How I failed my son in one simple question

[Editor's note: A few weeks ago, we discussed an old MomLogic post that was newly heating up the parenting cybercommunity. In it, a mother talked about how she handled a situation where her child asked why a co-worker's skin was brown. She handled it by asking the co-worker to explain. For that, the author was chastised (rightly) and vilified (wrongly) around the Web. After all...

Look, as parents, we all do the best we can. Sometimes our best isn’t good enough.

Read our post here.

The author of the MomLogic post, a reader of Anti-Racist Parent, wrote to us and asked for an opportunity to add context and clarity to the piece that drew so much ire. Below is what she wrote.]

written by Jackie Morgan MacDougall, originally posted to The Silver Whining

“Believe none of what you hear and half of what you see.”

I remember those words being uttered throughout my childhood by my dad. I thought he was the coolest, wisest guy in the world (still do) — where did he get these little gems to live by? He always had words of wisdom handy, like he kept them in his back pocket just waiting for one of his 13 kids to need it. It was not ’til years later I realized that statement is from the mouth of Ben Franklin and not Bob Morgan. Whatever – he’s still cool in my book.

That sentence has never rung more true than now. You see, words that were written — typed at my computer by my very own fingers — have left me as the focus, perhaps even a target, in a number posts and comments on the Internet, creating opinions of me that couldn’t be further from the truth. But I can’t even blame them.

A year ago, I wrote a piece for momlogic, entitled “Mommy, Why is Her Face Brown.” I told the story of how 3-year-old Jacob, on a visit to my office, asked that very question while chatting with a co-worker in my office. I wondered whether I should even write it… worrying about every word, questioning myself through every step of getting it up on the site. I didn’t once reveal the real me in it, instead opting to tell the story in a soft and delicate way — tying it all up in a pretty little bow at the end like it was a special episode of “Blossom.”

But that wasn’t my biggest mistake.

When Jacob asked that now infamous question, I turned to my co-worker to field it. A move that makes me cringe when I think about it, one of those moments I replay in my mind, continually feeling ashamed at the cowardly way I handled my own son wanting his mommy to help him work through something in his head. I dropped the ball entirely. My co-worker playfully addressed the question, talking about her gorgeous skin being a “shade of peanut butter,” something that would come up every afternoon during lunch when Jacob would bite into his PB&J sandwich.

But there were other things going on that day. I’m disappointed in myself that I didn’t share the complicated feelings swirling around in my head and heart. Expressing them and asking important questions could possibly have created conversation and not just evoked judgment and anger.

But I didn’t.

As anyone who knows us or has read my blog recently can tell you, Jacob was certainly not a kid who asked “why” very often. In fact, to this day, he has used that word less than a handful of times. You know those kids who are all, “why, why, why”? He’s not one of them. It’s one of the very things we go to early intervention for, clearly stated on his goals — “W questions.” And a year ago, I can honestly say he had not once uttered that word, his ability to express himself not sophisticated enough to communicate those thoughts.

When Jacob asked us why her face was brown, Jeff and I were dumbfounded. We can both recall wondering simultaneously “are you kidding us — where the hell did that come from?” There were so many reasons we were stunned, in addition to developmentally. We were in the process of waiting for Lucy to come home from Taiwan, something we discussed every single day in our house. We looked at pictures and talked about adoption and were lost in learning all there was about the Taiwanese culture. Jacob never uttered a word about his sister looking any different. We live in the LA area, we have friends and family members with different skin colors, backgrounds and nationalities. Never once was it something he mentioned and it’s not like we were pointing out to a 3-year-old, “notice how so-and-so looks different from you.” It wasn’t something we were afraid of, we just hadn’t arrived there yet.

During our adoption wait, I was obsessive. Not only were the attachment and bonding books devoured every night as they sat on my nightstand, I was doing everything I could to learn how to empathize with my daughter and some of the feelings she might have — how she could certainly see herself as “different.” I was emotionally raw and terrified to think my baby girl could be judged based on how she looked. Like any mother, I wanted to save her any pain, or at least minimize it. The way to do that (as much as I realistically could) was by educating myself. Prejudice and racism was at the front of my mind. I spent countless hours on adoptee blogs, reading articles and expert advice — doing what I thought was right by my daughter.

I can remember that day in my office so clearly. I remember the feeling of nausea that swept through my entire body. My initial reaction, the thing that drove me, was the fear that my son — my innocent, sweet, lovely son — had hurt someone I worked with, someone I respected, someone I cared about. What I never realized was that it was I who hurt her.

I missed a teachable moment that day. But the person who needed to be taught wasn’t Jacob. It was me. I was given the opportunity to provide my son his very first life lesson through conversation. I blew that chance. Because of this, those who have commented on momlogic have offered their own opinions of who I really am, wondering why my children are so isolated by the snooty white woman and kept from anyone who doesn’t share my same skin color. They question what I teach my children. They assume I am racist.

In all the time I’ve been blogging, I’ve most always been able to shake off negative comments, knowing that they come from others’ anger or ignorance — but I don’t want to do that now.

Because this time, it’s different. Some of them are actually right.

Recently, other blogs caught wind of the post and have written their own thoughts on it. While some are outright bashing me, others have created conversation. Anti-Racist Parent, a site I was introduced to while waiting for Lucy, is a place I have turned to on a number of occasions, reading posts and comments that have helped me through some of the challenges I’ve felt while waiting for and parenting my internationally adopted daughter. Now editor Tami Winfrey Harris was writing about me, expressing her feelings on my post, inviting four of ARP’s columnists to weigh in.

And today it’s Lisa Belkin of the NY Times using my experience as a topic of discussion, asking parents to share what they’ve taught their children about race.

I will be honest with you here. My first reaction to all of this was to curl up in the fetal position and feel sorry for myself. I wanted to beg momlogic to pull the post down. I wanted to pretend I never wrote it, hoping that the sites who linked to it would never get any hits. Then my feelings flipped and I wanted to comment on every single post, explaining that I’m not this evil person… I just made a mistake. Surely they couldn’t believe that I would be the clueless priviledged white woman that’s being judged all over the Web, could they?

I’m not going to do either of those things. I’m going to take ownership of the post and of my feelings. Because those who love me know who I really am and those who choose to see me as anything but my true self, I can’t change that. But I have learned a few lessons here. I need to continue to write based on my real feelings, tapping into my own original thoughts, my insecurities and fears, never losing site of being authentic. I will write the truth (according to me) and not what I think others want. I am human. I am flawed. And I don’t know about you but there’s a good chance I will screw up again in my lifetime. But I will continue to acknowledge my mistakes and hopefully grow from them. Because that’s all I can do.

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About Tami

Tami Winfrey Harris writes about race, feminism, politics and pop culture at the blog What Tami Said. Her work has also appeared online at The Guardian’s Comment is Free, Ms. Magazine blog, Newsweek, Change.org, Huffington Post and Racialicious. She is a graduate of the Iowa State University Greenlee School of Journalism. She is mom to two awesome stepkids and spends her spare time researching her family history and cultivating a righteous 'fro.
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