anonymous said...

I stumbled across your blog this morning as I searched "antiques Addis Ababa". Jenny I cannot imagine what it must be like to have to constantly be on the lookout for your children just because of their skin color. In 1969 I married Kevin whose parents immigrated to Australia from Malaysia - father British Malay; mother Dutch Indonesian. When we were dating I bumped into an old school friend and remarked that Kevin's brother Ralph and her fiancĂ© worked together. ''But Kevin and Ralph aren't brothers'' she said. ''Yes they are'' I replied. She continued to try to convince me of my mistake! Kevin was very fair, and his siblings were darker with curly hair. Then she said: ''But Ralph's a wog''. I was stunned. It was my first ever experience of racism. I had no idea people spoke like this. I was later shocked once again when we were considering moving to Africa for Kevin's work. By then we had two dark(ish), one fair. My sister said we mustn't go because they didn't allow blacks and whites to mix, and they could take our daughter off us. She wasn't being racist, but she saw our daughter as 'coloured' and was fearful for us. In this instance I can truly say I was color-blind. I later realized my upbringing was special and we were very protected. We were brought up as Catholics and I had no idea how much Catholics were hated and feared....just like Muslims are today...until my 30’s. and this realization only came from good friends telling me how they were brought up with prejudices towards Catholics. The most influential and impressive book I've read is Black like Me by John Howard Griffin which I read 40 years ago. Because of this book I frequently find myself imagining myself from the other persons viewpoint. I love meeting people who are different from me. I truly cannot understand why people are so afraid of ''the other'', unless there is a genuine reason for it....not a superficial millimeter of skin color or a belief in a different god (when they all have the same teachings). I don't have a god. I just have a love of mankind and a hope that we can overcome these prejudices without harm to each other. I wish you and your family all the blessings you deserve.