Thursday, August 20, 2009

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Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Myopia of Privilege

[Note: This post is part of a roundtable at Anti-Racist Parent on an Atlanta Journal-Constitution piece by Michelle Hiskey titled “Perfect braids show depth of dad's devotion." The piece describes a white father, Clifton Green, and his care for his black daughter, Miriam's, hair.]

In a bizarrely topsy-turvy take on post-racial America, Michelle Hiskey appears oblivious to the possibility that her audience for her piece "Perfect braids show depth of dad's devotion," may include people of color. (And this is the Atlanta Journal Constitution we're talking about here.) She further assumes--which is ironic, given the article's focus on transracial parenting--that her white audience knows nothing about black hair care. In fact, I suspect that Hinskey is guilty of a common, though problematic tendency in conversations about race: conceiving of white and black as polarized monoliths, and assuming that her experience is representative of all white experience. Thus projecting her own ignorance onto her audience, she leads us through a rather laborious guided tour of one family's version of black hair care. And so we are treated to facts that are supposed to be news to us (presented in problematic language, as Tami has already pointed out so clearly): that black hair will become dry if shampooed as frequently as white hair, that black hair is fragile and breaks easily, that black hair may take longer to rinse than white hair, and that particular products exist (also oddly described and exoticised) for styling black hair. None 0f this--I'd be willing to bet--is news to any of the Atlanta Constitution's black readers. Nor is this news to most white parents of brown children. And for those white readers for whom these facts are news, what, exactly, do they contribute to the story except for a sense that black hair is an exotic animal that requires involved and mysterious care and feeding? But more than that, what are we to think of an article that so blatantly fails to consider a significant portion of its audience? What should we think of an article that neglects to include even a single phrase, like "as mothers of black children know. . . ," for example, that would at least attempt to include the Constitution's readership of color? What should we think of an article that is incredibly myopic in a way only those who hold white privilege can be?

I'm not going to answer these questions--at least, not right now--because I have more to say about myopia and privilege. Another thing that I find extraordinary about this piece is the way it elevates a mundane act of caregiving to the remarkable. A parent doing his child's hair becomes newsworthy because the parent is white and the child is black. (Patriarchy, of course, plays a role here, too, with the hair care becoming doubly newsworthy because the parent is a white male, but my focus here is race.) One imagines that, as Hiskey observed Green braiding his daughter's hair, black adults all over Atlanta were combing, parting, braiding, and twisting the hair of black little girls, producing styles as "perfect" as Green's. These mothers, grandmothers, aunts, fathers, and cousins, however, are conspicuously absent from this story because Hiskey--in her white priveleged myopia--does not see them. Or, perhaps, she believes (as, apparently, her editor did) that a black adult doing a black child's hair is not newsworthy. She may be right. And this should make us very sad, because it so clearly delineates the ways in which whiteness privileges and blackness devalues. For, why wouldn't a black mother doing a black child's hair be newsworthy when a white father doing a black child's hair is? One answer, I fear, is that black children are valued in this country only when they have white parents. Another is that a white parent, in caring for a black child, is understood to be doing a charitable act by offering the same care he would to a biological (white) child to a child that is understood as lesser, either because of the child's race or her "orphan status" that preceded her adoption. (Note: I don't see any evidence that Green holds these views.)

I have leveled my criticism so far at Hiskey and the ugly, nearsighted, and--let's be honest here--all too common perspective that she represents. I reserve, though, a question for Green: What responsibility does Green hold in the production of this article and its perpetuation of racist and white privileged notions? The easy answer is that Green could not have forseen how Hiskey would represent his care for his daughter. In fact, it's probably fair to say that Green believed he was telling a love story; he wants his children to feel as his father made him feel--"as if he had hung the moon." Fair enough; I do not fault Green's intentions. I can't dismiss, though, the gnawing sense that he should have been more wary of the reporter's advances, alive to the possibility that his privilege was the principle attraction, that he would be cast as hero while hundreds of black adults combed and braided away with as much devotion but without similar recognition. And that raises questions for all white parents of brown children, especially those of us who strive to be anti-racist: How do we become unwittingly involved in perpetuating privilege and racism? How can we do better?

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Beating a dead horse

The Beer Summit happened, it's supposed to be all over, but I'm not over it. In case you aren't either, I offer two op-eds for your reading pleasure.

Anger Has Its Place
The president of the United States has suggested that we use this flare-up as a “teachable moment,” but so far exactly the wrong lessons are being drawn from it — especially for black people. The message that has gone out to the public is that powerful African-American leaders like Mr. Gates and President Obama will be very publicly slapped down for speaking up and speaking out about police misbehavior, and that the proper response if you think you are being unfairly targeted by the police because of your race is to chill. Read more.

The Morning After the Beer Summit, I'm Still a Bit Hung Over

The lesson in this so-called "teachable moment" is that if we're waiting for the President to do our homework for us - to buy us all a beer and lead us in singing a barroom rendition of "Ebony and Ivory" - we'll be waiting around for a long time.

Obama, Gates and Crowley got their chance to bury the hatchet. They got the nice photo op. Now they'll all put this behind them.

The rest of us are left with hard feelings and mistrust. Call it the aftertaste. I'm biracial; I want to be able to talk to white and black people on both sides of this issue and be able to disagree without the conversation devolving into a "who's a racist, who's not." Read more.

Friday, July 31, 2009

On backpedaling and power

At lunch today, I was reading Tim Wise's comments (in his excellent book, White Like Me) on the brouhaha that resulted after a black politican in Bermuda (Premier Scott) sent an email in which he said that he was tired of criticism from "people who look like Tony Brannon." Brannon, a conservative, is white. Only intending to circulate the email to his close friends, Scott mistakenly hit "reply all," resulting in widespread coverage of the incident in Bermuda. The public outcry was such that Scott apologized.

Wise notes:
...the most important aspect of the incident, to me at least, was Scott's apology and the fact that he had felt compelled to issue it. The very fact that Premier Scott felt compelled to backpedal after his remarks were made public is testimony to how little power he had, in effective terms. After all, if power truly resided in his hand or the hand of other blacks such as himself, he (and they) would be able to regularly insult whites, say terrible things about them, and never have to apologize at all. Premier Scott would then have been in a position to say, in effect, "screw Tony Brannon" and everyone like him. But he can't, and that's the point. Deep, isn't it? A black man is forced to apologize to white people for a simple comment, while whites have still never had to apologize for the centuries-long crimes of slavery, segregation, and white institutional racism!

Sound familiar doesn't it? Wise might as well been writing about Obama. Yet, can it be true that Obama's beckpedaling "is testimony to how little power he ha[s], in effective terms"? He is, after all, the President of the United States. There is no question that he wields substantial power, and yet. . . perhaps, at least in this particular incident, he wields not quite enough. And that has everything to do with his color. (Though, as an aside, I felt very smug to see photos of the beer party featuring Crowley sitting properly, stuffed in his jacket while Obama reclined casually, jacketless, his sleeves rolled up.)

I was intrigued to notice during last week's Addicted to Race podcast (which you should listen to) that all three panelists noted that Obama "had to" apologize. I have no doubt that any of these women doubt Obama's agency, so I was curious about the choice of the phrase "had to," as if Obama's hand was forced. Because of course, Obama is also a clever politician and strategist. Perhaps in some way unclear to me, this was a brilliant p.r. move.

What do you think, readers? Does Obama have power appropriate to his office? Or not? And how do you see the apology? Evidence of a certain powerlessness? Necessary but evil? A cowardly sidestep? A brilliant move?

Friday, July 24, 2009

Wait, why is Obama trying to take it back?

Tell me please, why did many feel like Obama was in the wrong for saying that the police officer involved in the Gates incident "acted stupidly"? Why did a whole union come out in support of the officer? Why did the officer refuse to apologize? And, for god's sake, why is Obama backpedaling now?

The police officer did behave stupidly. I don't think there's any denying that. Was he primarily influenced by race or drunk on power or both? I don't think it matters. He was a white cop interacting with a black man in the USA and if he was the great expert in racial profiling the Cambridge Police Force has made him out to be, then he should darn well have been aware of all the dynamics of white cop/black suspect. Gates' anger should not have been a surprise. And if he was this expert, he should have known how to respond in a way that attempted to validate Gates' concerns, perhaps offer an apology. Why is it that the suspect always has to be the one to lose face, particularly if he's innocent? Why can't the police officer be the one to lose face for a change, and take one for the team. There is hardly shame in apologizing or in attempting to calm an increasingly tense racial encounter. Never, never should the response to Gates' anger been the punitive power play that it was. (On an NPR show the other day, someone mentioned that "disorderly conduct" is known among police officers as "disrespecting a cop." That speaks volumes, doesn't it?)

In addition, the officer's refusal to apologize along with his public expression of disappointment in Obama's characterization of his conduct is terribly problematic. I'm sorry, but if the president of the United States called YOU on the carpet, wouldn't you hang your head? wouldn't you apologize? Wouldn't you at least PRETEND that you were wrong, even if you privately felt that you weren't? I find this behavior almost as shocking as McCain supporters' booing of then president-elect Obama on election night. And I have to wonder if race isn't a factor here, too. Because I'm having trouble thinking of a comparable incident where a public servant has corrected a president of this country. (But if you can think of something I can't, please comment--I'd like nothing better than to be wrong on this one.) Yet, Obama's response is to invite the officer to the White House for a beer.

That may be a politically savvy move, but it also seems like a kick in the gut to the next black man who finds himself slammed up against a wall for doing something--anything--that a cop has taken into his head not to like. And Skip Gates has accepted the invitation to join them--what else, really, could he do? Some will present this as an opportunity for racial healing, but I don't buy it. Healing would require acknowledgment, on the part of the officer, of mistakes, poor judgment, the unconscious influence of racism, the desire for authority above all else, and the officer appears unwilling to make such an acknowledgment. What will this meeting be like for Gates? A show, one imagines, that Gates will put on for Obama's sake, to perpetuate a myth of racial progress. I feel for Gates, and I'm not sure that if I were him, I'd be thinking of Obama as much of a friend right now.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

A brief rant followed by humility

All white adoptive parents are in a learning process of some kind or another about race, privilege, negotiating racial difference, etc., and I get that (heck, I'm one of them). But sometimes I lose all kinds of patience with other parents' process. Sometimes I just want to put my head in my hands and despair. I'm going to air my annoyance at what's got my goat this week, but I warn's petty. It could be reasonably argued, I'm sure, that I am being petty. But I'm going to tell you about it anyway.

Every so often some white adoptive parent who belongs to an online forum I frequent starts mildly freaking out over her (black) child's scars. Why are they so much lighter than the rest of the skin? Is there something wrong? Is there a cream or something to help the scars heal? And so on. This week this happened, and I responded, and I responded very politely, but I was so annoyed. White people, please! Have you never noticed that when a scab falls off of YOUR skin, that the new skin is slightly lighter than the surrounding skin? Perhaps if your skin is very pale the difference is almost imperceptible but surely,surely at some time in your childhood you had a bit of a tan and noticed the contrast between your tanned skin and the lighter skin underneath your latest scab? Why this immediate tendency to pathologize/otherize?

But then I did some poking around on the web to see if I could out why new skin appears to lack pigment, and happened upon a Journal of Pediatric Health Care article that has left me feeling less outraged and more humbled. I didn't find an answer to my question about pigment--although I gather that the melanin-producing melanocytes are easily damaged from any trauma to the skin--but I did learn that there are some important differences between black skin and white skin that I would do well to be aware of. Especially this:

All people shed the upper layers of epidermis as a normal physiologic process. The shed layers are darker if the nuclei have more melanin. Thus, when the skin of an African American child is cleansed with an alcohol wipe, for instance, the wipe will look darker than it does when white skin is wiped, not because of dirt but because of shed cells with rich melanin deposits. If after seeing the color of the alcohol wipe a mother comments that she just gave the child a bath, this is a good time to teach her that this skin debris with its natural color is normal, helping to prevent low self esteem as a result of a perception of uncleanliness.

See what I mean? A bit humbling, no? So much for my righteous anger...

Also, I learned that black skin is more prone to the formation of keloids, benign growths that often form at the location of an older injury. Ear piercing can cause keloids on the ear, but since infants generally do not form keloids, ear piercing during infancy avoids keloid development.

Finally, there's a ton to learn about acne-related scarring (also plenty about this on the web).

Unfortunately, I don't think the article is available online free of charge, but perhaps you can sweettalk your local library into helping you out:

W. Smith, C. Burns. (1999). Managing the hair and skin of African American pediatric patients. Journal of Pediatric Health Care, Volume 13, Issue 2, Pages 72-78.


Friday, July 17, 2009

The double-edged sword that is affirmative action

I believe in affirmative action, absolutely. It is a policy that attempts to level a playing field that has been anything but fair, and opens opportunities to people of color that, were our country truly just, would be available to them anyway. It grants no special privileges. It grants access. It's as simple as that.

But the difficulty of affirmative action is how it can be so easily manipulated by the likes of Pat Buchanan to undermine the very people it is meant to help. Buchanan himself demonstrates this ugly (but, I fear, effective) technique in his critique of Sonia Sotomayor on the Rachel Maddow show. Buchanan suggests that Sotomayor is incompetent and unintelligent because she is a self-identified "affirmative action baby." Sotomayor got into Princeton, Buchanan argues, because she was Latina and she's a nominee to the Supreme Court because--you guessed it--she is Latina. Thus all of Sotomayor's accomplishments and achievements are dismissed in one fell swoop.

Of course what Buchanan is really mad about is what I would call the loss of his guarantee of undeniable privilege. (He calls it "discrimination against white men.") He is at least smart enough to understand that he can't count on getting absolutely everything he wants, just by virtue of being a white male. But he's also dumb as rocks not to realize that he retains enough damn privilege to do just fine. White men are not a threatened species, for better or for worse, and this myth of perilous "reverse discrimination" is absurd, but also dangerously insidious. I would feel less concerned if I didn't think that Buchanan represented a sizable number of white men misdirecting their anger.

But back to the absurd part, for a minute, and a bit of family history. My mother's side of the family is pretty WASPy, with a relatively long line of men who went to Harvard and Yale, and got advanced degrees, and had successful careers. My brother felt pressure to continue in this tradition, and though his grades and test scores were top-notch and he wrote a sweet and intelligent application essay, he just couldn't get into an Ivy League. And he was so disappointed. He encountered similar difficulty after graduating from college and looking for his dream job. He struggled and was depressed and felt like a failure. My mother grumbled about affirmative action--"he's a white man--that's the problem," she would say. And I just gave her the eye and shrugged my shoulders at the both of them. It made sense to me that affirmative action would displace white men (and maybe sometimes white women, too), and why not my brother? Why shouldn't he be displaced by someone who has had fewer privileges, benefits, opportunities? After all, my brother would still maintain all the other benefits he had as a result of being white and male and growing up in a family with some means.

It's at least ten years since my brother received his rejection letter from Harvard, and I can say with certainty that history has proved me right. My brother went to a perfectly good liberal arts college, graduated with honors, and finally found himself a the Council on Foreign Relations. And when he was ready, he applied to graduate school at Columbia, and was accepted. See, he didn't NEED Harvard. He didn't NEED Yale. (While, for someone like Sotomayor, Princeton may have made all of the difference in the world.) This is what Pat Buchanan fails to grasp: the "threat" of affirmative action to white males is entirely imaginary. And the outcome of affirmative action is not that incompetent people of color are thoughtlessly promoted. Rather, affirmative action allows competent people of color to rise beyond unfairly limiting circumstances not of their own making. That's the sort of progress our country could use more of.

Now, for a little comic relief (hat tip to Jennifer of Mixed Race America)

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

A sad day

Last night, a truly bright light went out, far too early. She was our neighbor, a dear friend, and had become an "honorary grandmother" to J. And J. just adored her. Her apartment is directly below ours, and every time we pass, J. wants to knock on the door and say hello. Then he'd go running to her for a big hug. She loved it. He loved it. I loved it.

I feel lucky that J. wanted to knock on her door on Sunday afternoon, because we spent a nice hour or so at her house. We chatted, while J. explored her elephant collection. She was full of plans and ideas and enthusiasm. She had catered a party (50 people; everything prepared in her little kitchen without help; AND she decorated...) the day before and was tickled by all the compliments she got on her food, especially from the men. (Men don't usually care about macaroni salad, she told me).

I was with her last night when she passed, although I didn't know that at the time. Her heart had stopped before the ambulance even arrived, we found out later. And try as they might, they couldn't get it beating again.

A family member shared last night that she wanted to be buried in her purple dress, vibrant as the life she led. She loved to put together fabulous outfits, ornamented with jewelry that she found at "the promised land," her name for the best thrift store in town. I know her granddaughters will pick out the jewelry to match the dress and the perfect pair of shoes. She would want to go out in style and color and celebration, beautiful and joyful. And I will try to get into that spirit. I really will. But not today. Today, I am going to miss her with all my heart.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009


On an adoptive forum I frequent, someone has posted a link to a petition in support of the Foreign Adopted Children Equality Act (FACES). The response has been enthusiastic, with forum members reporting that they have signed, and posted links to the petition on blogs, facebook, etc.

Meanwhile, Resist Racism has questioned various aspects of the bill, including its privileging of international adoptees over other immigrants to the US, its possible negative effects on adoptee's legal ties to country of birth, and its possible loosening of safeguards that screen adoptive parents. I have not had time to review the language of the bill, but Resist Racism's intelligent analysis has stood me in good stead in the past, so I am inclined to investigate further... (But, believe me, I am all for one part of the bill, which would allow internationally adopted children to become president.)

Also on the adoptive forum is a link to a petition in support of a Department of Health and Human Services regulation that supports lifting the immigration and travel ban on those with HIV. This is particularly relevant to US parents who plan to adopt from Africa, because adoption of HIV-positive children is becoming increasingly common. (Adoption of an HIV-positive child currently requires a waiver). Disturbingly, however, this petition is getting very little attention. I can't help wondering why? Why all the support for the one, where there seem to be legitimate concerns, but little support for the other, which, from a human rights point-of-view alone seems hard to argue with?

It's the end of a lousy week

Well, it's been a lousy week regarding race in the US. At least these stories put the lie to the post-racial America myth we're all so tired of hearing about, but I'd take the myth anyday, over this garbage.

Of course, there was the story of the Philadelphia swimming pool's ejection of children based on concerns about preserving "the complexion" of the membership (how unfortunately apt, though I suspect unconscious, choice of words). This Nation article addresses the incident from the perspective of a parent, and rightly points out the role white adults at this club SHOULD have played in this incident. (I'm all for privacy rights and all that, but I would love nothing more than for the names of all members of that club to be widely publicized. Anyone who hasn't cancelled their membership by now is part of the problem--if not THE problem--and should be ashamed of themselves.)

As if that weren't enough, The Southern Poverty Law Center announced today that it has found evidence of racist extremists infiltrating the US military. How terrifying is that? For the first time in my life, I think I should seriously consider buying a gun.

But there is good news, too. At last, someone intelligently debunks the "race card" myth. It turns out it's an ace of spades. (I kid, I kid.) Seriously, though, it's a very smart, thorough, and persuasive article and I am grateful to its author for going after a phrase I would gladly eliminate from the English language if I could.

Happy weekend, all. Surely things can only get better?

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

A must-see: A girl like me

This has apparently been around for a while, but it was new to me. (Thanks to Macon D. over at stuff white people do for reposting.) The repetition of the doll experiment is just heart-breaking, and the honesty and resilience of those girls impresses me to no end. If my son can grow up to be as self-possessed, confident about his perceptions of the world, and able to voice his own truth as those girls, I will be one happy mamma.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Chances of having incarcerated parent rising for black youth

From the New York Times:

The chances of seeing a parent go to prison have never been greater, especially for poor black Americans, and new research is documenting the long-term harm to the children they leave behind. Recent studies indicate that having an incarcerated parent doubles the chance that a child will be at least temporarily homeless and measurably increases the likelihood of physically aggressive behavior, social isolation, depression and problems in school — all portending dimmer prospects in adulthood.


Among those born in 1990, one in four black children, compared with one in 25 white children, had a father in prison by age 14. Risk is concentrated among black children whose parents are high-school dropouts; half of those children had a father in prison, compared with one in 14 white children with dropout parents, according to a report by Dr. Wildeman recently published in the journal Demography.

Read the article.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Three brilliant things

  1. My chiropractor
  2. The consequent end of workplace fantasies about tylenol with codeine
  3. And on a more relevant note (finally, I know!), this comment from Cheryl at Stuff White People Do. Cheryl was responding to a question blogger Macon D. posted about whether comparing a condom to a sombrero is racist (I know, I know...but it makes sense, I promise). In general, though, she is offering a strategy for deciding if any utterance is racist, and it's super-smart:

My criteria for questions like this is, "if I say this, will it sound similar to something an asshole might say?" Because nobody has a window into my intent. And as a speaker, I believe it is my responsibility to do what I can to deny racism a foothold in my speech -- and that means to, when possible, avoid speech that might provide a place for my audience to hang their unconscious racism, too.

I'd say that Cheryl is a smartie, wouldn't you?

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

You know sometimes how

you have back problems, and knee problems, and boss problems, and husband problems, and money problems, and coworker problems, and car problems, and you just feel completely drained and it's hard to imagine doing anything? Much less really wanting to do anything?

That's about where I've been lately, and thus, silent/absent here. Which is really too bad, because I had a fantastic conversation with Tami, there was all kinds of increased traffic to the blog and good conversations were developing, and then I went into overwhelmed mode and let all of the momentum go momentum-ing away.

But I have been reading, and thinking, and so I'm planning a comeback of sorts...

In the meantime, here's some of the best stuff I've read during the last little while:

Oh, and then there was an absolutely terrific documentary on PBS about a girl (now a woman) who was adopted from Guatemala after her parents die in a mass execution. Very little, unfortunately, is said about the adoption experience itself, but the film is amazing in capturing the difficulty of trying to knit two different worlds together. And beyond all that, it's an extraordinary story. Learn more here.

More soon, I promise...

Friday, June 19, 2009

More hair on the radio!

Tune in to What Tami Said on Sunday afternoon for talk on "hair politics, style, natural hair journeys, parenting and natural hair and more." Yardley Messouroux, founder of the Coil Review, will be the guest. It sounds like it will be a terrific conversation.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Thursday, May 28, 2009

More resources...

Motown girl has some do-it-yourself recipes (many from Curly Girl) for haircare

Turns out the author of Curly Girl has designed her own line of hair products. A colleague of color raves about them.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Tami and I talked hair and it was fabulous

We had a terrific and enlightening conversation. Do listen using the player in the sidebar or by going to the show page.

Among the resources Tami mentioned on the show:

websites: for how-to videos on natural hairstyles

Curly Girl
Good Hair for Colored Girls Who've Considered Weaves When the Chemicals Became Too Rough Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America
Tenderheaded: A Comb-Bending Collection of Hair Stories

Tami's post on her hair story:

Tami's "Dispatches from Nappyville":

If you know of other helpful resources, please share in the comments!

Friday, May 22, 2009

All about hair on Blogtalk Radio

Join me and special guest Tami, of What Tami Said, on Saturday, May 23rd at 1 pm Central/2 pm Eastern for a conversation on one of our favorite topics: hair.
Listen live here or join the conversation by calling (347) 308-8145.

It all started with hair

This blog, that is. The inspiration arrived several days after a particularly fractious online exchange about white adoptive parents locing their black children's hair. This was not the first conversation about white parents and black children and hair that I'd witnessed or participated in, but it was by far the most mean-spirited, especially in the comments section

One of the allegations made by the blogger, and supported by other commenters, was that white adoptive parents loc their children's hair because they don't want to "deal with" their hair:

I am truly appalled at the trend of adoptive parents -- transracial adoptions -- (White parents, Black Children)-- locing their children hair. Apparently the parents think that this is either a.) desirable by the child or b.) easier to deal with. IT'S NOT!!!!

It is sad the amount of APs that are considering and following through with this. MHO the primary reason is because they just don't want to deal with the child's hair. Sad for the child who will learn early on that her hair is a hindrance.

Another was that white parents don't appreciate the natural beauty of their children's hair and want it to look more "white":

All the talk about natural hair, this and that to me is a smoke screen. Because there is another aspect to locing, and yarn braids. It allows the hair to FLOW as my neice would say. If you want to keep it natural we have century long traditions for what a little black girls hair looks like. The yarn, extensions, and even locs is a way to allow the hair to grow and look a bit more like what people are used to. It isn't about keeping the girls hair natural. Now, of course that is my opinion probably not explained very well and perhaps not politically correct either.

Still another was that white parents don't appreciate the complexity of the decision to loc a child's hair--that is, they don't understand the implications for hair care, nor do they appreciate the "political" aspects of the style:

Locs are first and foremost a choice. You will not find ONE Black parent that will loc their children's hair unless the child is old enough to request it or unless the parents have locs of their own. Locs are a serious and intimate decision. Some wear it for fashion. But either way, all loc wearers know it should not be entered without much thought, understanding and commitment. It is amazing to me how many hours are spent posting about hair care for "Black" hair. But I understand that the best way to counteract the unknown is to study up. But to loc a child's hair. A child???? Are you serious?

Wow, I am shocked that ppl are making a decision to loc a child's head who is not old enough to understand the spirituality behind locing. One of my college friends studied with the rastas and I went over to visit with her during that time. Locing to me is so much more than a hairstyle. I have such respect for what it means to the rastas, who have faced horrendous oppression, that I couldn't imagine how someone could loc without truly understanding its history.

Living in the city/town we live in with less then 10% people of color, yet moving back and forth through the Bay-Area, I really had to be careful of the Life-danger my son's locs could put him into and the typical sterotyping that people would subject him to.

Because locs are NOT just some hair-do...if you think that, then you have no business locing in America!

But, sadly, perhaps the most consistent allegation was that white adoptive parents not only don't get it but don't WANT to get it:

I wish I could reach out to the AP's doing this, but I have tried and met great opposition. I found with adoption, people rarely want to hear the truth, or even your opinion. They want to believe what they want to believe. Period.

Great post, as usual. What bothers me about many of the AP or PAPs is when we as Black women (of varying backgrounds) provide our pretty solid and sound advice garnered from years of life is not taken seriously. It is like my mother says "Do you want to hear what you want to hear or do you want to hear the truth?" Many just want to hear what they want to hear. I love the little's just hair it will grow back or other black people loc their children's hair (meaning so why can't I). These are comments said without really understanding the community in which the child comes from and will belong to...not just being their child.

It's nice that you blogged about this, but you know I'm at the point where I think you should leave these crazy ppl to themselves. As my grandma says, they'll learn on their own that fat meat is greasy.

To a white adoptive mother who wants like crazy to get it, the negativity of these responses was discouraging. And that the conversation broke down along racial lines, as it did, was also disheartening. Moreover, none of the allegations are true--at least not of the white adoptive parents that I know--with the possible exception of not quite getting the cultural baggage that accompanies locs (more on that in a future post). So I felt sad, discouraged, misunderstood, but most of all confused. It seemed that I had found another you-can't-win-for-losing facet of transracial parenthood.

The notion that white adoptive parents don't want to hear the good advice of black women is a tricky one. My sense is that most of us white adoptive parents sense that getting the hair thing right is terribly important, and we need advice from willing black people in order to get it right. The difficulty is that what it means to "get it right" varies from (black) person to (black) person. And many white adoptive parents I know (mostly parents of girls) have been advised by black women at least once to relax their daughters' hair. But there is also a strong argument to be made, however, is that relaxing a black child's hair is a way of making the hair more like white hair. So, if a white parent were to take the advice of one well-meaning black woman and relax her daughter's hair, she might face backlash from another , who believes she is trying to make her daughter conform to white norms of beauty, and thus, devaluing her. And, bizarrely, if a parent chooses to loc her child's hair as a way of embracing the child's hair just as it is, she may still face accusations of trying to make the hair more "white," as implied in the comment above that locs are a way of making the hair "flow." There is just no way of pleasing everyone. And if we'd take all the advice we receive, we would have to divide our children's scalps into tiny little sections and do something entirely different to each.

Interestingly, in the adoptive parent community I belong to, white adoptive parents play a strong role in promoting the idea that we should keep our children's hair natural. Among the very group that you might suspect would be most susceptible to preserving norms of white beauty, there is a strong ethic against relaxing and hot combing, and no discussion of extensions or weaves. Many of the Black women who are part of this community happen to wear locs and have talked about how positive the experience of wearing locs has been for them--very liberating, very freeing, very good for their own self-esteem. They talk about the joy they feel in breaking away from hot combs and relaxers, which felt oppressive to them, and as if they had to make their hair different than what it actually is. How confusing, then, it is to encounter black women arguing against locs, and others advising relaxing, and to pass little black girls in the grocery store wearing relaxers and extensions. It makes the head spin. So what is a white adoptive parent to do?

This one reached out to Tami at What Tami Said. And a conversation evolved that inspired this blog. I envisioned a space that could serve as a resource to other white parents of black children. And it would devote plenty of space to hair--the politics, the myths, the challenges of navigating this territory as a parent--without all of the finger pointing. Tami graciously agreed to help. (She also wrote an insightful post about the loc-debacle--read it here.) This was many months ago, and life intervened. But THIS is where this blog was supposed to start. And so, I hope you'll join Tami and me this Saturday at 1 pm Central for the first episode of Nobody Asked You on the radio. It promises to be a great conversation.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

News of note

This American Life did an extraordinary story on a Samoan adoption that went very wrong, and one adoptive family's attempt to make it right. (See Act Two)

The Black Snob has an interesting story about integration and its shortfalls.

On Racialicious, guest commenter Neesha Meminger asks if white authors should write from the perspective of people of color.

Tami of What Tami Said and Deesha Philyaw of Mamalicious and Co-Parenting 101 talk about motherhood, the dearth of books by and for black women on motherhood, and a media-constructed white norm of motherhood that doesn't even do a very good job of representing most white women.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Transracial Adoption on Blogtalk Radio

Tune in Monday night at 9pm Central Time for a conversation about transracial adoption on All About Race, the companion podcast to the blog All About Race. The fantastic Carmen D. has invited me to be a guest on the show, which I am very excited about. We will be taking calls, and I hope some of you will take the opportunity to join us. Show information is at

Listen to the show here:

Saturday, May 9, 2009

"Those aren't curls, Mom" revisited

Transracial parenting is a very humbling experience. You are continually learning how much you don't know. And sometimes you unwittingly demonstrate your ignorance to your child's teacher, say, or all of the readers of your blog. Ahem.

In the wake of my conversation with J.'s teacher, I found myself wondering if she might have meant that his hair was .... well, you know, that n-word: nappy. I'm going to talk about this word throughout this post, because it seems unavoidable--I have to call a spade a spade. However, I know the word can have negative connotations, especially when used by a white person, and I apologize if I cause offense.

Once this thought--that J.'s hair might be "nappy"--I realized that I had only a very hazy notion of what that word meant, and that I had no idea what the difference was--if there even was a difference--between curly hair and nappy hair.

So a good friend and I embarked on some research. And the more I read, the more, erm, humbled, I felt.

Here are some of the definitions I came across:

And here is how I described J.'s hair in my prior post:

  • tiny little corkscrews that coil like tight springs

Ahem. You'll note the similarities between their language and mine. It turns out that J.'s hair is the definition of nappy.

I had no idea.

See, on the playgrounds I grew up on, nappy was not a good thing. I didn't have a good sense of what it meant, but I knew that it had something to do with being messy and unkempt and maybe even a bit dirty. And it turns out that I'm not alone in having negative associations. My Webster's defines nappy as "kinky: said esp. of the hair of blacks and used derogatorily or contemptuously." Urban dictionary includes this definition: "one of African desent who has tightly coiled unkept hair; one with locks of hair that is tightly curled that is unwashed and uncombed" and this definition: "a black persons hair that is not kept up with, or dirty," as well as a host of other "definitions" that are truly ugly (please do yourself a favor and trust me on this--it's a site you should skip). Because J.'s hair is lovely, and clean, and neither messy or unkempt, I thought that his hair couldn't possibly be nappy. How I learn.

So, is there any difference between nappy and curly? I asked my friend. We researched some more. My friend concluded "It seems like, if a black person has curly or kinky hair, it is nappy by definition." That jived with what I saw, too: that the choice of one word over the other seems to have everything to do with the color of the person who owns the hair in question. On at least one black haircare site, curly is clearly distinguished from nappy with questions like "how do I make my nappy hair curly?"

But at the same time, I see plenty of evidence on the web that the word nappy is being reclaimed. And I'm so glad. I'm glad, too, that natural hair seems to be making a return, and I'm so struck by how powerfully validating the decision to go natural seems to be for so many black women.

What difference does it make to me to know J.'s hair is nappy rather than curly? Not much. Except that I feel (a little) less like Clueless White Mom. I love his hair. Call it curly, I'll love it. Call it nappy, I'll love it. Can a rose by any other name smell as sweet? You betcha.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

On not giving the benefit of the doubt

There was an exchange recently on the adoptive forum I frequent that reminded me of many others that have occurred on this forum, usually around subjects of race. Here's what happened: Person A, who is white, posted a question using language that was less than inclusive. Person B, who also happens to be white, politely pointed out that the language was not inclusive. Person C, also white, rushed in to defend A, arguing that she didn't mean anything negative by her language and should be given the benefit of the doubt. Heated discussion between B and C ensued. Meanwhile, A, who apparently did not feel that she needed to be defended, thanked B for pointing out her how her language could be read and apologized.

This notion of intention often comes up in discussions of racism--particularly the idea that the intention behind an utterance justifies or excuses any offense it has caused--and it drives me nuts. So I started a new thread, titled "Words & Intentions," and this is what I wrote:

This conversation feels familiar. One person will say something to the effect of "I find xxx language offensive" and another will say "yes, but we should really give the benefit of the doubt to the person who said xxx, because that person did not intend any offense." I'm a little weary of this conversation, to be honest. And I think the "give benefit of the doubt" argument is problematic, in that it seeks to protect the speaker. I'd argue that it is the person HEARING the language and feeling excluded/offended/etc by it who should be the person we rush to protect.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: in conversations about race, what people hear is the language, NOT the intention. And intention, no matter how good, does not compensate for language that hurts or excludes, EVEN IF the speaker did not mean to hurt or exclude.We all need to think carefully about what we say, own what we say, and take responsibility if we misspeak. And by "take responsibility," all I mean is to briefly acknowledge, clarify, and/or apologize. This is not about punishment; it is not about shame. It is about responsibility. And it does not have to be a big deal.

By being responsible and thoughtful about our language, and responding appropriately when others feel hurt or excluded by it, we ensure that this remains a community that is inclusive and comfortable for all of us. If we can't create such a community here, we can hardly expect the world to create one for our children, now can we?

I received many lovely responses. I also received a number of responses that were extremely frustrating, if not particularly original, and almost all of them, sadly, from the same person. Can you guess who? Yes, indeed, it was Person C.

And like the original conversation, C's arguments were familiar. There was, for example, much handwringing over how considering inclusiveness in language would deter dialogue: that people wouldn't post for fear of being judged, and what about the poor people who are in a hurry and don't have time to parse their language. Then there was more handwringing over not quashing free speech, blah, blah, blah. And much, much more, some of it truly head-scratching in its illogic that had the appearance of logic...

I was truly baffled by C's response, even though it's a species of response I've seen before. Nowhere did I suggest that people censor their speech. Nowhere did I suggest that people who failed to use inclusive language would be judged, or pilloried, or assumed to be racist. What, exactly, is so threatening about inclusive language? Why the protest?

At one point, I challenged him, writing "This argument sounds alot like an argument the privileged might make to avoid acknowledging their privilege."

But is that it? Or was C's response all about B's race? Could C not understand that a white person could object to language that didn't specifically exclude her but might exclude others? Would the conversation have been different if B was black?

In the end, I'm most puzzled by C's resistance and apparent sense that something is being threatened. But what? What exactly is at stake here?

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Western take on Africa

Watch this satirical take on Western representations of Africa. It's only about 3 minutes and very, very smart. Thanks to What Tami Said for making me aware of this video.

Question: What do you make of the little girl who is sometimes there and sometimes not?

Monday, April 27, 2009

"Those aren't curls, Mom" and other paradoxes

From reading other adoptive parents' experiences, I knew it was only a matter of time before someone gave me unsolicited advice about J.'s hair. What I wasn't prepared for was how much it would hurt.

J.'s hair grows in tiny little corkscrews that coil like tight springs against his head. I love those corkscrew curls. I love the way they look. I love the way they feel. I know, though, that not many black boys around here wear their hair like that. When he's a little older, it will matter if he doesn't look like the other kids. That is, it will matter to him, and it will matter to his peers. At that point, I'll take him to a barber and have it cropped close. But right now, it only matters--if it matters at all--to adults. But that may be the rub.

This morning, one my son's daycare teachers told me that he needed to have his hair cut short. "Real short," she said. I like this teacher, but she can be pretty forceful, pretty authoritative. So I avoided. "Oh, but I love his curls," I said, running my hand over J.'s head. Her response caught me completely off-guard: "Those aren't curls, mom," she said. She might as well have added "you dummy," because that was clearly her meaning. There are the words, and then there is the message those words carry. The message was this: "you don't know ANYTHING about ANYTHING, and you especially don't know how to care for your child's hair."

Talking about hair is one of the veiled ways that we talk about transracial adoption. White people do it. Black people do it. And so this comment hurt, alot, because it wasn't really about hair. It was my parenting that was being called into question. And, at a deeper level, my "right" as a white woman to parent a black child.

It seems to me that hair is often the measure that black adults use to evaluate white parents of black children. We white adoptive parents know that, and we know that the reasons behind that have to do with concern for our children's well-being, a concern that we share. So we do a lot of studying up to try to get it right. But getting it right turns out to be awfully tricky. Just when I think I've learned everything I can learn, I overhear something that addles me anew. What does it mean, for example, that "those aren't curls"? They sure look like curls to me. But the disdain in that teacher's voice when she said "those aren't curls" suggests to me that she thinks they are something else, something not very nice, unkempt perhaps or unseemly. Something that should be cut off. But what?

Once that confusion lodges in my brain, the paranoia isn't far behind, and with it, the shame. All of my fears that I am, in the end, too ignorant, too sheltered--too white--to adequately parent my child accompanying the fear of being exposed. In my paranoia, I begin to believe that there's some secret that only the black community knows about why something that looks like a curl isn't a curl. And then I begn to believe that everyone knows this but me and has been judging me for letting J. go around with his curls that aren't curls. After all, my paranoid mind concludes, the teacher is probably only saying out loud what everyone else is thinking. About how I don't get it. About how J. will suffer in the future because I don't get it. The shame is like walking around all day with a big long dirty piece of toilet paper stuck to your shoe.

I know all these thoughts are irrational. And I know enough about the politics of black hair to know that there are as many opinions out there as there are people. And that transracial parenting is often about trying to be comfortable in a catch-22 that you didn't create and can't fix.

Perhaps the biggest irony of all of this is that I've never wanted to do anything but value and appreciate my son's hair. Just as it is.

And I have. And yet.... And yet....

Suffering and exploitation...and more exploitation?

From what I can tell, parents who adopt internationally tend to fall into two camps: very liberal or very conservative. There doesn't seem to be much in-between. Which means that it can get quite heated in the adoptive parent forum that I belong to, especially around religion. I could have started a real riproaring argument on Friday in response to a particular thread, but I desisted, feeling a bit like a person setting out to rain on someone else's parade. After all, I can sound off here instead.

An adoptive parent started a thread recommending a blog she called a must read. The blog, from what I can gather, is by a white American man, one Tom Davis, who is working as a missionary in Africa. The main focus of his work seems to be helping orphans and raising money to fund orphanages. Well, I read a bit of it, and I'm sickened by much of what I read.

There's a story of a girl who is beat up and raped by four boys on the streets. A photo of the girl immediately after the attack, bruised and swollen-lipped, follows. That, we come to understand, is the "before" photo. The "after" photo, featuring the same girl, now beaming and radiant, follows. "Mary Today," reads the caption. "The Mighty One has done great things!"

And then there's this:
Today I met a young woman who was abandoned by her parents and ended up
living with her aunt. All during this time she lived under the constant threat
of being raped by her cousin every night.

A photo of this young woman follows.

Then then this:
I met an 18 year old sex worker with a baby. She was really a beautiful girl and
one of our team members asked why she sold her body. "So I can have food to
eat," she replied. Nobody should be forced to sell themselves so they
don't starve.

A photo of the woman and her baby accompanies the description.

Let me be clear. There is nothing wrong with raising money to fund orphanages in countries where children sleep on the street and go hungry. And even though it drives me crazy, there's also nothing terribly wrong with proselytizing as you're doing it. I respect the work he is doing. I am not attacking that. I am sure that he means to do only good. I am not attacking him.

What I am attacking is his method of fundraising--this attempt to evoke the reader's sympathy and compassion by telling the deeply painful and deeply personal stories of the people he encounters. Worse, he presents the protagonists of these stories as victims. Worse still, he adds photos of these people, sometimes even photos OF their trauma. Someone out there will surely threaten my life for saying this, but there's something disturbingly pornographic about it all.

These are not his stories to share. They are certainly not his to share with anyone in the whole world with access to a computer. And in telling them he re-victimizes those who have already survived enormous trauma. And in identifying them in relation to their trauma, he disregards the possibility that they carry shame, a need for privacy, a need to choose when and where they share this trauma.

Surely respect should come at the very top of any list of Jesus-like qualities one might choose to emulate as a missionary. Even if respect doesn't raise much money. Even if respect means that you get to feel a little less like a savior, and a little more helpless, a little more human. Even if respect means that you don't always feel so good about yourself or so sure that your intervention is desired by the interventee.

I'll stop there, without mentioning the "trailer" for Davis' novel, Scared. (That's right: I said a trailer for a novel. If you figure that one out, let me know) I could probably write 5 more posts on its third-world-porn qualities alone. But then I'd have to watch it again. And I just don't have the stomach.

Friday, April 24, 2009

White woman as homewrecker and other thoughts

Is anyone else a wee bit concerned about the racial undertones of the soon-to-be released movie, "Obsessed"? The movie appears to be a thriller of the single-white female/basic instinct variety, with an innocent workplace flirtation between a white woman and a black man devolving into restraining order territory, with the white woman as crazed obsessive stalker of the black man and his family. Now I guess there's something to be said for our times that the white woman is stalking the black man rather than the other way around, and that the story sets up the audience members--no matter their color--to root for the black characters and not the white ones. And, if I thought that the movie aspired to a higher level of metaphor, I might find the white-woman-as-homewrecker-of-black-married-couple compelling--as in: racism extends its reach into the most intimate spheres, ruining otherwise-good marriages and tearing families apart--but I have my doubts that any movie of this type thinks much beyond its next adrenaline rush.

So, what is my problem with this plotline? For one thing, there have been few interracial relationships on the silver screen (the last one I remember was Jungle Fever) and now we have one--albeit an affair--that features crazy, violent white lady. For another, this movie takes the narrative about white women stealing black men from the community to its unfortunate extreme--i.e., crazy, violent white lady relentlessly pursuing black man. Can we have some positive depictions of interracial relationships please? Or can we at least have a little nuance?

Now, for Southland... In all fairness to the show, I have only seen the trailers. In all fairness to me, watching the trailers turned me off so much I didn't have any interest in watching the actual show. All this to say that my analysis is a bit underinformed. But humor me.

Is it just me, or does it seem like some strange PR coincidence that this show began airing shortly after a string of well-publicized incidents of white cops behaving really badly? There's something about the trailer that makes me feel like the show is trying to rehabilitate the image of the police and I don't like it. The trailer intimates that life on the job in the police force is much more complex, difficult, and nuanced than we non-police people appreciate, then features a cop car coming to a screaming halt in front of a baby crawling across the road. Well, I say bull shit to the notion that normal people don't appreciate the difficulty of being a cop, and I say bullshit again to the idea that being a cop is about heroically snatching babies from the jaws of death. If this show really wants to tangle with the moral dilemmas of life on the police force, I sure hope it spends a whole lot of time on corruption, violence perpetrated against unarmed suspects, and racial profiling, for a start. Oh, and another thing, exactly where are the black cops in this show? I think I saw exactly one in the trailer. And I think she was holding a child.

Editor's Note: For a very different take, see

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Two parodies inspired by Madonna's latest adoption quest

Tracy Ullman as an African woman who saves white children from pop culture & junk food:

Madonna & Angelina Jolie duke it out on SNL:


Tuesday, April 7, 2009

It's about time: A voice from Africa

In all the hubbub and bluster swirling around Madonna's latest adoption adventure, it hadn't occurred to me until I stumbled across this Washington Post article that most of the commentary has emanated from this side of the equator. Written by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the article offers a voice and perspective that have been conspicuously absent-- namely, an African one. Although the article was occasioned by Madonna's adoption of David Banda from Malawi several years ago, it is as relevant now as it was then, and should perhaps be required reading for any Westerner contemplating international adoption--especially adoption from Africa.

Two moments of press coverage inspired Adichie's piece. The first was an interview with Madonna in which the pop star noted concern that the media circus that surrounded her adoption of David would discourage others from adopting from Africa. According to Adichie, Madonna expressed hope for the opposite outcome: "She wanted people to go to Africa and see what she had seen; she wanted them, too, to adopt." The second moment was coverage of David's biological father. Adichie writes: "watching David Banda's biological father speak about being grateful that she would give David a 'better life, I could not help but look away. The power differential was so stark, so heartbreakingly sad; there was something about it that made Africa seem terribly dispensable."

The article that follows develops an extraordinarily nuanced and pointed analysis of the distorted Western understanding of Africa that appears to underlie Madonna's characterization of adoption as the humanitarian intervention Africa needs--the idea, as Adichie puts it, "that one helps Africa by adopting her children":

It is easy to romanticize poverty, to see poor people as inherently lacking agency and will. It is easy to strip them of human dignity, to reduce them to objects of pity. This has never been clearer than in the view of Africa from the American media, in which we are shown poverty and conflicts without any context.

If I were not African, I would, after watching the coverage, think of Africa as a place of magnificent wild animals in which black Africans exist as tour guides, or as a place of desperately poor people who kill or are killed by one another for little or no reason.

"Surely," she concludes, "the future for Africa should be one in which Africans are in a position to raise their own children." And surely, she suggests, adoption will not help Africa get there. Indeed.

Let me be clear: Adichie is not anti-adoption. In fact, she gives plaudits to Madonna's funding of orphanages in Malawi. Her point is not that adoption is bad, but that adoption is not the solution to Africa's problems, and that Madonna missed a critical opportunity to use her celebrity status to do real good:

I wish, however, that instead of asking television viewers to go to Africa and adopt, she had asked them to send a check to malaria-eradication organizations. I wish she had added, after one of those thoughtfully dramatic pauses, that Africa cannot depend on aid alone, that aid is like salted peanuts: The more failed leaders got, the more they wanted. I wish she had said that she was setting up an organization to use donations as micro-credit and that this organization, by the way, would be run by locals rather than expatriate staff whose expatriate salaries raise the rent in the cities.

I wish she had pointed out, with suitable celebrity-style rage, that Western countries need to stop appeasing and propping up hopeless African leaders, that Western banks must stop enabling and accepting stolen money from these leaders, that Western donors who insist on the free movement of capital across borders must also insist on the free movement of labor, that Western trade subsidies make it impossible for Africans to compete.

How clear that is, and how compelling. But will it interrupt the perennial conversation about adoption being a means of saving children? Of adoptees being "lucky"? Of adoptive parents being cast as selfless saviors? Adoptees are sick of hearing it. I'm sick of hearing it. And I appreciate Adichie's good sense, bringing us back to earth with a characterization of international adoption that we could all do with hearing more often:

Madonna will give David a better life, at least a materially better life: better food, housing, books. Whether this will make him a happier and normatively better human being is open to debate.

Yes, it is. And I suspect there's a whole generation of adult adoptees that would agree that this is an open question.

Given cultural and material circumstances too personal to divulge here--and making the assumption that these circumstances could not have been changed--I believe that adoption MAY have been the best possible outcome for my son. (He is the only one who will be able to say for sure.) I do not, however, believe that I saved him. And I certainly don't believe that the Western world I brought him to is better than the African world he left. There are losses and gains on both sides, and because he could only live one life--only live one of two possible paths--neither of us will ever truly know the extent of the losses or the gains. But that's not to say that there won't be grieving. That unknown other life that he did not live--and my part in deciding that--is what he will have to make peace with. That is what David Banda will have to make peace with. Let's hope his mother will have given up the notion that she saved him by then.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Oh please, not again...

There's this conversation that happens periodically on a forum I frequent for parents who have adopted from Ethiopia--often in relation to Black History month or Martin Luther King Day--about our children and their relationship to the particular black history of the US. Usually, the argument goes something like this: my child was born in Ethiopia and thus his/her heritage is Ethiopian and his/her cultural history is Ethiopian. Thus, the black history of the US is not my child's history, and there is no reason for us to celebrate or honor that history as part of his/her story. And there might be a "I think Black History month is stupid," comment thrown in there somewhere too.

The motivations behind these comments appear to fall into two, sometimes overlapping, categories. The first is a naive kind of magical thinking among white parents that by identifying their children as Ethiopian-American rather than black that they can prevent their children from experiencing racism. It's almost as if the identification as Ethiopian can somehow--this is the magical part--mitigate skin color. I was one of those naive believers once, until brought up short by a friend, and I am sympathetic to this desire, if not to its (il)logic. But the other strain--although often overlapping the first--is far more worrisome, reflecting at worst, deeply held yet deeply veiled racist beliefs, and at best, a tendency to see only the negative aspects of black history and culture. One parent, for example, even went as far to say that 400 years of African American history was a lot to "saddle" a child with. This strikes me as a sadly reductionist understanding of black history that entirely misses the point and I said so:

How about all the strong and beautiful and courageous elements of African-American history/culture? Shouldn't it be [her son's] privilege to identify with those? especially in light of all the not-so-nice assumptions that many will likely make about him?) To me, this is one good reason of many to celebrate Black History month.

It's not as if black history is ONLY a history of slavery. Or ONLY a history of Jim Crow. Or ONLY a history of police dogs and firehoses. We can't overlook that history, but what about all the rest? (On this note, you might see Tami's post on reclaiming her own history.) It probably does not need to be said that the problematic comments I note above come from white people, but I wonder, too, if there isn't a larger cultural problem (I'm talking broader American culture here) about how we represent black history in this country. I'm reminded of Ta-Nehisi Coates' childhood memories of black history month:
But mostly when I think of Black History Month, I think of being made to watch footage of Negroes getting the shit kicked out of them, and then Negro teachers extolling the nobility of letting someone kick the shit out of you.

I thought about my own limited childhood exposure to black history via the PBS documentary "Eyes on the Prize" and I could see where he was coming from. Things like "Eyes on the Prize" (scenes of which I STILL remember today) should be required viewing for all white Americans, in my book. Maybe even required ANNUAL viewing. But for black Americans, particularly black children? I'm not so sure. And should this be the ONLY thing white Americans see of black history? I'm thinking not...

But I digress. Just a few days ago, far from the adoptive parent forum, this very same issue of whose history is whose history arose in the place I would least have expected it: a therapist's office. M. and I have been seeing a couples therapist, and the occasion for her comment was a conversation about the obligations and responsibilities of raising our son, J. My husband is a historian, and so history came up. And the therapist actually says this: "J.'s history is not the history of slavery . . . THANK GOD," in the tone of someone delivering good news while helpfully clearing up a misunderstanding. I felt like my stomach had just fallen down an elevator shaft. I may have actually gaped at her for a moment. Heck, I was already parrying shots from M. and the last thing I needed was another battlefront. But here was this woman saying (1) black history is not my son's history; and (2) black history is only about slavery. I put on my battle gear and waded in, but didn't get very far. She had, apparently, gleaned these ideas from her reading of Obama's first book, which I have not yet read, and was adamant that he saw his history as distinct from American black history. All I could say, over and over, was "Only J. can say what history feels like his."

And, for the record, I'll be standing by that.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Things that don't occur to you if you're white

In the wake of the Moats incident, my thoughts turn to my son, and how I haven't even begun to get a handle on what I need to do to prepare him to deal with the police. Recently, I read anemotionally heated blog conversation recently in which one black woman said, more or less, "please tell me that white adoptive parents know that their children need to have a plan for what to do if they get stopped by the police," and I thought, "oh, crap. a plan. I need a plan." I don't have one yet (more on that later), but I'm on it--and so glad that this woman whose name I don't even know mentioned it. It's one of those things in the category of Things That Don't Occur To You If You're White (TTDOTYIFYW), which are legion and which I desperately wish were all written down somewhere so I could just learn them all. Because it's hard to know what you don't know.

In his blog post on Moats, Field Negro featured some information that registered as a TTDOTYIFYW item for me, namely the basics of what to do when driving-while-black and pulled over by the police:
I know to keep my hands where they can be seen. I know to point to where my registration and insurance card is, and to tell the officer when I am reaching for it. And I know to dial my programmed home number in my cell phone (to get my home recording device) as the officer approaches my car, and keeping my cell phone on all times. I know to make sure I make a mental note of the officer's badge number and his name. And finally, I know to always show my pearly whites before my yes and no sirs.

Learning a new TTDOTYIFYW item always makes me feel like I've been living on the moon, and in some ways, in my white privileged state, I have. After I realize I've been living on the moon again, I either feel dumb, like how- could-I-have-missed-that-it's-so-darn-obvious dumb, or very, very sad, because I become aware of the experience that I haven't had. Reading Field's piece inspired sadness, because the strategy he describes comes from looking at himself as a police officer might look at him--as dangerous, untrustworthy, threatening, criminal. That, in some sense, he must imagine himself as he is seen, that he must take on these ugly characteristics if only in his mind, to formulate an effective strategy for survival. That's not something I have ever had to do. But my son will probably have to. And that is heartbreaking.

The other TTDOTYIFYW item I mentioned today--the need for a how-to-deal-with-police plan--makes me feel more dumb and ignorant than sad. But no self-pity here. It's time to buckle down and start filling in the gaps. I'll report back here on my progress.

Monday, March 30, 2009

The Police

I know that this is all the heck over the blogosphere and already old news but it's something I think all white parents of a black child should see. The short version is that a police officer detains and harasses a black man, Ryan Moats, who committed a minor moving violation as he rushed to the hospital to be at the bedside of his dying mother-in-law. It was all caught on video, and it's truly appalling--I mean makes-you-want-to-throw-up appalling. And heartbreaking, too, especially when Moats cedes his outrage and puts on a respectful voice to repeat "yes, sir" over and over as the police officer lords it over him. Why would you want to do that to another person? Why?

Edited to add: An interview with Moats and his wife is here, and well worth wathcing. Apparently, the officer actually pointed a gun at Moats' wife as she hurried toward the hospital entrance. Nice guy.

So, it really wasn't...

so terrible after all. The surgery, that is. In fact, the nurses and doctors were pretty darn terrific. I wonder if our ENT intervened somehow because the same woman I talked to on the phone turned out to be one of our nurses but she was all about making sure that I was with him as soon as he came out of surgery, and was going out of her way to make sure J. didn't get unnecessarily spooked or anxious. (Dr. K.--if it was you, bless your heart, and thank you for getting it.) In fact, they let us be with him for all of the prep, and they gave him meds to calm him down BEFORE they took him into the O.R., and they even let me administer them. The whole thing was over in 15 minutes and they whisked us back there right away and J. wasn't crying because a completely lovely nurse named Jodi, who will have a place in my heart forever, was holding and comforting him. And then we just hung out for an hour, until J. became less narcoleptic and "bobbleheaded" (Jodi's term), and the smell of the gas dissipated as he got it out of his lungs. (Man, does that stuff smell awful.) He had some water, and then some milk, and seemed more and more his old self. And then we were sent off home.

But I have to say one more thing about the nurse--THAT nurse, not sweet Jodi--because it exemplifies so much of what drives me crazy about the medical profession. First, I want to acknowledge that she was sensitive and decent to J., and to me. But she does have a problem with the how-tos of empathy--for example, when they took J. back, he cried a little, and then my mom started to cry, and the nurse sang out "It's OKAY, he'll be JUST FINE" in about the most cheery voice you can possibly imagine. This was not helpful, not remotely helpful. Are there no bedside manner classes at nursing school? Because I'd be happy to teach one...

Friday, March 27, 2009

Adoption from a birthmother's perspective

Please go and read this deeply moving piece by a birthmother. So much to learn, so much to learn.

Friday, March 20, 2009

No, it really isn't.

Why do people want you to say that something is okay when it clearly isn’t? I hate that, especially when it’s done in a patronizing high-handed “you know you can’t do anything about it anyway, so why don’t you just agree so that I can keep using my nice voice and we can all pretend that everything is just fine” kind of way. Which is exactly what just happened.

You see, a woman from the surgical center just called me to discuss the ear tube surgery that my son will be having next week. I am all for the ear tubes, as little J. has had a double ear infection for over a month that has resisted three courses of oral antibiotics and two antibiotic shots, and that has deprived us all of a lot of sleep and good humor. But I’m ambivalent about the actual surgery. You know, the whole thing about someone taking your child into a room where you can’t go and sticking needles in him and making him breathe gas and, for all you know, scaring the bejesus out of him. That part I’m not so keen about.

The woman from the surgical center called to tell me about what happens on the day of the surgery. There is plenty that seems, quite frankly, arbitrary and arranged for the convenience of the doctors rather than for the well-being of the patients. I don't understand why I can't carry him back to the surgery room; I don't understand why--if they insist that I can't carry him back there--that they can't give him the calming-down medicine they are going to give him BEFORE they take him from my arms so that he won't panic and freak out. But what I really don't understand is that I will not be able to see J. immediately after the surgery, and that I'm not to try to see him, (and here's the zinger) EVEN THOUGH I will hear him crying. For an unspecified amount of time ("how long?" I ask. "It depends," she says). I have to just sit there and listen, and he has to just lie there alone and cry.

"Okay?" she says in a voice she might use with a small child. "No," I say, "no, it really isn't." Because this would be hard for any parent, but I have particular concerns. I explain that my child is adopted. That, as part and parcel of his adoption process, he has experienced several traumatic and permanent separations from the people he loves. That this history will make being in the recovery room without me more traumatic than it is for children who have had the good fortune of having a consistent caretaker their entire lives. That it is important to minimize this time for him to avoid further traumatization.

All I really want is for her to say something minimally validating and accomodating, like “I can really understand those concerns and I’ll note them in his chart and make sure that we get you back there just as soon as possible.” But she does not say anything like this. First, she implies that I'm not concerned for my son's safety. Then she tells me that they have done many operations on adopted children. Which is not the point. The more she talks, the more impatient and patronizing she becomes. I can just feel what she is thinking: that I am overreacting, hysterical, unreasonable, making a big deal out of nothing; that they are medical professionals and I should just trust them and do what they say; that I’m making her late for her coffee break; and worse, that adoption doesn’t have anything to do with this anyway; and, perhaps worst of all, children don't form long-term memories at this young an age, doesn't everyone know that?