Monday, August 30, 2010

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

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

Diet, of course. Food, marvelous food.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 26, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 20, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

What the "Dr. Laura" Incident Means to Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Happy Birthday, Sisi!

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

The "smirk"-14 years later.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 9, 2010

Sisi and the Colored Contacts-- Part 2



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

At first.

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Burying the "strong black woman" stereotype

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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