We were in the process of getting certified to be foster parents when Trayvon Martin was killed in 2012. Our hope was to ultimately adopt a child through the county foster system, adding a younger sibling for the son I had given birth to a year earlier. The certification process was multi-faceted and heavy, a combination of education and vetting that exposed us to heartbreak we could hardly compute and vulnerability we had no previous context for.
The majority of children in our county’s foster system are black, so having told our social worker that we were open to taking a child of any race, we spent a fair amount of time during that process learning about “cultural sensitivity” and what it means to parent a child of a different ethnicity. I read endless blog posts written by white mothers raising children of color, many of them revealing awkward anecdotes about inappropriate questions from strangers and how to craft a response that models cultural pride for the child while also tactfully putting said stranger in his or her place. I imagined what I would do or say in such a scenario and began writing my own scripted responses, feeling more and more prepared for the likely road ahead.
In the weeks following Trayvon Martin’s death, however, I happened to watch an evening news show in which a panel of black mothers was interviewed about nuanced rules they taught their sons; rules I had never considered. Don’t wear hooded sweatshirts in public lest you appear suspicious. Always get a receipt when purchasing candy or snacks at a convenience store lest you be suspected of shoplifting. Never run while wearing street clothes lest you appear to be making some sort of getaway. These mothers feared that their sons — upstanding young black men — would be looked at with suspicion and fear, and they handed down a code of conduct they hoped would keep them safe from strangers who might be quick to inaccurately label them.
My heart sunk inside my chest as I watched that interview. I had grown up with an older brother and was already raising a son, but these rules had never even crossed my mind. I realized how little I understood about raising a child of color, how much more complicated it is than responding to stupid questions at the grocery store or learning how to braid cornrows. I panicked at how woefully unprepared I was to embark on the journey of being a transracial family, and how ignorant I had been. It never occurred to me that my second child would need to subscribe to an entirely different code of conduct than my firstborn. It hadn’t crossed my mind that my oldest son — a blond-haired, brown-eyed spitfire — might be judged differently than his younger brother by a passerby simply because of the color of their skin. They would both be my children, after all. I had neglected to realize that the world might not look at them both that way.
When we finally got the call from our social worker and met our youngest son, he turned out to be the blondest and fairest person in our family, with eyes so blue that I am already sorry about the hearts he might break in high school. He is beautiful and perfect and the most epic story I have ever known. He is my son and I love him unconditionally, as mothers do.
In the whirlwind of adjusting to life with two kids, learning how to care for a preemie, and jumping through the hoops of the foster-to-adopt process, the concerns about raising a child of color faded away. It was a task I was not charged with, a duty that had not been assigned to me. Absorbed in my own new-mom world and unthinkingly retreating into the white privilege that allowed me to do so, I moved on.
A lot of mothers don’t get to do that, to simply move on from concerns about their child’s safety because of the color of his or her skin. Plenty of my own friends don’t get to do that. I’m ashamed of my own lack of understanding about how their job of motherhood has been different than mine. Scarier. Harder. Braver. I’m embarrassed for all the times I’ve thought that all mothers really just want the same things for their kids, failing to realize that a lot of moms want the world to see past the color of their child’s skin — a concern I do not have.
And while I’ll never be able to fully understand that concern, I am increasingly worried about my own role here. I’m worried about the ways in which I’ve failed; I'm desperate to do better. I’m concerned about raising two boys who have been given nearly every privilege a person can possess — they will grow up to be white men in America, born to married parents with college degrees and successful careers. They will receive good schooling and appropriate discipline. They will always have enough to eat and clothes that fit. They will be taught financial responsibility and social graces and the importance of a well-balanced diet. There is every reason to believe they will be given every advantage that a person can have in this life. People will look at them and likely assume the best rather than the worst. When they make risky choices they will probably be contextualized as “boys being boys,” not trouble makers who pose any kind of real threat. Everywhere they turn, they will see people who look like them holding positions of power and respect. When they speak, people will most likely listen. They will have a voice.
In the midst of all the heartbreak and tension and confusion surrounding these conversations in America, the weight of teaching these boys to use their voices well lies heavy on my shoulders right now. It no longer feels like an option to retreat, to move on. It shouldn’t have ever felt like an option. I hope to teach them that not everybody gets to follow the same rules they follow, but that entire groups of people right here in our neighborhood and school and church have to play by a different set of rules — a set of rules that stems from being marginalized and persecuted and accused and ignored. I believe it's my job to make sure they see it, their bounty of privilege, and that they don’t take it for granted. I believe it’s my job to give them eyes to see a world that has been parceled out into “us” and “them,” but courage to live and speak in such a way that there is no them.
Like most tasks of parenting, I am learning and stumbling as I go. I don’t know the failsafe way to raise these privileged boys into men that are kind and tolerant and brave and humble. I’m not sure there is one. The blueprint I’m working from includes this quote from Glennon Doyle Melton: “Hate is fear and fear can’t survive proximity. So let’s get close to each other. Eye to eye. To really see and know a person is to love her. And perfect love casts out fear.” We are using this blueprint to choose schools, choose a church community, choose which park to go to and which coffee shop to frequent. We are making an effort to talk about skin color and friendship and poverty and authority and influence. It feels anemic and awkward and forced sometimes, like they’d rather just go back to playing Legos.
I’m terrified that I’m getting it all wrong.
When they’re older, we’ll talk about hate crimes and police brutality and maybe one day I’ll tell them why I’ll never ever forget Trayvon Martin’s name. I hate that there will be so many more names by the time they’re old enough for that conversation. Someday I’ll also tell them about the ways I was blind and simple, and I’ll beg them not to repeat my mistakes.
In the midst of this learning-as-I-go, one thing I keep coming back to is that a mother’s job is to speak up. We use our voices at the pediatrician’s office, in the parent-teacher conferences, at the playground, and with extended family members. We tell the truth. We have hard conversations. We draw lines in the sand. I know I need to tell my kids the truth about this, too. We can’t ignore our privilege because it’s awkward or controversial or makes us feel bad. That would be the very manifestation of the privilege we’re struggling so hard to reconcile here.
The more I train my eyes to see my own immense privilege, the more I see that “us and them” — which is an easy and comfortable framework for making sense of people and behavior that feels unfamiliar, scary, or dangerous — is just a precursor to “us versus them,” which is fertile ground for fear.
And when we are fearful, we do stupid things. We reduce the conversation to taking sides. We grasp to protect our own identity from imagined threats to the framework. We justify exclusion and name-calling and preferential treatment. We lose sight of our shared humanity in a desperate effort to preserve our spot inside the club of “us,” where we feel safe.
I want more for my boys than that. My hope is that they wouldn’t live in fear, but that they would also aspire for so much more than just safety. It’s my prayer that they would use all that privilege of theirs to help cast out fear, to use those voices of theirs to say to every one of God’s children, “I’ve got your back. You’re part of my club. You and I are us.”
Will you join me in this prayer for our children? Will you help me speak up? Will you help me learn as I go?