My Dream

Growing up, I never really identified as “white.”  I knew that I was white, but it wasn’t of real interest or value to me and so it wasn’t a characteristic I defined myself by. My parents never had a sitdown discussion with me: “hey, so, just FYI, you’re white. Here’s what that means in our society and here’s how you might be treated because of it.”

Despite my disinterest in my own racial identity, I was interested in the history of race relations in our country.  I studied and talked about these issues a lot in high school and college, but everything felt pretty theoretical.

Until.

In a truly ironic twist of events, I’m 23 and teaching a lesson on discrimination to a roomful of non-white middle school students who have never had a choice about whether their racial identity mattered or not because for whatever reason, being non-white is a defining characteristic in our society.  Their parents or grandparents or aunts or uncles have all had “the talk” with them: “you’re black/Mexican/Puerto Rican/mixed/whatever and here’s what that means and here’s how people will treat you because of it.” And because they’ve HAD to have that talk and I haven’t, these students are staring at my white skin and saying that I can’t possibly understand their lives.

And they’re right.

For the first time ever, I really understand that I am white.  And in this moment, I hate my skin color.  I am so much more than your stereotype, I want to scream.  I want to understand.  I want to be understood.  See past the skin color that I don’t care about to the real me. 

This teacher becomes a student.

From then on, I live with a “double consciousness” (my apologies to W.E.B. DuBois for appropriating his term.)  As I work with class after class of largely non-white students, I am constantly aware that I am white and that I have to work harder to prove myself to my students because of my skin color.  Over time I learn not to resent this because anything I experience is just a tenth of the prejudice and judgment they experience on a daily basis because of THEIR skin color.

I’ll tell you what’s humbling–being the only white person in a room of 6th graders who have grown to trust you when they bring up how upset they are about Trayvon Martin.  And you don’t know who he is yet because there hasn’t been a national uproar yet, so you look him up and then have no words for your students–your students who regularly walk to the convenience store down the street for chips or a slurpee or, yes, iced tea at night.  Your students who cut through neighbor’s yards because they’re KIDS and it’s safer to walk on grass than the streets.  Your students who might look suspicious to someone who hasn’t bothered to check their biases.

What do you do in that situation? Here’s what I did: I threw out my lesson plans for the next 7 days.  We studied Trayvon Martin, Martin Luther King Jr., Ruby Bridges, and Rosa Parks.  I brought in articles on the Martin case from a variety of sources and we analyzed them.  We talked about racism and bias and prejudice and my students’ experiences with being judged.  We listened to one another.  We created posters challenging students to get to know one another instead of judging each other and we put them up around the school.  And I acknowledged that I had privilege, that no one would suspect me if I was walking in a neighborhood at night or shopping in a store, and that I was sorry that these things happened to them.

I felt a lot of things.  Mostly powerless.

Flash forward a year and a half.  I now have a biracial daughter who I think is one of the most beautiful and precious beings ever created.  And I still feel powerless.

Here’s why.

I have specifically chosen to have a biracial daughter instead of a white one.  When I say I “specifically chose” her, I mean that I checked a box indicating a “mixed/African American” child on our adoption application.  There are boxes like that because there are people who don’t want a non-white child.

I begin to think about schools for my daughter and realize that we may someday need to move out of our district so she doesn’t fall into the role of “token non-white person” in her class.  I realize that finding a more diverse school likely means moving to a worse school.  Systemic racism is alive and well.

George Zimmerman is found “not guilty” and I see people celebrating.  CELEBRATING.  Regardless of  what happened that night or your views on “stand your ground” laws, a high school aged boy who was out for a walk is dead because someone thought he looked suspicious and people that I know feel satisfied by this outcome.  This will sound super judgey, but to me, that shows that they see a black teen as an “other”—not as someone that could be their own son.  When someone dies in a tragic accident, no one wins.  Hello.  Let’s use this tragedy as an example of why it’s essential for us to examine and challenge our biases and work together to have a more understanding and less judgmental society.  Not as a celebration.

I hear comments with racist undertones several times a month.  I usually (nicely) challenge the commenter to explain what they mean by their comment.  Discomfort always follows.  Apologies never do.  Often, I’m told that I’m supposed to “know what they mean,” presumably because I’m white.  I DO understand what they’re saying; I just feel sad that they’re saying it.

CNN.com has a headline: “50 Years After King, Racism Lives On.”  It’s been 50 years since MLK Jr’s “I Have a Dream Speech,” and CNN writes that racism these days is “more relegated to the private sphere than it was King’s day.”

I watch “The Butler” and sob because people were beaten and murdered so that my child could be secretly judged and discriminated against instead of overtly.  Sure, she can vote, but can she walk through a grocery store without judgment?

We have so far to go.

I haven’t written or spoken much about my multiracial family before before because I’m not close to being an expert on race issues–I’ve taken a few race-related college classes, worked with mostly non-white populations in inner city schools for a few years, and had a biracial child, and those are all of my qualifications.  The world needs less uneducated commentary and noise, not more (“White Person Discovers Racism, Is Appalled” sounds like an Onion article.)

But in “The Butler,” there’s a scene where Miss Annabeth sees mistreatment happening and says nothing.  You can tell she disapproves of what’s happening, but feels powerless to address it in any real way.  You hate her in that moment.

But what if I am her? What if my silence about the topic of racism (which comes from feeling overwhelmed and underprepared to address it…NOT from not caring about it) looks like compliance and agreement with the status quo?

So, I want to go on the record as saying: I very much care about this issue.  I just find myself at a loss about what to do about it in any public way.

Here are a few things I am doing in my personal life:

-Trying my best NOT to be one of the 40% of white Americans who have no friends of another race.  Thank you, awesome non-white friends for bearing with my total lack of awareness about your experiences and for being open to our friendships.  They bless me tremendously.

-Reading.  A lot.  Today’s arrival from Amazon: “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race.”  There are some GREAT blogs out there about understanding racism, too.

-Going to see movies like “The Butler.”  Not closing my eyes during the difficult scenes and the truth they represent.

-Trying to be self-aware about the biases and stereotypes I have about others—not just the race-related ones either.  We all have them.  We need to call ourselves out when we see ourselves applying them towards others.

-Writing this blog post.  Asking for suggestions of tangible ways I can get involved in the fight against racism and bigotry (I’m open to ideas!)  And begging you to examine the biases you have before they affect my students, my daughter, and…you.

Okay, this is turning into a novel.  I have one more thought before I go.

One of the hardest part of “The Butler” for me was seeing the cross appropriated by the Ku Klux Klan (as I know it was historically) and used as a symbol of hatred and division.  I know the role that a perverted version of “Christianity” played in racism and slavery and it hurts my heart immensely.  I was still feeling a little raw from the movie when I read:

“Is there any encouragement from belonging to Christ? Any comfort from his love? Any fellowship together in the Spirit? Are your hearts tender and compassionate? Then make me truly happy by agreeing wholeheartedly with each other, loving one another, and working together with one mind and purpose.  Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves.  Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too.”     (Philippians 2:1-4)

Basically, if you believe that Jesus and anything He said is real, then act like it.  Love one another.  Work together on issues.  View yourselves as partners, brothers and sisters even—all in this together.  And don’t just believe that we’re “equal;” take it a step further and believe that the other person is BETTER than you.  Can you imagine how our world would be if we all acted like this was true?

This is my goal.  This is MY dream for myself and our society, inarticulate and uneducated and incomplete though it may be.  I will not let myself feel powerless anymore.

I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something that I can do.  –Helen Keller

Photo on 6-18-13 at 9.54 AM

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Seizing My Moment

Ten minutes ago, Zoe went down for a nap.  I tiptoed out of her room and immediately straightened my hair, threw some professional clothes on, and rushed to sit down.

I have a few minutes to write before I have to leave for my office.  And I’m seizing my moment.

I walk around every day wanting to write.  It’s how I process.  But motherhood is time consuming and exhausting, and leaves little time or energy for much else besides falling onto the couch in a stupor when she’s “down” for “the night” (questionable terms around these parts anyway.)

“Get up early and write!” would be my advice to my old self.   Um, yeah…by 8 am yesterday, I had already been up for 3 hours, fed a tiny human two meals, played in between, made scones from scratch, been urinated on, cleaned urine off of wood floors that I had just cleaned the day before, showered, given a baby a bath, dressed her, and performed her elaborate “Eczema Exorcism” routine (face wash and three lotions–and still a new red spot today.  AHH!) 

This season is not about me.

But somehow, I’m the most joyful I’ve ever been.

Fun fact about me: I like things to be neat.  A few years ago I decided that I needed a manageable, healthy place to channel my perfectionism and I’ve chosen to pour it into having clean surroundings.  I’ll be the first to admit that I’m rigid about it, to the point that I can barely function with clutter (when I left working full time, several rooms in my old office building suddenly started looking like something from Hoarders because everyone was so used to me cleaning them up that they never bothered developing their own organization system.)

This was my living room a few weeks ago.  Mid cleaning.

photo-43

And you know what I thought as I looked at it? This is beautiful.  This room has never looked better.  

The room looked like this because nine fun babies, mine included, had been exploring, gabbing, crawling, teething, moving all around it.  What a joy it is to watch them embrace life with open arms and one-and-two-toothed smiles.

What a joy it is to hear my daughter’s voice call out at 3 am and see her smile when I enter the room because she knew I’d come and tend to her needs.

What a joy it is to be so exhausted that I fall onto the couch at night, because it means I’m truly pouring my all into my days and THAT means I’m truly living.

What a joy it is to have a mess in my home because that means we have relationships.

What a joy it is to lay Zoe in her bed for her nap, calmly tell her goodnight, close the door, make a caffeinated beverage and work my tail off until she wakes up.  Yes, some days I wish I had fewer responsibilities to balance, but we will be able to retire someday because I worked during naptime and that is when I will relax 🙂 I thank God every day for a job that accommodates my desire to be home with my baby.

What a joy it is to be writing this blog post…still…three weeks after I started it…faithfully typing away in ten minute segments in between motherhood and housework and work because that means I am learning to handle and even embrace this season in my life, where it’s not about me but I can still be me.

I’m thankful.

 

Love and Carrots

I met him in the frozen vegetables section.  He was looking for carrots.

Zoe was in the baby seat of the grocery cart, spitting repetitively (it’s a new “skill,” one she shared with an airplane full of people yesterday and the congregation members at our traditional service today.  You’re welcome.)

He looked over and smiled. “She has a lot to say, doesn’t she?”

I smiled back, a bit ruefully. “She sure does.”

“She always will,” he said. “I have a 13 year old and she still has a lot to say.  It’s important to listen.”

I pleasantly agreed.  He looked at Zoe again.

“They grow up fast.  My baby’s starting high school this week.”

And then I heard it.  The emotion in his voice.

Dang.

The follow up question was already out of my mouth.  I don’t know what it is about me, but roughly every fifth person I encounter winds up letting me in on their emotional junk.  I’ve had conversations about body image and divorces over the ab mats at the gym, given free life coaching to the bagger at the grocery store who feels stuck in his life (I only buy $75 worth of groceries at a time…so he opened up fast,) and learned the family history of a lady I met on the airplane yesterday, culminating in me volunteering to pray for her ailing mother.  What the heck.

I honestly don’t even think I’m that good of a listener.  I’m just a sucker for the verbal ellipses that indicate more to the story and I long for everyone to feel heard and understood. Put those together and you have hour and a half long trips to the grocery store and a man crying in the frozen food section.

And that’s what he did.

We talked about how his baby was starting high school and turning 14, all in one week.  He’s worried about high school.  Time is going too fast.  Will she get hurt? Will it be a good experience for her?

I knew a little about the high school she was attending and I reassured him that she will meet some good kids—that I know some good kids that go there.

He wasn’t concerned about friends; she had 10 kids at her house that night for a sleepover.

“That’s good,” I said.  “If she thinks your house is a good place to hang out, you’re doing something right.  You can keep a better eye on them if your house is the hang-out spot.”

Apparently I sounded just like his wife, who said that she wouldn’t care if 50 kids were at the house as long as they wanted to be there.

He was sorry, he said as he blinked away tears.  He was just having a really hard time with it.  It was going too fast.  She’s his baby.

When they were expecting her, he had hoped for a boy…but he got a girl instead.  Later, when his wife got pregnant again, he hoped for another girl.  He had changed.  There’s something special about girls.  And something special about your first.  And when they grow up, it kills you.

As I listened to him talk, all I could think was this: some children have no idea how much they are loved.  

I thought of the moms I know from church who just dropped their kids off at college.  You see how hard it is, how much they love their kids when you ask “how’s so-and-so doing at college so far” and they immediately tear up, apologizing profusely and missing so strongly.

I thought of my dad, who wanted our entire family to listen to the positive report that my brother’s internship supervisor gave him this summer.  He repeated the comments, bursting with joy and pride.

I thought of my grandmother who, for a period, spoke with my uncle on the phone every single day because he was having a hard time.  He was a fully launched adult, but he needed his mom and she gave her time to him every single day without making him feel ashamed for needing it.

I think of parents I know who discipline their children, not out of a need to control their kids but out of a desire for their kids to have healthy lives and relationships.  These parents do their best to balance grace and truth even when their kids resist and sometimes hate them for it.

I think of myself and the sacrifices my parents have made for me over the years—some that I’ve acknowledged with gratitude, some that I’ve overlooked, some that I’ve quite frankly been a giant jerk about.

Parental love is not a given.  That’s hard for me to understand, because I love my daughter with all of me, but I’ve worked with many kids whose parents just don’t know how to love them and so I know that there are things that make it hard for some people to step into that role.

So when I see a parent with that unashamed, unabashed love for their child…well, it is a beautiful thing.

Because of my relationship with teenagers from our church, I just wanted to write this down and say that if your parents love you like this or even try to love you like this…please understand when they have a hard time letting you go to college or when they set curfews or when they freak out because you haven’t called them to report that you successfully drove one mile to your friend’s house.  Yes, it seems stupid to you in this moment and it probably IS a little irrational, but you hold their entire heart in your hands.  They love you so much that they can CRY OVER FROZEN CARROTS TO A TOTAL STRANGER when they think about you getting left out, feeling scared, or making decisions that will hurt you.  So have a little grace towards their protectiveness, and maybe even try sharing an “I love you” from time to time outside of Mother’s or Father’s Day (it won’t kill you, I promise.)

And parents who love their kids? Carry on.  It is transforming your kids even when it feels like a weight and you are changing the world through your love, patience, and intentionality with them.  It is awesome to watch and you are my heroes.