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.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Adventures in Retail- The Delimma of the Black Mermaid

In our shopping and travelling adventures, I've gotten so used to be asked: "Are you together?" that I hardly get aggravated by it anymore. We get asked by gate agents as we cluster together to get on airplanes during the family boarding calls. We get asked by the hostesses in restaurants. And of course, we get asked when we stand in line together to buy something in every kind of store imaginable. (I'll save the differences in how I'm treated and how Kev is treated in some stores for another blog-- for this one, I'll leave it at the ubiquitous "Are you together?" question). "Yes," we reply and the salesperson blinks, looks from face to face and moves on. That's pretty much the end of the encounter.

This weekend, however, while vacationing at the beach, we had an unusual experience that had us leaving the store, scratching our heads.

We went to one of those "Christmas all year" shops, looking for a unique souvenir. Something that, on a colder day as we put up our holiday tree, would remind us of 100 degree weather, white sand and waves at the shore. Lil Bit was enthralled by all the creative decorations, touching everything, imagining everything on our Christmas tree. We promised her she could choose one thing as her very own memento. Indeed, each of us picked one ornament: I got a little beach bag ornament engraved with the name of the beach we were visiting, Kev (in a Homer Simpson moment) chose an ornament that looked and--amazingly, felt-- like a donut, and Lil Bit...

Could NOT make up her mind. She liked the mermaid. She liked the crab. She liked the sand vials. She liked the seahorse. She liked the fish. She liked the mermaid...and the crab, and the seahorse and the fish. And the mermaid...

After a few rounds of this, we steered her toward the mermaid-- had we not done so, I'd be unable to write this post. We'd still be in the store, watching Lil Bit pick up every item, trying to decide. We narrowed her choices a bit by suggesting a mermaid. But there were still several. Brown hair? Blonde hair?

We dawdled and dawdled, then finally she grabbed the one that looked the most like Ariel from Disney's "Little Mermaid" and we hurried to the counter with it before she could change her mind.

I put our three ornaments on the counter. The saleslady's eyes swept over us: brown me, pink Kevin (hey, we were at the beach!) and beige Sommer.

"We have an African American mermaid too--at slightly higher cost," she said. "She's in the back."

I was curious. Kevin was curious. We looked at each other and at Lil Bit, who now that her choice was made was getting kind of restless. Lil Bit has dolls and toys of every skin shade and ethnicity--brown, black, tan, pink white. I notice no favoritism in her play: they all get played with in rotations based on her moods and her games. Until the late sixties, there were very few toys, art images or products that represented African Americans at all. But insisting on those images--especially for a mixed race child-- seems a particularly shallow way of reinforcing identity.

I saw no reason to relay all of this to the clerk and, at that moment, I couldn't think of a short and sweet way to ask the questions I wanted to ask. So I just said: "I think we're good. Since she's a bit of both white and black and she's had enough difficulty making her choice already so we'll go with this one."

As soon as we were outside, Kevin asked, "Why on earth is the African American mermaid in the back? How are they going to sell them back there?"

"Why does she cost more?" I asked.

"Do you think she would have asked me that if I'd been with Lil Bit by myself?" he asked.

"Is she suggesting some kind of 'one drop' rule? That Lil Bit is all black because she has one black parent?"

We went back and forth, analyzing it. I was most puzzled by why the African American mermaid wasn't on display at all-- leaving the clerk to "mention it" to customers on her own initiative. Kev was more fascinated by the price differential. Was the difference explained by supply and demand: that, because of less demand, fewer were available, meaning the black mermaid was available at a premium?

Of course, that wasn't the fate a black Barbie. A few months ago, the Internet was on fire with criticism because Walmart had offered a deep discount on black Barbie because she wasn't selling well. The implication was that in doing so, Walmart wasn't simply making a business decision-- they were devaluing blackness. Some saw in the discounting of black Barbie the famous studies from the 1960s in which even black children showed a preference for white dolls. Of course some progressive non-black parents do buy their children dolls of other ethnicities. And it's also true that many toys, like Barbie, are identified as white characters. A brown or black version may seem politically correct, but kids seem to appreciate the difference.

Our experience, however, takes a different flip on the story...but still left us uncomfortable. The African American doll costs more-- in all likelihood because of the same reason that Walmart's black Barbie's cost less: less demand. And while the beach town we visited wasn't crawling with African Americans, there were certainly a representative share (and a goodly number of black/white couples like ours, too). How on earth is this store going to ever sell their black Mermaids-- at any price-- if they aren't even on display? And is it discriminatory for the clerk to mention her existence to some customers and not to others?

In the end, while I seriously doubt failure to display black Ariel rises to the level of any actionable discrimination it was a confusing business decision at best, since it's in the store's interest to sell the merchandise that it already expended cash on acquiring. I wanted to go back and ask a million questions... but Lil Bit wanted ice cream. Besides--and here's the real dilemma in a society where race is still very touchy subject that can easily go from a simple comment to a massive argument-- how do you raise these questions with a stranger in ways that encourage understanding and sensitivity-- not defensiveness and distrust? Could I have asked "Why aren't the black ones on display?" or "Do you ask non-black customers if they'd like a black mermaid?" without sounding like I'm accusing someone of racism? Are those questions really accusations in disguise?

Probably. Even if that were not my intention, they would probably be heard that way. Kevin points out that most white Americans feel that racial conversations are a "lose-lose" proposition: anything they do and say will be wrong, so they approach all comments with wariness. Wariness doesn't usually lead to sensitivity and understanding.

Of course, for all our questions and reactions, there might have been an even simpler explanation: the African American mermaids were in the back because they'd just arrived and, on a busy weekend when the shop was filled with tourists, they hadn't yet had time to put them out.

Could it be that simple?

I'd like to believe that, but I don't. No matter how busy the store, when an item is in demand, it gets unpacked and put out. So that leads me back to the clerk "mentioning" the availability of the item to certain customers... and I'm still bothered.

I can't help but feel that I missed an opportunity here.

What would you have done, if you were me?

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The World in My Eyes: Disagreeing On Racism in a White/Black Household

Kevin is reading Rebecca Skloot's excellent book "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks"- a book I finished a few weeks back and recommended he (and you) read. It's the tale of how Johns Hopkins medical staff, in the effort to replicate cell growth outside of the human body, took some cancer cells from a dying African American woman in the late 1950s. They didn't ask for permission--in fact there was not then nor is there now a requirement for medical professionals to do so-- and neither she nor her family received any compensation for them. But it turned out that Henrietta Lacks' cancer cells did what no other cells had ever done: they thrived outside of her body and became an indispensible medical tool that has led to vaccines for diseases like polio, improvements in cancer treatments and a multitude of drugs that ease and cure all kinds of diseases. While the doctors who originally took the cell cultures didn't profit-- nor has Johns Hopkins Hospital--there are private labs that sell the ever-replicating "HeLa" cells and make millions each year. Meanwhile, the surviving Lacks' family have lived the last 5 decades in poverty in rural Virginia and Baltimore. Barely educated and beset with all the problems that characterize the poor, Lacks' children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren haven't benefited a penny from their mother's contribution to science.

It's a fascinating read, and I highly recommend it. It's a compelling look at the tensions between scientific advance and personal privacy. It's also a primer on institutional racism, second-class citizenship and the shadow that de jure segregation still casts on black Americans today.

Or at least, that's how I saw the book. I could draw a straight line between Jim Crow laws that limited black opportunities to the Baltimore ghetto where many of Lacks' descendants live today. It's a straight white line, since it's whole purpose was to maintain two Americas: a black one and a white one. For some of us, the line has faded. But for others, for Henrietta Lacks' descendents, even though we now live in a society that no longer can legally and openly discriminate on the basis of race, little has changed. Besides, we can and do still discriminate based on ignorance and poverty which the Lacks' descendents inherited directly from their forebears. Henrietta Lacks had a grade school education (more was rarely available to rural blacks in the '30s) and lived in an economy that penalized her and her family doubly for blackness: in leaving them the worst jobs for the least pay, and assuring that they got less for their money in higher costs of living.

Kevin saw it completely differently because, while racism plays its role in the Lacks' family saga, so do individual choices that speak not to the harshness of Jim Crow or its lingering after effects in our present society, but to the darkness of the human heart. Child abuse, murder, incest, spousal abuse and infidelity play their roles in this family's story. And while some can draw a direct line between this conduct and racism, I hesitate to do so. Racism and the sense of hopelessness to defeat it, can certainly rob people of their humanity. But it doesn't have to. There is a choice invovled. One of my favorite lines from another, very excellent book, Randall Kennedy's "Interracial Intimacies," is this one:

"The obscure man who is relatively powerless in may situations can, in a blink, reveal himself to be rather powerful in relation to others whom he is a position to hurt. For at least a moment, every rapist is powerful in relation to his victim. It is simply untenable to claim then that blacks and other discriminated-against people of color have no power. And because blacks, like all responsible individuals have some power, their moral hygiene, like everyone else's, warrants close, careful attention." (emphasis in original)

Kevin's argument weighed heavily on this moral underpinning. He argued that individual decisions count greatly for their present dilemma. Racism isn't as relevant as their individual choices. It's a choice to treat children cruelly-- racism didn't beat the Lacks' children until they were bloody. It's a choice to sexually abuse the young girls in the family. It's a choice to have children young and out of wedlock, with little means of supporting them. It's a choice to drop out of school-- and allow your children to do so. It's choice to behave in predatory ways to the people nearest you.

I agreed- but only up to a point. Cruelty and abuse, I find indefensible, period. But at what point do we separate people from their circumstances? In matters like education and out of wedlock children--are the choices the same when everyone you know lives the same way, behaves the same way, chooses the same way? Is it really a choice when your mind has never been opened to the possibilities of the wider world? Is it a choice if you don't know the choice exists and the expectations of everyone around are so low that no one else can shed any light on the options? Did this family have the same options as poor white family-- or were their options more limited from the beginning because of their color? Indeed, were the options limited because of their color, the color of the parents, the color of their grandparents?

I argued "yes". I argued that institutional racism is real, that "racism without racists" is an ongoing phenomenon that continues to make the road out of povery immensely more difficult for some. He argued "no": that racism has less to do with the story than decision after decision that closed down opportunities and narrowed the avialable options.

We went round and round... and in the end, called it a draw, without reaching any agreement. This is just one of those places where our experiences and the way we analyze them cause us to the world differently.

I'm often asked whether in marrying Kevin I've "given up" or suppressed some aspect of my black identity. I don't think so. Kevin knew I was black the day we met. He knew I saw the world through the lenses of an African American woman... and that I would continue to see the world that way. Similarly, he certainly isn't any "blacker" because of me. We conduct our relationship through the expecation of differences. We often say we're on a "long term cultural exchange program" because we are. And like a cultural exchange program, the goal isn't to change cultures. It's to get an idea of what life is like for the people who live on the other side. I think we succeed at that.

There may be interracial couples who refuse to discuss racially sensitive topics because they might lead to disagreements like ours the other night. Perhaps, in some interracial couples, racial issues are tiptoed around like sleeping children, out of fear of waking a slumbering nightmare. But because Kev and I like to read, like to talk, and enjoy each other's differing points of view, we often find ourselves in conversation that reveal a clash of ideals. Neither of us backs down from those discussions when they occur; rather, I would say that we both embrace what we can learn from and about the other in the dialogue. I don't necessarily expect that I will persuade him to my point of view-- any more than I will be swayed to his--but the sharpening of wits with an equal is something we both appreciate. There is only one rule to our discussions: mutual respect. We disagree, yes. We discuss, yes. Name-calling? No. Yelling? Never.

It probably helps that neither of us is an idealogue, pushing a specific agenda to the exclusion of all others. Both of us have a healthy appreciation for the many shades of gray in the world. We both see that the era in which one lives, the crush of forces beyond individual control, and the pervailing attitudes of the times play a part in how lives are lived. And we both understand that the choices of the individual, even under extreme pressure, speak powerfully about character and often separate those who change their world from those who don't. Our disagreements then, are often over degree: how much choice does an individual have in his or her context? When-- if ever-- does racism give one a "pass" on personal responsibility? What is the obligation of society toward it's least powerful members?

It strikes me that these are conversations that should be had around the dinner tables of all households-- regardless of the races of their occupants--and that discussions about books, about inequality, about personal and social responsibility between parents is the ultimate example to raising engaged, interested, thoughtful children.

It's always a pleasure to discuss books, current events and the world with my husband... even if he's usually wrong. Of course, he'd say the same about me...and declare my conclusions equally incorrect. Fortunately, we're able to love and respect each other anyway--probably because the common ground we share is the appreciation for reading a great book and then having someone who shares your enthusiasm to talk to about it.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Roses and Thorns: Step-parenting in Mixed Families


Thanks to the Grim Brothers and their fairy tales, step-parents (step-mothers in particular) get a bum rap. I can't think of any stories right now where the step-parent stepped in and saved the day. Usually, in fiction at least, the step-parent is at best jealous of the prior relationship between the child and their new spouse. At the worse, well, we've all read Cinderella. And some of you have seen the horror movie, The Stepfather. In the lore of our culture, you're mostly like to see the word "step-parent" with the adjective "evil" in front of it.

As there is some truth in most of our stereotypes, I have to now allow for the fact that ARE some step-parents who seem unable to rise to the requirements of their role. I've known some men who were as remote to their step-children as the planet Uranus. I've known a few women who, when thrust into the role of step-mothering an adolescent girl found themselves reverting to the worst of their own high school behavior-- becoming competitive, back-biting, whining fifteen year olds all over again. As unattractive as either model might be, I can't entirely judge.

Step-parenting is very, very hard.

It's hard for reasons that sound ugly to admit, but are very true. Reasons like: it's difficult to love a child who is not your own, but who, because of the circumstances you're supposed to. Reasons like: the natural tendency to favor the children of your own relationships over the children of other relationships.

Children, I think, instinctively know this. They know on some level that no one will ever love them quite like their own parents. Hence they resist and reject perceived "interlopers"-- even when those "interlopers" meet them with an open mind and an open heart. The stepchild can't help being suspicious-- and the step-parent can't help feel frustrated.

I've been a step-parent. My first husband had three children under the age of 10 when we married. I did my best by those kids, but they didn't like me much. I had different ideas about child-rearing than their mother and while I would have happily deferred all matters regarding them to their father, he wasn't much interested in playing that role because he usually only saw them over the summers. When they were with us, he'd often disappear, leaving me to entertain them-- and to discipline them. It was a recipe for much resentment on all sides.

There was also a racial component in my efforts at step-parenting, since my first husband's ex-wife was part Phillipino. Her children had long straight black hair like hers that they were too little to care for and I had no experience with. My ex-husband's son's hair was a particular problem: he was about 8 years old and had a long wild afro that I really thought would have looked better trimmed a bit. His mother refused. My ex-husband refused. The little boy didn't like for me to brush his hair and his father didn't do it, so he wandered around looking like he'd been sleeping under a bridge. I sometimes felt the hair was a slap both racially and relationally. The hair said: "we're something you're not." The hair said: "you have no authority over me."

I may be over-sensitive, but I know that racial differences add a few more snakes to the alligator pit of step-parenthood. Kevin and Sisi have their moments when "You're not my father" is shorthand for "It's a black thing, you wouldn't understand." There are moments when I see the light in his eyes for Lil Bit-- his own daughter-- dim when Sisi comes close. As much as I ache for Sisi in these moments, I understand them. Kevin loves her, but Lil Bit is his own. He was there when she was born; he met Sisi when she was 8. It's different by definition. I know because I've felt that difference myself.

I don't know what the experts say about this, but in our family communication has helped everyone to manage their expectations about their roles and responsibilities. Only in the most extreme situations is Kevin responsible for disciplining Sierra. We decided early on that this should be my role exclusively. He backs me up, and when I'm traveling or otherwise unavailable, he enforces our family rules. But otherwise, it's all me. For us, this just makes sense: he IS the interloper; she was nine when we got married. For him to come down hard on discipline so late in her life is a recipe for resentment. We just don't do it.

When Sisi feels unfairly treated as the step-child, I do my best to assess whether her gripe is legitimate-- or jealous. I explain: what she sees in Kevin and Lil Bit is what her father feels for her. He doesn't live near us, so we call. She visits as often it can be arranged. Is this adequate? Probably not. It is, however, the best I can do.

But I know she feels the lack of her own dad's daily presence. I know that deep in there are the fairy stories, casting her as Cinderella. I know that encompassed in her feelings of being the family outcast are issues surrounding Lil Bit's pale skin, curly hair and green eyes. When she asks about blue contacts, she's scratching the surface of this thing. It pervades our culture-- but having "whiteness in the family" brings a black girl into greater intimacy with it.

That makes it even more critical for me, as the mother of BOTH these girls, to treat them as equally as possible. But is that possible? Is it possible when the needs of a 14 year old are radically different than a 5 year old-- even if they had the same father, which they don't? That the expectations placed on oldest children and youngest children are different? That parents and some children have just a natural connection-- a harmony of personality that enable them to understand each other easily. And some don't?

As parents, we strive to treat our children--step and natural-- "equally"... but in the reality is far more complicated. It's painful to admit, but true. Hard as we might try, we will probably not treat our children equally, just as we are not all treated equally in the wider world.

Perhaps the kindest thing we can do is acknowledge this fact? I don't know. But in a way, it seems more fair than candy-coating our reality. As a step-parent, I always tried to stay conscious of my prejudices and to realize that these were children-- who bore no responsibilities for the adult tensions surrounding them. As a parent, I try to love my girls for who they are and not to burden them with my feelings about their fathers for good or ill. I know that the frustrations that Kevin and Sisi have with each other are colored by the fact that they aren't related, but day by day I see him struggle to help her grow up to be the best woman she can be in spite of how hard that is, sometimes. I see him take her resentments, swallow down his own feeling and do his best to be, if not her father exactly, as close a representative as he can be.

And being a step-parent has it's "roses" as well as it's thorns. One of my ex's children-- now an adult, told me that she appreciated the rules and expectations I set for her while she was in our house as a kid. "You were the only person who ever gave us structure. I hated it then--I thought you were mean--but I appreciate it now," she said. A beautiful rose... a decade later and after plenty of harsh years... but still beautiful to hear.

I hope for that rose for Kevin some day... and for all the step-parents in blended families, interracial or not.

Friday, July 2, 2010

How Mixed Kids REALLY learn what it means to be Black


We parents of mixed children spend a lot of time talking about how we hope to teach our children to value all of the cultures that make-up their identity. But the question of exactly how we accomplish this mission gets far less discussion. Usually I hear and read the same suggestions: making an active effort to teach children African American history, to develop good relationships with African American family members, to encourage kids to make friends with children who have two black parents, to join in activities with other similarly situated.

While I think all of these are good ideas, and all of them are a part of my own plan for Lil Bit, they leave out what to me is the larger question, and ultimately the most important one. It is simply this:

What does it mean to be a black American? Or stated another way, what will it mean to be a black American when our children are adults? And finally, one last formulation: what should it mean to be a black American when our little mixed ones are adults?

To some, these questions may seem to have obvious answers, but to me, defining black identity is the ultimate question. With a definition, we parents of bi-racial and multi-racial children can develop a real action plan for insuring that our kids have an appreciation of their black identity that is sincere, not surface.

It turns out, that in attempting to define black identity we often come face to face with our stereotypes, our limitations and our indoctrinations. If "blackness" is more than a genetic connection to an African phenotype, what are its indentity characteristics? Will it make our children more "black" if they:

Follow a certain religious tradition?

Speak a certain way?

Like certain foods?

Listen to certain music?

Move a certain way?

Of course not. These are all silly and superficial criteria—and yet it's amazing how many black Americans use them as markers for who is authentically black and who is not. Some of our kids will be challenged by black Americans because they don't seem "black enough" for those who define blackness according to speech patterns and music and such. This stuff to me isn't really a problem. It's uncomfortable sometimes, but it's also easy enough to imitate (and plenty of black folk "play" these roles in contexts where they seem required)—or ignore. One of the best responses I've heard to the comment that "black people don't _______" (fill in the blank with your favorite: like country/rock music, eat sushi, travel the world, play chess, whatever) was this:

"They do, because I'm doing it!"

If blackness is something different than adopting superficial behaviors and tastes, does a personal connection to our history make one a "real" African American?

While it's certainly true that a child who is part-black should have knowledge of the history and experiences of African Americans in this country, this is something that we should aspire to for all children. I'm sure we know plenty of children who have two black parents who don't know much black history. Similarly, I know people with two white parents who know plenty of it. That's because Black history is American history: it is as integrally a part of the fabric of this nation as the Pilgrims and Christopher Columbus, as the Native Americans and the waves of Chinese immigration in the late 19th century. Appreciation and understanding of the contributions of people of all different backgrounds to the unique melting pot of American history is everyone's responsibility—and it's critical. It's one of the things that helps to build tolerance. It teaches that struggle and aspiration—as well as cruelty and greed— are part of the human condition, regardless of race of country of origin.

So, if not even history gives a person a black identity, what does creates black identity?

I've been giving this a lot of thought, and I think I've reached an uncomfortable answer, but one that I really believe is the hard truth.

What really solidifies the understanding and appreciation of a blackness for our mixed kids is…

Whiteness—and being treated and perceived as non-white.

Being perceived as black—treated as a black American-- is ultimately what creates a sense of black identity. It's the thing that makes mixed kids seek to learn more about their African American heritage. It's the experience that causes mixed kids to attempt to fit in to one racial group or the other. It's what makes them choose to embrace one identity and erase another.

Kids learn to be black the first time they are treated as "not white." Whether that experience is overtly racist (like being called the n-word, or being excluded from activities on the basis of skin color) or more subtly (in the daily striving to resist negative stereotypes, or feeling invisible) mixed kids "know" blackness in every occasion where they are not perceived as white.

As their parents, this is difficult. It is difficult because we struggle to create environments for them where they are embraced for their combination identities. It is difficult because it goes against our hopes that our culture is slowly evolving past these distinctions. But mostly it is difficult because racism hurts. When these experiences come, they are painful. As parents, we want to protect our children from pain—and we can't. It reminds us of our relative impotence against a world that still not only sees color, but makes harsh judgments according to it.

When racism slaps our mixed kids in the face is when all of our history lessons, all of our field trips, all of our cultural education and family support comes to bear. That is the time when both the white parent and the black parent need to be fully engaged in teaching, explaining and listening—because these are the experiences that teach black identity and link our kids to the black experience more than music, dialect or any superficial test ever could.