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.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

No Wedding, No Womb...

My daughter and I disagree on many things: how she should dress, how she should spend her time, the way she wears her hair. But one thing we agree on is simply this:

She won’t be having a baby.

Now if you’re thinking that means that I think she’s also too young to have sex, you’re right. I do feel that way. But I’m also realistic. Sex may happen. Pregnancy won’t.

That’s because we have already discussed what will happen when she meets her first serious boyfriend: she and I will go to the doctor together and get what we have to get and do what we have to do.
I’m not sure some of her friends will make the same choice. Three of her very best black girlfriends live with their single, never-married mothers. One of their mother’s lives with a “boyfriend.” She works… and he doesn’t do anything from what I’ve seen unfortunately. This girl’s baby brother is a child of that union: her own father is not in the picture. The other girls are sisters: their mother has three other children from different relationships that never ended in marriage. Their father isn’t in their lives either.

These are not urban, low income families. These are suburban, middle class folks.

All three of these girls visit our house so frequently Kevin often says we’re running a “Home for Girls.” They call me “Mom” and watch how I interact with Kevin with fascination. Okay, that’s partly because we’re a black and white family, but I think there’s more to the interest than just that. One of them asks all the time if we can “adopt” her. We can’t: but the vibe that I got from her mother’s boyfriend made me tell her she was welcome and safe at our house—and that she could come anytime, night or day.

While I believe their mother’s are doing the best they can for these girls, their choices puzzle me. For some reason, there is an attitude in the black community that makes it perfectly acceptable to have a baby without a husband, or without the support of even a committed partner. I once had a conversation with a young lady who accepted this as “the way it is” without question. “I didn’t have any problem with it,” she said about being pregnant by a man who she acknowledge wasn’t interested in marriage and in fact had relationships with several other women. She even spoke of her child as “my daughter” –absolving the child’s father of any ownership, possession or role in the child’s life. Another went on and on about the coming day when she would have “her baby”— with same tone that once upon a time, girls spoke about meeting their “Prince Charming.”

As the mother of daughters, I’m worried about the role model set for our girls. I’m worried about the perception of child-rearing as the sole responsibility of the woman—and our acceptance of that notion. I’m worried about the perception of black men as sperm donors—not fathers, looked to for love, guidance and support. I’m worried about the erosion of marriage as an institution in the black community, when marriage is linked to everything from family income, educational success of children, the likelihood those children will use drugs and commit crimes. Even when the parents divorce the kids do better than children whose parents were never married. There’s something about the commitment of marriage—legally, emotionally, psychologically—that provides kids with a stronger connection to both their parents, even when they no longer live together.

I’m worried about the idea that some young black men and women have espoused that “Marriage is for White People.”

If it is, then we are in serious trouble as a community.
Of course, a single woman is completely capable of raising a child—and raising a child well. That isn’t the point. After Sisi’s Dad and I divorced, I was a single parent for five years. It was often very difficult, and on occasion I had to make tough choices about how my time would be spent. I think she’s turned out well in spite of—or perhaps sometimes because of—those choices. And I don’t regret my divorce.
The point is not against single mothers. The point is single motherhood shouldn’t be the default position. It shouldn’t be what we expect to become or accept as the norm. The point is, from the child’s point of view, there is and always will be something missing.

With 70% of black children born out of wedlock, I’d say that not only are there a lot of young people walking around with something missing—with a hole in their foundation—but that it’s a crisis. And it’s a crisis that is solved not by government interaction, or reparations or a rebuke to white racism. It’s solved by individual choices.

Just yesterday, I had the opportunity to attend a few hours of the Congressional Black Caucus here in Washington, DC. Somehow, I ended up in a discussion with a gentleman—a state legislator from Texas—on the black family. He trotted out the tired old chestnut about how welfare separated black men from families.

“You couldn’t have a man in the house and get the money!” he said, working himself up about how white racism is responsible for our current dilemma.
“And that’s because of the expectation of manhood,” I replied. “To hustle and provide for the family. As I understand the policy beneath that, the idea is that if you have a two-parent household, you have two potential wage-earners. The expectation is still that men will make money—more money than women.”

He blinked at me like he hadn’t thought manhood had any expectations.
“But there aren’t opportunities for black men. Racism keeps black men from jobs.”

“You seem to be doing pretty well.”

He blinked at me again. I could see in his face, he wanted to argue that he was the exception to some “rule” but we both knew he wasn’t. The room was full of men like him. In fact the nation is full of men like him. Yes, poverty disproportionately affects black Americans, and yes, black men do face racism in employment contexts. But so do black women—as well as gender discrimination--and we’re not absolved of any responsibilities for the next generation. And while an alarmingly high 25% of African Americans live below the poverty, line 75% do not. To say that the spike in out of wedlock births is an issue of poverty or welfare is inaccurate. The numbers just don’t add up.

“It’s a choice,” I said simply. “It’s still a choice. Maybe I’m too bourgie to get it, but I wouldn’t break up my family for any amount of government money. Just wouldn’t do it. And neither would you.”
I reminded him of our grandparents, who lived in oppressive segregation—but got married and raised their families as a unit. They were poor because of laws that kept them that way much of the time. But they both worked, and worked together for their families’ sakes.

“If they did it under Jim Crow, what’s our excuse?”

Excuses. That’s exactly what they usually are. By choosing not to be proactive, we let “accidents happen.” By choosing not to model two-parent homes for our children, we send a message that further destabilizes our communities—and ultimately the nation. By choosing to accept the role as sole parent, black women undermine their children’s success and their own viability in the dating world. It’s a vicious cycle with far ranging repercussions.

Not for my daughters…and if our example provides anything they can use, maybe not their friends, either. I want my daughters—by birth and by “adoption”—to choose long-term, committed relationships. I want them to choose marriage before having children and, of course, to throw wide open the doors of possibility to include men of any ethnicity. I want them to be proactive about their own sexual behaviors… and if Kevin and I have to help them make good choices for themselves, I know we will use what resources we have to do so—whether they are daughters by birth or by virtue of circumstance. A ride to the clinic? Done. Some help with paying for prophylactics? Done. Talking, talking and talking about men, expectations, and responsibilities? Already done, done, done.

We owe it to our daughters to model a family unit that provides the optimal support for them and their children. Through individual choices, we can reverse the attitude of “I don’t see anything wrong with having a Baby’s father relationship.” to “Not for me. No wedding, no womb.”

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Big M...

A couple of nights ago, I got a call from my doctor. I was expecting it... but still, when it came I felt a little sad.

"Well, Karyn," she said. "I got your blood work back and the levels confirm it. You're definitely at the beginning of the end."

Not the beginning of the end of my life (I hope) but the beginning of the end of my childbearing years. Yes, it's the beginning of what my mother's generation called "the change." Menopause, or more accurately perimenopause, the stretch of time between the symptoms of menopause and it's actual arrival.

You have to love my doctor's phrasing. "The beginning of the end" sounds so dire, but in a way, those are exactly my feelings about this stage of my life. Don't get me wrong, I don't want any more children. But it's more than that: in the back of my mind I'm realizing this is the beginning of the end of my youth. It's the beginning of my life as an "old lady."

And while it's something that happens to every woman if she's lucky enough to keep breathing long enough, it's somehow something I didn't really think would ever happen to me.

There has no mistaking the changes in my moods and in my body over the past year or so. Suddenly, I had a mustache and I was always warm even in the dead of winter. My once-curvy body had gotten round as an apple, with a nasty little pouch up front that never went away no matter what I did. My patience was hair-trigger sensitive. And then, for the first time in my life, I skipped a period... and I wasn't pregnant.

The beginning of the end.

I wish I could say I am immediately embracing this change for the new possibilities it offers. In time, of course, I will. But for right now, it makes me feel sad. I look back on my youth and I regret things I didn't do, things I was too scared to try. I regret that I didn't know how cute I was-- and that I didn't believe that the day would come when "matronly" would be an accurate description of my figure. That "hot" would be an adjective for "flash" and not for me.

I look at Sisi and I feel a little jealous. Does she know what she has right now? Does she know that one day, she will be me? Probably not. It seems unbelievable when you're young, that you will one day be... not.
Sometimes I think the heart of the mother-daughter conflict is simply that while the daughter's hormones are soaring, the mother's are declining. It's just biology and little more. We're a couple of moody bitches who don't really know what the hell is wrong with us. Enter fighting.

Poor Kevin. :-)

One of my favorite sayings is "This too shall pass" because it captures the transience of our experiences so perfectly. I know that twenty or thirty years from now, I'll look back and wish for some the blessings I have now: flexibility, mobility, my kids at home, otherwise perfect health. I'll wish for these days--hot flashes in all. Knowing that helps me to find acceptance for this moment. There's good in this, I know there is. Of course there is. It's just going to take me a minute or two to find it.

It's the beginning of the end, but it's also the end of the beginning. And experience and wisdom are wonderful things to say that I have gained a bit of at this point in my life. It's celebration and grief. It's joy and pain, it's endings and beginnings. A perfect circle of womanhood and a perfect circle of life.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Is College Overrated for Some (Most) Kids?

There's an intrigue piece in today's Washington Post with the seductive title "Is College Overrated?" To check it out, click here. I read it with great interest, because, around here with Sisi already a freshman in high school this Fall, the topic of college is becoming more and more relevant.

Given that I'm fairly (over)educated myself, it may surprise you to know that, not only do I fully agree with the article, but we have pretty much already decided: Sisi will not jump directly to college from high school. It's not that she's not smart, nor do we believe college is unnecessary. It's a question of focus and maturity.

Rare is the high school senior who knows exactly what she wants to do with the rest of her life from the moment she crosses the graduation stage. I'll never forget in my own freshman year of college, my English teacher (who bore the ominous nickname 'Bloody Mary') told us our first day point-blank: "Most of you don't belong here. You're just not ready for serious study." Of course, she was right: most of the class was more interested in pledging a sorority or fraternity and exploring their newfound independence than writing analyses of the works of Dead American Poets. And while there's nothing wrong with sororities and fraternities and nothing wrong with exploring newfound independence, I'm sure their parents didn't appreciate paying what would amount to $15,000 to $50,000 a year for that privilege.

I know I don't want to pay that. Exporation and independence, life experience and focus can be had for a whole lot less than tens of thousands of dollars. In fact, kids and earn money while acquiring it.

Obviously, for some (few) kids, college is the next best step. But we've already discussed what will happen when Sisi graduates. She'll have an allotment of money to spend on travel, or on a car, or, if she's got a plan, a business idea. If she chooses the car, she'll take a few classes at the local junior college and get a job. She'll pay rent if she decides to live here with us (nothing major, more on principle) and be allowed to explore her independence while earning money, sticking a toe in the academic waters and figuring out what her passions in life are.

She's mentioned getting work on a cruise ship and I think that would be a tremendous life experience and opportunity. Later, if she really liked it, a degree in business, management, or hospitality would make sense. A three-month contract on a cruise ship would be enough to figure out if the industry was something she really wanted to pursue... and she'll get to travel as well as make some money.

She's mentioned veterinary medicine. Why not work with a volunteer shelter organization for six months or a year? Do you still like animals? If so, let's go to school, knowing what your career will really look like.

She made the prestigious Treble Choir at her high school. Want to try the music industry? Use your money to live on and get an internship with a record label. Find out what it's like. Want to sing? Use your money to form a band, tour and produce music. When you realize you need more education, go get it.

Experience is the best teacher here and it seems some of us might be doing this backwards by sending kids to college straight out of high school, enabling them to prolong the realizations about their true interests at our expense. We're going to try to do it the other way: experiences first, education after.

Perhaps because of my own (dubious) experiences with higher education, I've long believed that a little time off is helpful for kids. Sisi knows she has that time to explore. Then, and only then, will we make a plan for her higher education-- in the hopes that when she goes to college, she won't be just another unfocused student on the parentally-subsidized party train.

What are your thoughts? Is college overrated? Love to hear from you.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Disaster Planning (Just in Case)

By now, regular readers of this blog are familiar with my own particular neuroses about the unexpected. I do tend a bit toward the "worst case scenario." Call me superstitious, but I happen to believe in the notion that if you're ready for it, it won't happen. And so, as the weather forecasters in my part of the world go back and forth about the weekend track of Hurricane Earl, I'm turning my attention to our family's disaster plan.

No one is predicting that Hurricane Earl will actually make landfall here in the Metro DC area. But in 2003 Hurriance Isabel just grazed our region... and our power was out for a week. Since 2010 has already been our "Year of Weather Nightmares" (60 inches of snow over the winter in three separate blizzards, a summer of record-breakingly hot temperatures, several lightning storms that closed roads and took down trees, and let's not forget, the EARTHQUAKE with an epicenter of a few hundred yards from our house!) it seems smart to replenish the supply closet, just in case.

In addition to checking the flashlights, buying more batteries and a few jugs of bottled water, this time, too, I decided to double-check myself against the County's emergency preparedness recommendations. It turned out to be a good idea: both girls have changed schools since I last thought about rendez-vous spots in the event something happened and we're in different locations. And though I've taught Lil Bit "911" and her address, it's time to start drilling her on other emergency names and phone numbers. She's going to be 5 in a couple of weeks: she can learn them competently now with a little work on my part. And of course, the County's plan gives a good checklist for a disaster supply kit.

I once had a fully stocked "disaster kit": a bin full of things that would needed in the event of an emergency. In the days after 9/11/01 when everyone was in a panic about security, I put together our own survival supplies in a large storage bin; it held blankets, a first aid kit, extra flashlights and batteries, canned foods, etc. Over the years, however, the bin's has emptied as our perception of the imminence of any threat has diminished. The blankets are on beds and in closets. The flashlights got taken to camp and are now scattered around the house. I realized out was out of one thing or another needed for a recipe and raided the canned goods as a backup (not the intended emergency, I know, but an appreciated alternative!). The first aid kit was opened for extra bandaids inside. It looks almost bare to me right now. Even the candles have been moved and used.

In the event of a real disaster, we wouldn't have tiime to run around the house gathering up these things-- and that's exactly why it's important to set them aside in advance of an actual emergency. It's time to replenish these supplies and seal up my bin again. True, over time they will be used for other purposes and dispersed... but that's the good news. It means we've been lucky and blessed and haven't had any actual emergencies.

Paranoid? Maybe. But one of my favorite saying is that we should pray like God exists and work like He doesn't...and emergency preparedness is just another place where fortune favors the prepared. Even if you and yours aren't in the path of Hurricane Earl (or any other warning, for that matter) it's not a bad idea to check your readiness every so often. As my mother likes to say "better safe, than sorry."

Monday, August 30, 2010

Feeding Frenzy: Sisi goes Vegan, no, Vegetarian, well Pescatarian...or something

My daughter Sisi is without a doubt the star of this blog... and it's time for an update into her latest foray into defining herself. We've already explored hair, makeup, contact lenses and wardrobe. What else could there be?

Diet, of course. Food, marvelous food.

Saturday morning, Sisi announced, "I've decided to become a vegan" and waited expectantly for a reaction. I've learned from hard experience that, when a reaction is "expected," it's best not to react at all. So I turned a page of the newspaper I was reading and simply said, "Okay."

"It's because I watched a video on YouTube. About animal cruelty in slaughterhouses. You want to see it?"

I already know all about it. Not so much because of YouTube, but because of Michael Pollan's excellent books, In Defense of Food, and The Onmivore's Delimma.

Pollan's eater's manifesto is simply this: "Eat food (not processed stuff), not too much, mostly plants."

Concerns about where food comes from is not new in this household. We've had a garden, frequent farmer's markets and try to buy both locally and organically raised meats. While the treatment of the animals is important, my concern has always been about the multitude of contamination streams that come with Big Food. If you've read either of Pollan's books, you know what I mean. If you haven't, you should.

My efforts at buying, cooking and serving "clean" food are the reasons that every chance she gets, Sisi begs for fast food: she's usually the first one in the household to complain about our healthy foods. I have to nag her to eat fruit. She complains that my chicken isn't "real chicken": the stuff they serve at McDonald's is "real chicken." And vegetables? Please.

I opted not to watch the YouTube video, and instead, answered her question with a question of my own:

"You do know that vegans eat mostly vegetables, right? They don't even eat eggs, or milk-- or anything that is made with them, which includes a lot of baked stuff."

Sisi frowned. "Well, you can take me to the store, and we can by some stuff especially for vegans. You know, like the mock chicken, and vegan breads and cookies and other stuff I could eat."

I tossed her a fresh peach, picked from a local farm only the day before. "That could get kind of expensive and some of those products aren't that good for you either. We'll see. For right now, here's something you can eat."

I don't know why, but she didn't seem so happy with that. But she took the peach and went back to her room. She came back an hour later with a new announcement.

"I don't think I'm going to go vegan after all," she said heading for the kitchen cabinet for a box of Ritz crackers. "I'll just be a vegetarian. That means I can eat stuff that has eggs and milk, right?"

"I guess," I replied. "But you're the vegetarian, right? You should know what you eat and what you don't."

She stuffed her mouth with crackers and left again. When we ordered Chinese food for dinner that evening, she ordered a tofu dish... and ended up eating most of my crisy eggplant instead. "The tofu tastes funny," she said. Not a good start for a growing vegetarian who will need protein, but tofu can be an acquired taste.

By Sunday morning, my vegetarian had become a pescatarian. "I eat mostly vegetables, but fish, too. We're having swordfish for dinner, right?" Sisi likes fish. So do I.

Still, I give my "pescatarian" a week (or less, depending on how soon she gets the opportunity to go to Chik Fil A). Regardless of how long this interest in food lasts, I'm pleased that she's ready to pay more attention to what she eats, where it came from and what benefits it offers nutritionally. Asking questions about food sources, learning out to prepare it in ways that are both tasty and healthy and understanding how our consumption of it impacts the environment are all worthwhile and important activities. Today's experiment might ultimately become tomorrow's lifestyle.

Until, further notice, Sisi's a pescatarian, and tonight's paella will respect the choice and feature shrimp. She may have to pick out the turkey chorizo...or not. That's up to her. I won't say a word, either way.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Black Men, High School and the new book The Other Wes Moore

The Schott Foundation for Public Education recently released some very disturbing information on the high school graduation rates for young African American men. In a sentence, the headline was that less than 50% of young black men graduate from high school setting off a fresh round of questions about race, opportunity, school performance, economics and individual responsibility. While all of these are areas that deserve discussion and the finger of blame can fairly be pointed in many directions, I recently read a book which, I think contributes much to the discussion. The book is the The Other Wes Moore: One Name Two Fates and it tells the story of two young African American men who lived briefly in the same neighborhood in Baltimore-- but grew up to live vastly different lives.

You might have seen Wes Moore the author on Oprah talking about his experiences as a Rhodes Scholar, decorated Afghanistan veteran and White House fellow. The man who shares his name is serving a life sentence for his role in the murder of a Baltimore police officer. Both men had their share of troubles as boys--and both had scrapes with the law. Both were largely unmotivated in school, and both were raised by their mothers. But it is there that the similarities end, because although both grew up without fathers the reasons behind their fathers absences were very different.

One Wes Moore's parents were married; his father died when he was very small. When the difficulty of raising her family alone became too much, one Wes Moore's mother moved the family to New York City and into the home of her parents, who offered the boy additional family support and stability while she worked several jobs to send him to private school. Even more, when it became clear that "street life" might engulf young Wes, his grandparents mortgaged their home to help his mother send him to a military high school. He graduated.

Meanwhile, the other Wes Moore's mother and father never married. The boy met his father only a couple of times: both times the man was violent and drunk. His mother had little to no family support--she had fled her own abusive family situation at a young age. His mother had little education and often worked multiple jobs just to pay the rent, but she did her best to remove Wes from an environment where she knew his options would be limited. Still Wes sold drugs, became a father himself at 16 and struggled to break free of the lure of the street. He dropped out of high school.

It's easy to determine which Wes Moore is which. The differences of family support and financial resources-- and the options they provide--make it easy enough to predict which Wes Moore becomes a Rhodes scholar and which ends up in jail. But Wes the felon offered an important distinction on the fatherlessness of the two boys and the impact it had on his life. He said to Wes the author during a prison interview: "Your father wasn't there because he couldn't be. Mine wasn't there because he didn't want to be."

In addition to economics, environment and a system that seems to prefer incarceration over education, there is something to be said for the link between family composition and school performance. Numerous studies have shown again and again that children do best with two parents--whether those parents are two mothers, two fathers or a mother and a father-- regardless of the race of the child. It also helps that the parents were married-- even if they don't stay that way. Once again, this is true regardless of the race of the child, or the parents. The commitment of marriage brings a benefit for children--not only in resources but in self-perception. Those findings have called into question not only families like Wes the felon's who are headed by a single female by default, but also those of single women who opt to get pregnant by sperm donor, too. A parent who is absent by choice tells kids something about their value that they take with them into other areas of their lives-- not the least of which is the classroom.

Family composition certainly isn't the only factor that contributes to the alarming drop out rate of African American young men-- but it is a factor. Family is the foundation of our lives. As we go about the process of trying to solve some of our culture's most complex problems, it makes makes sense that we spend at least a little inquiry on family structure, on the impact of out of wedlock births, and on the importance of fathers to their sons and daughters--before branching out to the responsibility of our culture at large.

There's a movement afoot to change the mindset about the acceptability of out of wedlock births called "No Wedding No Womb"... and I'll be talking more about it in the weeks to come. In the meantime, if you haven't already, pick up The Other Wes Moore. It's an interesting story with much to teach us.

Friday, August 20, 2010

I'm glad the woman at the center of the Dr. Laura controversy, Nita Henson, has come forward. Her story further expounds on the difficulty that interracial families have in searching for resources and advice on the complexities of "blending" in a black and white society.

If you haven't heard her talk about the incident, here's her interview on The Larry King Show:

We'll leave Dr. Laura's assessment of herself as a victim whose First Amendment rights were violated in this experience for others to debate. This isn't a political blog: it's a family one. Interracial families may espouse many different political points of views-- and many different ideas about what is racist and what isn't.

And that's exactly the point that Halima Sal Anderson (who authors the popular blog, as well as other publications about interracial and intercultural dating) and I were debating in the comments of my prior Dr. Laura blog. Halima points out that interracial couples have so many different ideologies, and deal with the perceptions of racial and gender inequality in so many different ways-- that it can be very difficult to construct a "clearinghouse" of how to handle race/gender issues like the one faced by Hanson and her hubby. Here's Halima's take:

I also have noted that when you bring interracial families together physically, some other dynamics can come into play, and you may find that one family or both have ideas and beliefs that are threatening and or are demeaning to those of the opposite combination.

One instance springs to mind and if you bring a bm-ww relationship together with a bw-wm in any sort of group interaction or purpose, you may fast discover (and I am going to give this example because I have come across it often) that because the bm-ww relationship was in some way precipitated because of racio-misogynic notions of the inferiority of bw and even the trashing of the white male identity, the interactions can be damaging to the black woman even the white man!

This is the problem I have observed when we 'bring' all interracial and intercultural groups together, you end up finding that many of the members are not as 'open minded' as an interracial relationship would suggest or has been made to indicate. How indeed can a black woman thrive under such conditions where she is reminded in a variety of ways that the reason for the founding of the other opposite relationship is because she is deemed inferior/less than.

In my view general mixed race relationship spaces [clearinghouses or communities like I suggested in my post] are not safe spaces for black women. As a bw i have come to notice this.

She's right, of course. I come from a very progressive point of view on relationships and tend to hang out with couples share that ideology. But I too have met couples whose relationships work on very different dynamics. I've met the BW-WM couple who seem to minimize blackness or femaleness. I've also met couples where the white male is the partner whose personhood is minimized. Halima's point speaks to a powerful reminder: just as there is no single definition of what it means to be a "black Person" or a "white person" there's no single way to be an interracial couple. Indeed, we can be as different as we are individually.

So, for Nita Henson, advice about how to address the frequency with which her husband's white friends brought up racial issues in her presence would differ depending on who in the community of interracial relationships was asked. Some might suggest getting angry, some might suggest, as Dr. Laura did, that Nita was being hypersensitive--and there might be hundreds of other suggestions in between.

Concerns about the "ideology behind the answer" is probably the reason that interracial couples maintain a certain level of silence about any problems in the relationship that have racial overtones. That's probably why the party line is "race doesn't matter". And from my own experiences I know it doesn't... until it does.

The truth is actually that most of us face issues-- and race plays its roles in how they appear. But revealling that fact puts interracial couples in an awkward position because fuels the arguments of those who believe that interracial relationships are a bad idea or that they can't work. Discuss such personal conflicts with the wrong advisor and you could get advice so bad that one begins to question one's own decisions and reactions. That's what Nita Henson seems to have felt after hanging up with Dr. Laura last week. Such harsh criticism makes keeping silent seem like a very good idea.

Still, if those outside the relationship can't be trusted to give good advice, at the very least, problems like the one that Nita Henson faced with her husband's friends should be discussed carefully and lovingly between the couple. If there is any universal advice to be offered it's simply this: "Have you told your husband how you feel about this? Has he offered to speak to his friends--or to help you respond to these comments and questions when they come up?" Because truly, progressive or conservative, interracial couples--like any married partners-- have to be able to communicate with each other-- and to count on each other for support.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

What the "Dr. Laura" Incident Means to Me

By now, just about everyone who has an Internet or television connection has heard about what radio talk show host Dr. Laura Schlessinger said to the interracially married black woman who called in for advice about what to do when her white husband's friend insist on talking "black" and black issues in her presence. Dr. Laura's N-word rant has provided plenty of blogosphere fodder from every point of view.

As an interracially married black woman, I see this whole issue slightly differently than most. From where I'm standing, Dr. Laura's use of the N-word is barely relevant. After all, she's a talk show host known for being-- and indeed, expected to be--incendiary. In the world of media advice, there are really only two possible responses: controversial and politically correct. Both are geared toward generating the approval of their listeners/viewers. Neither are really in the business of actually offering useful advice--especially not to interracial families. How can they? At bottom, Dr. Laura, Dr. Phil-- and any other radio or TV "dr" currently on air-- are entertainers.

My hope is that the African American woman who called Dr. Laura knew this: and wanted to see what kind of crazy, kooky response the host would give. If that is the case (and some believe that it is) then, Dr. Laura stepped into the trap laid for her, it's all very entertaining, illustrates nothing more than our usual two-faced, black-white dialogue and I really could care less.

But my greater concern is that the caller might have been looking for real advice... and that is where I see a real issue for black and white families-- and indeed interracial families of every mixture. The fact is that, for the woman caller-- and for other mixed families-- these questions, concerns and issues come up frequently. Where can we go for advice in tricky situations involving the comments of family members and friends? Where do we get insight--not from entertainers-- but from other spouses, parents and experts who really understand the special nuances of being in an interracial or intercultural relationships?

I know there are many websites and blogs discussing these issues in one way or the other. Many who follow this blog run those sites--and are doing that work. But even though interracial marriages are on the rise, even though there millions of us, in the mainstream of American culture, we have yet to successfully aggregate our resources in ways that make us fully able to help each other. We haven't found ways to maximize our power. Instead of being able to offer each other support and solutions on the trickier aspects of integrating two (or more cultures) we end up either trying to pretend those issues don't exist, or getting "Dr. Laura-ed" into racially divided camps.

Where do we go to talk to each other candidly and honestly about the problems that confront us within our families? How do we spread the word about the existence of those experts and resources that already exist? How do we organize and disseminate information that enables interracial couples and families to navigate the tricky waters of a society that either reduces racial issues to the "N-word" or would rather pretend that racial tensions don't exist at all?

In my own searches on these questions, it seems that interracial family magazines, blogs and programs often have a short shelf life (unless they are organized around a legal issue like multiracial classification, see or around dating and mating). I'm not sure why that is. Do we fail to support each other? Are we unaware of each other? Are we stingy with the resources of time and money that can make or break these crucial clearinghouses? Are there still "too few" of us to make it work? Or, on some level, are also a little afraid of a real dialogue on these issues?

Personally, I don't believe that any of the above are true. I think the time is now to explore race and racism WITHIN families, not simply in terms of the family against the wider world. I'm eager to know of other sources, and eager to be involved in ways that we can provide more support to interracial couples and families. I'm eager to contribute what I know-- and to learn from others' experiences. I'm eager to provide real knowledge to other couples and families on exactly what works when friends and family members bring racial tensions-- or when they happen within the home.

If not us--those of us who have been and are "in the trenches"-- who? No one deserves to be "Dr. Laura-ed"--and that's exactly what will continue to happen unless we can find a better platform to share our stories and strength with each other.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Happy Birthday, Sisi!

Fourteen years ago today, after hours of unsuccessful labor and (at last) an emergency C-section, Sisi was born. I remember being elated (and exhausted) when I finally got to see her little face. She gave me a little smirk of a smile. The nurse said it was just gas, but even then, I knew better. Since then, I’ve seen that smirk too many times to be persuaded differently now. It’s the look that means “I hear you talking… but I have my own ideas, thank you very much!”

The "smirk"-14 years later.

Since then, Sisi and I have been inseparable. That first night, the nurse brought her to me apologetically when she wouldn’t stop screaming in the nursery. “We’ve tried everything,” she said settling my newborn daughter into my arms. “I think she just wants you.” And as if to prove her right, Sisi stopped crying almost instantly and drifted off to sleep. That started the trend of nursing and then sleeping in bed with me. It also started “thousand kisses”: a night time ritual of multiple kisses that ended, only reluctantly, a few years ago.
Things change, because they must, because it’s the nature of life. My marriage to Sisi’s dad didn’t last: but my bond with her remains unbroken. For four years, it was just the two of us and when Kevin entered the picture, I sought her permission to date him. I remember her eight- year-old response to the idea of Mommy “dating”: “I would rather you didn’t, but if you really want to, I guess it would be okay.”
Kevin was smart about her: he wooed her with presents (and still does). In the end, Sisi foresaw the conclusion between us long before either of us were ready to admit to it. We’d only been dating a few months when she asked him “Are you going to marry my mom?”
Adjusting to being an older sister was harder for someone who had been, up to that moment, the center of her own small Universe. Even now, there are tensions, but on the whole, she’s grown into the role. The bigger changes have been between us.
It started in fifth grade; she was ten and at the costume parade around the school—a tradition that took the place of Halloween parties—and instead of waving and announcing proudly “That’s my mom!” like she used to do, she barely acknowledged me. She was too busy talking to her friends and seemed embarrassed when I insisted on making my presence known. I was hurt: I’d rearranged my schedule just to be there. How could she act that way?

Little did I know how much more embarrassing I’d ultimately become. I’ve learn to use it to my advantage. It’s one of the few threats that still works.

Last year, was tough for both of us. Eighth grade brought out the “mean girl”—in Sisi and in her friends. Technology made it worse for everyone; parents and guidance counselors got involved. Sisi came home crying day after day, unable to see beyond the moment, unable to believe me when I told her “this too shall pass.” Some days, I didn't believe it myself. Some days, I cried, too.

It passed. Now, as high school looms, my fingers are crossed for a better year. But it’s going to be hard. I know it is. Boys haven't really entered the picture yet. When they do, everything will get much more complicated.

“It gets worse before it gets better,” our pediatrician told me. Friends and relatives who’d already survived the teen years agreed. “It gets worse… then it gets better.” The doctor said fifteen was the nadir: the crashing, developmental end of a cycle that began at ten. Friends give different numbers: seventeen, twenty, twenty-five.

I confess: I’m scared. Adolescence now is so much harder than it was thirty years ago when I was transitioning…and it was no picnic then. But just like that first night, when the nurse surrendered and brought her to me, I have hope that, as long as we’re together, somehow it’ll be okay. I have hope because we still talk: because, even when I don’t want to know—I know. I know about the fights with friends, I know about the frustrations about boys, the laziness about school, the desire for the fruits of being grown, the fear about the responsibilities. I know about Shane Dawson, the Teen Choice Awards, Oovo and Family Force Five. I know why her friends call her “Crouton” and which ones have already lost their virginity. I know she’s curious about alcohol and her own sexuality—but afraid of them, too. I know she’s desperate for independence… but still welcomes the opportunity to climb into Mom’s bed when the thunder is loud and the lightning is bright.

And she knows that, whatever the struggle, whatever the challenge, whatever happens, I’m not going anywhere. She knows she can count on me. She knows I’m proud of her. She knows I’m in for the long-haul. She knows I’m more faithful than any “friend” she will ever have. Of course I am. I’m her mother.

So, Happy Birthday, Crouton. You’ve blessed my life from the very first minute—and I’m deeply grateful for all the wonderful things you are! And thank you for sharing your challenges and explorations with us. My life (and this blog) wouldn’t be the same without you!

ps- The "single eye" picture is violet contacts, below. Yeah... I can't tell either. Betting this won't last two weeks.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Sisi and the Colored Contacts-- Part 2



Regular readers recall that, about a month ago, Sisi asked for colored contacts lenses. My older daughter has two African American parents, perfect vision and beautiful deep brown eyes. I heard her request as an expression that brown eyes were less beautiful than blue ones-- and that African American features are less attractive than Caucasian ones-- and categorically refused.

At first.

Upon further reflection, however, I decided to treat the matter differently and allow her the same youthful experimentation that I have allowed her with her hair and her clothes. So we made an appointment with our family eye doctor (overdue anyway) and Si has been fitted with trial pairs of violet lenses.

Can you tell which of the two pictures above is with the contacts-- and which is without?

Good luck. I'll post an answer later in the week!

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Burying the "strong black woman" stereotype

As anyone who's read Don't Bring Home a White Boy knows, I really hate the strong black woman stereotype. In my opinion, this unrealistic image robs black women of their vulnerabilities. It steals from us the ability to ask for help or be cared for. It helps to burn us out and send us to earlier graves.

And so, while at the National Book Club Conference in Atlanta last weekend, I was pleased that so many women step outside of the stereotype and share their experiences, their hurts and their needs.

I know what you're thinking: things got that deep at a gathering of ladies book clubs? Sure why not! Especially when the discussion is led by several powerful women who, instead of turning the spotlight on their many accomplishments, chose to open up about their many struggles.

Terrie Williams and Ntozake Shange were among the speakers around the topic of "Black Pain"-- but in a roomful of black women talking frankly about their lives, it could have just as easily been a eulogy for "the strong black woman." For those who don't know, Terrie Williams runs the eponymous Terrie Williams Agency, one of the largest and most successful minority-owned public relations firms in the country. Her client list includes a raft of famous names in sports, media and corporate America (Eddie Murphy, Sean Combs, Janet Jackson, Coca-Cola and GE to name just a few) but over the weekend, she wore her author hat. Her latest book, Black Pain: It Only Looks Like We're not Hurting delves deep into a topic that most Americans find uncomfortable: depression and mental illness.

Ntozake Shange is the is the author of the 1973 stage play for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf. For Colored Girls is a series of monologues performed by seven different women, laying bear their most intimate pain. It won the playwright the Obie Award. She won it again in 1981 for Mother Courage and her Children. Carving out her identity as a black feminist at a time when doing so was contrary to the notions of black male and female solidarity, she also created her own name: Ntozake, which means “she who brings her own things” and Shange, which means “who walks with lions.” To list all of her awards would take more space than I have: but it’s sufficient to say that her talent has been recognized with nearly every major award available. Her first novel in 14 years will be released in September; it's called Some Sing, Some Cry.

Obviously, these two "Super Sisters" could have chosen to talk about their paths to success. Instead, however, they chose to talk about their struggles. Ms. Shange allowed her introduction to include a mention of her three attempts at suicide and her ongoing health challenges. Ms. Williams started the session by admitting that she felt overwhelmed and exhausted. "I feel like I might burst into tears at any moment," she confessed while the audience nodded supportively-- because we all knew the feeling.

I found it refreshing to see women of Ms. Williams and Ms. Shange's status opening up the doubts and dark corners of their lives, claiming their sorrow, claiming their vulnerability, claiming the right to cry in public and, yes, claiming weakness. Doing so may knock them off some people's "strong black woman" pedestal-- but I think it allows them to wear a much nobler crown:

That of simply being human.
PhotobucketNtozake Shange and Terrie Williams, National Book Club Conference 2010. Photo by Sid Tutani/GoLiveFoto

Obviously, revealing our weaknesses isn't appropriate for every circumstance or gathering, but I sometimes think that many black women wear their shields to high, too much of the time. In an attempt to avoid pain, we attempt to seem impervious to it. Nothing gets to us. We are cool, unflappable. We are strong black women. It works: we seem capable, but others are often afraid of us. We don't get assistance-- even when we desperately need it-- because our mask of resilience suggests that this "strong black woman" has it under control. Instead of expressing sadness, fatigue or fear, we only release anger... and turn into SBW's evil younger sister, ABW--the angry black woman, and is used as yet another stereotype to dehumanize our feelings.

What women like Ms. Williams and Ms. Shange are doing in sessions like the one I attend this weekend is encouraging all of us to rip aside the masks and be willing to let our true feelings out. In doing so, they're leading the way toward some new definitions of black womanhood, definitions that allow us to be strong,weak and everything in between-- just like women of every other culture.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

What “White Culture” means to black-white families

If you have the right "friends," there's no place like Facebook for being exposed to new ideas, new blogs and new writers who have fresh and interesting takes on some of the concepts that we, here in the trenches of race relations, deal with on a daily basis. That was the case for me today, when I signed in to FB and saw a note from one of my cyber-friends in an interracial relationship, directing us all to a blog at Psychology The post, by Mikhail Lyubanksy is entitled "Going Where Glenn Beck Wouldn't: Defining White Culture" and it makes an attempt to outline the basics of what it means to be a white American. I confess, I'm not well-versed in the whole Glenn Beck controversy over this issue since Beck seems to be to go out of his way to make inflammatory, baiting and controversial remarks. Beck strikes me as theater of the absurd; I just don't pay him much mind. But the blog did an excellent job of explaining the context in which the concerns about attacks "white culture" arose—and then defining it. Check out the full post here.

I had never read Lyubansky before, but I found his observations on whiteness to be honest and accurate. While acknowledging that "black culture"—like white culture, or any other culture for that matter-- can be as different as the individuals who belong to it, he rightly states that black culture, in many ways, has become (for good or ill) synonymous with hip-hop culture. And he points out that cultural assimilation seems to be accepted more readily by other non-black groups—even when there are non-white physical traits. "White culture", according to Lyubansky, means three fundamental things that reach across differences in traditions, country of origin or religion. I've set them out below with my embellishments in parentheses:

1. distinction from Black culture, (defining "others" is part and parcel of whiteness);

2. avoidance of self-racialization, (in other words, "he's black, she's Asian, and he's Latino—but I'm just a person") and

3. privilege (which I define simply as getting the benefit of the doubt, as opposed to having to prove oneself NOT to be a stereotype).

I think these are excellent starting points for multi-racial families to explore the realities of whiteness. For the white members of the household, acknowledging the existence of a "white culture"—and a white culture that defines who is not white, while accepting the benefits and privileges of not having to define itself-- it is an important tool in dismantling the kinds of closed-minded, blind and unrealistic racial expectations that some white people engage it. Discussing both "whiteness" and "blackness"—and their perceived advantages and disadvantages strikes me as useful enterprise for helping kids to find words and ways for reaching beyond race in their interactions in the wider world. It would also be a useful place for explaining some of the different reactions and experiences they might have as they leave the safety of their multi-cultural worlds and begin to relate to people who identify with a certain cultural set of beliefs.

In other words, I think it's just as important to have a vocabulary about what it means to be white, as it is to have a vocabulary about what it means to be black. To ignore whiteness—to fail to break it down to some common definition is to do exactly what Mikhail Lyubansky challenges in this piece: it would elevate whiteness as being something that needs no explanation. It makes whiteness the standard, and everything else "other".

We need to think as much about whiteness as blackness, to explain it and understand it. Talking about it minimizes it, takes away its power. In discussing white culture openly and honestly, I believe we can get closer to the place where neither black nor white are necessary concepts for identifying or explaining people.

Monday, July 26, 2010

If Anything Happens to Me...

This week, I'm boarding a plane for Atlanta to speak at the National Book Club Conference. I'm leaving Thursday and I'll be gone for four days.

Travel is always a mixed bag experience for me. On the one hand, it's good to get out, to meet readers and fellow writers. After all, writing can be a very solitary occupation and it's nice to get out of the house. But as good as it is to interact with others, leaving town for a few day always raises the issue of my fear of flying... and of dying.

Perhaps "fear" is too strong a word. "Unease" might be more accurate, since unlike those who are desperately, pathologically afraid, I will actually get on airplanes. And while I'm in no rush to meet my Maker, I accept that day comes when it comes. Still any time I fly, I double check my final arrangements. Will? Power of attorney? Everything still in the safe? Check, check and check.

By now, my blended, multiracial should be used to the pre-flight rituals of my telling them repeatedly that I love them, reminding them where all to find my email aliases and passwords and other, few pitiful "secrets" I have. And then for Kevin and Sierra, there's the "if anything happens to me" conversation.

This is not just neurosis on my part: the issue is real. In Maryland, like most states, as a step-parent, Kevin has no right to maintain custody over Sisi if something were to happen to me. Instead, her biological father would be assumed to have custody over her in the event of my death. Although my will can state my wishes for who should raise Sisi, a court would not be bound by that stipulation. Instead, a determination would be made according to the "best interest of the child" standard. Because she's a teenager, in the event of a dispute for custody between Kevin and her biological dad, Sisi's preferences would be given a greater weight than a younger child's-- but even that might not win the day.

All of this assumes a controversy... and my hope is that everyone would agree that the best and least disruptive thing to do in the event of my unfortunate demise would be for Sisi to remain with Kevin and Lil Bit. They have been her family for the past five years. Before that, it was just the two of us for five years. She only lived with her Dad for a few years when she was very small and these days visits only once a year. Her friends, her school and her favorite activities are all here. Uprooting her to live with her father in Florida at this point in her life would probably not be the best of ideas. I know because she told me so. Much as she loves her dad, she does NOT want to move to Florida.

Her biological father agrees she belongs here, with me, her mother. But I can't help but wonder if his feelings would change if something were to happen to me. Unexpected changes in circumstances have been known to challenge our ideas about what is the right course of action. Might he feel differently if I were gone? Would it seem inappropriate then for the white guy I married to be raising his child?

As I began thinking about this trip, I asked Kevin once again what he'd do about Sisi if anything were to happen to me.

"She belongs here. She's a part of this family and I would fight for her if it comes to that," he said simply.

As much as I like to hear that, the truth is, if it came to a fight, Kevin would probably lose. Step-parents rarely win against biological parents, unless the biological parent is unfit. Usually, the child only gets to make the choice about with whom to live unless she's over 16. My lawyer friends tell me that the best shot a step-parent has to stay involved with a well-loved step-child is to set up a trust fund that the step-parent administers. That way, the step-parent can retain some contact on matters of the trust. We haven't done that and that's my next step-- just in case.

It's the "just in case" that's the point. Too many of us don't think about the unpleasant inevitability of our death. We'd rather not think through the "if anything happens to me" because it seems morbid or negative. We think if we don't talk about it, somehow that keeps it from happening.

But the "if anything happens to me" questions are important ones to answer-- not just for step-kids, but for all of our kids. And while, sometimes, expressing our final wishes won't guarantee the outcomes we'd like, it's usually a whole lot better to have something written down than nothing. Several of the legal websites like can help the average person draft a simple will or power of attorney easily and at relatively low cost-- but even a letter, signed and witnessed, expressing who you believe would be the best guardian for your children will provide your survivors (and the court, if it comes to that) with guidance.

It's something to think about, if you haven't already. Airplane rides remind me of the fragility of life-- but the truth is none of us know our appointed hour. Providing for the custody and care of our children isn't morbid-- it's just another way of loving them.

And thanks for reading this blog. I want you to know I appreciate you-- just in case anything happens to me!

Friday, July 23, 2010

"You be the Slave": Explaining American Slavery to a Five Year Old

Yesterday, Lil' Bit had a playdate with her very best friend in pre-school. With the temperature soaring near 100 degrees, outside was out of the question, so instead, Lil Bit and her friend (we'll call her "Natasha"), the little girl's mother (let's call her "Nancy") and I met at an indoor playspace in our local mall. The girls had a blast, running and jumping and creating games the way that little kids do in a fun place with lots of activities. Nancy and I sat nearby, watching them, sipping iced coffees and chatting...the way mothers do.

We started chatting about vacations. I told Nancy about our recent trip to Portland, Oregon to visit family, where we spent the coldest 4th of July I think I've ever experienced. Then I asked about their holiday. Nancy sighed, then told me about their trip to Mount Vernon, in Alexandria, Virginia on the 4th of July to see the daytime fireworks.

Mt. Vernon was the home of George Washington and once was fully operational plantation, complete with five farms and 67 slaves. Today, it is a historical landmark. Many of the buildings have been completely restored and re-enactments and narratives of 18th Century life are a part of the program offered to its millions of visitors each year. Nancy and her husband took Natasha on the tour, which included a visit to the slave quarters. After listening to the presentation, Natasha turned to her mother and asked:

"What's a slave?"

Slave quarters, Mount Vernon Plantation

"I explained it as best as I could on the level that I thought she could understand. I said that people back then thought it was okay to own other people. That the slaves had to work for the people who owned them and they couldn't ever leave. That they could be sold and bought like cars. I told her slavery was very wrong and some people knew it even then, but it took a war for slavery to stop. I didn't explain that American slaves were all Africans. I just decided not to go there for now."

Of course, I asked "Why not?"

"Partly because we're Jewish and there is also slavery in our ancestry-- and partly because I know my child. I have an image of her walking up to some random African American person and blurting out 'Were you a slave?' or some equally potentially offensive thing. She won't mean any harm-- she's trying to understand-- but that's an embarrassment I don't need right now. I'll try to explain all that when she's older."

I know Natasha, too and her mother's assessment isn't wrong. I could clearly imagine the little girl causing a racial incident as she tested out her new vocabulary word in its racial context. Said to the wrong person on the wrong day and Nancy's "teachable moment" could have seriously negative consequences. Race is still a touchy subject for many Americans. Some would like to pretend that it no longer matters, or at least avoid discussing it. Others see the hands of racism and white supremacy in every shadow. Most are somewhere in between but, to paraphrase Forrest Gump, but bringing up race between acquaintances is like a box of chocolates-- you never know what you're gonna get.

Nancy continued: "I guess my explanation was seriously lacking because slavery is now a part of her play-talk. I've heard her in room with her dolls saying, 'Okay, so this one is the slave and this one is the owner.'" She shook her head. "Clearly, she doesn't understand that slavery was wrong or how awful it was to be a slave. Should I have just ignored her question? Said something else?"

It was an interesting delimma. For the record, if Lil Bit had asked me that question, I certainly would have given a similar explanation-- but mine would have included the role of race in American slavery, for two reasons. First, because Africa is a part of Lil Bit's legacy, and second because her personality is quite different from her friend's. Shy around people she doesn't know in any instance, Lil Bit's not likely to walk up to a brown-skinned stranger and ask "Were you a slave?"

But Natasha's situation is very different. Because she isn't African American, perhaps her mother did the right thing not to emphasize race. Perhaps in a little girl with white skin, adding race to the equation might have implanted a notion of superiority? I don't know. Instead, perhaps the appropriate understanding comes from putting slavery in the full global and historical context: that slavery is as old as human history and that no culture has been exempt from being subject to its confines, particularly as human beings have often been just another "spoil of war." Perhaps what Natasha needs to understand is that, as a Jew, slavery is a part of her legacy in the same way that it part of my Lil Bit's. Perhaps, too, the quick glimpse at slavery through the historical re-creation of Mount Vernon made it seem a little too benign to a small child.

In no way would I suggest that a five-year old of any ethnicity should be submerged in the horrors of the history of slavery. Later, when she can better comprehend the inhumanity of that system will be soon enough. And, as I said to Nancy, her fascination with her new vocabulary word will surely fade in time, too.

But in spite of how uncomfortable the explanations are, I think Natasha's "What is a slave?" question shouldn't be the end of the lesson but the beginning. On the level that they can understand, I think it's absolutely appropriate to teach our kids their history--and American slavery is as much a part of Natasha's history as it is Lil Bit's. Nancy and I made plans to be on the look out for age-appropriate opportunities for both of our girls to learn more about history-- and to commit to teaching them together to understand and appreciate the cultural foundations they are standing on. We live in an area rich with historical landmarks and cultural opportunities. Since we already get together to go the the playland, why not get together to visit the Frederick Douglass home, or to take in a children's play about Harriet Tubman? When they are older, why not go together to the Holocaust Museum or Gettysburg?

For her part, Nancy was all for it. "I think that's a great idea," she said, as the girls ran over to beg for ice cream. "The best way to teach about difference to give them the opportunity to see that there really isn't any. We're all One, right?"

Amen, sister-- I couldn't have said it better myself.