As a white woman, rarely do I walk into a situation and find myself the minority—unless, of course, you count the fact that I am married to a Filipino man, with a large Filipino family. In extended family pictures and at large Filipino gatherings, I am one of only a few white people there. But still, all that is required of me is to walk outside, and suddenly, I’m back in the majority. It’s something I take for granted. In general conversation or when I walk into a store or an office building, I am not “representative of or speaking for all white people,” I am simply speaking for myself. People don’t approach me for “education” on all things white. The thought of that happening to me seems ludicrous, doesn’t it?
But for black people who live in mostly white communities, this is the case. As Kwyn Townsend Riley so eloquently describes in her poem, PWI 10 Commandments, this is what it’s like to be black (and, more specific to Riley’s poem, a black woman) in a PWI (Predominantly White Institution.) As a mother who has adopted transracially, her poem speaks volumes about the sorts of experiences my son will have as a black child entering the educational system.
She begins by discussing the idea that as a person of color, people are intrigued by her hair. Strangers and friends alike will touch it without permission and not think twice about invading her personal space. They will ask endless questions about it and wonder how she “makes it stay that way.” Black hair is compared to all sorts of things: Chia Pets and Barbies being the two Riley names specifically.
Black people are suddenly the “experts” on “all things African.” They will be asked for lessons on twerking, Ebonics, and hip-hop. It will be automatically assumed that they know about these things because of the color of their skin. Never mind the fact that like all people, black people have personal interests and areas of expertise, and for some, twerking, Ebonics, and hip-hop are just as foreign to them as they are to anyone else. It sounds laughable, but for black people attending a PWI, it’s a daily reality.
Riley speaks of cringing when the calendar changes to February and Black History Month ensues. The one person of color will be put in the spotlight during every history lesson, stared at, and used as examples when the topic of desegregating the education system comes into play. Imagine flipping the script, being the minority (whether that be racial, religious, or whatever), and having the entire awkward lesson focused on you. How uncomfortable would that make you feel—especially if that lesson was being slightly changed, and the facts slightly altered, to make the others in the room feel more comfortable with it?
A person of color will find themselves alone if they choose to tackle the subject of the Black Lives Matter movement, and find themselves having to choose whether or not to speak out for those of their race who have been inhumanely and unjustly treated by the police and the judicial system. It’s hard to remain silent, yet painful to speak out. It’s a burden and a responsibility that they bear alone.
Riley describes the entire, never-ending experience of being a black person in a sea of whiteness by saying, “You will be exhausted, angry, vengeful . . . courageous.”
Courageous. That word stood out to me. Among the frustrations, the anger, the violations of personal space, our children need to learn to be courageous. They need to learn to stand up for themselves, and for each other—and in a world where you feel different, that can be frightening.
It is eye-opening, isn’t it? For those of us who are white, these are things we have never experienced, and that we most likely haven’t really even thought about. How are we going to prepare our transracially adopted children for these types of occurrences if they aren’t on our radar?
If questions like this haven’t been on your mind, it is time that they are. As black children of white parents, our children are at a disadvantage if we don’t recognize what life is going to be like for them if or when they enter a predominantly white institution: school, work, or social situations all apply.
For some, the answer is to move to a more diverse area or school district, so their child isn’t alone. For others, the answer is to reach out to the black community and develop deeper friendships, so their children will have racial mirrors and feel confident in who they are and more comfortable addressing the daily questions that will come. For all of us, it means having difficult discussions about race and inequality and the world we live in. We have to prepare our black children for the world they will enter, and as white parents, we can’t do it alone. We need to listen to the real-life experiences of people like Kwyn Townsend Riley, who have been there. We need to listen and learn from people who know.
You can watch Ms. Riley’s powerful delivery of her poem: PWI 10 Commandments here.