Things don’t happen around here in a vacuum. I am not the only person on my side of the diaper. We have been following the recent events around the country involving black men and the police. The Mike Brown shooting and subsequent unrest has been covered heavily in the media and, like everybody else, we watch and worry. I was putting something together for this blog when my wife asked me to look at something she wrote. My wife is an English major and an attorney so she writes all the time, she just doesn’t put it all in people’s faces as much as I do. I read what she gave me. I am a pretty smart guy. It was pretty obvious to me that I wouldn’t be able to relate our take on current events as eloquently as she has. So here it is, the first guest entry on This Side of the Diaper.
It’s not like we don’t feed the boys. They get breakfast, lunch, dinner and even some snacks. Most of the time we actually have sit-down meals with vegetables, protein, and maybe even a starchy (read, yummy) item.
They sometimes have dessert after dinner, a popsicle, a cookie, even an ice cream sundae every now and again. Like normal kids, however, they often want food when they are not supposed to have it. Or, more likely, they want food that we do not want them to eat. Like Skittles or baking chocolate. These are things that are sometimes in our house but not always readily accessible and generally used for extremely special treats or, ahem, baking. So, when I got home from work the other day and discovered a small backpack with a container of Skittles inside, I was flummoxed.
Eli immediately ratted out his brother. “Mommy, Charlie stole the Skittles!” This sounds like “Fittles” and is very cute, but I digress.
Earlier that day Charlie “stole” the baking chocolate and Eli “stole” some tortilla chips. We had a discussion with both boys about how sometimes you do not get to eat whatever you want whenever you want. Sometimes, you have to wait. Sometimes, your day will not include Skittles. Most days will not include squares of baking chocolate. The boys laughed, said “sorry” and moved on with their day. We threw out the stolen Skittles and pretended to move on with our day. I say pretended because this was the day after Mike Brown was killed in Ferguson. Unarmed and killed.
I say pretended because while I know that Charlie, at 9, will not steal from a store, he might pick up something he wants and carry it around the store with him for a while. Eli recently “took” a Hot Wheels car from the checkout line at the grocery store. We found it in the parking lot and made him return it. He’s 4. He’s adorable. I’m not worried about him yet. When I was about 7, I “stole” markers or gum or something from the drug store. I don’t remember what it was, I just remember the guilt, shame and humiliation that came with having to return the stolen item. And I vividly remember the punishment from my mother. That was enough for me. And I’m lucky because no one expects me to steal anything; I’m white and female. I’m not viewed as a threat.
My boys are a different story. Charlie, in about 5 years, will look very much like Mike Brown. He will look very much like Trayvon Martin. He will look very much like a young black man in America. Because he is a young black man in America. And I am terrified for him and for all young black men in America.
Before we adopted Charlie, I never really thought much about how we would raise a young black man. I thought about how we would raise our child. We were not required to do much of anything to be qualified to for transracial adoption except watch a video. The video was about 10 years old in 2005 and included several transracially adopted, Asian and Black, teenagers and young adults. These adoptees shared their perspectives on what was wrong and what was right about their parents and how they were raised. The video was maybe an hour long. That was it. No classes, no education. I read several books before Charlie was born but not before deciding to adopt transracially. Our philosophy was that if we were going to adopt, we did not care what race our child would be because we would love our child regardless of race. The truth is that love is all we, my husband and I, needed. Not so for our children. Not so, specifically, for Charlie.
When we adopted Charlie, we became a transracial family. I just did not know what that meant at the time. Really, I don’t think I fully knew what that meant until Charlie went to school. It was the first time, except for daycare with people we trusted and who knew Charlie since birth, that he was not with either Curt or me for long stretches of time. It was the first time that he was alone without the protections of his parents. His white parents.
Don’t think that we were unaware that he was Black. Or that he was unaware. No. We had books showing Black children, he had Black dolls, he played on sports teams with Black coaches, went to a Black barber. We tried to surround him with Black role models and friends. Most importantly, we were in contact with his birthmother and she helped guide us when we were confused. I learned quickly that Black hair and skin required different treatment and care than my hair and skin. But, really, until school age, that was as far as I had to think. As far as I had to look.
It hit me during Charlie’s “Special Person Week” at school that no matter how much I wanted his life to be easy and equal, even without bad intentions, he would be “othered”. His kindergarten teacher took such pride in telling us that she was so excited to be able to use the “ethnic” crayons when the children were drawing pictures of Charlie. She loved how they were able to pick the specific brown crayon and hold it next to Charlie’s face to see if the color matched his skin. She was beaming when she shared this story. I cannot explain how quickly we went to the principal; I cannot explain how quickly the principal defended the teacher. I cannot explain how quickly my concerns were minimized, how quickly we were dismissed. I cannot explain how quickly my son’s feelings about the issue were dismissed; how quickly he did not matter. I cannot forget how many tears he cried at 5 years old because he did not want to be “brown”. We reminded him of all the wonderful people he knew who were “brown” and all the people who loved him. We explained how some people just do not understand that it is good that we do not all look the same. We talked about race and history and equality in the best way possible for a 5 year old. We put him to bed. And then Curt and I cried. Because it was not about us; it was about this beautiful, amazing person and how people were going to judge him for the rest of his life because of the color of his skin and nothing we could do would change that. From that point, how Charlie viewed who he was needed to start with skin color and end with pride.
It’s 4 years later and Charlie loves his skin. He loves himself. He has swagger. He tells people when he feels insulted. He stands up to people who single him out because he is black. He is polite and sensitive when he does it, but he does it.
I watch him and I am so proud of the person that he is becoming. The whole person. It is wonderful that he is comfortable with who he is. I love hearing, “you can’t understand why I can do ______ because you are not brown like me” because he is embracing himself. But I am not dumb, I am not sheltered, I am not ignorant to the world. Charlie is able to be proud, confident, happy every day because of our community, his friends, our friends, and the cloak of white privilege that we still provide. Sometimes, I will ask him to run get me something at the grocery store. Once, he did not come back right away so I went to find him. He was dawdling in the cereal aisle and looking at pop-tarts. And an employee was watching him. As Charlie moved down the aisle, so did the employee. As soon as I said something to Charlie, the employee walked away.
Could be that he always follows unaccompanied children through the store but I don’t think so.
When Trayvon Martin was murdered, we had a very frank discussion with Charlie about hoodies and perception. It was a hard talk to have but necessary. It was horrible to see a little bit of light go out in his eyes. He said, “I have to be extra careful because I am brown, I get it.” He loves hoodies. Hoods up ALL THE TIME at home. In public, hood down. He knows. It is important to say here that Charlie knows that he is black, he is just 9 and very literal and around the house he refers to himself as brown
When Mike Brown was murdered last week in broad daylight, we had another discussion with Charlie. This time it was about the police and being polite. He said he is always polite, which is true. He talked about his friends who are policemen and how they are nice to him. This is also true. And we had to tell him that it might not always be that way. That he might not always be around policemen who know him and like him. Policemen in our town are good people. We happen to know most of them, we like them. I think they like us. They know us. They know Charlie. Here, I think, we are good. Here, I think, we are safe. Right now, I take my children wherever I want to go and I don’t worry that they might get shot because of the color of their skin. Because I am with them. As much as I can be.
When Charlie and Eli “stole” the Skittles, I snapped a little. That night, I had a discussion with Charlie about stealing. We talked about how taking Skittles from a kitchen hiding place is not really a big deal. But that I was upset because I love him. He looked at me like I had 3 heads and said, “but mom, I wouldn’t ever really steal anything”. I told him that was good and then reminded him that he can’t even pretend to do that. He can’t even pick up anything in a store unless he is going to buy it. He probably shouldn’t play with toy guns, at least he should not pick them up in a store. And then my beautiful son, my innocent beautiful 9-year old Black son said, “don’t worry mom, I would never do that. I know someone might shoot me. And I know why.” I didn’t say anything at all. What could I say? He gets it, I wish he did not have to, but he does.
Thanks for reading, we appreciate all the support and shares we get. Enjoy the last days of summer and we will see you again soon on This Side of the Diaper.