School Nightmares

For some reason, my husband and I lucked out with our kids in the sleep department.  They’ve always been great sleepers; typically they’ll sleep a good twelve hours no matter what time we put them to bed, and they rarely wake up with bad dreams (although our son had several sleepless nights after seeing Cats; Mr. Mistoffelees was just too much for him to handle…or maybe it was the hackneyed music).  In the past few months though, our daughter has woken up in the middle of the night with school-related nightmares.

A month or two ago, I had a trying day at school.  My kids will likely go to the school where I’m currently teaching, and feeling downtrodden on that particular day, I sarcastically broached a touchy subject over dinner.

“How would you guys feel if we moved?  You could go to a new school!”  The kids gave me a double take, and my husband rolled his eyes.  “Whatever…it was just a thought.”

Later that night, our daughter woke up inconsolably crying, and when my husband went to check on her, she told him through her sobs that she had a nightmare about going to a new school and missing all of her friends.  I’m sure he was really happy with me at that moment, but I can’t know for sure because I had already gone back to sleep.

Last night, she woke up from another nightmare, this one not quite as powerful but enough to produce some saddened moans that stirred me when I went in to turn off her night light.  I rubbed her back, and she slowly opened her eyes.

“Daddy, I had a nightmare.”

“What happened honey?”

“I dreamed that I was at school and every class I went to I was the only black kid.”

This is of course nearly a reality for her living in our mostly white suburban town.  Our daughter just turned eight, and she’s been showing more and more interest in her racial identity, which couldn’t make me prouder while at the same time making me very nervous.  I want to make sure we’re providing a sound foundation for her, and I’m constantly worrying that what we’re doing isn’t enough.

“That’s unfortunately going to be pretty close to what your experience will have to be going to school in this town because there aren’t very many black people who live here.”  Had this been a daytime conversation, I certainly would have given her a little age-appropriate lesson on redlining, but it was late and I was just about to head to bed myself.  “You know that because we live where we do, Daddy and Poppy try hard to make sure you have black people in your life.”  I named a few key individuals, including two friends who had attended her birthday party who are kids of color and also have gay parents.

“But they don’t have skin as dark as me.”  Another teachable moment on the realities of colorism, but again, it was late.

“No, but black people come in all different shades, and they’re still going to be identified as black; they’ll be great friends that you can turn to as you all grow up because you’ll each know what it’s like to be in a different kind of family like ours.”  I could tell she was starting to come around; I decided to remind her of last year’s classroom teacher.  “And you know what?  I’m sure Ms. H. would be happy to talk to you any time.  You know she’s the only black teacher in your school, so she knows kind of what you’re going through.  I’m sure if you just stopped by before school, she’d find time to talk to you.”  She smiled a bit remembering that connection.  “And as you get older, there will be a few more black kids that join you.  When you get to middle school, there will be a few from each of the elementary schools in town that will all go to school together, and then more when you get to high school.  And then for college, you might decide you want to go to an all-black college.”

“They have those?” she asked, her eyes widening.

“Yup, and that’s why learning everything you can in school is important because it will give you options down the road.”

“I want to go to one of those schools.”  I was suddenly reminded of a video I show in professional development courses I teach where a black Boston student attending school in the white suburbs describes her impending shift to a historic black college.  She says that she had felt like an exchange student her whole life, and she was excited about finally getting the chance to relax that aspect of herself in college.

“Well that’s totally up to you.  If at some point before college, you decide that being around other people that look like you is important, then we’ll talk about you going to a different school, but right now, I think you’d rather stay with your friends right?”

“Yes.”

“Okay, but if that ever changes, you let us know.”

I kissed her good night, and as she drifted back to sleep, I did what every great parent does: I questioned every decision we’ve ever made on behalf of our kids and hoped for the thousandth time that it would all turn out alright.

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.

Post-Holiday Haiku

I’m still in a coma from yesterday’s eating frenzy, and it’s been an incredibly exhausting day dealing with a six-year-old who got up way too early to find the elf on a shelf and spent the rest of the morning throwing tantrum after tantrum.  All I can come up with today are a few snarky haiku.

FOR MY SON

Yes you’re annoying.
I really do love you but
I’m too tired to smile.

FOR MY DAUGHTER

Do not think I’m blind
To the way you get me to
Yell at your brother.

FOR MY HUSBAND

When I’m mean to you
It’s only because I can’t
Pummel our children.

Tryptophan and Back

My son has always had a hard time eating appropriately.  Before he turned two, our pediatrician told us he clearly had a problem “pocketing” his food, which meant that he would stuff his mouth with more and more food, “pocketing” it in his cheeks like a hamster.  Sometimes, we’d be brushing his teeth hours after dinner, and when he spit out his toothpaste, out would come half his dinner.  I would dry heave into the toilet in disgust, trying not to shame him but having a hard time hiding my frustration between gagging fits.

We’ve tried lots of different strategies over the years with different goals in mind.  We’ve tried the “you need to take at least a bite of something and swallow it before you decide you don’t like it” strategy, which resulted in more pocketing than ever.  We’ve tried the “you don’t have to finish everything but don’t ask for more bread unless your plate is clean” strategy when he got a little older, and he ended up chewing and chewing the same bite of food for half an hour while we washed the dishes and cleaned the table around him.  The doctor gave us suggestions (recently she became mildly concerned about his lack of vegetable intake), but nothing has ever really worked.  These days, we’ve settled on making one dinner for the family; the rule is he doesn’t have to eat anything he doesn’t want to eat, but if he’s still hungry and doesn’t want the food on his plate, he gets a piece of bread with butter.  We’re not making multiple meals each night.  He eats a lot of bread with butter these days.

This has all been exasperated by his maturing psyche that begs to be treated like a “big kid.”  He gets jealous of his older sister at restaurants when she orders like a matronly food connoisseur: “I’ll start with the lobster bisque and for my entree I’d like the truffle oiled baked mac’n’cheese.”  It doesn’t help that we heap praise on her adventurous and varied palate, and he yearns for that kind of attention.  What happens of course is that he orders something that he’ll never eat in a million years and then pushes it around his plate sheepishly wondering whether one bite or two will be enough to get dessert.

For now, we’ve taken to giving him tiny portions of protein and vegetables, which seem to cause him the most trouble, and heaping servings of carbs.  A typical dinner plate for him will include about two cups of white rice, a barely visible morsel of chicken, and two green beans.  He usually eats the rice, carefully maneuvering his fork around the chicken and beans, and then asks for his bread and butter.

Today at Thanksgiving dinner, he threw a fit when we didn’t serve him enough stuffing.  I tried to reason with him that if he ate all of what little stuffing we gave him, he could have more, but that wasn’t good enough.  “You aren’t me!  You don’t know what I’ll eat!” he cried.  I rolled my eyes, which egged him on even more.  My husband gave me that “why can’t you just let him be six?” look and gave him a second spoonful of stuffing.  Thirty minutes later, the entire pile of stuffing stood untouched on my son’s plate while he resisted the urge to pocket a second helping of turkey he insisted on receiving only because his sister asked for more.  I looked at him and pleaded with him to just spit out the food in his mouth and be done, but he stalwartly chewed on.  I think he’s still working on it now.

I think this all bothers me so much because of the complete lack of logic in it.  If he doesn’t like the food, why does he put it in his mouth?  Why can’t he just try a tiny bite and then swallow it down and say he doesn’t want any more?  When we give him an option to just spit out his food with impunity, why doesn’t he take the opportunity and move on?

I have friends with underweight toddlers who probably cringe at reading something like this.  I don’t know why I even choose to fight this battle night after night.  We all have these pet peeves with our children that drive us nuts, and if other families are anything like ours, they even cause discord between the adults.  My husband and I have completely different irritations when it comes to each individual kid.  One of us will try to support the other while at the same time say with our eyes, “Does this really matter?”

We all know the answer.  Of course it doesn’t matter.  And at the same time it really does.  The adult voice in our heads tells us that logically we should let it go, and in the moment, letting go feels like it will send our children down a slippery slope that ends in spoiled debauchery.

I’m getting better at letting it go, about not falling into the same routines night after night after night.  It’s a slow process, but I guess I’m technically an old dog learning new tricks at this point.  There are aspects of helping a young person lead a good and a right life that end up doing precisely the same thing for us as adults.  As my kids gets older, I find that I’m maturing a bit too.  Tonight, I’ll just sit and chew on that thought for a while as my son chews on that extra turkey he asked for.

Self-Portrait

There’s no possible way I can get to a thoughtful and complete post today, but rather than give up on NaBloPoMo on day 18, I’ll blog quickly about my son’s self-portrait that we saw at his parent-teacher conference today.

Here is the work of art in question:

IMG_1627.JPG

What my husband and I love about this portrait is the attention to two features of which our son is very proud.  First, his skin.  A few years ago, he expressed some discomfort about looking “different,” and my husband came up with the best description of the specific brown of our son’s face and body: cinnamon.  My husband got out some cinnamon and shook it out so our son could compare his skin, and it was a perfect match.  Ever since, he’s taken tremendous pride in the color of his skin, and we’re so glad he found the perfect match in the Crayola box for this project.

Second, his hair.  Notice the tight curls that he drew around his head.  Granted, our son has a love-hate relationship with his hair.  He loves to grow it longer, but hates that we have to pick it out.  So every few months, he decides it’s time to have “no hair” again.  We take him down to the barber and they shave his head right down to stubble.  He grins from ear to ear and laughs hysterically that he is “bald.”  In the picture he drew of himself, he took great care to show his tight curly kinky hair; hair that we love and that is a distinctive part of who he is.

We hope this is indicative of a positive self-image for this brilliant, amazing, and loving young man!

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.

A Tradition Continues

Today we headed off for our annual trip to the Target Portrait Studios for a holiday photo session.  We first made the pilgrimage when our daughter was just seven months old, and now a series of 8×10 family portraits adorn the second floor hallway in our home, and we hope to continue the tradition for as long as we can.

If you look carefully at that progression of family portraits just outside our kids’ bedroom doors, you’ll notice that my husband and I are essentially wearing the same several pieces of clothing, mixed up from year to year to create a different look.  The tie I’m wearing one year shows up around his neck a few years later, and his shirt from year two is on my torso in year five.  Last year, we just about came full circle.  The outfit I wore was his exact outfit from year one. This is of course one of the benefits of being a same sex couple who are basically the same size.

Today marked year nine, so we had to carefully check what we wore against history’s photos.  My husband came down in brown slacks, a crisp pink shirt and a patterned chocolate tie.

“How do I look?” he asked.

“It’s nice,” I muttered, thinking there was something familiar about this outfit.  I pulled out my phone and checked last year’s photo and flashed it to him before he swore under his breath and headed up to change.  He was wearing the same outfit as last year.

We finally got things squared away.  He found a brand new sweater vest and tie that has yet to appear in any of our holiday photos over the years, and I opted for a red shirt he wore in 2008, a sweater vest I wore in 2011, and a gray tie that will be making its debut in the family portrait scene.

(The kids of course looked fabulous in their brand new clothes; they’re growing so much that recycling old clothes is simply out of the question.)

In the early years, these portrait session entailed us screaming in our head voices to catch our toddlers’ attention and get them to smile: “Over here guys!  Look over here!  Look at Daddy!  Laugh!  Smile!  Ha ha ha ha!”  We had to build up tremendous stamina on the drive over to Target; we knew that this was going to take a lot of energy and we’d end up with a bunch of shots destined for the desktop trash can.  We always tried to reward ourselves with a nice lunch afterward.  We were all dressed up in fancy matching outfits, so why not show off how awesome a racially diverse gay family can be?  Our little ones tended to thwart those outings though by spilling ketchup on themselves or throwing a tantrum during the appetizers.  Two years ago, we sat down at the table and our son promptly spilled a glass of water all over the four of us.  That year, we simply got up and walked out.

Today though was different.  Our ten minute photo session was calmly exciting.  The photographer gushed over our adorable children, which led the two of them to turn on the charm for the camera.  They took some fantastic shots, and we didn’t have to say a word, much less shout a few choice ones, to get them to cooperate.  We headed to a fancy brunch afterward and had a great time laughing and enjoying each others’ company afterward.

This morning, I didn’t think this day would go the way it did.  All hell broke loose when our son kicked our daughter’s balloon.  Not once but twice.  Yes, he kicked the balloon and our daughter shrieked like he had stabbed her in the thigh with a dully serrated knife.  My attempts to get him to think about how his actions affected his sister resulted in his own meltdown: “Fine!  Kick all the stuff in my room!  Whatever!”  In the midst of all this, I turned to my husband and suggested we cancel our lunch plans, which only brought on more whining from the two kids.

Then things turned around.  We got in the car, and we were each able to let go of the difficulties from the morning.  And I could finally see what lies ahead of us as parents.  We’ve really hard trying to get these kids to grow up right, and we’re starting to see the dividends of that investment.  It’s been hard, really hard, for the past eight years, and now that they’re both coming into the age of reason, we can start to see glimpses of the moments of calm that are inevitably in our future.  Parenting is definitely the hardest job there ever was.  Imagine a job where when you did your best, your boss laid down on the ground for five minutes, screaming with snot pouring out of her nose.  You continue to do what you know to be best for your position, and your boss’s tantrums only grow worse; she starts using some nasty words to describe her feelings for you and she ends up head butting you in the chin a few times, something you want to believe was an accident but feels pretty damn purposeful.  And then, after six or seven years, your performance reviews start showing marked improvement, and your boss even has some pleasant things to say to you.  Your boss actually starts performing her job better as a result of your endless perseverance.  Maybe she even gets a better job with more pay because of all that you’ve taught her.

That’s what parenting feels like, and today, it started to feel a little better.