Totally Freaking Out (but not at my family…for once)

A few days ago, I went off the rails.

My husband’s high school musical is in tech and production this week, so I’ve been a single parent for a few weeks.  He said good night to the kids last Sunday night, and he didn’t see them again until yesterday morning.  He left an hour before they woke up every day and he got home four hours after they went to bed.  In spite of this, things were really going fine.  I find that the kids are more cooperative when I’m alone with them; maybe that’s because my expectations are lowered and I can’t be passive aggressive in hoping that my husband will say, “Let me do dinner and clean all the dishes and put the kids to bed…you just have a glass of wine.”

Wednesday was going to be especially rough, driving back and forth, dropping off one kid and then the other across town, picking up pizza, popping it in the oven on low wondering if I’d burn the house down if I left it on while I picked up one kid and then the other, deciding that was stupid to leave the oven on and texting our neighbor to see if she could turn it off for me.  (She did.)  Amidst all of this madness, I get a text from my friend J in St. Louis: a flame war was crackling on her Facebook page, and she needed some back up.  She had posted a link to this great post on talking to people about Ferguson, and one friend in particular had responded with some calmly worded counterpoint.  I took a look on my phone while idling in the parking lot of the Gymnastics Academy:

As a law-abiding person, you want to believe that the facts show a clear indication that Michael Brown was surrendering because that makes it easier to process – the lazy narrative. Your friend in Boston wants to teach his children that Michael Brown was doing “nothing wrong” when stopped, even though I think most people would not describe robbing a store, assaulting a store clerk, fighting a police officer and resisting arrest as not doing anything wrong. Again, the lazy narrative. So if the take away lesson to the children is that police shouldn’t shoot people who aren’t doing anything wrong, how does that not perpetuate the notion that people who ARE doing something wrong probably deserve it (an attitude displayed repeatedly after the robbery video was released)?

I am of course the “friend in Boston” and she’s referring to my blog post last week.  While my daughter whined in the backseat about getting out of the car, I glanced at the clock and realized I had a few minutes to respond.  I tapped out an improvised comment:

Am I the friend in Boston you’re referring to? What evidence do you have that I want to teach kids that Brown was doing nothing wrong? Did you read my blog post? My feeling is to focus in on why people are so upset and how biased impact daily actions, fatally sometimes when it comes to law enforcement officers. I agree with you that the solution is to approach situations with as little bias as possible, but I think that’s simply impossible. We are all victims of bias; it’s in the air we breath. We need to be aware of them and teach children to do the same in the hopes that those biases will have less of an impact on action.

I turned off my phone and returned to my soccer mom duties.  During a (thankfully still warm) pizza dinner, I read her response:

In your proposed explanation of the Ferguson issue to a toddler, you suggest telling children that “a police officer with white skin made a mistake and hurt a young man with black skin who wasn’t doing anything wrong.” I’m not quite sure how else that statement can be interpreted? I certainly won’t pretend to know how difficult it is to have that conversation with a child of color, but I do feel strongly that it’s important to be honest when speaking of the circumstances for a number of reasons. And honesty often does require a painful, intentional decision to not take the easiest way out (i.e., the lazy way). There are many difficult discussions around this issue that are highly charged with emotion. How difficult it has been for hardworking people in Ferguson to see their property values just absolutely sunk over the past two decades because of an influx of poor residents and the increase in crime and damage to educational system. The officers who are working in an area so dangerous that often ambulances will not respond to 911 calls without a police escort. So if you’re going to use the “you don’t understand” card, then you need to be open to those discussions as well.

Now you’ll see that she later claims she is being rational and logical, and my gut reaction to this was pure hatred.  Certainly, it was fueled by the events of the previous two weeks.  The Ferguson news hit me very hard, and the story in Eric Garner’s case had similarly knocked the wind out of me.  Still, even discounting my extremely emotional state, how could I not take offense at her suggestion that I was lacking honesty in these discussions about race with my children and taking the “easiest way out”?  And not only did she attack my parenting, she then had to go and call attention to how poor people were to blame for the issues in Ferguson!

While my kids noshed, I launched my counterattack:

I didn’t recall writing it that way, and I stand corrected. I’m not sure that I would consider now characterizing it like that without assessing all of the facts myself first. With the exception of suggesting that no wrongdoing took place, I stand by most of what I wrote otherwise. I was of course improvising after a call from a fairly distressed friend. At the same time, I was contemplating how I will have to have this conversation over and over and over again with my two children of color, how as they grow older I will have to make sure that the message becomes more and more mature so that they understand that behaving the same way a white person would behave in the same circumstances might actually mean death, how they need to fear the people who are supposed to protect them while they should also respect them. I don’t know for sure, but based on your profile picture, these are not conversations that you will have to have with your children. I say you don’t HAVE to have them, but I don’t want to presume that you won’t have them. That’s what I applaud our mutual friend J for doing: moving beyond the privilege of her family’s skin color and helping her children develop empathy and understanding for someone else’s experiences even if those experiences result in a reality that is far different from her children’s. I’d love for you to explain the difficult of navigating these conversations–both for me as a parent to two children of color and for J as a parent to three white children–is “lazy.” I’m trying to convey this without a sense of malice or meanness, something that is nearly impossible in this medium, and I’m hoping that your choice of words (considering the connotation of the word “lazy”) was unintentionally unkind in a similar vein. I’m not sure if any of this counts as playing the “you don’t understand” card, and again I’ll try not to take offense at the suggestion that this discussion about people’s lives and deaths can be reduced to a game playing analogy.

And I do need to request further explanation of your suggestion that poor people have ruined Ferguson over the past two decades. I won’t presume to know about the class dynamics at play in St. Louis County, and at the same time, I’m wondering where you think those poor people should have gone instead of moving to Ferguson? You seem to be suggesting (and I hope you’ll correct me) that those poor people should have had more consideration than moving to an area and ruining property values and the school system. Should neighborhoods have standards about who can move in so that property values don’t fall? Oh wait, our country totally used to do that with redlining, and it’s actually illegal now. (Yes, I’m getting a little snarky now). Should certain types of kids be sent to certain types of schools? Or do all of our nation’s children have the right to a free and public education regardless of their zip code? I guess regarding your final comments above, I’m playing the “I don’t understand” card, and by all means, I’m open to the discussion.

I put my phone away, so my son and I could walk our daughter to her piano lesson.  I was pretty sure there would be a reply once we got back.  I was right:

I certainly didn’t mean to call anyone lazy or be unkind, but was talking about “lazy narratives” in the general sense. I have four white children and, unlike J, have chosen to remain in the city and send our three youngest children to school in a neighborhood more racially and economically diverse than our own. I have had conversations with my children about race and religion but have been careful about not unintentionally passing on my own biases and untruths. I also strongly believe that experiencing the positive aspects of diversity is just as important as the conversations, though I certainly don’t judge anyone who chooses otherwise. I believe in racial, gender and sexual preference equality and can assure you that I have put my time, effort and money where my mouth is. Interestingly, in no way did I suggest that poor people have “ruined” Ferguson – that is your assumption. I have been a very vocal proponent of subsidized housing in my area. But, if you look at municipal demographics over the past two decades in St. Louis County, it is a fact that as poor people move into an area, crime increases, educational scores are reduced and property values are lowered. This DOES have a very real consequence to long-term residents and it is a factor. It’s interesting how people can care so much about their own economic situation, but are so quick to dismiss the plight of others. I also in absolutely no way suggested that poor people should be redlined – again, I pointed out historical information based on fact patterns – and the jump to that conclusion is completely your own bias and assumptions about me.

Okay, now I really needed someone to hold my jewelry so I could go off on this woman.  In the moment, in seemed like the right thing to do:

Thanks for the clarification, although I’m still a bit confused. I’m probably jumping to conclusions again, but it sounds like the bottom line is you’re sad for the long-term residents because poor people moved into the neighborhood. Again, I’m probably still leaping, but It sounds like you don’t mind if poor people move somewhere, but only as long as you get to shake your head at how sad it is that they bring their downtrodden life with them. As a teacher, I can attest that kids who come from poverty have a much more challenging time learning than kids who come from middle and upper class families. (It sounds like you’re admitting that too.) So what is the answer? I didn’t think you were suggesting we go back to redlining, but I brought that up only to say that I don’t see your point. Yes the violence and looting has hurt people’s livelihoods. What other obvious ramifications of the last few months can we point out? Linking that to impoverished people choosing to move to a particular neighborhood sounds elitist. (Sorry, jumping again.) You can’t simply point out “historical accuracies” and not think people are going to draw conclusions in a heated topic like this, especially when we’re talking about race and “historically” minority groups have been overrepresented as the nation’s poor.

And I still don’t know what you meant by “lazy narratives,” not even in the “general sense.” I just Googled it because I was starting to think I was out of the loop on some hip urban white slang, but I came up empty. (Now I admittedly might be getting a little rude, but ask J, I’m sardonic by nature and it’s part of my charm.)

As I was typing this, J posted a short response about your kids. I had already typed that it’s nice to hear that you’ve chosen to send 75% of your children to public schools, but that’s crazy me jumping to conclusions again. You apparently have NOT chosen to send your kids to public schools. Why not? Because of those terrible poor kids who bring down test scores? (Okay, now I’m just getting bitchy, but come on, why not mention that you send your kids to private school in your clarification above except to imply otherwise?)

I’m open to the discussion even though I’m a bit fraught and coming off a bit pissy. Facebook certainly isn’t the best place to discuss these things, but in what other context would you, a white mom with four kids in urban St. Louis (who I’m assuming is fairly middle to upper-middle class given the private school option) get the chance to touch base with this New England subrban gaysian dad with a white husband and two kids of color?

I was pissed, and although she couldn’t do anything other than take offense at my words and tone, I was doing my best to keep things at least a little bit lighter.  She didn’t see it that way:

Three of my children attend a city parochial school where most families pay a very reduced tuition and the average family income is less than half of the median income in J’s public school. As I said – it is more racially and economically diverse than the city neighborhood in which I live. Our public school system is unaccredited and so the selfish choice I made is to not send my children there. J can tell you if she thinks that is more or less selfish than her decision to live, work and send her children to one of the most intentionally white municipalities in St. Louis and you can review if you have made similar decisions. I understand that this is an emotionally-charged issue that is very personal to you and probably makes it more difficult to approach rationally. And I’m sure that my preference for logic and honest analysis comes off as cold. But tell me how approaching it your way – i.e., making up all kinds of statements that I never said or even insinuated, name-calling and snark as a mode of deflection – going to derive a solution? Is this even about finding a solution or do you just want some smug satisfaction that you have all the answers (which, by the way, is a by-product of the confirmation bias that started this all)? I actually do think I can bring up historical accuracies and think that people are not going to draw irrational conclusions, but perhaps I’ve been spoiled by all of the lawyers and scientists in my FB feed! My point in bringing up the changing demographics in Ferguson is that it has created two separate and quite distinct groups – the haves and the have nots – which has created a tension not only among the residents of the community, but the municipal government, police, etc… This isn’t about minding where poor people move (seriously, how do you come up with this stuff?), but about figuring out how to address the tension in a way that promotes equality while protecting the structure of the neighborhood. Do you not care if your children’s school declines? I know J cares based on her decisions. So if we care, why shouldn’t the residents of Ferguson? Why should we not anticipate it and find solutions? How else are we going to promote truly diverse neighborhoods where all children have access to the same educational system? Elitism would be believing that I am superior to poor residents. Pragmitism is recognizing that, historically in this area, neighborhoods that have poor residents have issues that need to be addressed, which is what I described. “Lazy narrative” describes a tendency to identify individual’s roles early on based on per-conceived notions and then not change those roles as additional facts are uncovered. I’ve seen it used most frequently as a criticism of biased media reporting.

Selfish?  What now?

Thanks for the link and update; I’m curious if based on the discussion here you still consider me a lazy narrator.

I hardly think that this Facebook conversation is going to “derive a
solution,” and my snarky commentary isn’t meant to deflect; I think it’s fairly clear that it’s meant to fan the flames. And in what name-calling am I engaging? Are you objecting to my suggestion that some of your remarks could be considered elitist? Like maybe the one about the abundance of lawyers and scientists in your FB feed? I don’t know where I got that idea!

I wonder at your intentions in bringing this up on J’s page as well. If you know her well, you know she’s an incredibly deep and thoughtful and meaningful person. Your posts here have done little more than call her out as a major part of the racial problems in your area. She has made a different choice than you did with your kids. You seem to suggest that you don’t judge other parents for their choices, but you sound pretty judgey to me. Our children are not social experiments. We do what we deem is right for them, just as you have for your children. As you know from our long history together, I like to make assumptions, and it sounds to me like you’re the one whose defensive about what your community lost when J’s family chose to move to the suburbs. Parents second guess themselves, and it seems like you’re no different. I like that about you. I think it’s why our relationship has lasted as long as it has. But don’t pretend that your guise of calm and rationale demeanor masks the way in which you have consistently called out a woman you claim is a friend.

This thread has clearly digressed. Perhaps the other reason we’re such good friends is that we both like to have the last word. I assume this isn’t the end, but I’m calling it a night.

Surprisingly, that was the end of it.  Now I still stand by most of what I wrote, but in the end, it wasn’t very productive.  This was a white, urban, middle class woman in the Midwest who believes in diversity.  She seems to champion her pragmatic liberalism, and it’s that very quality that allowed her to feel comfortable challenging J’s posts about Ferguson.  She clearly had judged me.  She’d decided upon reading my previous blog post that I was avoiding the truth with my kids, and that allowed her to believe that I am part of the problem.  I am excruciatingly honest with my children about the world in which they live, and I never deliberately lie to them about the realities they will face.  As I wrote in one of the comments above, I stand corrected in my original suggestion on how to talk to kids about Ferguson.  It’s not easy to explain all of this to children who will actually experience the racism in this world as opposed to the allies out there who do the same with their while kids primarily for the purposes of empathy.  It’s difficult, and sometimes I get it wrong and have to go back and fix what I’ve said or done.  In no way is it “lazy” to make a mistake.

Of course, in this exchange I judged her as well.  As I mentioned, I’ve been extremely sensitive with the media frenzy over all that’s going on, and I so rarely get to be allies to my ally friends that I jumped at the challenge the second I had the opportunity.

I think part of what motivated my vehement reactions was my own jealousy over this woman’s purported anchoring logic.  I’ve had the same reaction with teachers in my school who have addressed the news in their classrooms.  I’m honestly so envious of the calm and measured response because that’s something I’m still not capable of.  In two of my classes for adult educators this week, I’ve broken down into tears in articulating how this all affects my children.  I know that this conversation is hard for many people; my friend J in St. Louis is testament to that.  But this woman’s ability to suggest that if we simply step back and look at the completely contradictory and conflicting evidence we might be able to clam down a bit was just too much for me to handle.

What I’d like to convey to this woman now–to her and to all like-minded white people who consider themselves part of the solution as opposed to the problem–is that this is about so much more than individual guilt or innocence.  It’s about feelings of helplessness and inequality and the lives and deaths of our children.

Verna Myers’ TED Talk “You Can Help Stop the Violence Against Young Black Men” helped me a lot this week, both in distilling for me the issues of bias at play in the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases (and so many more) and by providing so actual hope for what we can do about “the Ferguson in all of us,” and that includes the people of color in this country.  This video at least got me to a place where I could facilitate some productive discussions with my students, and I hope it will help me to stop fanning the flame wars on Facebook.

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Thank You Ptown

About a thousand years ago, I first experienced Provincetown at the very tip of Cape Cod when my husband brought me to visit his childhood music teachers.  These teachers were a couple, two men who my husband refers to as “why I teach” and “how I teach,” respectively, who owned a house in Ptown where they would spend every school vacation until they moved here upon retirement.

I must have been barely twenty years old when I first came here, and as a young gay man, I found tremendous possibility in the acceptance and equity of this beautiful town by the sea.  I think it was a combination of seeing men walking down the street hand in hand without fear and the opportunity of getting to know these two influential teachers from my husband’s past that showed me the potential for happiness that lay in my future as a fledgling Gaysian.

Nearly two decades later, my husband and I were married with children, and we visited Provincetown during Family Week, a week-long celebration of LGBT-parented families.  Before that, Ptown was a place of sanctuary from our regular lives where living openly as gay men felt like constant work; now with kids, it still represented that and it took on additional meaning.  The town embraced our kids as lovingly as it had us so many times before.

At the end of that first Family Week, my husband and I were looking at property, trying to figure out how we might swing a second home in town so that our kids could get to know this wonderful place more intimately as they grew older.  When we walk down the street in Ptown, there are other families that look just like ours; when we go to the playground, there are other kids of color with two dads, and nobody awkwardly asks where their mother is.

For the past fours years, we’ve enjoyed getting to know the town in a new way, this time with kids in tow, and it’s been incredible.  Our kids smile from ear to ear when we pack the car up and make the circuitous drive to the end of Cape Cod, and as they walk through town, they love waving hello to the people they know.

Tonight, we bundled up in our heaviest winter gear and headed into town for the lighting of the lobster trap Christmas Tree.  As I stood in the crowd, fighting a potential hernia to hoist my daughter into the air so she could watch a crane lower the giant tree topper made of tinseled fishing buoys, I glanced up at her face.  She was beaming with joy.  She was so excited to be experiencing this moment with the crowds, and she was probably thinking ahead to dinner at her favorite restaurant where one of the bartenders is a black woman that shares her name who always gives her the biggest hug when she comes in.  In spite of the freezing cold and the pain creeping into my muscles from holding aloft our ninety pound daughter and our hyperactive son doing cartwheels around us with snot running down his face, it was a moment I wanted to savor and one that I look forward to repeating in many ways as our kids grow older.

Racism Explained to a Toddler

A really great friend of mine moved to St. Louis in pursuit of love more than a decade ago.  Being raised on the east coast, she was anticipating having to shift her fairly liberal mindset for her move to the midwest.  Thankfully, the amazing man she followed to St. Louis, a lifelong Missourian, helped ease her into this new life.  They settled in a liberal part of downtown, and as she quickly popped out three kids in succession following her marriage, she felt a loaded decision looming: where should they send the kids to school.

She’s an educator like me; we actually met teaching at a pseudo-urban school district outside of Boston.  At this school, most of the parents were working class, a large percentage of students lived in the projects, and the AP classes were populated with the children of upper-middle class parents who wanted to stay close to the city without being directly in it.  After the move, she found herself in a fairly similar suburban school in St. Louis County, although the cultural identity of the school was clearly very different than where we met.  A few years went by and she had the opportunity to apply for a job in a wealthy suburban school district; we lived strangely parallels lives, as I was making a similar shift at the same time.  We both ended up taking jobs with these new districts, and we both ended up moving our families out of the city into those districts where I children can earn a top-notch education.  And go to school with mostly white kids.

Of course my friend and her family are all white, yet the decision to move her kids out of the city and into the suburban schools was one that she weighed just as heavily as my husband and I did.  She is an amazing ally for equity of all sorts, and she often pushes herself to have tough conversations with friends and family simply because she knows she has the privilege not to.  She’s referenced on many occasions that knowing the way my family must live its life has often influenced her decisions in what issues she feels she must address in her world.

Then this past August, she found herself near the epicenter of racial tensions in this country when Michael Brown was shot and killed by a white police officer.  She says that Facebook became a place she could no longer frequent due to the vitriolic postings that she felt she couldn’t ignore.  The result of course were rampant flame wars battled out online with people she felt had always been measured and calm in their understanding of the social constructs of this world.

I spoke with her on the phone this weekend.  As the country eagerly awaits word on whether the grand jury will indict Darren Wilson on murder charges, the anticipation of violence has permeated the media where we live.  She assured me she was safe, and she told me some of her struggles:

“This is going to be in my kids’ textbooks in twenty years, and I don’t want them to wonder why they had no idea this was going on right down the road when they were kids.  But how do I tell them about this without totally betraying their innocence?  I’m just so completely aware that I don’t have to have this conversation, but families like yours do.  And that feels really horrible.”

I told her I think she need to have the conversation.  She needs to lay the foundation for the more in-depth conversations that will occur as her children grow older.  She needs to provide a bedrock for the inevitable loss of innocence that her children will go through when they really see how race works in this country.  Without that, she runs the risk of shielding them from every knowing their privilege and actually contributing to the problem.  (I may be elaborating a bit more here than I actually did on the phone.)  Of course, she needs to do all of this in an age-appropriate way.  I took a stab at it and took on her role:

“Listen, mommy needs to talk to you about something very serious.  There is a lot going on in St. Louis county right now.  We’re safe where we are, and there are a lot of people nearby who don’t feel as safe as we do.  We feel comfortable knowing that the police officers in our town will protect us, and there are some people who don’t feel that way.  Isn’t that awful?  Well you know that sometimes police officers have to hurt people in order to keep them from doing bad things to good people right?  A few months ago, a police officer with white skin made a mistake and hurt a young man with black skin who wasn’t doing anything wrong.  The police officer was acting on impulse, which means he just acted without thinking, and a lot of people think he had a bad reaction simply because of the color of the other man’s skin.  Is that really bad that someone would react like that?  What has made people really mad is that this has happened a bunch of times before, and people are just tired of it.  Mommy is really sad about it and wants it to stop happening too.  Think about the people we know with black skin.  If someone hurt them, even by accident, we would probably be really mad and sad right?  Well that’s what’s happening right now.”

No work of art, but that’s essentially what I suggested she do.  I’m not sure if she’ll be able to follow through, but it makes me incredibly happy to know that she is pushing herself beyond her comfort zone to educate her children about what the world is like for others; she surely doing her job as an amazing parent by improving her kids’ empathy and guiding them to consider the world from a perspective other than their own.

Maybe her kids will have questions, and she might have to say, “I don’t know.  Let me know think about that and get back to you,” or maybe her kids will simply ask if they can go play with their Legos.  The important thing is to have the conversation so that they start hearing that dissonance to the message being promoted by the high decibel silence in most white families’ homes.

Who knows what will happen when the grand jury verdict comes out, which may happen any minute now.  Whatever does happen, it will likely result in another difficult conversation for every black household in this country and the choice to ignore the conversation in so many more.

Guest Blogger: My Daughter

I was at a bit of a loss for what to write about for Day 20 of NaBloPoMo, so I asked my daughter if she wanted to be a guest blogger today.  She dictated, while I typed, and she kept a very watchful eye on what was going up on the screen to make sure I wasn’t editing her words!  I asked her to talk a little bit about what it’s like living in our family as a black girl with two dads and a Latino brother.  Here’s what she came up with:

I like being with my family and I love my family and I think it’s my favorite family I have ever been in.  I still love my mom and grandma too.  I love all of my friends and families and cousins.

I hope the world will change in a different way; I want the guys that don’t treat us well to treat us well, even the girls too.  I should say women.  Because I know some people are really mean to us because that’s the people they are and they know that they’re doing that to us, the ones who are doing bad.  They should learn how to treat us in a better way.  But we should treat them the way we treat ourselves because the ones who are doing bad deserve some goodness so they can learn from us.

Me and my brother, we are both black-skinned.  And I like it that way because I’m who I am.  And I love myself.  I’m going to talk about being black.  It’s kind of cool having different colored skin because when you have black skin, it’s kind of different that the white people.  You can see that it’s really dark.  I have brown skin, but they call it black skin; I don’t know why, but that’s a silly name.  My brother has lighter skin, but it’s not really that black; it’s kind of like a peanut butter color.

Me and my brother have the same hair.  My hair can do really awesome stuff, like you could braid it, and then you could put beads in it, and then you could wrap it around like a pony tail, or you could put little buns on the sides or one in the middle.  There’s lots of things you can do with my hair that other people can’t do with their hair.  My hair is awesome.  I love it.

My destiny is the best I can think of because I love my destiny.  My destiny is everybody’s whole life because I care about everybody.  And everybody deserves that.

My fathers are from different states and have different colored skin too.  All of us have different skin and different destinies.  I have two cats.  They are very special to me and I love my house.  It’s cool to have what I have in my family.  It’s kind of cool having two dads (or two moms) because you get two of the same type of person, like dads.  These dads are really important to me because they are in my family and I love them.  And they belong to me and I belong to them.

 

Gay Rights, or Civil Rights Expedited

While I was out visiting my aging grandparents this past weekend, both of them mentioned something that we’ve talked about a lot in the years since my husband and I adopted our two children.  We each believe that what really changes the racial dialogue is loving someone of another race.  My grandparents, who are both in their 80s, beam with a certain amount of pride that they now have two great-grandchildren of color–even my grandfather who is very sick and at times barely mentally present mentioned it to me.

This isn’t a new idea.  Sharon Rush’s book Loving Across the Color Lines is more than a decade old, and in it she details how the adoption of her black daughter changed her views on how race works in America.  As a white woman, she questioned the validity of certain racial minorities to claim race was at play in any given situation.  Once she loved, truly loved, a black child, she realized that her perspective had been flawed for many years.

Peggy McIntosh

I’ve found this to be true myself.  My late development of racial identity as an Asian man coincided directly with the birth of my daughter.  I’d read Peggy McIntosh’s article on white privilege in graduate school and used similar concepts to drive my teaching of certain issues of social justice in the classroom, but it never really became as imperative a concept as it is for me now until my husband and I brought home this tiny defenseless African American child.  When I became a parent, I discovered what most parents do: I wanted to make sure this little being was protected and sheltered until she could stand up on her own two feet and face the world head on.  And in thinking about how we could do that for this little girl, I came to fully embrace the ways in which her experiences will be different from my own as a biracial Asian man, and vastly different from my white husband’s.

Yoruba Richen

As evidence of this line of thought, I’ve always used equality for the gay community as an example.  Yoruba Richen has a great TED Talk where she outlines the rapidity of the gay rights movement in relation to the Civil Rights movement.  The former has began less than fifty years ago and true legal equality is just around the corner.  The latter needed approximately three hundred years to achieve legislated equality.  There’s certainly something to be said about the ways in which the diaspora of the gay community is spread across socio-economic groups equally, and that provides the group with a certain amount of power and clout to speed things along.  However, I think loving a gay family member is what has truly quickened the pace.

Contrary to what some people believe, people are born gay.  No one can dictate whether a baby will be gay or not, so when a parent spends 10-12 years loving a child so immensely, and then that child comes out of the closet post-puberty, odds are good that that parent is going to continue loving that child.  Of course there are lots of families where this isn’t the case, and I don’t mean to minimize the crazy numbers of LGBT youth who are thrown out on the streets.  However, the ones that are accepted by their families are the ones that are changing minds for the better.  They are the ones who are getting heterosexual allies to take a stand, write their congress people, call out their friends, attend rallies.

Of course no one can dictate whether a baby will be born black or Asian or Latino either.  It’s just highly unlikely that a parent wouldn’t know ahead of time that those options are possibilities before the baby is born.  Adoption agencies, even ones that work through the foster care system, typically allow parents to specify what racial background parents are willing to accept.  The odds of a parent having a baby of a racial background different from his/her own is far fewer than a heterosexual parent having a gay child.  And thus, the racial dialogue in this country is stymied and slowed by the inability of one group to truly empathize with another.

We’re seeing progress, and I’m happy about that.  At times it feels like with every step forward in relieving the racial tensions in America we take two steps back.  My husband and I though will continue to act as vocal allies for the black and brown kids out there like our own, supporting them as best we can even after they have the strength and independence to do it on their own.

Dear Principal

There is only one African American teacher at our daughter’s school, she teaches first grade, and she has a fabulous reputation as a teacher.  Last year, as our daughter neared the end of Kindergarten, I started beating the drum to secure her a spot in that first grade class.  I met with her then current teacher and the school psychologist, and I wrote a two-page letter citing some of the research on the benefits of children of color being taught by teachers of color.  I thought it might be a one-time thing, but a friend of mine mentioned that she’s done the same thing every year for every one of her five children, and her youngest are now in high school.  I realized then that I’ll be sending a version of last year’s letter to my kids’ principal every year for the next decade regardless of whether or not there are teachers of color in whose classes my children can be placed.  In the absence of qualified racial minority teachers, white teachers must be trained in the effects of race, power, and privilege in our educational system in order to be effective educators for my children.  And only by thoughtfully placing my children–and other children of color–in what the state now deems “culturally proficient” classrooms can my children reach their potential.

And so, here is this year’s letter, slightly edited only to ensure anonymity:

Dear Principal P:

Thank you so much for the invitation to write to you regarding our children’s classroom placement at our school this fall. Ms. H has provided a wonderful first grade experience for our daughter, and Ms. E has done terrific work with our son in Kindergarten.

Last fall, I wrote sent the former principal a similar letter to this one, and I am thankful that our comments were taken into account when placing both of our children this year. As you may remember, our children come from a fairly nontraditional family. In addition to coming from a home with two fathers, both of them were adopted through the Massachusetts Foster Care system. We are also a racially diverse family: our daughter is African American, our son is Latino, my husband is white, and I am Asian. We hope that you will take into account all of these aspects of our children’s identities when placing them into appropriate classes this fall. While we understand the need for declining to hear any parent’s requests for specific teachers, in the past, members of your staff have endorsed such requests in light of our children’s unique identities.

Last year, Ms. M and Ms. L supported the placement of our daughter in Ms. H’s first grade class, and I have spoken with Ms. E about a similar placement for our son. Although he is not African American, as a dark-skinned Latino boy with Afro-textured hair living and two fathers who do not share these traits, he needs Ms. H as a role model for his positive racial identity development. As we wrote last year regarding our daughter’s placement, we wholeheartedly understand that one does not need to be a person of color to be a successful teacher for students of color—Ms. M and Ms. E are living proof of this—but research shows that students of color who have effective teachers that look like them end up being more successful in school overall, especially when this happens at an early age. Specifically, Han, West-Olatunji, and Thomas’s findings published in their article “Use of Racial Identity Development Theory to Explore Cultural Competence among Early Childhood Educators” concluded that “African-American students performed better at school when taught by African-American teachers.” I’m sure you are aware of all of the evidence supporting these ideas, and we hope you will take this into account when placing our son for first grade this fall. For similar reasons, we feel strongly that you consider placing our daughter in Ms. W’s class for second grade since this is currently her last opportunity in elementary school to be instructed by a teacher of color, something we have discussed with Ms. H as well.

Further, we would like to echo some of the additional sentiments we’ve expressed each year regarding our children’s placement. We feel strongly that both of our children should always be placed with educators who have completed training in culturally responsive teaching practices and who recognize the importance of racial and cultural identity on academic achievement and engagement. As Willis D. Hawley and Sonia Nieto note in their article, “Another Inconvenient Truth: Race and Ethnicity Matter,” “most measures of good teaching do not deal explicitly with culturally relevant pedagogy, in spite of the fact that research has documented that this approach to teaching can be effective with all students,” and Pedro A. Noguera suggests in his article “How Racial Identity Affects Performance,” “teachers for whom race was never a salient piece of their identity development may fail to recognize the significance of race in their students’ lives.” We are so proud that our district attempts to alleviate these issues by actively encouraging teachers to continue to educate themselves on culturally proficient teaching practices. Since new hires to the district may not have had time to complete this important coursework however, we ask for your consideration in placing both of our children this year and in the future with educators who have.

Finally, we would appreciate your attention in placing our children with cohorts of other traditionally marginalized children, both those who are adopted and other children of color. The latter is even more important given that our school will likely have no new Boston students in attendance with the district’s plans for placing all new METCO students at another elementary school.

We appreciate you reaching out to families to share our concerns and ideas, and we look forward to more successful years for our children in our school system!

Notes from the World of Disney

My family and I are experiencing a bit of a hangover.  We just spent the past week in the World of Disney.  A good friend got married at the Wedding Pavilion on the Disney campus in Orlando last weekend, and we made a big trip of it, including a five-day Disney Cruise and a day at the Magic Kingdom.  Here are a few things that I learned during our vacation:

  1. Most people still aren’t sure whether they’re going to get punched in the face if they assume we’re gay.

    One night on the cruise, my husband and I dropped off the kids at the ship’s amazing children’s play area where they had wonderful activities and even fed them from time to time.  We bid them farewell, high-fived, and headed up to the adult-only restaurant at the back of the ship.  During dinner, a photographer was making the rounds and taking romantic photos of the mostly couples in the restaurant.  He first skipped our table, and then eventually came back.  He awkwardly asked, “Would you like a phot0?” and when we told him yes, he said, “Individual photos?”  I said that we would like a photo together, and he paused for a moment trying to figure out if he should treat us like the other couples, who he had sit together on one side of the table.  He finally decided to just go for it, and had me move next to my husband.  This sort of thing happened often.  The last night of the cruise one of our normal servers wasn’t feeling well, and so the replacement carefully asked if our family of two dads and two kids wanted separate bills.

  2. Being a gay family can sometimes have its perks.

    Some people we met on our trip had excellent gaydar and were totally unafraid of assuming the obvious: that we are a multiracial two dad family with two adopted kids.  These people were mostly the American and Canadian men who worked for the various arms of the Disney Nation, and most of them were gay themselves.  These guys usually took extra care with making our family feel welcome, and some gave us some insider knowledge like where to stand to make sure we could get Donald Duck’s autograph during the insane “Till We Meet Again” party the final night of the cruise where you have precisely fifteen minutes to battle 2500 other cruise guests to get photos with the Disney characters you failed to meet during the vacation.

  3. Being a gay family can sometimes be tough.

    Our kids are fairly social, especially our son, and when they made lots of friends on the beach or on the cruise, we tried to hook up with the parents in the hopes that we might be able to make plans to drop off the kids at the Oceaneer Club at the same time.  We didn’t want to make friends ourselves necessarily; we just wanted our kids to be able to hang out with the kids they got along with.  Our kids would make great friends on the beach, and soon it came time to say something to their parents like “Wow, our kids sure are getting along!”  The parents–mostly the dads–would sometimes merely grunt in our directly without making eye contact.  I consistently wondered if these dads were just reacting to the make up of our marriage.  And then there was the awkward moment in Bingo (which I love) when B-14 was called and the self-proclaimed Mayor of Bingo Town announced the number was “the Valentine of Bingo” and told everyone sitting with the love of their life to give that person a big kiss.  All the heterosexual couples around us starting smooching, so I turned to my husband and gave him a kiss on the cheek.  I know this is probably more than he was okay with, so I left it at that.  It was scary for a moment considering how the other cruisers would react, but thankfully it was kind of dim in the lounge and everyone was pretty much focused on their Bingo cards.
  4. My husband could make a million dollars if we moved to the Caribbean.

    At every stop on our cruise, the island women were offering to braid some white girl’s hair for $2 a braid.  These little girls would sit patiently while their hair was plaited into corn rows and beads affixed to the ends.  This is something my husband has perfected with our daughter’s hair over the past few years, and he’s quick and perfect with his technique.  I am half tempted to sell off everything we own and open a little braiding studio for him in the Bahamas somewhere.

  5. My daughter is not a racist.

    My kids got to meet Princess Tiana (again) on the cruise.  She’s the only African American princess, so she’s a big deal in our house.  She was included during the Princess Gathering a few mornings on the boat and even made a few solo appearances.  My daughter turns seven next week, and as she’s grown more savvy, she spent most of the week rationalizing why these characters weren’t the real characters.  Each of the character greetings included a crew member who helped organize the line and such, and at one point, a black woman from the United Kingdom was helping my kids after their photo with Chip & Dale.  My daughter was showing this woman her autograph book, and the woman commented on how she had seen her all over the boat collecting signature after signature.  My daughter said, “Yup!  And I even have Princess Tiana, see!”  And she flipped to that page to show her before continuing, “You remember that, right?  Because that was you, right?”  I was completely horrified.  Here was my black daughter making the assumption that this woman was previously dressed up like Princess Tiana simply because she was black, acting like all black people look the same.  I stuttered for a moment, trying to think of how I could apologize to this woman and explain all we do to help our daughter remain connected to her black roots, and then I looked at the woman and realized it was the same person who had dressed up like Princess Tiana the previous day.  She graciously tried to lead my daughter off the trail, noting the different accent she had (British versus Tiana’s southern lilt), and my daughter just smiled knowingly.

  6. Disney is still kind of evil, but in a sort of nice way.

    I totally get that Disney is evil.  I’ve written here before about the ways in which my husband and I have tried to navigate the difficult waters of inherently racist, sexist films with the social capital that comes with being intimately acquainted with their content.  This was our second foray into the World of Disney, and for every racist animatron on the Jungle Cruise and insanely skinny depiction of Ariel, there’s a little something good.  For Disney fanatics, there’s pin trading at Disney World where guests where lanyards covered in Disney flair that they can trade with “cast members” throughout the parks.  Amidst the pin options in the gift shops is always a rainbow colored Mickey silhouette.  I’m sure there are lots of ignorant folk who buy the pin because they like rainbows and think it’s pretty, not realizing that this is Disney’s subtle endorsement of our family, and it’s a small gesture amidst their cold corporate capitalist scheme.  Still, it was nice to see it and point it out to the kids on our last day.

This is a gay pin.