by Anti-Racist Parent columnist Vera L
I’m pleased to become a regular contributor to Anti-Racist parent. It’s exciting to join respectful, serious, searching conversations about race in a forum that includes people of varied races, backgrounds, and walks of life. I welcome the opportunity to talk across the borders we’ve created around our differences.
I’d like to let you know a little about the perspective I’ll bring to these conversations. I am someone who has spent my whole life at the borders, crossing in and out of communities.
I am an African American woman who grew up as a “military brat”. My father was in the Air Force, and we moved about the country regularly with the military transfers that came every one or two or three years. Because the Air Force created housing areas based on rank, and because almost all of the other officers were white, we lived in base housing areas that had very few, if any, other black families. When my family was not assigned housing on the military base, my parents chose to live in white neighborhoods. I assume they made those choices to gain access to the better schools, better housing, and to give their children the same things the other officers’ families had. That meant my brothers and sisters and I were usually the only black kids living in a white community.
Throughout my childhood, I was an outsider. I was never really a part of the white kids’ groups, and I did not have a connection to an African American community outside of my family. And I am a light skinned African American woman – one of those people who regularly was asked the question “What are you, anyway?” by people searching for an explanation for my skin color and hair texture. In those few places and at those few times in my childhood when I actually could interact with a large group of other African American kids, my newness, status as an “officer’s kid,” and “high yellow” color combined to raise barriers that were difficult to hurdle. It would take time for me to get to know the other kids, to wade across the rivers that separated us – and then, my father would be transferred. I had a long childhood of trying to figure out how this race thing was supposed to work, and feeling that I never would be able to get it right – with anyone.
Then, as a teenager, I came out as a lesbian. More barriers and hurdles. An enormous amount of my energy during my college and graduate school years – far, far too much – was devoted to working through questions of where I belonged. Who were my people, where was the group that would accept me unconditionally, with open arms, as one of their own?
I eventually came to understand that being ensconced in a homogeneous group is something I simply will not experience. I will always be navigating border crossings. Over the years, I’ve become more or less comfortable with that idea.
And now I am a parent. What seems like eons ago, my partner and I adopted two African American babies who are now nine and seven year old schoolboys. We are a two-mom, adoptive, interracial family (my partner is white). I am watching my sons as they learn about race, about difference and about border crossings. My boys are unambiguously African American. My older son’s skin is a delicious chocolate brown, and my younger boy’s is a shimmering ebony. When they meet a new group of other African American kids, they belong. But their family composition, the fact that they have one white mom, and that they are adopted make community membership a complicated thing for them, too. And, of course, their blackness sets them even further outside of mainstream white US culture. The older they get, the more they are perceived – at first sight, with no other information – not only as outsiders, but as threatening.
My experiences as a child, a young woman and now a mother in a non-traditional family (count the ways!) mean that I can’t ignore issues of race, privilege and community membership. Just moving through an ordinary day with my sons inevitably involves a moment (or two or three) when we need to make a decision about whether, when and how to take these questions on. My younger son comes home and asks, “Mommy, are all black people bad?” My older son tells me about an incident involving a white classmate in which he is disciplined more harshly – he struggles with explaining it. He doesn’t want to believe that a teacher he likes is making decisions based on race. My younger son tells me that a girl in his class can’t have been adopted by her parents (even though she has told him she was) because “she and her mom and dad are all the same color.” My older son is adamant that his white mom not be the one who takes him to baseball practice. And when these incidents come home, my first response is — must be — “how do I talk about this with my children? How do I help them to understand, teach them how to respond?” Some time later, after the conversations, I can begin to strategize about what to do with other families and the staff at our school to smooth the way for my boys as well as for other kids. And later still, I begin to let myself daydream about changes in our society as a whole.
So, I welcome this opportunity to talk with you all about how we create community across borders, how we weave a culture in which all of our children feel at home, and how we can make a place where darkness is not shunned.
Vera L is a former attorney and social worker who is now a stay at home mom. She, her partner and their two school-aged are an interracial, two-mom, adoptive family living in Berkeley, California. They are intimately familiar with conversation about race, family difference and fitting in.