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.


  1. Great post, and good advice about how to handle yourself with policemen. In college I was stopped at a gas station in the middle of no where on my way home from seeing my then-boyfriend. I was in a loner car from the auto shop. By no fault of my own, the permit/registration/whatever was incorrect. Well, I did the exact opposite of what advice you gave to your daughter, and even though I was not in the wrong, those policemen (well, one was a woman) arranged for my car to be towed away. There I stood, at 2AM at an ARCO station, alone, cold, and crying my eyes out. Thank God for Dad, who hopped right out of bed and picked me up.

  2. Karyn--You've raised some really critical issues about interracial bw/wm marriages and families. As an African-American female I always wonder if my husband is white will he be able to relate to the racial identity challenges our children might face? Will he fail to see racism in situations and incidents where it is very clear to me that racism was a part of the equation? I've never known how I would handle it or what to do if I severely disagree with my future husband's reading on an racialized incident. I think I've also been worried that if I marry someone white at some point during their adolescence our children would feel like they cannot relate to their father.

  3. food for thoughts, especially the part about how best to interact with a police officer. Its unbelievably stupid for anyone to physically interfere with a police officer arresting someone, no matter how unjust we think it is. For one, do NOT put your hand on a police officer, ever. I'm surprised he had so much restraint in that video. Have we come so low in our community that basic common sense is lost?

    Another thing I did not know is walking home with your top bikini and a towel. I cannot imagine why anyone would walk home in that fashion if they are over the age of 10. I mean even in Europe when you are ready to leave the beach or a public pool, you wear a long boho top/dress over your bikini to get home, regardless how far or near it is. I remember back in hs about 8 yrs ago, whenever I objected to mom about something by saying everybody is doing it, she'll respond back with the statement: are you a follower or a leader?

    About the race thing, I believe a parent's job is to love and guide their children in a world gone mad. Its a reality that in our society people do judge you by your color, ethnicity and religious symbol, but that should not be a hindrance to your development and success in life. To be honest, most of us black women/men have little to complain about when compared to our parents and grandparents time. Now that was real struggle for basic survivor and access to something majority or white America or elsewhere in the West took for granted.

  4. Thanks for stopping by ladies.

    BYBW-- I had that kind of father too! But hard as it is, arguing with cops is just a loser thing to do. It usually makes the penalty more serious. As Huda points out, we aren't living in a time when black Americans have no recourse against law enforcement. Glad you were okay out there at 2 am!

    Aufa-- Thank you. The intention behind this blog was to raise these issues and honestly discuss how we deal with them in this family. I think a white man who marries a black woman has probably thought about the kinds of questions your raise and is at least "teachable" about how his spouse sees them. That has been the case for us on some racial issues. But he's also a very open minded person (as am I) and we both value our role as parents greatly. Communication is the most important thing in IRs (and in all relationships, I believe).

    Huda-- I KNOW! I can't believe my daughter walked around like that-- and I specifically told her to put her clothes on because I was afraid she might. I think she thinks she looks "cute" but she's still very niave about men and the world. For this infraction, she's grounded for two weeks. I don't think she will do it again. LOL! I will definitely ask her next time she tells me "everyone's doing it" "Are you a follower or leader?"

  5. LOL, Karyn you know if I'd been driving by and seen Sierra walking home like that I would have yanked her "looking cute" behind in my car.

  6. @Tanesha-- LOL! I wish you HAD been driving by! That girl of mine is a mess! She needs as many "mothers" and "fathers" as are up for the job!