Why We Must Prepare Our Children for Racism

Part one of a two-part story about racism and adoption.

Jeanette Green April 06, 2016
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I acknowledge that, sadly, African Americans aren’t the only ones who face racism. Racism reaches all races, and it needs to stop. In light of the Black Lives Matter movement and recent current events, and since I do have black children, I have chosen to focus on racism that black children will face now and as they grow up. I encourage you post any comments that may also give us insight about racism that other minorities face in the U.S.

In November 2015, I had the incredible opportunity to sit in a room and listen to Ruby Bridges speak to a small group of people. For those who do not know who she is, Ms. Ruby Bridges is the first young African American child who bravely attended a white school. Norman Rockwell so beautifully captured the emotion of that event in his famous painting. As I sat in that room, I remember watching her and feeling this intense amount of courage.

Throughout the night, however, I found myself thinking less about Ruby’s courage and more about her parents and their courage. Ruby herself admits that she had no idea of the seriousness of the event. All she knew was that her parents told her to behave. As a mother, I can’t imagine the fear that would fill me. Intensely angry people were making death threats. Of course her parents were scared. But they also had the foresight to know how important this was. When others had pulled their children out of the program, they kept Ruby in. They knew what they faced, they knew it would be scary, uncomfortable, and potentially life-threatening . . . but they did what they felt they had to do for the ultimate happiness and success of their child and race.

There is no question in my mind that Callie, my innocent, beautiful, almost-3rd grader has faced and will continue to face racism.

My daughter goes to school in a very different time than Ruby did. Callie is surrounded by white teachers and children. She is a part of the class and has friends from many different backgrounds, cultures, and races. She plays and laughs on the playground. She struggles with math with her peers. And her white principal regularly hugs her when she approaches.

However, there is no question in my mind that Callie, my innocent, beautiful, almost-3rd grader, has faced and will continue to face racism. Her dark skin sets her apart and, though there is a level of acceptance and unity that was barely emerging when Ruby attended that white school, there is still racism running deep in our country. It takes many generations for this kind of change to happen. The wonderful thing is that as more and more white parents adopt black children, I believe we are given an opportunity (and responsibility) to be a part of that change.

It bothered me, but it was my first real experience with something so strange. I didn’t recognize it as racism at first, but I recognized it as something hurtful.

Let’s not neglect the importance of it by brushing it off. “We haven’t faced racism, so we’re not really worried about it.” I would submit that your child has experienced some form of racism . . . but maybe it was more subtle. Blatant racism, though still around, isn’t as common because it’s not socially acceptable. Being labeled a racist is among the worst things you could be called. But what about subtle racism? The little attitudes, statements, actions that are easily justified away?

When Callie was a baby, she had thick, straight, black hair. She had these almond shaped eyes. And her pigment hadn’t fully come in, so she wasn’t very dark. Many people were surprised when they found out she was black. Many were sure she was from India. Many commented on how beautiful she was. (And she was. Still is, actually.)

I remember one stranger approaching me, telling me how beautiful my baby was. And when she found out Callie was 100% African American, she was shocked, like others. But it was different. She kept saying, “Oh my, she doesn’t look black at all. She has such beautiful eyes. And her straight hair. My, she doesn’t look black at all.” She said it almost as if it were a good thing. It bothered me, but it was my first real experience with something so strange. I didn’t recognize it as racism at first, but I recognized it as something hurtful. I politely thanked her and went on my way, ending our little chat.

I guess that is my hope for this article: that people will be motivated to educate themselves, and then act . . . because they love their children.

 

I was bothered. I imagine that’s what it’s like for our children, when they sense something is wrong that is being said to them . . . or that something isn’t fair . . . but they can’t quite pinpoint it. Perhaps they don’t have the vocabulary to call it “racism,” but it’s “something that makes me feel sad . . . that hurts.” We can’t protect our children from these experiences, but we can prepare them so they can identify racism and know how to respond.

Ultimately, love is the answer, right? But it is my belief that we are not at a point in our world when we can love racism away. We must use our love to educate and then act. You can decide for yourself what that means. Maybe you won’t be protesting with a sign in your hand. But hopefully the love you have for your child will motivate you to study, learn, observe, and educate yourself about racism and then give you power to do something with that knowledge. And I guess that is my hope for this article: that people will be motivated to educate themselves, and then act . . . because they love their children.

Before I could enter the building to listen to Ms. Bridges speak, I waited in line for about 3 hours. On the cold cement sidewalk, I sat with a few college students. One of those young women was one-half African American and one-half Latina. She and her sister were both adopted at birth, and she had spent her life growing up in Idaho, in a very homogeneous community. We spoke for a long time about racism and adoption. Then I asked her a simple question: What do you wish your parents had done differently? Her response changed me. “I had a great childhood. My [white] parents loved me; I felt completely accepted by them and my extended family; I always felt comfortable in my predominantly white community. Then I went away to college. It was there that I faced racism for the first time, at least so obviously. I felt so alone. I remember crying in my apartment and just wanting my parents to be there, but they weren’t. I really really wish they had prepared me for racism while I was young. It would have still hurt, but it wouldn’t have been such a painful shock.”

White parents of black children . . . please understand that our white privilege (yes, I said it) cannot shield our black children forever.

 

I don’t remember much of what Ruby Bridges spoke about that day, verbatim. I remember the feeling and some thoughts and impressions I had, all of which were powerful. But those words from this young college student were seared into my soul. And to me, it was a clear call to act.

White parents of black children . . . please understand that our white privilege (yes, I said it) cannot shield our black children forever. For a time, when they are young and cute, and around us, people will think differently. But when they are on their own, as teenagers and young adults, our own whiteness cannot protect them. The only thing that can help them deal with racism they will face is preparation.

In order to better help my own children, I took the time to talk to several black friends. What are your experiences with racism? How do you prepare your children for it? I felt my heart drop in every conversation. Felix recalled his son coming home from school in 2009, being asked, “Dad, what color are we? Because today ____ told me he couldn’t play with me anymore because his parents said he can’t play with black kids. Are we black?” Sandra remembers walking in a store with her cousins and the store clerk stepping away from the cash register and following them through the aisles. “Can I help you?” as he continued to follow them through the store. Joyce shared, as she walked down the street with her baby and white husband, men yelling out from a passing truck, “Darker the berry, sweeter the juice!” Serge, now 41, remembers a cross being burned in his front yard when he was in 5th grade. When he said that, I could not control my audible gasp. This did not happen in Alabama or Mississippi. This happened in the Bay Area of California, where we consider ourselves progressive, diverse, accepting. It makes me sick to my stomach.

Is anyone else in shock as they read these experiences? I hope you are because this all happened fairly recently! This was not when Martin Luther King Jr was pleading with people to open their hearts and minds, to embrace one another as brothers and sisters. This was only a few years ago! And I hope it makes your heart hurt, because honestly, it should. Serge remembers how dating white girls was a difficult and painful experience. People like to be friends, but if anything became romantic . . . not happening. This wasn’t “perceived racism” as many white people like to call it. He didn’t make this up in his head. He was actually told, “My parents won’t approve of us being together.” Case closed. Moving on.

I don’t have the luxury of ignoring such a heartbreaking and sensitive issue.  I can’t blindly turn my head because I love my kids so much. I have black children and they need me to prepare them for this part of their life.

Now. Think of your babies at home. Think of how much you love them and want the world to open to them. You want them to be happy and succeed. So, what must we do? As parents we are responsible for providing, nurturing, and preparing our children. We teach them how to do laundry, cook meals, clean up after themselves, be kind. We try to instill a sense of self and identity. We try to guide our children and teach them how to be their best selves. We also need to teach our children of color how to address racism in their lives.

As a white adoptive mom, I am fully aware of the fact that I have not experienced racism. I have been the majority everywhere I have lived. I don’t know what it’s like, and chances are I will never know what it’s like. But that doesn’t mean I have the luxury of ignoring such a heartbreaking and sensitive issue, that I can blindly turn my head because I love my kids so much. I have black children and they need me to prepare them for this part of their life.

I understand there are holes in this analogy, but I will proceed in the attempt of explaining how important I feel it is to prepare our black children for racism, even when we don’t understand it ourselves. One of my daughters has severe cerebral palsy. I do not. I have always played sports. I am able to feed myself, dress myself, and am fully independent. My daughter, Samantha, is not. She depends on others to do things for her. I get her dressed, bathe her, feed her, pick her up and move her when necessary, etc. If she didn’t have certain tools for life, exclusive to her needs, then she could not succeed. She needs her leg braces every day. She needs her wheelchair if there will be longer walking distances. She needs a straw in order to drink. I don’t need those things, yet never has it crossed my mind that she doesn’t . . . or that my love will be enough and she won’t need those tools in her life. Can you imagine what would happen if we said, “Oh, we love her so very much. As long as she knows we love her, she won’t need a wheelchair.” That would be completely ridiculous. In fact, Child Protective Services may get involved if that was our excuse for neglecting to provide some tools that she needs for survival. Right? Because with those tools, she is more independent and has greater joy, and is able to live a physically safer and emotionally stable and fulfilling life. She doesn’t particularly like her braces, but they help her, so we put them on her. We look at our individual children, evaluate their needs, and then fill them.

Callie is black. She has white parents. She lives in a world where members of her same race are cut down. Though I could share countless more, I’ve already shared examples of racism in the paragraphs above. I haven’t experienced this kind of racism, but does that mean I don’t help her through it? Does that mean I don’t provide tools to help her have greater joy and live a physically safer and emotionally stable and fulfilling life? No. Like Sammy’s braces, this topic may be uncomfortable, but just as I put those braces on Sammy every day, I also need to shield my daughter with knowledge. Because it is a need, and I can fulfill that need the best I can. Maybe I can’t do it perfectly, but I don’t think Callie requires perfection. I don’t think any of our children do.

I struggled writing this article. The truth is, I know I will offend some people because my opinions on this matter are rather strong. I also know that, as I am a white female, others may recognize my obvious lack of experience on this topic and so dismiss what I have to say altogether. But I feel some things need to be shared and so I attempt to open this discussion on such a sensitive and vitally important topic. And in order to keep this as concise as I can, I may have come off bluntly. Please know that it comes from a place in my heart that is full of love. In Part 2, I will share some insight I have received from others and from my own experiences of ways we can help prepare our children for racism.

 I naively entered transracial adoption, unaware of the responsibility I had. All I knew was that I was deeply in love with my little daughter. Beyond that, I didn’t think too much about it. Maybe that’s you, too. But you know what? We’re here now.

I don’t think anyone would question that there is still racism in America. Yes, we have come a long way since the early days of the Civil Rights Movement. That’s a glorious thing. I would say that I’m very happy to see that there has been such improvement. I’m not proud of it, though. Pride in my fellow countrymen would mean, to me, that they have gone above and beyond. Basic laws that protects the rights of people no matter their race is common decency. So, I don’t feel pride, but I feel happiness and gratitude for the progress we’ve made. However, the fight is still being fought. Sure I have experienced prejudices, but we’re talking racism. And no, I have never experienced racism first-hand. I’ve been bathed in white privilege my entire life.

When we adopted Callie, it was never a worry or question for us about race. In our racial preferences, we checked “All.” I naively entered transracial adoption, unaware of the responsibility I had. All I knew was that I was deeply in love with my little daughter. Beyond that, I didn’t think too much about it. Maybe that’s you, too. But you know what? We’re here now. And we do have a responsibility to our children and to other members of their race. We just do. It’s our responsibility to prepare our children for their first job, first time living away from home, and for the time someone judges them because of the color of their skin. It’s my belief that as we do so, we empower them with confidence to overcome, while providing a safe place for when they need comfort at home. This may be scary for some parents. But like Ruby’s parents, we too can courageously face this issue and how it touches the lives of our children. There’s no doubt that our children, our families, and our communities will be better for it.

This is a topic that can be explored more. If you are comfortable sharing, please share your experiences in the comments. Please be respectful in your comments as this is an opportunity to learn from one another. Any hurtful or inappropriate words, phrases, or responses to comments will be taken down.

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Jeanette Green

Jeanette Green is a mother to three beautiful children--two through the blessing of adoption. She is a firm believer that we never walk alone, the sun continues to shine even when we can’t feel its rays, and you can’t get sick from raw cookie dough. Various life experiences have taught her that life never turns out like we expect. But if we’re patient, we learn that it’s better that way. To learn more about Jeanette and her crew, visit The Green Piece


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