The Learning Happens in the Reflection
One month ago, we were standing in our kitchen when my artist mom turned to me and said, "Remind me again, did you go to a school where white kids were the minority or the majority?" It turned out, we had some things to revisit. We didn't know a tremendous amount about one another's earliest experiences with different races, racism and class. We thought we did. We were wrong. So we designated 4 weeks to talk together, do some research, share and reflect. Our hope was to be intentional about developing a deeper appreciation for our transracial family while being transparent about some of that process. This week we're wrapping up and reporting on our progress. Below, a few words from my wife, the therapist. After, a few words from me, the artist.
Teacher, Social Worker, Case Manager and Sometimes, Mom.
This past week was a visit week for us. And among all the things I would want to talk about and debrief that occur during that hour, this week I'm really muddling through my feelings about this interaction in particular: The four of us walk into the social work office and I'm holding Mr. Toddler. The Artist is holding Tiny. The waiting room is hectic. Lots of people waiting, parents pacing, people talking loudly. Another social worker sitting in the doorway of a visit room, clearly supervising a visit, turns to me and says "What room are you in?" I say, " I don't know, I'm not sure." Because our social worker is late again, so we are out waiting with the kiddos' birth family all unsupervised and mingling awkwardly, because there is nowhere for us to go and no one to help guide us. She says: "How do you not know? Which one did you sign out?" And then it hits me what's happening here. She thinks I'm Mr. Toddler's social worker. So I say "I'm his foster Mom." She sits up and says something like "Sorry, you looked like a social worker" and we move on. The subtext here is that I'm a white, thirty-something white lady holding a black baby, and under most circumstances in the child welfare world this is best understood as the dynamics of the workplace. This happens so often I oscillate between total annoyance and surrender. I get it. I do. I look the part, and "the part" is understood as a white lady with kids of color. I even wear Birkenstocks, and I'm a lesbian, which is like a two-fer, basically. It's typical that I'm mistaken for our kiddos' teacher, social worker or therapist. Rarely is the assumption that I'm the Mom unless my kids snuggle me, call me "Mom" or I'm clearly doing Mom things (like wiping spit up off my clothes in line getting food or we are in a crowded bathroom and Mr. Toddler is asking me loudly if we are here because I need to poop or pee). There are about a dozen experiences a month which cause me to quietly thank the Gods that the kiddos in my home are not completely aware of language yet, and these situations are most often related to offensive questions about my kids' relationship to me or my gayness.
"Where did you get him from?"
"Did you get him when he was born or older? I heard it's better when they're younger."
"Oh, foster care? Can I take him then if no one wants him?"
"Could you not have kids- or I guess how would you have kids, right??!! There's no man!"
Another of my favorite therapists (yes, another reference to therapists I love here- we all do what we know until we work our asses off to do different. This is one of my ways of working my ass off to be a better different) reminded me that one of the burdens of being the "difference," the identity that is outside the mainstream construct, is that the onus for education and guiding less informed folks is often on you. As in, when I was holding Tiny in the sling while shopping and someone asked where I "got" Tiny from and I honestly answered we are foster parents, and she said- "Oh! Well can I take him then if no one wants him?" What I wanted to say was angry and full of vitriol. I wanted to vent some of the big feelings I have about the way our family has and has not had support from our community. I wanted to let off some of the steam that is building in me after Mr. Toddler's grandmother yelled at him for calling me "Mama." I almost got really caught up in my own stuff here and was reactive. But instead I said this: "We want him as much as any Mama wants their baby. Don't you worry. He is loved by more people than I can count. And he is beautiful." Because I wished for her take away to be that he is not unwanted, that's an ignorant stance all the way around. His Mom would say she wants him too. And I'm not an angry lesbian trying to steal all the babies because I don't have a man. I wish to be part of the solution in this world and stand alongside those who stand on the margins. That's the energy I wanted to leave in my wake.
Creative and Expansive and Outside the Everyday Normal
What I'm not really pointing out here that this conversation, and most of them really, are all about race. And you know what? You know who is going to be reminded every time these conversations happen, that the world sees them as different and distanced from their Moms? My kids. I'm hoping we get some of this right and that it becomes a source of strength to feel different- like you have something creative and outside the everyday normal. Maybe that's way too optimistic. When I came out in my early 20's it wasn't easy or something I would say was "fun," but the life I'm able to live, and who I am is born from that struggle. And I am proud of the life I have and the family I am with The Artist. We mow the lawn, grocery shop, eat dinner together, sometimes go on vacation when we are lucky. It's not a gay life, it's just a life. I'm hoping someday this will feel like just a life for my kids, as opposed to their gay, interracial, fostercare life. Some days I'm better about responding to the questions and looks in a balanced manner, and some days I'm reactive as all get out. This month we chose to be a bit more transparent about how we think and talk about race, class, our family and the life we are in and for sure we are nowhere near done. I'm nowhere near done.
Foster Mom (the therapist)
I'd Give Us A Solid B
It's unrealistic to expect that we can give a solid snapshot that will do this dialogue justice. Mostly, I think I'm moving forward with more questions than answers, but I'm glad to be thinking about this stuff while the boys are young. And there are some things I want to highlight. Like basic stuff. There are things I learned, things I already knew and things I was reminded of. Like the difference between race and racism. I know what race is. I know what racism is. Two big things I was reminded of: how remarkable we are as a global group and how deeply I believe that the best way to talk about that beauty is to not adopt a "colorblind" perspective. The many shades of our skin are so unbelievably diverse and striking to me. This is part of why I started photographing our family. During this month of reflecting, I was reminded that not everyone appreciates or values the beauty in this. And this surprised me. Not because of the injustices I see happening to black people by cops in the media, but with some of the things my own peeps assume is appropriate to share with me because we're suddenly raising brown babies. For example, I was totally caught off-guard while recently chatting with a friend, who I regard as super smart and pretty worldly. Open-minded, hip, a minority herself. She shared some exciting news about one of her kids and in so doing, volunteered that she was proud to have raised her kids to be colorblind. I didn't know what to say. And I'm not the type to mince words. I was carrying Tiny when the conversation took place and I did not see it coming. Despite this period of deep reflection, I had nothing to share in that moment. I wanted to be happy for her and her kid. I wanted to not steal her thunder in any way. I wanted to not 'go there' in that moment and I felt like shit for struggling with which route to take. And now, I'm not sure of when 'to go there' or when to not. It's problematic. I'm working on it.
My commitment to myself and my family is to strike a balance. We are raising these little guys until further notice and maybe forever. Some days I feel like talking about race, some days I just don't. That's how I feel right now. This doesn't mean that I don't honor our familial identity or ignore our individualism. It just means it's a lot and I've got some stuff to work out so that I can talk to my kids first. It's kinda like being gay. I was born this way. It's a major part of my identity. And some days I just don't feel like making it a big deal. The same is true for my tattoos, with the exception of being born with them. Obvi.
Other things I feel committed to: not raising our boys in a bubble. Talking with them about race, racism and black history well before kindergarten and continuing this dialogue forever. Which also means that I'll do my best to be the parent they need when all kinds of big feelings come up in different ways throughout their identity development and life. See also: we all have really good therapists. I don't want our guys wondering about things we may have kept from them while growing up and I'll do my best to be transparent and nurturing about the hardest things in life and hope that that's something worthwhile.
We came across tons of valuable resources these past several weeks that we want to share. You can find them here. If you'd like to contribute, there's a note on that page for how you can do that. We'd love to hear from you. We also upped our social media game. We get a little more political and news-worthy on Twitter and on Pinterest, well...we pin things of interest, like kickass books, ways our boys might wanna style their hair over the years and other goodies. We're staritng lifebooks for the boys (which lots of people have asked about) and we'll be pumped to share our thoughts on that in an upcoming post. We also started 2 new hashtags: #AllOfTheSkintones and #LoveSeesAllColor. So you might notice your feed blowing up with those. Don't be shy.
-Foster Mom (the artist)
Other Noteworthy Voices:
Chad Goller-Sojourner: a Seattle-based writer, storyteller and solo-performer whose recent work focuses on the social, political and historical dimensions of multi-identity construction and intersectionality. Riding in Cars with Black People & Other Newly Dangerous Acts: A Memoir in Vanishing Whiteness is the groundbreaking and crushingly honest story of what happens when a black boy, raised by white parents, “ages out” of honorary white and suburban privilege and into a world where folklore, statistics, and conjecture deem him dangerous until proven otherwise. Goller-Sojourner takes audiences on an intense and insightful journey, along the way unpacking race, privilege and policing like only a transracial adoptee can.
Culture Club on Medium: "We get in the cracks and crevices of race, class, culture and identity. It's a party. Come as you are." A guy by the name of @dexdigi writes a solid response to an article you may have read in 2014 by a freshman at Princeton University entitled, "Why I'll Never Apologize for My White Male Privilege."
Kristen Howerton, mom to 4 kids via birth and adoption and the mastermind behind Rage Against the Minivan has some great insight into talking to her own kids about race, as well as a great collection of age-appropriate books that might help support conversations with kiddos.
Jimmy Wayne: a former foster kid turned country music singer/songwriter whose songs and story highlight his mission to bring awareness to kids who age out of the foster system and become homeless. His powerful TEDx talk here.