Here's the thing I want to say about parenting two black boys as white Mamas: it's complicated. Before we became foster parents, back when we were thinking of getting pregnant to start our family, I thought a lot about what it would be like for kiddos in our family to be raised by two Moms. I thought about how we would frame the conversation about our future kids' birth father being a sperm donor, how to mange friends' questions and other parents' homophobia. I thought about all kinds of ways we could and should make choices in our family, about our family, where our family lives and who our family spends time with so we had a healthy diversity of parenting models for our kids outside of either Mom+Dad or Mom+Mom.
And then we became foster parents to two beautiful, brave-hearted boys with brown and black skin, and this whole parenting thing gave me more pieces to consider. Gay Moms still a thing here? Definitely. Although now we add race, class, trauma, loss, separation from everything you know and disrupted attachment to the mix. But the big one here for us is race. How often does race enter my mind in my day-to-day parenting choices? A lot more than I expected. For example, we wanted to sign Mr. Toddler up for swimming lessons, but the closest facility is not diverse at all and he would likely be the only kid of color there. So we didn't. We make choices to go to playgrounds, or playspaces in the city where he's around all kinds of kids, and it's not such a homogenous mix. It's silly but I've become really fixated on Tiny's hair, wanting to make sure it's mositurized and not getting too frizzy or tangled. We were out with friends a few weeks ago and the Dad of the family, who is from the West Indies, said to us, "His hair looks great- good job." My heart lifted. Why? Because I didn't grow up in a black family where I learned how to care for textured or curly hair, so we learned how to take care of his hair, because that's what you do when you don't have personal experience. You learn from people who know more than you. It wasn't hard, it was just about making an effort. It felt good to hear from our friend, who knew how cared for hair should look, and recognized that our son looks like he's being cared for as he is, not cared for in the way I know how to because of how I was raised. It might seem small or insignificant, but I'm finding that these small moments are mattering to me.
Race comes in because we have to make efforts to think about things we don't have to regularly consider within the scope of our regular lives. Another phrase for this dynamic is white privilege. So here we are, raising brown boys within a context of white privilege while trying to help them craft a coherent racial identity. But here's the thing, even if we had white kids, or biological kids, I would still wish for and want them to live in a diverse and enriching world. It's just that with my kids, this is on the front burner because I'm aware of the thousands of subtle and overt messages they are going to confront on a daily basis. Remember the Clark Doll Study? Where small kids, white, brown and black kids, pre-schoolers and younger, were given two dolls, a black one and a white one, and then were asked which doll was the pretty one, the smart one, the ugly one, and the bad one. I wish I could say that we've had an evolution here and that the data looks different today than it did in the 70's. But it doesn't. The white doll was almost unanimously the "good one" and "pretty one", the black doll was the "bad" or "ugly one." Little kids would say the black doll was the bad one and the ugly one, and then turn around and point to that same doll when asked- "Which doll looks like you?" Preschoolers, who we tend to think of as not really internalizing societal messages yet, right? (video here synopsis here).
Does trauma and loss and poverty and disrupted attachment come into play in our day to day life? Absolutely. In more ways than I can count. But here's the thing, when my kids are stopped on the street later in life, or followed around in stores, it's not their complex trauma history that will be driving the response they get from the police or sales associates. Their skin color will be shaping the responses they get. Wonder about my conviction on this matter or want some hard data on bias studies? This study. Bias research and evidence that skin color dictates degree of force used by police, which is something every person should care about. Here. And here. Perhaps you already know that black men face an incarceration rate that is 6x that of their same-aged white counterparts. It's inexcusable and, my words, an atrocity. More info on that here.
Last week I was out of town giving a talk and was chatting with several participants afterwards. We were talking Mama stuff, how we work and multi-task and what tricks you know on how to master 4th grade Math so you can actually help your kid with homework. This was in a large city in the Midwest and my audience was largely African American (and I say this because we spent some time as a group talking about our racial identify-I'm not generalizing). As we were all talking, some folks asked where I was staying and what I was up to while I was in town. I asked for recommendations near my hotel and a few Moms in the group mentioned they never spend time in the area where I was staying. I asked why. The answer I got from almost a dozen Mamas was that their boys get arrested for even walking around over there, it's the "rich, white part" and black boys get picked up for loitering. "Loitering" looks like walking around or sitting in the outdoor spaces near fountains. While these Mamas were talking with me my heart became heavy. Because I know they're right. I did not see one person of color in my entire neighborhood unless they were providing customer service. As someone who cares A LOT about social justice on principle, this matters to me. As someone who feels that the best way to be a human in this world is to stand alongside others fighting for equality, this matters to me.
The phrase I use, which is borrowed from folks far smarter than me (Kenneth Hardy, Joy DeGruy) is the societal invalidation of worth, or the dehumanizing effects of racism. The aggregate effect is that your internal system of worth is denigrated after countless daily assaults on your worth due to your race. What do I mean? Here and here. This idea of dehumanizing sits close to my heart now for different, more self-centered reasons. And their names happen to be Mr. Toddler and Tiny. As I'm driving back to my hotel I'm fixated on this thought: fast forward a few years here and my kids will someday be traveling with me. They'll stay in hotels with me and explore cities while I work, witness how vast and distinct our country is. I've learned so much about how to bridge difference and how to really understand the political landscape thanks to my travels, and I am so excited for my kids to walk their own path on this all. Tagging along is one of the benefits of having a Mama who sometimes travels (the drawbacks are many...). And it almost renders me breathless to think that someday I'lll have to be explicit with my babies about this all. Someday we will have to talk about how you can't do all the things your white friends do because the systems we have in our country don't dole out equal consequences for white kids and brown kids. Kids are born into innocence around this- the idea people deserve fair, kind treatment. No hitting means not hitting no matter who they are. Some kids learn early that you don't always get kind, fair treatment. And some kids will grow up and spend their lives invisible to this, and might even battle my kids over their legitimacy to the claim that race matters. What do I mean? Here and here.
One piece of advice we keep close to our hearts when thinking about how to navigate this conversation is that we know nothing about what it means to grow up as a black boy, but we have some friends and family who do, so this is where we rely on their support and guidance. It takes a village, people, in a big way. There are parts of this parenting gig I can't do, so I open my arms to those I love and trust who can.
It's all a process here. In the coming month, we'll share the journey we are on and the advice we've received. Also more to come on how our toddler decided we should sell our home and that time my wife almost killed me for spending $75.00 on skin cream.
-Fostermom (the therapist)