December 10, 2016
Black and White
It seemed so black and white when they asked if I could care for this little boy who had nowhere else to go. I never thought to ask the color of his skin. That question did not enter my mind. All I knew was, he was a child in need of a mother, and here I was, a mother with a lot of love to give. What else mattered?
And mostly, it hasn’t mattered. Most days, I never give it a second thought. Occasionally, I will see a photo of the two of us together, or I will catch a glimpse of the two of us in a mirror, and it sort of takes me by surprise that we look so different – me with my milky complexion and he with his milk-chocolate brown one. But then the moment passes, and we go back to the only thing that is truly important . . . the fact that I am his mother and he is my son.
Ever since he was a tiny baby, since the day I first met him lying in that hospital bed, I knew that I would need to care for this little boy a bit differently that I cared for my older son – my White son who is now grown. I knew that I would need to take extra care to keep his skin well-moisturized and his black curly hair buzzed close. But other than that, I barely noticed our differences. I know how to love and nurture and train and teach him. What else do I need to know?
He is almost 8 years old now, and I am starting to realize that maybe it is not so black and white after all. Or in truth, maybe it is more Black and White than I originally thought. I can no longer be naïve and pretend that the color our skin, the differences in our looks, do not matter.
My first clue that maybe there was more to this White-mother-raising-a-Black-child thing was a random comment by someone at our former church (the church, I must confess, that included almost without exception, white people). My son was maybe 3 or 4 years old at the time, and one of his favorite things about church was the music. We would always sit right up front, and he never for one minute took his eyes off the musicians. He played an imaginary violin and the fact that he did not know all the words never stopped him from “making a joyful noise” right along with everyone else who was singing. The minute the service ended, he would climb up on that stage, pretending to conduct the empty chairs of the orchestra. It was adorable.
But one Sunday, a woman heard him singing and said, Maybe when he grows up, he will become a rap singer. And everyone standing near us laughed and agreed. Except me. I didn’t laugh. I bristled. Why did she say a rap singer? Why not just say a singer? Or a musician? Or a conductor? Is it because he is black? Did she assume that the only kind of music Black people know is rap? Really? (The term rap singer is not technically accurate. The correct terminology is rapper or rap artist. How does a church-going White girl like me even know this?)
I have tried to be intentional during his early years to seek out Black role models for him. Doctors and teachers and other professionals who will, hopefully, inspire him to excellence. Family friends who will model the same character qualities that our own family values . . . honesty and integrity and compassion and responsibility.
But honestly, there are not too many Black families in our part of town, which means that there aren’t too many in our local schools either. In fact, at one school where he attended briefly for Kindergarten, there was only one non-white person on the entire staff. And he wasn’t a teacher or coach or administrator. He was the janitor. Not that there is anything wrong with manual labor of course, but if the man pushing the broom through the hallways is the only person of color my impressionable son sees at his school, what message is that sending to him?
What started out as sort of a good idea in the back of my mind has more recently become a necessity. This cute little Black boy is quickly growing into a handsome Black young man, and it is vital for him to know people who can help him navigate a world I know nothing about. I have felt the first pricks of worry when I remind him to speak respectfully. What if, in a few short years, he talks back to an employer? Or a police officer?
That same BB gun that my older son innocently played with in our neighborhood? It’s suddenly not such an innocent toy in the hands of a Black child.
Or when I encourage him to get in the habit of putting down the hood of his jacket when he walks into a store. When I look at him, I see a kind, compassionate, responsible kid, but will the security guards at the mall see him differently? Will they look at him with suspicion?
Recently we were at a local children’s museum, where my son was collaborating with a group of other boys, working together to build a huge structure out of LEGO’s. You know how boys can be . . . it doesn’t take much for them to get a little bit rowdy. What starts out as passing the large plastic bricks to one another quickly turns into tossing the large plastic bricks to one another, along with much laughter. One of the museum employees approaches my son – the only Black child in the room – and says sternly to him, Stop throwing the LEGO’s! Why did she single him out when all of the boys were doing the exact same thing?
Tragically, we live in a culture of mistrust and fear, and my son will need to maneuver this culture with caution. He will need to be conscious of his words and tone of voice and appearance. He will need to be deliberate in his choices and actions. In my sheltered upbringing, I have never before had to consider these challenges, and so I feel at a loss to be of any help to him. Issues that I have barely thought about have suddenly become very important – vital, even – for me to at least try and understand.
A few months ago, we were reading a children’s Bible story book. We come to the story of David – you know, brave giant-killer and all. I pause the story, look intently into my son’s eyes and say, This is what I hope and dream for you. I want you to be courageous and strong. A mighty warrior. More than anything, I want you to trust God like David did, and love God like that - with all your heart.
I can’t, he says. Just like that, as if the conversation is over.
Alarmed, I ask, What do you mean, sweetheart? Why can’t you be like that?
Because, he says, pointing at the picture in the Bible book, David is white.
No, no, no! What am I teaching him? How did this happen? How have I – along with others in our community and culture and even our churches - been communicating to him, unintentionally, that only white people can be brave and strong? That only white people can love the Lord? And why in the world do we think that David was white?!
I determine, in that very minute, to search out books that feature Black characters and Black heroes of history and Black children. A Bible story book with illustrations of children who look like him. The very next day I head to the library, and I spend hours searching. Scanning the shelves. Exploring the online catalog. Asking the librarian for suggestions.
With very little success. The only options I can find are books about slavery or civil rights or children living in a remote African village. None of which my middle-class American son can relate to. Where are the Black Hardy Boys or Chronicles of Narnia? The Black heroes of history? Surely not every missionary or scientist or astronaut or inventor or explorer was white? Are all the libraries in this country like the one in my city? I had no idea.
Fortunately, I discover, hidden among the other holiday books, a beautifully illustrated Christmas books about a little Black girl who is looking forward to being an angel in the Christmas pageant. Perfect, I think! Until I start reading it out loud to my son. This little girl lives in a sparsely-furnished apartment in the inner city. On her way home from school one day, some teenage bullies stop her in the street and steal her new winter coat. She is devastated, because she knows that her single mother cannot afford to buy her a new one.
I rush through the rest of the book, hoping for the first time ever that my son is not paying attention while I read. I am stunned! Is this the only option: white heroes of history or urban black thugs?
For the first time in my comfortable, protected life, my eyes are being opened. I understand that a White mother raising a Black son might not be as straightforward as I thought. That he is going to need others in his life who can help him navigate a world I know nothing about. A child needs a parent to guide him through life, but I cannot take him to a place I have never been.
I am understanding, more and more each day, that my son is not the only one who needs a mentor . . . so do I! I need someone to help me find good literature. Who will teach me what to say when my son is unfairly singled out. People with whom I can discuss racial issues and questions and concerns – transparently and humbly and respectfully.
I mean, with all the fear and mistrust in our culture, I am hesitant to speak up. What if I say the wrong thing? Or use the wrong word? Or ask the wrong question. What if I offend someone with an ignorant comment or question? Recently I posted a picture of my son sitting on Santa’s lap with the caption #blacksanta. Am I allowed to say that? Is that politically incorrect and offensive? I don’t even know.
There is a Black social worker at our foster agency who has been our case manager for several years. He is well-dressed and articulate and smart. A man of character and integrity whom my husband and I highly respect. I would love to have his continued influence in my son’s life, but he was recently reassigned to another role. Would it be okay if I request that he continue to be our case manager? Would that be racist if I asked? I have no idea.
Who can I ask about things like this? Who do I know who will be patient with my questions? Who won’t be easily offended by my ignorance. Who will help me think through difficult issues I have never before needed to consider. Who doesn't shy away from the word "diversity."
About a year ago our family left our mostly-all-white church, and are now members at a multi-ethnic one. Where the pastor is White, the worship leader is Hispanic, and the youth pastor is Black. In this year’s Christmas pageant, there were just as many beautiful black angels and cute brown shepherds as there were white ones. There are lots of blended families just like ours. I love it!! It is a small step, to be sure, but as with every journey, this one too has to begin somewhere.
So here I am, a White woman who has been sheltered and blissfully naïve. Who didn’t realize, when that tiny black baby was placed into my arms, what an awesome responsibility I had been given. Who had no idea how much I have yet to learn.
Here I am, a White mother whose heart overflows with a mixture of passionate love and underlying unease at how inadequate I am for this task. Unworthy and unqualified, yet given the honor of raising this child. Not just any child, but a child who is Black - a fact that I can no longer ignore. He is an amazing Black child, well on his way to becoming an amazing Black man.
I am white. But thanks to my son, my eyes are beginning to be opened to the beauty and the challenges of what it means to be Black.