Sunday, June 27, 2010

Location, Location, Location- Why some places are better than others for IR families

Suddenly, it seems my life is filled with interracial couples and their mixed children.

Lil Bit and I go the pool almost daily, and she's become fast friends with two little girls around her age who look a lot like her- and both are biracial. They differ from our family slightly in composition (the mothers are white, the fathers are black) but this matters little to them or to me. As mothers of biracial daughters, their moms and I have enjoyed some interesting poolside conversations as the kids splash around. We talk about our husbands… and men are men. We talk about the local schools. We talk about our daughters and we talk about our experiences with the whole "black and white family" dynamic. We agree that, for the most part, race has a played a relatively small part in family lives.

My friend Susan's family is the most like mine. She too, was married before her current partner and has a now teen-aged daughter from that relationship who is white, not mixed and who lives with Susan and her current husband. Her current husband has a teenaged daughter from a prior relationship, too—she is black. And together they have Layanna, who is six. Over the summers, his daughter joins their family: black dad, white mom, white daughter, black daughter, mixed daughter. Instant mixed and blended family.

You might think that this would be a recipe for all kinds of conflict—and it sometimes is, but not in the way you might expect.

The conflicts, to the extent they exist, come as the teens struggle to accept the authority of step-parents-- and between the two teenagers who are not related by any blood tie-- than from any other issue.

In a way, I'm not surprised. Where we live—Montgomery County, Maryland— a suburb of Washington, D.C.--is one of the most diverse regions of the United States. Our town boasts a population that identifies itself as 43% white, 18% black, 21% Latino, 15% Asian and 3% of other racial/ethnic groups. When we go out as family here, we rarely feel anyone pays us any special notice. There are so many families of so many cultures and mixes of ethnicities that we merit barely more than a glance. Our family's racial composition may be a little unusual, but it's nothing folks around here haven't seen before. In fact, these days we're more likely to get special notice from a family that looks LIKE OURS, than one that doesn't.

Just last night, Kevin and I took the girls out for dinner and ran into a couple with their children. We didn't know them at all, but the mother said hello, and the father said hello and the kids said hello before we all headed in our separate directions. The reason for all these "hellos"? She was black, he was white, the kids looked like Lil Bit. Just one moment like that is a nice thing. But when we got the restaurant, we were seated near another black-white couple, who also gave us the smile and nod as we passed them.

In the 1990s, Montclair New Jersey was crowned as a mecca for interracial couples by Interrace Magazine, a publication aimed at interracial couples that I don't think is in existence any longer. Since the Interrace poll, I don't know of any more recent polls, but the recent Pew Research study found that other areas are catching up. Specifically, the study found that among all new marriages in 2008, 22% in the West were interracial, compared to only 13% in both the East and South and 11% in the Midwest. Since the same study also found that Americans are marrying interracially at the highest rates ever, I expect more and more communities to become so diverse that none of us pay much attention to the colors any more.

The sheer numbers of multi-racial and multi-ethnic couples in our community creates a feeling of solidarity that is particularly helpful for our children. That we ended up living where we do wasn't exactly planned— I grew up in neighborhood Fairfax County, Virginia, an equally diverse part of the world, and Kevin has made the Washington area his home for the past 30 years—but we stumbled into our community quite by chance. I didn't do a demographic search to test its diversity: we just bought the house we liked/could afford. We were lucky.


If for some reason, however, we decided to move, I'd definitely do my best to determine a community's diversity before settling there. Most communities have a website that includes at least some demographic information on its residents. While most won't break down the number of interracial families, a solid balance of ethnicities provides the raw material to do our own calculations. Since we're all marrying each other, and most of us have children… well, the math's not that hard.

Fortunately, that move is not in our future. Instead, Lil Bit will keep playing with her little biracial friends until they all go to school together in the fall. I'm certain she will meet all kinds of children whose parents look different on the outside at school—and there is strength, power and protection in those numbers and in the familiarity and ease they create for the community as a whole.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Blue... When Does Experimenting With One's Look Become Self-Hate?

Having a teenaged daughter who has two black parents, a white step-father and bi-racial half sister is perfect fodder for anyone who wants to write a family blog on race, identity and family. Almost daily she says something that raises issues I think are appropriate for this blog, but not always does she give me her consent to talk about them. Yesterday, she told me something supremely interesting, but when I asked if I could blog about it, she said "No." I even offered to change it up some. She still said no. I think she's being slightly unreasonable-- after all, none of her friends would EVER do anything as boring as read her MOTHER's blog-- but I respect her and her privacy. You'll all just have to wait to find out what she revealed in one of our (ongoing) mother-daughter talks yesterday. She did, however, give me permission to recount today's story.

It begins in Walmart (like any good story) with a discussion over makeup. I had promised her she could start wearing it in high school and now Sisi wants a ton of it. Since she starts that institution of higher learning this Fall, she's lobbying hard to build her supply: eyeshadows, mascara, thick black eyeliner.

"No," I said. "First, it's still summer. You're not in high school yet. Second, until you're buying it yourself, I'm in control of how much makeup you can wear. And I think mascara and a little lip gloss is enough. Maybe a neutral shadow. We'll see."

She argued with me: I'll spare you a repeat of all that. But what she said when she finally gave up on eyeshadow and liquid eyeliner is where I once again confronted questions of race, identity and the double-standards of it all. Because after a long pause, she asked, "If I saved my money and bought them myself, could I have blue contact lenses?"

My daughter has perfect eyesight-- she only wears glasses in costumes or in the sun--so the purpose of these contact lenses would be cosmetic only.


Sisi in her doctor costume last Halloween. Very fake glasses.

But her suggestion triggered so much more in me. In the space of a blink, I thought of Toni Morrison's masterpiece, The Bluest Eye-- the story of a black girl who longs for white skin, blonde hair and blue eyes.
I thought of the story I read of the Caribbean woman who paid close to $8,000 for a surgical procedure to turn her dark brown eyes blue-- a procedure that failed-- and nearly went blind in the process. (Read about it here.) I think of James Brown singing "Say it loud, I'm black and I'm proud." I think of chemical relaxers and hair weaves, of colorism, of just how hard it can be to affirm that "black is beautiful" in a culture that makes daily assaults on brown eyes, kinky hair and curvy figures.

My daughter, like most teens is a voracious consumer of this culture... and now she wants blue eyes.

"Absolutely not," I said before I had really thought about it. "You have beautiful brown eyes, why would you want to cover them up?"

"But you let me dye my hair," she reminded me.

True. I did. Not only did I let her dye her hair, I let her dye it purple, in the hope that being allowed to do it would get the desire for "crazy hair" out of her system once and for all. It worked.

"So what's the difference?" she demanded.

The difference of course, is everything that blue eyes suggests to African Americans about our "insufficiencies." And I was about to say something along that lines, but instead I thought of my other daughter, my Lil Bit, with her green eyes and fair skin. In my mind, I fast-forwarded a decade, and imagined her asking me the same question: "Mom, can I have blue contacts?"

My initial reaction was the same-- "Why would you want contacts if you don't need them to see?" but after that, I had no issue. There were no concerns of pride in racial identity, no worries about self hate, no need to defend the choice beyond reasons of finances or frivolity.

As soon as I realized that I was applying a double standard to my daughter's choices about how to experiment with the beauty God gave them, I knew I was probably being unfair to Sisi and loading her up with the same limited (and limiting) notions of black beauty that hamstring the choices of so many. I realized that because I'm sensitive what others have defined as "black beauty" (e.g.natural hair, brown or black eyes, a big butt, or whatever) my automatic refusal to even consider her request was, in fact, applying the same kind of double standard that black women are subjected to daily. If we choose to straighten our hair-- we're trying to be white. When white women straighten their hair, it's a choice. When we wear weaves or wigs, we're trying to be white. But when white women wear "extensions" they are enhancing their natural hair. When we change the color of our eyes, we're trying to be something we're not. When white women do it, they are experimenting with a fresh look. It's a double standard and it's silly and unfair. While the black community as a whole may continue to define "blackness" and black women according to narrow and specifically "authentic" images, it's not something that I want to perpetuate in my own family.

It is absolutely essential to me that BOTH my girls grow up to believe in their limitless potential. That potential is not simply in academic, career or professional opportunities: it also extends to much more mundane choices like how they wear their hair. And while I still think it's silly to wear contacts if you don't need them to see, if Sisi actually saves her money and insists on buying them, I'll do my best to see it like the purple hair-- as a mild and youthful exploration into counterculture. Blue contacts would also bring her some questions-- and perhaps even some disdain--from some who might feel that her choice abandons something fundamental about black identity. I know we'd have to have a lot of conversations about all of that. Still, I believe my daughters can have a strong black identity-- even with purple hair and blue eyes.

What I really don't want to see is any tattoos... but, for now at least, that's a worry for another day.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

My Little Mixed Girl



Lil Bit is nearly five, still in pre-school and for the most part, unaware that her family is any different from anyone else's in anyway. To her, Mom is just "mommy" and Dad is just "Daddy." To the extent race plays any significant role in her consciousness, it's on the level that experts say most young children appreciate it: strictly in terms of colors. "Mommy is brown," she might say. "Daddy is white. Sister is brown and I'm…"


Sometimes she says "white like Daddy." And sometimes, particularly after a long session in the sun, "brown like Mommy." Once she said, "I want to be as brown as sister." Another time she said, "I'm almost white like Daddy." And yet another: "I look almost as brown as Mommy."

The beginnings of her process of self identification—and the questions that will accompany it—are evident in what she says. So are some my own conflicts about it. I confess that it bugs me a bit when she says she's white. I don't know how Kevin feels about this, but I wouldn't be at all surprised if it bothered him if she chose to identify as solely black. After all, she's a part of both us. Neither of us wants to be "erased."

A few months back, I was interviewed by Dr. Laura Berman on Oprah Radio regarding my book and other topics around interracial dating and relationships. A woman called in and shared that she (a black woman) and her husband (a white man) had recently had an argument because she'd said to their ambitious, mixed race, ten-year-old daughter "You can be the first black female President of the United States!"

"She's not black," her husband argued. "She's biracial. Why would you say that?"

The woman confessed to being genuinely surprised by how upset he was. "Our daughter looks like a black American—light skinned, but definitely not white. She's seen as black in our community and has even had some run-ins with white kids at school because of her color. I didn't think he'd react that way."

I didn't really have any advice for the woman—except that I think I understand how the husband felt. Unless you saw her with me, my Lil Bit would pass in the world as a white girl and saying that makes me, as a black woman uncomfortable in the same way that having his daughter perceived as solely black made that woman's white husband uncomfortable. I know a lot of black people don't like it, but Tiger Woods' identification as "Cablinasian" really was apt and sensitive in many ways. It recognized the different influences of ethnicity and culture that multi-racial children try to honor. For bi-racial and multi-racial children, single race identification quite literally erases people they love.

The real experts—the social psychologists and psychologists who work with mixed race children—say that racial identity is a constantly shifting thing for kids. In response to the question "What are you?" children can shift between being "black only" and "white only" to "both" then on to being simply "human." To be helpful a parent must put aside his or her own desires about how the child sees herself and provide as much support and information as possible. It's also helpful to realize that how the child sees herself and how the world sees her may not necessarily be the same. Knowing that there may be conflicts ahead, and training her to respond to them in ways that are self-affirming is just part of the uniqueness of being a mixed race person—and a part of the unique challenge of raising a mixed race child.

I'm all for supporting my daughter but the experts' advice leaves out the fact that parents have feelings too. It is my genuine hope to teach Lil Bit to value and claim all of her heritage proudly, erasing none of it. I know there might be heavy pressure from peers and others to fit her neatly into a single box—but I hope Kevin and I can support her in becoming the kind of young woman who can withstand it.

But I know that in the end, who she becomes is not my decision. It's hers.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Strange Conversations: Or Can A White Man Raise a Black Girl?

Sisi is having a tough summer. Thanks to the video of the two "young ladies" in their "altercation" with a Seattle police officer over a jaywalking ticket, we had a long conversation about what to do if you're arrested (Ask one of your friends--there are always friends-- to tape the whole thing, don't fight it and let them take you in, honey. Your mom's a lawyer.)

We had a conversation about why it was a bad idea to station herself on the school grounds with a bunch of friends and why it's always going to be better to congregate in smaller groups at someone's house or doing a specific activity than just "hanging out."

And today, we had the conversation about why it's bad to walk home from the pool with just your bikini top and towel on (no cover up, no t-shirt)- no matter how comfortable it was or the fact that "everybody else" is doing it.

In each of these conversations, Kevin and I both talked with her about what we perceive as the nuances of each event. And in every case, he brought up the differences in how young black people are perceived than how young white ones are.

In the first incident, his comments were that while she might be stopped unfairly-- possibly for racial reasons-- escalating the encounter or getting angry would only make it much worse. Instead, he counselled-- and I completely agree--the smart thing is to respect the officer's authority (even if he or she is dead wrong) and fight through other channels.

As for hanging out at the school, Sisi and a cluster of her black friends--girls and boys-- had taken to doing this until I told her I didn't like it and that she wouldn't be allowed to go over to the school unless she had business inside it. When the "but Mom, why?" started, I explained that it didn't look good for a bunch kids to be loitering in front of the closed school building. "Someone's going to notice a bunch of black kids in front of the school, get nervous and call the cops," I told her. "I know you're not doing anything, but that's not how it's perceived. I know it's not fair, but it's true and I don't want you to get in any trouble. Your friends are welcome to come over here and hang out on the back deck," I concluded, trying not to be a complete kill-joy. After all, we live right behind the school and I'm usually here to chaperone-- oh, right. That's the problem--at least to her mind!

She might have concluded that I was over-sensitive, bougie and ridiculously over-protective. Perhaps she does think that. But if I'm over-sensitive, bougie and over-protective, there are two of us in this household who feel the same way.

Finally, I was livid when she walked in an hour late, wearing just her bikini top and a towel. The pool is half a mile a way, the neighborhood is pretty safe and it was still light out. Still, walking the streets that naked doesn't strike me as a good idea-- especially when I know how this society hyper-sexualizes the bodies of young black women. (If you need a primer on this, check out Erykah Badu's video here or the work of scholars Layli Phillips and DP Stevens paper "Freaks, Gold Diggers and Dykes" here

Kevin approached this one a little differently, but firmly. He told her: "I'm telling you, as a man, you do NOT want that kind of attention. There are men out there who dressing like that as an invitation. They are not good guys who stop when you tell them to or let you call your mother to come get you. Don't ever do that again."

I know Sisi find all of this terribly unfair-- because it is unfair. I wish we lived in a world where everyone was treated equally regardless of race or gender-- but we don't. You don't have to be black to know that doing certain activities with black skin creates a different perception than being white and doing the exact same thing. Fair? No. Reality, yes. You don't have to be female to know that being female carries with it concerns that males rarely think about. Fair? No. Reality, yes. And while I'd like to believe that the world can change, that someday there will be greater racial and gender equality I'm certain that I won't see it my life time. Sisi might not see it in hers, either.

One of the most common things I've heard in writing about interracial relationships is that the white parent can't possibly "teach a kid what it means to be black." I disagree. Being a partner to another culture means quickly learning a sensitivity to the differences--especially where the children are concerned. No one wants their kids to suffer, and certainly not from parental ignorance. We learn as parents and partners because it's essential to the success of our families and our relationships. It's like saying a father can't teach a girl how to be a woman, or a mother can't teach a boy to be a man. Not so, as many single parents have proven.

Race doesn't drive the quality of parenthood; commitment does. If race alone was the only factor that mattered, every same race family would have perfect kids. But of course the factors that create successful children are far more varied than simple skin shade. We are still very much a work in progress here, but so far, from the sensitivity he's shown I'd say the white guy I married could raise a black girl quite well. Still, it's a little strange to hear him say "You have to understand that because you're a black girl, you might be treated/perceived differently."

It's an acknowledgement that while our family might be "post racial" the rest of our society isn't.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Father's Day Reflections

For the first time that I can remember since he died three years ago, I dreamed of my father last night. I know I've had dreams of his last moments, when the pain of cancer left him unable to walk or speak. But it's been forever since I dreamed of my father-- the man as he was before the diagnosis: upright, healthy and as sure of himself as any person alive... especially when it came to what his children should do. It never mattered that we were adults: he always thought he knew best. I guess your children are your children, it doesn't matter how old they get. It's an attitude that, the older my own girls get, I understand better.

In my dream, my father was walking through my house, giving me unsolicited advice, much as he would do when he was living. He suggested paint colors for the living room. He made pronouncements about the state of our finances (in the military he was finance officer, who managed large budgets for several of the Army's largest agencies) and, he gave me a lecture about my health... which is good, but I've been ignoring a few little things. In my dream, I was telling Dad about that and he didn't think that was such a good idea. I guess he would know. He ignored little things that, had they been investigated, might have alerted us to the cancer before it was too late.

It's weird that after years of silence, Dad should step into my dreams, now on the eve of Father's Day. While I know he loved me and I loved him, ours was a complicated relationship. We saw the world through very different lenses and valued very different currencies. Because of that, it was often difficult for us to communicate.

But neither of us ever stopped trying. He never turned his back on me, he or any of my three siblings. He supported me in the best ways he knew how, and though he might have been critical of some of my choices, he certainly wouldn't let any outsider make those same comments. He was my father and he understood that job meant protect, provide and guide. It's hard and often thankless job-- a lifetime sentence in some ways. He accepted it willingly, warts and all, just as he committed himself fully to his marriage to my mother. They were married for 46 years.

Contrast this with the 70% of African American children who are born out of wedlock. Many of these kids grow up without a father in the home, without a father in their lives. It's a void I cannot imagine.

PhotobucketIt was my father who taught me to swim, who pushed me academically, who provided discipline, who modelled a work ethic. My father interviewed my dates and showed me how a real man treats his wife. My father insisted we clean our rooms, handed out chores, introduced the concept of financial stewardship. He modelled physical fitness and moderation in food and drink. The military gave him the chance to "see the world": he encouraged his children to see it. The military expanded his horizons beyond what he might have known if he'd lived his whole life in central Virginia where he was born. So from a young age, his children's horizons were expanded-- whether we wanted them to be or not. Going to symphonies, operas, taking piano lessons, playing sports-- these weren't options, they were orders.

Sometimes, my siblings and I groused... but now we're immensely grateful. Much of what I am now, I owe to him. My lawn looks good because he made us do yard work every Saturday and I learned how to cut grass, trim hedges and lay down mulch. Kevin says I can put together anything. Not true, but what I know about assembly I learned from Dad. When I hung the chandelier in our dining room and painted the kitchen, I was channelling lessons from Dad. Those were the things he loved. Even when he was sick, I could excite him with a conversation about laying tile, whitening grout, building a deck or constructing a swingset. That I know anything about those kinds of projects is a debt I owe to him.

None of us are perfect parents-- no more than any of us are perfect people. Fatherhood, like any job done well forces a man to confront not just his strengths, but also his limitations. The good ones hang in, even when the going gets tough. They say the unpopular things, do the dirty jobs, allow themselves to be hated and feared when that's the course that is required. They strive for an ideal of parenthood: for goodness and wisdom and fairness and steadfastness. Maybe they don't always succeed, but it's the trying that matters. The trying and the "teaching"-- not just how to hammer a nail or cast a line-- the teaching of what manhood means. It's an example all children need, regardless of gender.

Good fathers stand with their kids. They don't back away when the money gets tight, or when they don't know what to do-- and they certainly don't disappear because they'd rather be doing something else. Even when marriages or relationships between adults end, good fathers bend over backwards to remain engaged and involved in their childrens' lives--not just financially, but in every way.

Far too many black kids--far too kids, of all races-- don't know what it means to have a father stand with and for them every single day. It's an unimaginable loss... as great as the loss of good father, like mine. It explains too many things about what's wrong in our society. Rather than pointing fingers of blame, it really is time to as the saying goes "man up". Got kids? Parent them. No excuses. If you don't know how, find out. There are always resources available to those who seek them. Where there's a will, there's a way. I know that sounds like a platitude, but there's truth in it.

Happy Father's Day, Dad. I think that shade of blue would really pop in the living room, my roses do need a trellis and you're right, it's better to be safe than sorry. I'll make a doctor's appointment, thanks. And thanks for being a great Dad.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Not Black Enough... for Church?

Several months back, I was contacted by a producer from Soledad O'Brien's "Black in America" series. While I was hoping that Soledad wanted to interview me, that wasn't the request. Instead, the producer was reaching out to those of us who write about interracial relationships to see if we could help with a story. They were looking for an engaged interracial couple looking to marry in a church in which they both felt comfortable.

While the request may sound a little contrived, it's clear the effort was reaching for the complex issues surrounding how segregated religion remains in America. Looking for an interracial couple would allow Soledad and her producers to explore that fact through the unique paradigm of a fast-growing segment of the marrying population.

I did my best to help with the project, but when I talked to the couples I knew, I discovered something interesting: none of them were religious enough to be planning a church wedding. And that becomes even more interesting when you consider the data on black Americans and religion.

In a study published last year, The Pew Research Foundation found that compared to other racial groups, African-Americans are among the most likely to report a formal religious affiliation, with fully 87% of African-Americans describing themselves as belonging to one religious group or another, according to the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, conducted in 2007 by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life. Fifty-nine percent of those who identified a denomination said that they belonged to "historically black Protestant churches."

For those of you who don't understand what this means, it means that eight out of ten black Americans are religious, and that of those, more than half belong to an all-black church.

When you think it about, these numbers explain why the "Black in America" producers were interested in finding an interracial couple for their program-- and why they had to put out the "all-alert" to find a couple that fit their parameters. It stands to reason that people who are deeply religious would choose to marry those who share their spiritual beliefs and belong to a similar (or the same) church. That bears true with the religious married interracial couples that I know: they either belonged to the same church when they met or very similar ones. These were mixed race churches where they both already felt welcome.

But the non-religious couples were what intrigued me. This is far from scientific, of course, since I only know a handful of engaged interracial couples, but each of them said they weren't religious AT ALL and no plans for church weddings. Actually, these black women and their white fiances mirrored my own situation: neither Kevin or I are particularly religious. We were married at the county courthouse--not in a church. And while we have attended both predominantly white and black churches together, it's our own choice, not the composition of the churches that has kept us from joining.

Being more agnostic in my spiritual beliefs puts me outside the norm for a black american woman, since the Pew study found that 84% of black women surveyed said that their religious beliefs were "very important" to them. And fully 91% of black women said that they were affiliated with some kind of organized religious institution. Only 9% of black women say they are unaffiliated-- compared to 16% of men.

These numbers remind me of some other statistics-- the statistics on black men (15%) and black women(6.5%) who are married interracially. Is there a link?

Deborrah Cooper, author of the blog surviving dating thinks so. In a recent post, entitled,The Black Church: How Black Churches Keep African American Women Single and Lonely she interpreted the Pew Study to suggest that traditional black churches are part of the problem for black women, who may follow teachings that discourage them from "going where the men are."

I don't know that I completely agree, but I did find it interesting that so many of the interracial engaged couples I spoke with in my efforts to help out this TV producers laughed at the idea of a church wedding and proclaimed themselves "not into that." These black women were, like me, in the minority co-hort of women of our race...both in our attitudes toward religion and our choice of partner.

I've been called "not black enough" for other reasons in my life (liking school, talking a certain way, marrying white etc.) but this is an interesting new divide. Deborrah Cooper's piece has a lot of people talking about race, religion and romance. I think that's a good thing. I often tell people that if you do what you've always done, you'll get what you've always gotten. It's fine as long as you're happy with what's in your life. But if you're not, things may have to change... including, perhaps where you worship and with whom.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Black "SWANS"-Stong Women Achievers, No Spouse

In my internet travels today, I came across an article by Dr. Linda Young on Dr. Young is an attractive, successful black woman who writes a column called "Love in Limbo" for the magazine in which she analyzes dating and mating for those of us in the blogosphere with an armchair interest in psychology. Today's entry was entitled "High Achieving Black Women: Not Choosing or Not Chosen?" Of course, with a title like that, I knew it was something I had to read!

Using the phrase "SWANS"-- strong women achievers, no spouse--coined by Christine Whelan in her 2006 book Why Smart Men Marry Smart Women, Dr. Young analyzed the impact of education and income on black women's marital status. She reached a conclusion that surprises no one: there are more black women with advanced degrees, making incomes over $100,000 than there are black men. In fact, according to her data, there are 157 black women with college degrees for every 100 black men-- and 209 black women with masters or higher for every 100 black men. Compare that with 133 white women, 101 asian women, and 173 latina women to 100 of their men and you see what all the attention on this issue is about.

The link to Dr. Young's blog is here.

These numbers suggest that, across the board, American women are becoming better educated than American men... but nowhere is this more evident than in the black community. While the long term ramifications of this growing trend have yet to emerge, Dr. Young suggests that black SWANS who are ready to trade "no spouse" for coupledom throw out a wide net. She took her own advice: her husband is also a PhD and shares her values and interests. He happens to be white, too, but he can't help that, can he? (smiles-that's a little joke in our house!)

Regardless of education and income, however, my position is and always has been that character, common ground and common interests are the stuff of solid relationships. Looks are nice, but they can often change. While race may be largely immutable, so many of our other physical qualities will alter with age, with the state of our health, due to accident or other misfortune. Let's not forget: some diseases even alter skin shade.

Incomes can change, too-- and choices based solely on bank accounts often don't have what it takes to go the distance when the money runs out.

But the core of one's character is another matter. Let it be the guiding star in all your relationships-- romantic and otherwise-- and all else will follow.

Dr. Young seems to be on the same page. I'll be adding Love in Limbo to the blog roll and keeping up with her future posts.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Celebrating Loving Day Every Day

Today is Loving Day-- the anniversary of the milestone court case Loving v. Virginia, in which the US Supreme Court struck down laws that prevented marriages between blacks and whites. Before 1967, more than 40 states had such laws-- anti-miscegenation laws- designed to reinforce the separation of the races that also existed in education, employment, housing and public accomodation.

Mildred and Richard Loving Pictures, Images and Photos

Richard and Mildred Loving-- a white man and a black woman-- defied Virginia's version of that law by accident. Childhood sweethearts, they decided to marry in 1958. They knew there was a law against it, so they drove to Washington DC where they could marry legally. But when they returned home, they were arrested in the middle of the night and thrown in jail-- for the crime of being white and black married. Sentenced a year in jail, they were told they could avoid jail time if they left the state.

They left, but Mildred Loving wasn't happy about it. They and their small children couln't visit family in Virginia together-- a fact that was inconvenient and wrong. It was the 1960s all kinds of segregation laws were being challenged, all over the country. In 1964, Miildred wrote a letter to then Attorney General Robert Kennedy, telling him about their situation. The rest, as they say, is history.

Until her death in 2008, Mildred Loving downplayed her role in history, insisting that she was no pioneer, and that she simply wanted to live her life with the man she loved, raise their children together. Nothing more monumental than that was on her mind when she wrote her letter and changed history.

Fairy tale as it may sound, the Lovings' story ends sadly. Richard was killed in a car accident in 1973 and Mildred struggled to raise her family alone. She died in poverty.

Still, the Lovings left us a great legacy of love and justice. Because of their courage, my family enjoys the simplest of freedoms: we exist.


Thursday, June 10, 2010

Hair-Raising Adventures-- Relaxers, Naturals and Transitioning

Yesterday, I took Sisi to the salon for a touch-up. We hadn't been in a while-- she gets a touch up maybe twice a year-- and she had quite a bit of new growth. I would have preferred to wait until the Fall since she'll spend the summer swimming and spelunking and generally do all kinds of things that make spending money on hair now silly. But this is impossible: the 8th grade prom is this weekend and there is no way my big girl is going to the prom "looking busted" as she put it.

My feelings about my own hair have changed. After nearly three decades of regular chemical relaxers, I'm seriously considering going natural.

Why? Several reasons, that, it turns out, are interconnected.

1. I workout every day. Most weeks, I run three times a week (3-4 miles each session) hit the boxing bag and jump rope twice a week, and do yoga to stretch everything out once or twice a week. Most summer days, the girls and I end up at the pool in the afternoon, swimming and splashing. Relaxed hair doesn't last under that punishment-- and to keep it up, my stylist and I have a long and intimate relationship that has made me one of her best clients.

But more and more, I realize the waste of all this. Financially, it's silly-- that money could be better spent. Even if I still choose to spend it on myself in some way, I can think of better ways. A dance class, for example. Or cuter workout clothes. I might even put the cash aside for my "plastic surgery fund." Joking, really. Just joking.

Of course, I could choose hair over exercise... but this seems a shallow trade, given what we know about how exercise helps your brain, your body and adds years to your life. I once took a Facebook poll asking ladies which we'd rather have: perfect hair or a perfect body. Forty friends answered-- and no one voted for hair. But many of us choose not to exercise if it only improves an imperfect body-- and then only on the inside. I don't have a perfect body, but I do have perfect blood work, no major health issues and can still wear some clothes from ten years ago (Some, however, seem to have gotten mysterious tight in the waist. Hmmmm...) The point is exercise, for all its internal benefits, doesn't always create a bikini body. And let's face it, it's hard work! By comparison, a banging hairdo seems like instant gratification, instant improvement.

I might be persuaded that hair is worth the expense--even if the effect is short-lived-- if it weren't for...

2. I'm not really a "hair" woman in the first place. I've worn my hair about the same way (or the same couple of ways) all my life. I've never had a weave, never had braids, never done twists, never really experimented with much beyond color-- and I've stopped doing that, too. And while occasionally I cut my hair or grow it long, even those changes are in the same basic style.

Being that I'm not a hair person, I have very little ego about it. I think I may soon be one of those middle aged black women who cut her hair down to a short 'fro-- and went about her business, without feeling like I left my femininity on the salon floor.

I'm helped in feeling feminine with flowing tresses by...

3. My husband doesn't care. Most men like long hair on women, if you ask them. They find it sexy and alluring. Much has been written about the preference some black men have for black women whose hair is "dyed, fried and laid to the side." I don't have to go there: my husband's white. But I do think men, regardless of their ethnicity, find long hair to be feminine and attractive.

I expected that answer from Kevin-- and if it had mattered to him, his feeling about it would have factored into my decision. But when I asked him about it, his response was practical. "I think you spend too much time and money on it," he said. "I think it's much more important that you keep yourself in shape-- do I have to remind you we have a five year old? Besides, you always look good to me, so why are you messing with yourself?"

I love him. Not only does he say the right thing, he means it. His reply connects to the last piece of my decision to grow the relaxer, which is my own growing sense of personal identity, separate and a part from the expectations of our culture, which leads to...

4. Hair politics. I've never really thought of hair as a political statement. Hair to me has been mainly an adornment but I do appreciate the arguments of those who feel that we should love it exactly as it comes out of our heads. To me, this is not simply a racial issue, but a gender one. Women of most cultures feel the pressure to "do" their hair, whether that means curling, straightening, growing, dyeing, etc. Men just wash it and occasionally cut it... and it costs them far less in time, money and aggravation.

I want that freedom.

So, I'm transitioning. Right now I've got about an inch of new growth and I need to cut about an inch off the ends. Here are the visuals:



Today right after my workout--most of the length is slicked back:

Meanwhile, Sisi got her hair straigtened-- and that's fine with me. Her journey with her hair is hers: it's not for me to impose my journey on her. For different seasons, different hairstyles and different hair-raising adventures.

I'll update you on my hair journey in the weeks and months ahead.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Gender Roles and Gender Realities

I read an interesting book a couple of months (in case it isn't already obvious, I read a lot) called The Feminine Mistake.

The author posits that married women who choose the stay at home wife/Mom path do so at their financial peril. Given that 50% of marriages end in divorce, that single women with children make up a large component of the poor, that men die earlier than women, and that even when women work, they still make around 80 cents to every dollar men make. For many married women, a day comes when they will have to support themselves and their children alone. And once the children are out of the home, older women are still behind the financial eight ball. According to the Our Bodies, Ourselves Health Resource Center (

Women who are in the paid labor force earn less over our lifetime than do men. According to one estimate, the average 25-year-old working woman will lose about $455,000 to unequal pay during her lifetime, leaving her with less money to save, a smaller pension (if she has one at all), and lower Social Security benefits. After a lifetime of being unpaid, underpaid, or unemployed, it is no accident and no surprise that women 65 and over are almost twice as likely to live in poverty as older men.

A few weeks after I finished The Feminine Mistake, the findings of a recent Insight Committee for Community Economic Development study placed single black women at the bottom of the economic ladder with net worths that average $5, and for many amounts to a negative number-- meaning her debts eclipse any assets available she has. Marriage changes the equation, however. According to the Insight Center for Community Economic Development's "Lifting As We Climb: Women of Color, Wealth, and America's Future," study:

...while marriage appears to ameliorate some economic hardship for both men and women across races, the data indicate that the positive effect of marriage on net worth is particularly amplified for black and Hispanic women.

The Feminine Mistake and the Insight Committee report seemed to make complimentary suggestions for wealth building for black women: marry, but don't quit your day job, just in case it doesn't work out.

This information comes into my hand at a time when I'm once again re-thinking my own career path and my "worth" but economic and otherwise. I gave up the "traditional workforce" almost ten years ago, leaving a comfortable job at a legal publishing company to strike out on my own. Since then, I've written eight books, done countless freelance projects of every kind imagineable-- but I'd hardly call my career a financial success. Rather, it's allowed me to explore my interests and be available to raise our two daughters.My husband makes the lion's share of the money that supports this household-- and if something happened to him, dramatic changes would be necessary. I'm certain I'm employable--I still have that Havard Law degree and nothing erases it-- but like the women interviewed in the Feminine Mistake--I'd almost be starting over in both experience and salary.

Lately, as publishing becomes increasingly uncertain and an expanding content market makes the margins of really making a living as a writer harder I think about my traditional work experiences. Making one's own money feels good. Interacting with other professionals can (sometimes) be deeply rewarding. And building a nest egg agagainst disasters is a very good think. Being financially independent again definitely appeals to me for all of the reasons explained in The Feminine Mistake-- and for the kinds of reasons outlined in a recent webinar sponsored by the Insight Committee for Community Economic Development. Black women having assets that our own to use, being financial independent helps us to further create our identity in the world-- and to carve out places of safety for the next generation.

This coin, however, has a flip side. Being married to a man who is willing and able to provide for us enables me to offer my girls a different kind of security. If I were to write a rebuttal to The Feminine Mistake, it would simply be this: for as long as both partners analyze their resources in ways that allow it and are willing to take the gamble, having a parent in the home offers intangible benefits that are as fulfilling as the economic ones of a salary. There are incalcuable benefits to this family that reach beyond dollars. Being around to talk to a teenaged daughter about the pressures of school, to take Lil Bit to the playground and buy ice cream, to prepare home made dinners, and create an unhurried environment helps to make our home a calm and peaceful refuge for us all. I feel these are worthwhile sacrifices in the short term and for as long as they are economically viable. Indeed, I think many women seek a life like mine, in which there is a balance of intellectual and renumerative pursuits combined with nesting and nurturing-- so do more and more men, but that's a different post.

The point is that until women are earning at the same rate as men, that childcare is free and shared between genders, and workplaces are structured in ways that allow parents to balance professional opportunity with family responsibility, women are likely to come out on the shortest end of the stick-- and single women with children are likely to see their assets continue to dwindle. Marriage alone certainly is a solution, but for many black women being unmarried with children adds to the wealth drain.

And as for dilemma is solved by writing a bestseller and getting on Oprah! LOL!

Monday, June 7, 2010

This is Our Family... High on Computers

In today’s New York Times, there’s a multi-page article about how computers may be changing the way our brains work, affecting our attention and diminishing our—and our children’s—ability to interact with each other. Here’s the link:
Your Brain on Computers - Attached to Technology and Paying a Price -
While I don’t think any members of my family have quite risen to the “Netaddiction” level of usage, the article brought to mind several anecdotes of the pervasiveness of technology in our modern lives.
The first comes from Lil Bit’s preschool days. When she was 3, we had a conference with her pre-school teacher. We were expecting to be told about her progress with numbers, colors and letters—and we were. But we were also given this feedback: “Lil Bit lags behind the other children in her facility with the computer systems. She needs more help getting into and using computer programs.”
This was presented as a difficulty, not as a virtue. It has since been corrected. Being able to use technology is an expectation—even for preschoolers—in the modern world. In a way, it makes sense: their reality will be dominated by it. To be computer illiterate would be a handicap for her. But I’m disappointed by what I’ve seen of the “learning games” for kids her age. I often think that Lil Bit would be reading more words by now if there was less computer time at pre-K and more time spent one on one with her teachers. But I’ve also noticed how bored she seems with the simple, old-fashioned reading methods we use at home. You know, old school, stationary stuff like flashcards and books. Lil Bit’s attitude seems to be “if doesn’t have sound and animation, color me uninterested.” It’s hard to teach a child whose used to higher levels of visual stimulation than static words on a page.
The second was a recent evening when the family was gathered around the television screen for family movie night. It was intended as a family bonding activity—but no one was watching the movie. No, that’s not right. It would be more accurate to say that no one was JUST watching the movie. Kevin was on his “crack Berry”, I was on my netbook, Sisi was on her laptop, and Sommer had her portable DVD player in her lap watching another show. We were each multi-tasking: watching the movie while conducting another activity. Sure, we were all sitting together, but each of us was in his/her own little world.
Such is the impact of technology on family time.
In moderation, computers, smartphones and players of all types don’t seem to do much harm—and I confess, I’m as guilty of using them as “babysitters” as the next parent. Just this weekend, I handed Lil Bit my smartphone to stop her from climbing over the empty seats in the restaurant. A game on it distracted her until the food arrived—and probably saved me some exacting embarrassing discipline. Wrong? I don’t know.
What I do know is that, on the evenings when the TV isn’t on, and the phones and computers are put away, we interact with each other differently. There’s less impatience, more talking, more listening. At the same time, what we talk about in those device-less minutes, is often information learned while our devices are on. Kevin might share a story from The Drudge Report or a comment he read on (yes, he reads—I’ll tell you about that in another blog!) I might update everyone on a Facebook post by a relative or family friend or an interesting tidbit from the Post or the Times. Sisi will share an invitation sent by a friend via IM. The wealth of information available to us about the world in which we live through our devices is astounding. I don’t know how I lived before I could Google any question that pops into my mind—and usually find a satisfactory answer. Not infrequently, Kevin or I will use a word Sisi doesn’t know at the dinner table. Instead of defining it for her, it’s pretty cool to be able to tell her to “look it up on her phone”—which she can do faster than I could find our hardbound dictionary—and keep talking without the interruption of leaving the table. For her the ultimate punishment is to lose her phone and computer. She feels genuinely sorry for the kids in her universe who don’t yet have phones of their own.
While Kevin and Lil Bit enjoy some their computer time, Sisi and I are the ones who really have to watch our screen consumption. Sisi can lose herself in games and Skype with her friends for hours at a time. Although I have a cupboard full of cookbooks, I cook with my Netbook on the kitchen counter, looking up and following recipes online. I barely leave home without a hook-up of some kind. And I’m the one who had to buy pricey Internet access on a family vacation in the Mediterranean. Being disconnected for 14 days was driving me crazy. I wish I could say that there was actually something important in my email those 14 days, but there wasn’t. I just needed my “fix:” the rush of dopamine that experts compare to addictions to food and sex. Apparently, I fit the profile for the Internet-obsessed: I’m in my mid-40s, well-educated and reasonable affluent. Great—one more thing to add to my plate of worries.
Obviously, technology is just one more thing families have to balance. More terrifying is the idea that technology may actually be making us more superficial, less knowledgeable, less empathetic people.

That’s the premise of Nicholas Carr’s new book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. Carr posits that the Internet is demolishing our—and our children’s-- capacity to concentrate. Because concentration is necessary for any serious endeavor-- creative or scientific and everything in between—loss of that ability will have far-reaching effects. I haven’t read the book yet, but it’s on my list—and it should probably be on every parents list.

I hope the book also addresses the technology gap. Poorer people, many of them of color, often have less access to the Internet. This is usually seen as a problem because of the immense amount of information that now often only available in digital form. But if these same access is also creating limits in our abilities to concentrate and create what does that portend for those with less access? Does it widen the gap between those who have and those who don't... or shrink it?

Technology makes for interesting questions. I just hope that when the time comes, Sisi and Lil bit will find me a fully-wired nursing home. I'll write a blog about it, I promise.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Bon Jovi Sums it Up


When I started this blog, I knew that it would be a place where I could talk about race, interracial marriage, mixed and blended families and all of the issues that those subjects involved. But it was also going to be a place to share the myriad of other issues—issues that don't have anything to do with color—that all families deal with. These are the everyday joys and sorrows, hopes and dreams, plans and promises that Kevin and I made to each other and to our girls.

Last night brought disappointment: Sisi didn't make the cheering squad. And because we're a family, her disappointment was one we all shared, all of us—Kevin, Lil Bit, Si and me.

Sisi told me after tryouts that she wasn't sure she made it, but she hoped she would. She said she messed up the dance pretty seriously and that a few of her jumps hadn't turned out very well. She almost fell after her roundoff. But Si tends toward magnification of her failings. I knew the dance would be her weakness—the beat was fast and the choreography surprisingly difficult. In the end, I suspect that it alone was the problem: Sisi often needs a couple of weeks to learn new steps. Three days wasn't long enough.

Of course, when she learned she was cut, she cried.            


"We're really proud of you for trying something new," I told her. "Just trying it was a victory. None of your friends even had the nerve to try!"

"And you've got real potential with this," Kevin reminded her. "It's just that you've never done anything like this. Some of these girls have been doing cheerleading clinics and camps since they were Lil Bit's age." He's right: Lil Bit is not quite five and it seems like every week we get a card in the mail about dance or cheering camp for girls her age. "If you're really serious about this, this Fall we'll see if we can afford something like that for you."

"And then you can tryout again next year—if you want to." I have to hold back a bit because I have real "stage mom" tendencies. I know that, in a heartbeat, I can push harder and faster than either of my girls is ready to go. Si may be a teenager, but she still wants to please me. I want her to do well, but not for that reason. I want her to do well because SHE wants to, not because of me.

"It's all right, Sisi," Lil Bit joins in the group hug. "Don't cry."

But of course, she does anyway, for a little while.

"I'm a loser. I'm not good at anything."

We go down the list—a list Si knows well but really needs to hear one more time. We remind her of her hip hop dance recital tomorrow, of the fact that she successfully auditioned into one of the high school's select choirs, that she's queen of several video games, a good swimmer and manages to be friends with everyone. That she had the nerve to tryout for a sport like cheering completely cold and without a support system of friends. She has "heart."

"Now, we're going to dinner," Kevin announces. "And after dinner, ice cream."

"I don't wanna go," Si says tearfully. "Can't I stay here?"

"Nope," I say, dragging her to the car. "Moping around the house alone is not an option."

We go to dinner. We talk a bit more about cheering, about high school, about the recital tomorrow, about inviting one of her friends to join us at the community pool for a few hours after that. We eat ice cream while sitting on a bench in a nearby plaza. On summer Saturday nights middle aged guys play hits from "back in the day" while little kids play and dance with their mothers. We get stared at a bit—pale, Irish Kevin holding hands with short brown me. Si our brown-skinned teen beauty and lively Lil Bit who many might see as a white girl with olive skin. Both of them are licking their ice creams, both of them are calling us "Mom" and "Dad". I only really notice the stares when they last a little too long.

Kevin doesn't seem to notice at all. He rubs my shoulder and smiles. I know that look; I know what he's thinking. He's thinking that it's a perfect evening, sitting here, eating ice cream and listening to music with his girls. He's thinking he's lucky—we all are—because we have each other.

We ARE lucky and I know it for sure when Sisi says out of nowhere, "You know, the Coach said a lot of the varsity girls had taken those cheering clinics. Maybe if I took one and kept working on my dancing, I could go straight to the varsity cheering squad next year. What do you think, Mom?"

Kevin gives my shoulder another squeeze, signaling his support. I know our budget has gotten tighter over the last several years, but I'm sure with a little research I can find a decent program that won't break the bank. "Absolutely, I say. We'll look into it for the Fall."

She seems content—so I'm content. The band—men about our age who got day jobs and had kids, but never gave up their guitars--- burst into Bon Jovi's "Living on a Prayer." The lyrics fit the moment: "We gotta hold on, to what we've got. It doesn't make a difference if we make it or not. We've got each other and that's a lot, for love… we'll give it our shot."

Si gave it her shot. It wasn't her year, but she's got all of us to fall back on. And regardless of our skin tones, that's a lot—and we all know it.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

How I Know God has a Sense of Humor


I'm about to write some words I never thought I'd ever write.

Not only am I going to write these words, but I am going to mean them from the bottom of my feminist, womanist, gurl power heart. Are you ready? Here they are:

I hope my daughter makes cheerleader.

What? You were expecting something else? Trust me when I tell you, this is monumental for me. As a younger woman I would have been appalled by the very suggestion that I would encourage and support and female child of mine in such a seeming superficial activity. After all, what is a more traditional role for a young woman than standing on the sidelines cheering for the men? And in those skimpy little uniforms, no less, which do nothing but objectify women. And then there are all the stereotypes about the type of girls who BECOME cheerleaders: vain, shallow, self-absorbed, popular, clique-ish.

Of course, it's obvious from that paragraph that I was never a cheerleader! Debate club? Check. Band? First chair saxophone. Editor of the school paper? Of course. Let's make short work of it: I was a nerd. Most of my friends were nerds. We didn't really know any cheerleaders personally but we saw them from a distance and, to our eyes, it looked like they were living a very different high school reality. I won't admit to any jealousy but I suppose it's at least possible that I may have felt that from time to time. But then I had my straight As to give me solace.

My ignorance and arrogance provided the opportunity for God, the Divine Power, the Universe or whoever to teach me a lesson. The lesson comes in the form of my dear daughter, Sisi who is as unlike me as any human being I can ever imagine. Of all the spirits in the world, that hers should be linked by maternal bond to mine is ludicrous. We barely speak the same language. I'm orderly—she's a slob. I prefer books for information—she'd rather talk to people. I've struggled with weight my whole life—she's working her curves. When I was 14, I always sort of knew that high school was just a very short time in my life. For Sisi high school is EVERYTHING.

The one thing we share is moments of intense self-doubt.

Sisi is terrified of being a 9th grader this fall. She's had a great time in middle school and "reigned" as a popular 8th grader who manages to get along with kids of all different interests and backgrounds. As the school year comes within days of closing, her anxieties about high school have increased.

"I won't know anyone," she lamented. And while that's not entirely true, because of county boundaries many of her middle school friends will end up at other high schools. "I'll be a loser with no friends."

We even discussed it with our pediatrician during a recent visit. "This age is filled with anxieties like that. Friendships can change pretty quickly and some girls have a really hard time with that," she told us. "The best thing to do is get involved with something. Girls who do sports usually fare better than girls who aren't athletic."

Sisi wrinkled her nose. She's a decent gymnast and loves hip hop dance, but team sports? Not so much.

Meanwhile, things seemed to be getting worse. Her grades slipped as she fretted over the impact of the last days of middle school. She came home alternately euphoric about the fun she was having with her buddies and despondent that soon they would be scattered to high schools across the county and she would be alone.

So when she brought up the information about cheerleading tryouts at the high school all my reservations about gender roles, short skirts, and mean girl stereotypes when right out the window.

"If you want to tryout, I'll sign the permission forms," I said.

"Do you think I can do it?"

"I know you can." I got a smile for that one—but I meant it. A cute, popular girl who likes people, who likes to tumble and dance? My daughter is the definition of a cheerleader.

The only problem is she's not so sure. Enter that Intense Self Doubt, with a side order of "everyone's looking at me."

The tryout clinic began Tuesday. Every afternoon for three hours they've chanted and dance, jumped and flipped. I've rarely seen my daughter more self-disciplined, more focused, more positive. Gone is obsession with the end of middle school and the tearful conversations about having no friends. She is completely involved with learning the routines and making the squad. She's made friends with some of the girls trying out who will also be 9th graders this fall and with the rising sophomore, juniors and seniors, too. Surprisingly, although she's been busy every afternoon, her grades have actually improved.

The tryout is this morning at 11 am—and I, the former cheerleader skeptic, want her to make it with all my heart and soul. If she does, SVHS is about to get the loudest most active Booster Mom imaginable! LOL! She waved to me when I dropped her off, but her eyes were scared. I know that look—and if it gets the better of her, we may have to tryout again next year. Intense self doubt and are old friends… but that's another blog.

Life is so funny—and for me full of endless learning opportunities about my own faulty assumptions, judgments and prejudices. Tonight at 7 pm when the results are posted on the gym door something inside me will make a full circle, taking me back to high school—and in many ways, back to square one on my notions about identity, individuality, cliques and community.

Hold your breath with us, cross your fingers. Tomorrow, I'll write about either disappointment or elation… and I honestly don't know which.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Today in the New York Times- Fewer Black Men for Black Women to Marry... Because They're Marrying Out

Kevin and I are among the relics in our digital society-- because we actually still subscribe to print newspapers. Two of them: The Washington Post and The New York Times. But, as I said, it's a digital world, and before I actually read the Times this morning, I checked my email.

Supposing I Wanted to Date a White Guy...?: Everything You Need to Know About Interracial Relationships

Halima Sal Anderson, author of a popular blog ( and one of the godmothers of the IR (interracial) movement had sent me a note and link to this article:

"Black Women See Shrinking Pool of Black Men at the Altar"

Of course, this isn't news to me. Researching my book revealed the shrinking marriage pool, and since its publication, I've received all kinds of new data that only confirms that the pool of black men interested in marriage to a black woman is decreasing. But to me, the New York Times piece buried the REAL lead of this story, which isn't about black men and black women at all, but the growth of interracial relationships across the population of our country. Here's the last paragraph of the piece:

"Of all 3.8 million adults who married i 2008, 31% of Asians, 26% of Hispanic people, 16% of blacks and 9% of whites married a person whose race or ethnicity was different from their own. Those were all record highs." (emphasis added)

It's old news that there are a lot a single black women and fewer eligible black men. For the past few months that story has circulated a great deal of the mainstream media, the black media and the blogosphere. What IS news is that interracial marriages across the board are on the rise-- and that those couples and their children will have a far reaching impact on our country, on our race relations and on how we identify ourselves and others. That's the REAL story that this data suggests-- and I'm a little disappointed that instead of digging for something really unique in the numbers, the Times decided to follow the same, now tired storyline that ABC's Nightline did back in December.

The important issue isn't that black women are single, or that black men are marrying out. The real story is that our culture is becoming increasingly racially fluid, with more and more Americans choosing their partners based on character and common ground rather than racial or ethnic identifications. That's the next story I want to read... or am I going to have to write it?

Thursday, June 3, 2010

What it means to be a 14 year old Black girl

Recently, on the recommendation of both our pediatrician and a family friend, I read Reviving Ophelia, a book about the struggles of adolescent girls. It's a bit dated (it was written in 1994, before the Internet added a whole new level of complexity to being a teenaged girl) but some parts of it were intensely relevant to my current struggles.

And yes, struggle is the right word. Adolescence, as we all remember, is the struggle to find autonomy and identity separate and apart from one's parents. One of my favorite lines from Reviving Ophelia was that parents should think of teenagers as "being like people on LSD" because like a person on a drug trip teens are often living in an alternate reality. I read that section aloud to my husband and we both laughed. It was a grim, battle weary laugh-- but a laugh all the same.

My daughter Sisi turns 14 this summer. She's a good kid, wants to do right and wants to please us, her parents. But she also believes she knows everything. She wants to be free. She thinks our rules are "stupid"; she thinks they are punishments rather than protections. She tries to find out just how far she can bend those rules before they break. She loves us, but right now, to paraphrase the words of the song, love has nothing to do with it.

I remember when she LOVED for her mother to show up at school. These days, she's embarrassed to be seen in my presence for any length of time. But as uncomfortable as my presence is, her stepfather's is even more distressing.

"He's white, Mom," she says, rolling her eyes when I ask why Dad can't pick her up from cheerleading tryouts.

"Yes, he's been that way for as long as you've known him. Going on six years," I remind her.

"Yes, but I don't know these girls and I don't want these girls to know that yet. I don't want to explain him. He just complicates my life."

I understand... and I don't. I understand that people are curious. They take an extra moment to stare--especially when Kevin and Sierra are alone together. Because they aren't related by blood, there's little resemblance. And sometimes, people who see an older white man and a teenaged black girl add up the picture to an ugly, sexual conclusion that couldn't be further from the truth.

And then there are the comments she's gotten from some of her black girlfriends already: "Your mama married him 'cause white men got money, right?" she told me one friend asked. My daughter forgot to tell the girl her mom's a Harvard educated lawyer who makes money too. (DAMN-- missed opportunity to start dismantling some of the stereotypes about who black women are! But that's another post.) "That ain't even right!" A black boy she knows called out when Kevin picked her up from a school dance.

So, I do understand... but only up to a point.

Because, after all, these are other people's prejudices-- and problems. Kevin has been and is a wonderful stepfather to this girl and I long for the day when she can once again assert that proudly, like she did when she was little. I'm eager for her to outgrow her awkwardness and concern for the opinions of her peers and assert her individuality again.

I'm also annoyed. It's distressing to me that in 2010 black kids are still pressing each other into a "black box" in order to gain acceptance. In our community there are immigrants from nearly every country on the planet-- it's that diverse. But clearly, my daughter is receiving the message that her family's diversity calls into question her authencity as a black teen. It makes her different-- and not necessarily in a good way. The result: Kevin often gets pushed to the margins of her life.

Reviving Ophelia was useful to me framing my daughter's dilemma, but in addressing it. One of my compliants about the book is that, with the exception of a story of the identity issues of a Native American girl adopted by a white couple, it didn't deal with the concerns of girls of color at all. And given the wealth of extremely negative stereotypes aimed at girls of color there's a lot to be said. One of the most powerful things I've read about the cultural influences on young black girls was "Freaks, Gold Diggers, Divas and Dykes" a paper written by Georgia State professor Layli Phillips documenting the sociohistoric archetypes of black women that appear in modern media aimed at black teen girls. It's frightening how aggressively these images are marketed-- and how passively we all accept them.

Bottom line: Sisi may want to fit in-- to accept the limits of the roles that her peers find acceptable for her-- but it's my job to constantly raise her eyes to the horizons. In ways big and small, my husband and I will remind her that there is a world beyond high school, role for her beyond what her friends think is "okay" and families beyond convenient colorings or definitions.

Her job may be to rebel, but mine is to set expectations and challenge her meet them. So I'm sending Kevin to pick her up from cheerleading... and hoping she'll greet her stepfather with pride.

The Beginning, The Purpose, The Mission

I am a black woman who is married to a white man. We are raising two daughters: the first is a teenager, mine from a prior marriage. Her skin is brown like mine and her father's, but she identifies herself as "a person." When you look at her, you would probably call her an African American child, but my daughter dislikes that phrase. "Mom, I have friends whose parents are from AFRICA. They're the African Americans. We're something else." She's right.

Her quest for identity is a part of the reason why I felt compelled to start this blog.

My second daughter is only 4 years old. She is mine too, and her father is my current husband, Kevin. He's Irish American, older than me and proud as a peacock of her. Most of the time when I look at her, I see a white girl... with suspiciously frizzy hair. When Kevin looks at her, however, he sometimes see more of me-- especially in the way her skin browns in the summer sun (his just reddens).

Her quest for identity hasn't yet begun...but it's a part of why I wanted to right this blog.

My husband works in financial sales, but I write. I'm known for writing a bit about interracial relationships-- Don't Bring Home A White Boy (And Other Notions That Keep Black Women from Dating Out) specifically-- and race, relationships and how we navigate the spaces between "me" and "we" are interesting to me. I want to write about those as they crop up in our lives. That, too, is a reason for this blog.

What I have found lately is that, while there are blogs that deal with parenting mixed children, blogs for black women, blogs for white men, blogs about relationships, blogs about marriage, etc. there's not much written about what it means to be a multi-racial family. I suspect I know at least one of the reasons:

The real truth about multiracial families is that first and foremost, we're FAMILIES. We deal with the same stuff as any other family: conflicts of time, money and generation. In my home, racial issues are often secondary to paying the mortgage, following up on the girls' academic performance, figuring out who's going to pick up from cheerleading practice, why we always seem to be out of milk, and how to fix what's broken now.

I want to write about these issues, too, because they emphasize a critical point: an family is a family. It doesn't matter that my husband and I are different races. It matters how we raise these girls. It matters how he deals with step-parenting. It matters how I teach my teenager about boys and sex and becoming a woman-- even though I came of age in a very different time than hers. It matters how we balance our resources to give them opportunities to learn about their talents. It matters how we stay connected to each other as husband and wife.

I want this blog to be about those things, too. Because what we are living in this life in black and white is always a LIFE first.

But of course, this blog will also be about race. It will be about the times that my husband's "white male privilege" reminds us both that in the eyes of the world, he gets the benefit of the doubt, while I may still have something to prove (or disprove). It's about the larger world of data and politics that impacts our lives or how others see us. And the places where our disparate upbringing and experiences cause us to see the world from wildly different points of view. It's about how we reconcile those differences... and the occasions when we don't.

So, welcome to my blog. Meet my family... and feel free to comment on this Diary of Our Lives in Black and White.