Luc: “Why won’t racists let us exist and stand around like they do?”
Al: “I don’t know.”
Luc: “Some of your ancestors were probably part of those crowds who were yelling at my ancestors and hurting them.”
Al: “Yes, you’re probably right. I’m so sorry for what they did, Luc.”
I remember how it felt to be a little, financially privileged, White, private school girl in Atlanta in the 1980’s. It felt easy. When we learned about the mid-century Civil Rights movement in the US, it seemed brutal but distant, just another history lesson. People I didn’t know endured hardship I couldn’t fathom. 30 years later, my Black son’s experience couldn’t be more different from my own.
This week, Luc’s homework included a reading assignment about Ruby Bridges and about the Little Rock Nine. When I looked over his completed assignment, I found deep eraser marks, heavy pencil lines, and even rips in the paper. I read the passage with the eyes of a mother of a Black child. The emotional pain resonated to the point of physical ache. Is that how Luc felt when he read it?
How in the world does a 10 year old navigate a school experience filled with so many land mines? How does it feel to encounter psychological pain on that level while having to keep your emotions in check in front of your classmates? How can any person (let alone a child!) learn and complete assignments while fighting tears, anger, and triggered memories?
So, what am I going to do about it?
It’s time to roll up my sleeves and get to work.
Q: Am I going to sit around and cry and whine?
A: I mean yeah, probably.
Q: Am I going to wait to feel like standing up to speak out, or am I going to step up to the plate now?
A: No waiting!! I’m volunteering for our school’s African American Parent Council! I put myself in a position of service. I’m getting off my flat White a**, and I’m making a difference with the school’s new Equity in Education group.
Q: How am I going to advocate for Luc during this painful upcoming month of casual “Remembering The Past” and “Shaping The Future”?
A: I wrote to his teacher, explained the challenge, and asked for extended deadlines. I am literally sitting by Luc’s side and we are processing the passages together.
Q: Will I backslide?
A: You bet! And when I do, I’ll do my best to be patient with myself.
Q: When it all feels like to much, am I going to make cups of tea and watch old episodes of Living Single?
A: I’m just saying that sounds pretty awesome. So, yes, there will be a lot of that too. And there may have been a lot of that already. Hypothetically.
This February, I’ll take time to cry. I’ll make space to process information. I’ll advocate for my son to have time and space to care for himself so that he can press onward. And we’ll grow. Dammit, we’ll grow.
There’s an essence to being a Black man. Young Black Boys form their own essence by being around Black men when it’s safe for them to let their guards down, in places where Black men can be just… men. And the key experience a young Black boy must soak in so he can become a Black man is the barbershop.
Luc and Reed’s trip to their barbershop today:
Owner: “How is Batman so strong when he doesn’t have any powers?”
Patron: “He’s got the suit.”
Owner: “No, I get how the suit protects him from harm. But the strength! Where’s he get that Superman-like strength?”
Patron: “I’m telling you, it’s the suit.”
Owner: “I’ll concede the suit gives him protection. But no suit gives a man that kind of strength. Look at him fighting right alongside all those superheroes with real powers.”
Barber: “It’s not the suit.”
Patron: “What do you mean ‘It’s not the suit’? Of course it’s the suit! What else could it be??”
Barber: “He’s quick.”
Owner: “But ‘quick’ doesn’t give you strength to grab a guy like that. That’s not fast, that’s strong. Pure and simple.”
Patron: “Its the suit.”
Barber: “It’s not the suit!”
Owner: “Fabric can’t give a no-super power man all that strength. Where does he get the physical strength to throw a huge villain like that?”
Luc: “He’s Batman.”
Owner: “I’m with that young man.”
Patron: “That’s it.”
Swimming is like flying, except for the part about how it’s the opposite of flying. But in my mind, when I swim, I’m soaring over the ground, feeling the water rush past my face. Swimming is the best! Water is the best! Don’t ask me what sign I am. I really don’t think that has anything to do with it. ANYWAY! I love to swim, and I love my job teaching adorable 3rd graders to swim.
Except on Friday. I did not love my job on Friday.
On Friday, four of my six students shiver-cried for the entire hour. Nothing I said or did could get them to stop crying. The more they cried, the more they curled up their little bodies and clung to the wall. The most I could get out of one kid was to reach out and tap my hand, then he snapped his hand right back to the wall.
I started this job confident I’d revolutionize the world, one swimmer at a time. I just knew I could teach any child to swim, no matter how stubborn. It’s not an easy job, physically or emotionally. But it’s rewarding, and it’s fun. The children inspire me with their unique approaches to life.
Gavin marched to the end of the diving board with wild-eyed determination. He announced, “Ooonnne! Twwooo! Threeeee?! BIG! JUMP!” Then, he slid into the water with a tiny splash.
Elisha, after transforming his kick form so that he moved forward instead of backward, decided his birthday present to himself was to jump off the diving board. How cool is an 8 year old whose birthday gift to himself is to conquer a fear?!
Abraham’s key phrase was, “Let me do it by myself, and don’t help me. Even if I struggle. Okay?”
Carmen made the mistake of saying, “I can’t” in front of me on the first day. I made her say what I make all the girls say. And she greeted me with that phrase every day for the next three weeks: “I am a strong, powerful woman!” But she surprised me by adding a snap and a hair flip.
I wondered if I made a mistake applying for and accepting this job. Maybe I’m just a person who likes swimming, but who has no business working with children ever. Maybe. Maybe not. Time will tell. But I love the kids, and the swimming, so much that I decided stay until they fire me. Fortunately, I don’t think they fire people just because their students cry. For an hour.
Yet I press onward!!!!!!!!!!
Does This Hot Prowl Burglary Suspect Look Familiar?
Why yes, Pasadena Police Department, your sketch looks familiar. Your cartoonishly generic sketch that you circulated in a 98.9% White and Asian neighborhood looks like 400 years of vilifying Black men.
It looks like a tool for brainwashing people into fearing Black men instead of loving, admiring, and uniting with them.
It looks like justification for calling the police to investigate a neighbor or a real estate agent.
Pasadena Police Department, your sketch looks like the excuse people will reference when they call the police on my son and his friends in a few years.
Yes, Pasadena PD, your Hot Prowl Burglary Suspect looks all too familiar.
8 year old dark-skinned Black boy is tired from swimming. He’s staring into space. It’s sunny, so he’s also squinting. I smile and wave, but he’s so zoned out that I don’t even register to him. It makes me laugh because he looks so serious, but he’s just an 8 year old cutie.
Me: “Look at that little guy. He looks so…”
Her: “He looks so angry.”
Me: “Um no, I was going to say serious. I don’t think he looks angry at all.”
Whoah! What?! Angry? Wow.
Her comment hits me extra hard because I think of her as one of the good ones. She’s in her 20’s. Most of my friends in their 20’s give me hope for the future of our country. And she’s definitely in that category for me. Or she was.
Now I know that when my son squints into the sun, he too will be perceived as angry.
Today marks the 8th anniversary of Luc coming home. We haven’t historically done a great job of celebrating this anniversary. Reed and I have struggled over the years with major marriage problems, major financial problems, major tragedies, and intense stress levels. We let those things get in the way of something much more important: celebrating the best thing that ever happened to us.
We get to the beach around noon, and eat our lunch in some Adirondack chairs overlooking the ocean. I catch Luc quietly staring at the horizon.
Me: “What’re you thinking about, cutie?”
Luc: “How many of these we’ve missed.”
It’s time to change my priorities. I wasn’t raised the way I want to raise Luc. It’s hard to unlearn the lessons from experiences that left me vowing I’d never do that to my own child. Yet here I am, glossing over birthdays and anniversaries, ignoring homework guidance responsibilities, excusing myself from sitting down and reading next to my son…
Today is different. The three of us (plus both dogs) are in Malibu for our annual (ish) beach Luc Anniversary Observation.
It’s not an easy day.
It seems like it’d be a day filled with cake, giggles, and joy. But the day is equally filled with angry outbursts from feelings of intense loss. Questions about birth family, why, how, and where, fill Luc’s head. He does his best to stuff those questions and the sadness back into their hiding place. I beg him to speak his big feelings, no matter what they sound like. Sometimes he does, other times he just can’t.
There’s a football to throw, and the waves drown out the growls and screams when they come. Then come some giggles. Then some more tears, a tantrum. And later a few jokes, and silliness.
When we get cold, we leave the beach, passing a tall, blond man and his light skinned Black daughter playing. The man’s attempt to do a cartwheel leaves his daugher in peels of laughter. He laughs too, looks up to see us laughing, nods, and goes back to playing. We share the gift transracial families give each other: indifference.
We find our way back to the car, and tell Luc dinner is his choice. He can’t decide between mac & cheese and pizza. The huge feelings that surface on this day leak out in the strangest ways. He’s almost in tears because he can’t decide what he wants for dinner. It’s almost like the decision is between us and his birth family.
In the end, we decide the fancy Malibu restaurant will ruin mac & cheese with sacrileges like pepper, Parmesan cheese, and truffle oil. Pizza it is. And soda. And ice cream from a cafe that makes flavors like Blueberry Lavendar, Strawberry Chunk Mint, and Rose Raspberry Lychee.
Believe it or not, the father and daughter from the beach show up! We recognize each other, and ask things like “How old are you?” “What grade are you in?” “Is the homework more intense in 4th grade?” Everyone around us wants to ask, “Are those children adopted?” “What’s that story?” “Couldn’t they have their own?”*
After ice cream, we head home. We get ready for bed, and read together. But as lights-out time nears, more big feelings surface. Soon we’re pulling out photos, looking through emails to find updates, and answering questions like, “Does my birth mom have enough to eat?”
Finally, we have to insist it’s time to sleep. But okay if Luc sleeps with us. I think about when Luc was tiny and how the books insisted we never do time-outs, only time-ins with our child wrapped in our arms. I remember the one time we tried a time-out. The resulting shrieks of terror will reduce me to tears for the rest of my life.
Tonight, I don’t make that mistake. Tonight I willingly sacrifice a comfortable night of actual sleep so that my son can have peace. “As long as I’m touching both of you, the bad dreams don’t come.”
Tonight, he’s been home for 8 years.
*Luc is “our own.” Yes, we could/can have biological children. Our first choice was to adopt, so we did. I don’t know the other family’s story, and I didn’t ask because it’s none of my business.
A while ago, I helped chaperone my son’s school field trip to the Pasadena Museum of History (or, as I call it: A Celebration of Caucasians)…
We walk into an opulent mansion to find walls slathered in pricelessly framed oil paintings of smirking White people. We are instructed not to touch anything because it’s all too precious for our grungy hands. We stop in front of a painting of a White woman whose expression communicates “Nanny nanny boo boo.”
“Study the portrait. What does it tell you about the subject?” our guide clasps his hands behind his back, and waits for the children to share observations. My first impulse is to turn around and walk out. My second impulse is to tell the truth: “I see an overfed show-off who wants us to know what she has, and wish we could have it.” My third impulse, the winner, is to physically bite my tongue.
We White people don’t like to disturb the “peace” (I put peace in quotes because there is no peace when the screams are silent). So, even though my son is being dragged, for the third year in a row, through this oppressive museum devoid of any representation of people who look like him (yet is named Pasadena Museum of History) I keep my mouth shut. I stay quiet while they emphasize art and beauty, but surround us with depictions of White people. I shouldn’t make a fuss, right?
No surprise, the children are bored to tears, and struggle to focus. They chatter amongst themselves, and it’s hard for us chaperones to keep them quiet. Until a White mother turns to my son and some of his classmates, bends down into their faces, and screams at them like they just pooped on a doily. A hush falls over the group. The guide eventually clears his throat, and we proceed.
I don’t like that. Why did she pick the Black kids to scold? Why was she so angry with them? I know why. But I don’t want to know why. I don’t want to be witnessing implicit bias digging yet another chink into my son’s self esteem. But I am.
I’m already overwhelmed by the offensiveness of this racism holdover of a museum, and now I’m seeing real-time bias. My Caucasian head is spinning.
Throughout the tour, this mother calmly corrects the non-Black children, and unleashes her wrath onto the Black children. At one point, she even spews venom at my son for quietly discussing two paintings they are supposed to be looking at. I guess she can’t fathom two Black children noting the differences in realism and paint strokes.
She grabs my son by the arm twice. And I do nothing. Nothing. I do not help my son.
And I hate myself for it.
After school, I try to start a conversation with my son about the focus and contents of the museum. But he launches into a description of being yelled at, and grabbed. I don’t know if he remembers what he saw inside the museum, because his attention was diverted to being harshly reprimanded most of the time.
So, the White kids went home a little bored, but having seen people who look like them dripping in diamonds and lace. They saw art, they learned how to look at the art, they drew pictures, the saw dresses, crowns, and photographs of people who looked like them at the Tournament of Roses Parade.
The Black children went home frustrated and confused. They saw no representation of people who looked like them (unless they happened to spy 3 or 4 tiny photos (1st Black Rose Queen 1984)). They saw the same old White people dripping in luxury, and dangling it in front of us through oil paintings. They were distracted when they were repeatedly scolded for discovering an antique bicycle or discussing the differences in two paintings. They remember fighting back tears when they could no longer bear being emotionally hammered in front of their classmates. At least one of them remembers his wrist hurting after an adult grabbed him with too much force.
The Black children have to push through so much, and even emotionally recover before they can get to the learning experience of the trip. The White kids simply visited a museum and saw some paintings.
And the damage is solidified when I don’t know how to awaken the White mother to her biased behavior in a way that sparks discussion rather than rage. And the White mother doesn’t know how to receive the information that her behavior was unacceptable without threatening to sue me for defamation of character. Not to mention, I have no idea how to approach the school about scheduling tours at museums that reflect the students they are trying to reach.
How are we adults going to fix this and make it right? It’s an emergency. It’s happening every day at every school in every city in every state in our country. Making this right matters for all of us. Our country is badly broken, and it will eventually die if we (myself explicitly included) continue to prevent some of our most precious citizens from spreading their wings and thriving.
One hardship in being a White mother of a Black child is that when your child isn’t with you, bigots mistake you for one of their own. A few months ago, a woman whispered “Black” while describing her coworker. As if his rich chocolate skin was a trespass we should discreetly pity together.
I’m prepared for the stupid things strangers say. It’s the friendly fire that knocks me down.
Tesla Tits (not her real name) is a mother I know. Hell, she’s a mother we all know. Her 2.8 children make the best grades at the best private schools. She’s adorable and gorgeous at the same time. Her kids send timely thank you notes after their birthday parties. And when your kid wants a play date with hers, you shoot him a jaded smirk and say, “Yeah, you and everyone else.”
Recently, at a sporting event, Tesla Tits struck up a conversation with me…
Tesla Tits: “I expose my kids to everything. My uncle lives in public housing, and we have lunch with him every few months. I mean, I literally expose them to everything. Nothing phases them.”
Me: (wondering why I seemed like the right person for this conversation) “Ummm…”
Tesla Tits: “The other day, I took my kids and some of their friends to a roller skating rink. We walk in, and OMG, everyone was Black!”
Tesla Tits: (puzzled glance) “My kids’ friends were like, ‘Oh my God!’ Right? Because they don’t have any diversity in their life. It was crazy. My kids didn’t care though. Because I expose them to everything.”
I let the conversation hit a wall of silence. But, to be honest, 99% of the silence came from an inability to think of anything polite to say. I just stood there offended, stunned, hurt. I’m mad at myself for not taking a grander stand. And, I’m simultaneously scared to post this and hurt anyone’s feelings.
How is a lack of exposure to poor people a legitimate explanation for fear of Black people? How is a lack of exposure to anything a legitimate explanation for fear of Black people? Why is it ever reasonable to walk into a room filled with people who look like my son, and say “Oh my God”?
I feel like I want to set my friend’s Trina Turk flip flops on fire. I’m so tired of the overt, MAGA racism that’s been unleashed. But I’m still really sick of the inadvertent slips I used to consider progress. Those slips aren’t progress, they are indicators of a huge problem that people are carefully hiding. They are hiding it not just from us, but from themselves. And nobody is allowed to talk about it. And nobody is going to do anything about it. And it’s not getting fixed. And I’m sick of it.
But, if I really want to be the change I want to see in this world, I have to lean into friendships with people like Tesla Tits. Shouldn’t I show those people the grace I demand people show me when I mess up?
I mean yeah, but it’s more comfortable to be angry from a soap box. The jokes are funnier. But change is only going to happen through compassion. And who better to show compassion in this area than a White lady from 1980’s Atlanta, GA?
I guess I choose option B: don’t set the flip flops on fire.
Jimmy the clown
Got shot from downtown
He went to his bed to lie down
Then he died
Then Jimmy the Clown wore a frown
This seems very heavy to me, especially since it came out of a 9 year old.
Luc is the strongest, bravest, most perseverant child I have ever known. I am proud and honored to get to be his mom. I would do anything for him. And I have. And I will continue to. I love this kid so much. I am so lucky.