I went to a mostly white college in Chicago. I hadn't thought to look at those demographics when I applied, not realizing how important (and polarizing) demographics can be. I was 18! I wasn't too worried about it. Thankfully, I was saved from myself and my naivete by my close friend and roommate during that time. T was (is) black, from Cleveland, and more patient with me than I probably deserved. Let's face it-- I have a big mouth! And I used to use it a lot more than I do now. We were a pretty unlikely pair during those 3 years we shared a tiny dorm room.
One night during that first winter, I returned to our floor to find T gasping for breath in a fit somewhere between laughing and crying. "A riot! They called it a riot...!! Black folk walking down the street and those girls are calling it a riot..." She could barely talk. I went to see what the hell she was wheezing about. The lounge on our floor looked 8 floors down to the street several blocks from what was then an enormous housing project. A large group of folks (mostly black) from the neighborhood had gathered and were making their way down Chicago Ave holding signs and candles, heading for the local precinct. They were singing. Some were shouting. This was right around the time of the horror of Girl X and an uptick of violence in the neighborhood. Apparently some girls from the floor noticed what was going on outside and crowded around the window shouting for everyone to come look because there was a riot going on outside.
Peace March. Riot. Two events easy to confuse. Obviously.
And that was when my education about white privilege began in ernest. Fifteen years later and I'm still learning what that looks like and how to talk about it without garnering hostility or defensiveness or falling back on stereotypes. Since becoming parents, Paul and I have talked a lot about these issues and how we go about the business of raising a mixed family: like teaching our white child that he may one day have to defend his brown brothers in a conflict. But it wasn't until a few weeks ago that I was gripped with the sickening realization that since we now have a white daughter, we were going to have to also explain to our boys exactly how NOT to treat her in public-- lest some sibling horsing around is misinterpreted by a stranger and leads to an unwanted confrontation. How am I going to teach my children about privilege without giving them all total complexes??
How would you explain it to your children? Do you feel like you need to?
And there's the rub. It wouldn't even occur to a lot of us to give these sorts of conversations voice. For many of us, carting around our moral outrage appears gratuitous. Given the ease at which I move around in this world, I'm either accused of having a giant, white-guilt chip on my shoulder, or worse-- that given the way we've chosen to build our family, I'm acting as some kind of saviour.
Fine. And even though the former is somewhat true and the latter is... well... if you met me, you would quickly see I'm no messiah, I will take those labels if it means we can talk about it. I've got a chip and I would be happy to share some of it with you. When I get questions from would-be adoptive parents and I have some inkling that they are intending on transracial adoptions, I really only want to communicate a couple of things. One of those things involves looking at priviledge: claiming it, examining it, letting it sit really uncomfortably in your stomach for a good, long time. While my skin colour may extend its privilege to my children, it will not shield them from how people ultimately see them. One of my greatest fears is letting their other mother down by not making good on our promises to protect her babies and prepare them for this world. There is no getting around this really (but if you know a way, LET ME KNOW), and if you are not prepared for what you are going to do when (not if) you watch your children being judged by anything but their character, then you might not be quite ready to fill out that paperwork.
Even though I was ready for a lot of these realities, the blind joy of bringing a baby home still catches me off guard some time. Shortly after August came home, I was talking to my good friend who happens to be a public defender in a large city. Paul and I really like that city and it had always been on our list of "one day, maybe" places. When I joked about moving there to be close to her, she quickly got really serious and told me in no uncertain terms that there was NO WAY she would want us to raise our kids there. And it wasn't because of a failing infrastructure or troubled schools, it was because she didn't want to have to defend our tiny baby, who would one day be a teenager, for minding his own business. She might be the definition of cynical, but I'm not going to argue with a woman who prays her (overwhelmingly minority) clients are guilty so that she doesn't have to try and do the impossible to claim their innocence.
Cross that dream city off the list.
I want to find a way back to writing about our life and my sewing projects and the stupid things we try to do as a family and I'll get there-- but this space is and always will be foremost a record for my children. They aren't going to give a lick about how to do a cup sized adjustment on that blouse, but I think that they will want to know that I-- WE-- didn't try to gloss over the tricky stuff. Of course, there are folks out there writing about these issues in ways far better than mine:
A. Bloom's essay on the Baddy Baddy Girl's Club On (Not) Joining the Club. The comments section contains a link to this report released by The U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights. I first heard about the report's findings on NPR and their findings on discipline in public schools has me lying awake at night.
This is powerful writing. POWERFUL. No Apologies: On the Killing of Trayvon Martin and Being "Good" Read it and weep.