Monday, December 20, 2010

Unlike the Others... Interracial Families and Holiday Gatherings

Yesterday, my black and white family attended a lovely holiday party thrown by my brother and his wife at their home. There were probably 50 people there: her sisters and their families, my brother and my other siblings and their kids. It was a great time with plenty of food, music, football and good cheer.

My husband was the only white person in the room.

At this time of the year-- and certainly any time our families gather-- one of us is that awkward position. As an "in-law" every spouse has those awkward moments of feeling like an outsider-- especially when dealing with family one doesn't know well or sees rarely. But race certainly adds a level of complication to the matter.

Kevin handles it well-- as do I, I think. We both are outgoing enough to start conversations, tactful enough not bring up topics that are likely to make people uncomfortable and pretty good at being charming (LOL!). But I know from time to time around his extended family when I'm the only black person around, I've felt a bit uncomfortable and in spite of his gregariousness most of the evening, on the way home, I asked him whether he felt the same as the only white one.

"Yeah, a little bit," he confessed. "I mean, I knew I was the only one. It didn't really matter-- people are people-- but when you don't know a lot of the people, there's this moment where you really become self-conscious."

Then we talked about the various experiences of the evening, through the lens of his experience as the only white guy in the room.

I know that many of you in interracial couples and families know exactly what I'm talking about. It's just a feeling you get when you suddenly notice that there's no one else around who looks like you. Not "hostility"-- I've never felt anything like that from anyone in Kevin's family and I know he's never felt that from mine-- but more like the little jingle from Sesame Street "One of these things is not like the others..."

You just feel...a little weird. The closest thing I can compare it to is walking into a room full of complete strangers who don't appear to speak your language. If anyone has a better analogy, I'd love to hear it.

Being good at being the "only one" or the person who is "not like the others" is a skill that requires confidence and practice. I think many minority people become used to it: often in our academic or professional lives, we've been the only ones before. While there's always a consciousness of it, with time and practice the feeling is minimized. But as members of the majority, most white people don't have as much practice with the experience.

Those of us in interracial relationships are exceptions: we get plenty of practice as we blend and bend cultural lines between our families and friends. All of us, regardless of cultural orientation or racial background learn through to find common ground with others through these opportunities. We learn that like many things between extended families, "racial" awkwardness fades with time and experiences. The better we know our spouses' family, friends and extended networks-- and the better those folks get to know us-- the more comfortable we al become. I see Kevin's siblings often enough that there's absolutely no awkwardness at all; I love them like my own sisters and brothers. Similarly, Kevin sees my siblings often too-- he calls my youngest sister is "girlfriend"-- they're that close.

But for those big, once-a-year gatherings with far-flung relations, the best medicine for being the only one is a generous dose of goodwill toward mankind-- followed by a shot of solidarity between the members of the interracial union. Being positive, friendly and up-beat can certainly serve to neutralize any discomfort. And so can knowing that, during the evening and at the end of it, your spouse will listen to your take on the experience and offer his or her support.

Happy Holidays to you all!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

A Future in Music Video Production?

This is what Sisi and her friends do in their spare time. It was so creative, I had to share it. Now if only I could get her to spend as much energy and thought on her school work!


Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Being "Different" and Fighting Bullies

In the wake of several high profile cases, there's a great deal of emphasis placed on bullying. Bullying-- for all kinds of reasons, most of which amount to being perceived as different in some way-- has been going on forever. My mother told me stories of being picked on by the other black girls back in the days of segregation for having long hair (a girl even dipped one of her braids into a burning candle at a Christmas pageant, setting her hair on fire!) I remember being called names at my predominantly white schools for being one of the few black students. These days, students who identify themselves as gay are often the victims of bullying-- but certainly they aren't the only ones. Bullying is probably as old as human beings. Difference is the issue; it almost doesn't matter what the difference is.

Several recent stories seem to have brought bullying to national attention. They center on the suicides of young people who were "outed" or tormented on the basis of their difference. One strikes particularly close to home for this family: a Virginia teen whose military family had recently been stationed in the area, hanged himself after suffering daily abuse. His crime? Being an "Emo" kid in a more rural and conservative part of the state. Here's a link to the sad story.

I know the "Emo" scene well. Sisi is a proud "Emo". I guess Emo is to this generation what "goth" and "punk" once were to earlier ones: a sort of widely-known fringe element. Unlike Goth, Emos like colors: they sport pink, purple and blue hair. Like punk, the hair should be as spikey as possible. The looks is androgynous-- girls and guys go for the same basic style, and many emos claim to be bi-sexual. Skateboarding-- or at least the look of a skateboarder: beanies, hoodies, Converse sneakers-- are required. It's also good to have a few band T-shirts: Blood on the Dance Floor is the favorite around here. You buy the whole look at Hot Topic, Sisi's absolute favorite store. In fact, the last time she was in there, the manager said she'd give her a job there. Why?

"You've totally got the look!" she enthused.

Fortunately, there are a community of like-minded kids here. Sure, the look raises eyebrows, but there are a least a few kids who share my daughter's interests. They stick together--and form a community that offers some shelter from the other groups and cliques of high school.

In other communities, Sisi's chosen identity might cause her problems-- especially if she were the only one. That was the case with this poor Emo kid in Virginia.

In some communities, simply being a bi-racial child can put a kid in an isolated, "only one" position. Being "different" in that way can be enough to bring a bully into the life of a bi-racial child. It's critical to teach children not to suffer in silence. Fortunately, parents now have a great deal more help with these issues.

A whole new wave of public service announcements and programs are placing new scrutiny on bullying-- and encouraging students to speak up, to tell adults, to confront bullies in safe ways. These messages are aimed not only at kids who are being bullied, but also at the kids who witness the bullying of others. I love the "It Gets Better Campaign" that many celebrities-- and even President Obama-- have now joined, reminding kids that as adults, they soon will be able to create a life that frees them from the forced peer relationships of a school setting. Middle school or high school might feel like the entire universe to a child-- but we know better. It really DOES get better: and this is a critical message. Even TV shows are getting into the "re-education" act. Last night's Glee tackled the issue with a fresh and surprising twist.

The ideal, of course, is to place our bi-racial kids in situations where they aren't so different, where there is a community of similarly-situated children for them to bond with. But in the absence of that community, our kids must learn the tools for confronting bullies and for identifying trustworthy adults from whom they can obtain assistance and intervention when necessary.

Always, always, always, though, it comes back to communication. Listening to our kids--straight or gay, bi-racial, outgoing or shy, whatever-- and being willing to step into their worlds and intervene when our guts tell us we should (sometimes, even when our kids say we shouldn't). And, as their parents, we owe it to them to affirm their difference, to celebrate it and encourage them to embrace it... whether that difference is in the race of their parents, their sexual preference or even the blue streaks in their hair.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Spying on Your Teen: Privacy and Parenting


I always said I'd do it, if I felt it was necessary. In fact, when Sisi leaves the house, I sometimes say: "Act like I'm right there with you, because you never know when I'm going to show up." But I'd never done it... until yesterday.

Lately, Sisi, my high school freshman, has been calling me right after school saying "I'm going to stay after in the library... with my friends." At first, I thought "Great, she's going to get some studying in or work on that English paper." No problem.

Except the English grade was in the toilet-- "D" in an Honors class!-- and most of the other grades weren't all that exciting either. The low grades suggested one of two things: (1) she wasn't actually spending her afternoons in the library; or (2) there was more "hanging with my friends" than school work going on-- which means there needs to be an adjustment in the study routine.

How to determine what is really going on? Nothing like a "drop-in," right?

Or wrong?

The question of teen privacy is one that is much debated. There are parents who firmly believe that searching a teen's room, checking their text messages and showing up uninvited when they go out is the height of infringement. How can a young adult develop, learn to trust their own judgment and have confidence in their own decision with the fear of a parent helicoptering into their lives all the time? What does that say about the level of trust between parent and child? This view is teen-centered and puts the child's need to develop independence above the parent's need for information.

And of course, in the other camp are those parents who argue that, much as teen children might think they have the capacity to make adult decisions, they are, indeed, still children. And since they are children, parents have an obligation and a duty to monitor their conduct for safety and security reasons and to maintain awareness about what's happening in their lives. This puts the parents' need for information about the child's need for independence.

To be honest, I have always thought of myself as a parent in the second camp-- especially for a young teen, like my daughter. Fourteen is still quite young, and I have always said that the need to protect children outweighs all other considerations. Of course, that was before I had a teenaged daughter.

I see it differently now... or rather, I'm less certain and more conflicted about it.

I see, for instance, how much confidence young people get from opportunities to experience themselves without a hovering parent. I see leaps in maturity and decision-making. I see a young woman learning how to handle herself-to trust her instincts-- in an uncertain world.

But I also see the immaturity of those decisions from time to time. I see the misplaced priorities of using freedom to "have fun" at the expense of obligations like choir rehearsals, homework, studying for tests and honoring curfews. I see the temptations of peer pressure.

Just two weeks ago, on Ssturday afternoon, I gave Sisi permission to visit the county library with friends--with strict instructions for her to come home at a certain time because we had evening plans as a family. Not only did she miss the curfew, but her friends had talked her into leaving the library and going to fast-food restaurant a few blocks away to hang out. I might not have known about it except that her attendance at this family outing was expected, and since she had missed her curfew we now needed to pick her up on the way to the event. She had to confess that she wasn't at the Library anymore.

That mistake cost her a week of freedom.

It's also the reason I decided I needed to follow up on my threat to "show up" unexpectedly today when she used the "library card"-- pun intended.

And there she was, sitting quietly at a table with her books out, head down, working. Her friends were nowhere in sight. My daughter was quietly doing her homework, just like she said she was.

I tiptoed out before she ever saw me, feeling both proud of her and a little ashamed of myself. Maybe, a little more trust and a little less "helicoptering" is in order here. I found myself reviewing the whole library/fastfood curfew decision. Had I over-reacted? Or was my child sitting quietly in the library as explained right now because of getting caught somewhere else last time?

None of this is as easy or as clear as I once would have thought.

It does seem clear to me now, however, that I want to avoid extremes on either side of the parenting/privacy fence... which leaves me with a sort of Reagan-era policy of "trust but verify" double-speak. What does that mean exactly? I didn't know in the Reagan-era... and I don't know now.

I had intended to keep my little spying mission a secret, but my 5 year old (who was with me on the excursion) outed me at the dinner table. "We went to the library and saw Sisi!" she told Daddy proudly.

Sisi wasn't mad. "I felt like I was being watched!" she said, laughing. "You were there?"

I confessed. I told why and what I saw and why I left.

"I was finishing a make-up paper for English," she said. "The teacher said if I did a good job, I could bring my grade up." She gave me a searching look. "You really came to the library?"

I nodded.

"Wow." Then she just stared at me for a really long time.

Like I said, I feel conflicted...but it's done now. Operation "Trust But Verify" is underway, for good or ill... just in time for this weekend's Halloween festivities.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Seeing Color through a Generation Gap

Me and Lil Bit at the Nommo Akili Bookclub meeting 10/16/10

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of meeting with the Nommo Akili book club at the Barnes and Noble in Ellicott City, Maryland. The group, which has a couple of dozen members, has been meeting and reading together since 1989. I was thrilled that they had selected "Don't Bring Home A White Boy-- and Other Notions that Keep Black Women from Dating Out" as their bi-monthly selection.

In several of the recent speaking engagements I've done lately, there has been a great deal of interest in the more personal aspects of being in an interracial relationship and of being in a multicultural family. And always, we come back to the children and the questions of identity.

Whether these women-- and these groups have been almost exclusively women--are interracial relationships or not, they face some of the same issues in raising children to be culturally aware in a diverse world that my own family does.

"I know my son will marry a white girl," one woman shared. "And I confess I have mixed feelings about that. I've always put him in mixed race environments and taught him that everyone's the same. But when I'm confronted with his dating choices, I still have feelings. I really want him to bring home a girl who looks like me."

Another said she struggled to make sure her son appreciated what it meant to be a black American, while wondering if her definition really applied to him a rapidly changing world. "To all his friends, race is a big whatever. He has friends from all backgrounds. I keep thinking there's some racist moment out there for him-- subtle or overt-- but it really hasn't happened yet. It makes me wonder if I'm teaching him the right thing. Maybe what it meant for me to be a black American-- a person who was born in the 1960s-- is completely different for someone who was born in the 1990s."

"My daughter thinks I'm racist when I say things like 'look at that cute little white girl'," another woman said. "She's says: 'Mom, can't you just say, isn't that little girl with green dress cute?' Why is everything about color to you?"

I share my own stories-- stories you all have read already-- about the blue contacts and about Sisi's discomfort with the term "African American" cin the context of her friends whose parents are recent immigrants from that continent.

Although we started with the book, our discussion had taken an interesting turn: into a generation gap over black identity, over the definitions of "racist" versus "description" and over the questions of group identification.

We realized sitting there that we had indeed reached a generation gap wtih our children over their perceptions of race, over their definition of black identity, and over their expectations of how it would impact their futures.

As with many shifts of great significance, this gap arises over small matters: descriptions and the use of words, in conflicts over our children's choices of friends, and of course, blue contact lens. But those small things are are actually symbols for a larger shift taking place between those of us who are children of the Civil Rights Era and of the progessive initiatives of integration-- and our children, who consider all of that as ancient history.

This is not to say that they are ignorant of it, or that they are unaware of the tensions that still exist in the world. In fact, they are very aware. They just see different tensions as primary. One woman recounted a recent conversation with her nine year old who identified someone was "gay".

"You mean like 'happy', right?" this mother said, certain that was the only definition of the word in the little girl's universe. "Happy and gay, right?"

"No, I mean like the other way," the little girl said in the most calm and worldly of ways. "The kind that can't get married. Why not, Mom?"

They are very aware. They just see the black and whiteness of it all differently than we do-- and most of that is our own doing, as their parents. Perhaps they have that luxury because they are the children of educated black parents, living in the comfortable (and comparatively wealthy) suburbs of the Nation's Capital? Geography and the opportunities offered by comparative affluence do a lot for one's view of oneself.

And in addition to painting the world according to its possibilities rather than it's limitations, we've done a good job of teaching them that it's character, not color, that defines a person. Can we be upset that they've learned well?

And yet, it sometimes feels like something has been lost. Some idea of community, some group identity that, at least in memory, seems comfortable, nuturing and welcoming. Of course, further examination of that "glowing past" reveals it to be as complex and fraught with discension as any other time, but the idea of "belonging" to a supportive group is a powerful one.

Ultimately, we all create our communities based on the people we are exposed to and the similarities of interest and belief that those people project. In homogenous communities-- whether they be black, white, Asian, Hispanic, Muslim or Christian, gay or straight, those communities are limited and the people may look the same, but they still divide according to their personalities and affinities.

In diverse communities, of course, the groups look different, but the affinities and personalities that attract are the same. Our children celebrate diversity, and in doing so, see the world-- their community-- less in terms of color than we, their parents who lived through very different times, will ever be able to do.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Love Hurts, High School Style

Most of last week, I was in Las Vegas on a project, but every time I spoke to Sisi by phone, I got an earful about "The Boy I Like"-- hereinafter referred to "B" for "boy"--to protect his privacy. Of course, there's no way in hell any of Sisi's friends would EVER do something as lame as read her mother's blog, but it is the Internet and I guess you never know. I wouldn't want to ruin my daughter's social life by revealing too much...

(Can you tell by the emphasis in the last two sentences who I've been talking to about this? Oh, the limits of the black and white thinking of as teenager! Pun intended!)

Just before I left town last week, Sisi was trying to decide if she was going to Homecoming. Tickets were on sale, and most of her friends weren't going. They are, after all, lowly freshmen and not as fully invested in the school as the upperclassmen.

On Friday afternoon, when I had a break from my work, I called home and was greeted with an enthusiastic: "I've been waiting all day to tell someone this news!" I wish Sisi got excited about getting an "A" on a project, but I knew better. This had to be about "the boy she likes."

"B asked me to Homecoming!" she gushed. "So I'll need a dress, and shoes, and a hairdo and..."

"Slow your roll," I said. "You're not Homecoming Queen. Take it easy here."

Let the negotiations begin!

We decided she'd get a new dress, borrow a pair of my fancy heels, style her hair herself and buy some inexpensive jewelry or a sparkly barrette or other hair ornament. Budget $100.

Because I was away, Kevin got the dress-selecting job. It's one of those things that if you'd told him six or seven years ago that he'd be doing on a Sunday afternoon, he'd have laughed, but there he was patiently sifting through cocktail dresses in the Juniors department of Macy's, doing his best to keep his step-daughter classy and not trashy-- with some brief guidelines from me. No strapless, not more than two inches above the knee, please. They found an adorable dress on-budget and sent me a picture.

Good. Sisi was bubbling with excitement. Her first Homecoming--- and her first real date!

I got home on Tuesday, and on Wednesday, our house was full of the usual cadre of girls. "This is my dress," I heard her telling them as passed by her room. "With these shoes... and I'm thinking of twisting my hair like this..."

But by Thursday the picture had changed.

"He dumped me," she said when I met her after school. Her eyes filled with tears. "He said he didn't think it would work out and he'd rather be 'just friends'. He's taking someone else."

Of course, she was hurt. But we had a good talk. About how there are plenty of fish in the sea. About how "B" may have done her favor by breaking it off. About why it would be stupid to try to chase after him-- and smarter to act like you just don't care.

"You've got a beautiful dress. You could go anyway with a group of friends," I suggested.

"But none of my friends were going," she told me. "I don't want to go if I don't have anyone to hang out with."

I started looking for the receipt for the dress.

So, here we are. Homecoming was tonight...but Sisi didn't go. We returned the dress this afternoon, and instead, she and her friends held an "anti-Homecoming" party, playing board games and eating pizza. They had a blast. If she's thought about "B" at all, I can't tell. She's seems perfectly content with her friends, her games, her music and her pizza.

Heartache healed...for now. This one was easy: she liked this boy, but it wasn't "love," thank goodness.

First love, however, is coming. My next door neighbor's son just graduated from the same high school... and is marrying his girlfriend next month before joining the Air Force. "They've been dating since freshman year," she told me. "She's his first real girlfriend. He's always made good decisions and never given us a minute's worry..." she sighed. "But they're both so young. This wasn't in my plan for him. None of it."

Or Sisi's friend who breaks up with her 15-year-old boyfriend once a week... and threatens to kill herself every time. She doesn't; it's mostly drama. But it's still scary to hear and has caused Sisi and the girl's family considerable distress.

Not in the plan, either.

Love is coming...and heartbreak is coming, too, the kind pizza and Wii don't cure. I hate the thought of it, but there's nothing I can do. It comes to us all, it some point. It's one of the experiences that leads us into maturity.

I can only hope Sisi shows the same resilience and flexibility she has over this incident when love and heartbreak come. I can hope... but love, like so many things, has it own plans.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

An Ugly Encounter

Lately, I've been lucky enough to pick up quite a few ghost writing projects workng with various celebrities (no, I can't tell you who!). The work is interesting and a completely new venue for me, but it has required quite a bit of travel. Kevin has been doing a fabulous job as "Mr. Mom" (with help from Grammie and from our friends and neighbors) over the past several months. This weekend, he'll get to take Lil Bit to gymnastics and Sisi shopping for a dress for Homecoming at her high school while I'm in Las Vegas (yes, I know... poor me!)

Since he's "Dad on duty" he won't get much peace until I get back late next week. So you can hardly blame the guy for taking his lunch break yesterday from work to run a few personal errands and have a long, leisurely, solo lunch.

Kevin's lunch at a Chinese restaurant not far from our house was solo--and eventful.

The restaurant does a healthy carry-out business, but is often nearly empty inside. That was the case during his lunch. Only one other table was occupied--by two other white guys who seemed determined to use every racial slur against Asian women possible before leaving.

"Hey China doll!" One of these men shouted at the waitress. "Come over here!"

"YOu got to watch out for the slanty eyed ones!" This guy was on a roll.

On and on, it went from this dude, while Kevin listened in amazement. He couldn't help but listen-- the guy was shouting his ignorance through the restaurant. Apparently, he thought he was funny.

He kept looking at Kevin, trying to guage if Kevin was on board with what he was saying. Kev gave him the stink eye-- which probably kept him from saying more.

Chivalrous Kevin-- ready for action!

As he was paying his bill, this dude, who unfortunately embodies the beer-bellied redneck stereotype physically as well as in his conduct, followed the young waitress behind the counter and stood behind her, breathing down her neck while she opened the cash register, effectively blocking her ability to get away from him. My chivalarous husband was ready: the guy was big and sloppy, but Kevin is strong. My money is on Kevin in most circumstances because I've seen him action on a boxing bag--but it didn't come to that. The guy made a few more racist, sexist comments and left, laughing with his buddy because he's just so damned funny.

"That guy was a jerk," Kevin told the waitress when she came over to check on him.

She nodded, sadly. "The restaurant's owner threw him out once-- and told him not to come back. But he comes anyway. Not often, but every now and then. I guess I could call the police but..." she shrugged. "Really all he does is talk."

Kevin pointed out that he followed her behind the counter-- as sure an attempt at physical intimidation as any-- but she seemed to think the guy was loud and offensive, but basically harmless.

"I was just disgusted," he told me on the phone later. "I like to think of our community as multicultural and tolerant, but clearly we've got our share of bigots, too. I mean, it's 2010! What rock has this asshole been under?"

I don't know, but the assholes are indeed among us. Every day and everywhere, they move through the world, spewing ugly stereotypes and perpetuating their particular kinds of ignorance and "humor." Some are beer bellied guys in restaurants-- but others are clean cut and innocuous looking, whispering in office cubicles and checkout lines. Some are preaching in churches and teaching in schools. Still others have their own TV shows, using a much more stuble language of divisiveness--but it's there all the same.

Like Kevin, we all need to give these folks the "stink eye". We need to let them know we don't agree-- and when necessary, we need to be vocal and even aggressive about it. Like the saying goes, "All that is needed for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing." I'm proud of Kevin for treating words with a proper expression of disagreement and disapproval-- and for being willing to intervene upon the suggestion of something more sinister. I'm also proud of him for letting the young woman know that one individual's bad behavoir isn't the standard by which all should be judged.

It sometimes seems that racism is too large and amorphous for us to fight. But it really isn't. It's through our smallest acts, we fight these attitudes: by turning away, by repudiating, by refusing to purchase or participate, by turning off our TVs. Small actions, yes... but ones with big consequences when we do them consciously and with the courage of our convictions.