This is going to get messy. This post is my attempt to be as open as possible about an important, complicated issue: race. In it, I am sure I will reveal my own ignorance, selfishness, and cultural blinders. Please know that this is not meant to be directive. The intention behind this piece is open and inquisitive. I offer no answers. This is a vulnerable assemblage of my real experiences and fears. In the spirit of Chronicles 29:17, I want to share “willingly and with honest intent.” I am not sharing because I think this is an issue for which I need to be appeased, but because I think it is important to have honest conversations about the things that impact our parenting. I am certain I’ve made mistakes in life and in this piece, but I want to talk about it. As with all things parenting, I am certain my experience is not unique and am hoping that we can create a dialogue to become the best parents we can, together.
Navigating the world as a white mom to two biracial girls has always presented unique challenges. There are numerous instances I can recall when my racial difference from my daughters was acknowledged in unexpected ways. I remember having my girls, at ages 1 and 2, in my shopping cart and overhearing an elderly white couple behind us in the aisle scoff and whisper (in that pronounced way people whisper when they are feigning secrecy but really want you to hear), “What a shame! Those could have been two beautiful white girls.” I’ve had more than one white mom tell me that my kids are “not like other black people,” as if that is a compliment.
Not all instances are so cruel. Small children have asked me why I don’t look like I am their mom. Curious adults have asked me if they are adopted. The racism and audacity of others in 2019 is no longer appalling and is something I talk openly about with my girls. It is not something I thought too deeply about when I was married to their father, and his family was in the picture. There was something that relieved a good deal of the pressure of talking about race when our family was a functional, happy mosaic of difference. Now that the only biological family they interact with is white, it worries me more.
I will admit that it was something that made me hesitant to date my current partner, a white man. I liked him for a long time before I let him know. I still wrestle with worry about what it means to my kids’ development that I have “replaced” their black father with a white male figure in their lives. Are they going to read it as a sign that I prefer white men, or think white men are better suited for parenting? Yikes. I hope not.
Have I done something wrong that my oldest daughter prefers Taylor Swift to Beyonce?
What did I do to my youngest daughter that she seems to only make friends with white girls?
Why can’t I get my girls to love the women of Black Panther as much as they love Wonder Woman?
When I get excited that they’ve made a black friend, am I tokenizing that child?
What does it mean now that the recipes handed down to them are the epitome of blandness instead of the cuisine of Southern black culture? As much as I love my family, none of us can throw down in a kitchen the way my ex-husband’s mother could. I’ve actively tried to rectify this with often embarrassing results.
Two years ago, my oldest daughter became interested in Kwanzaa. So we researched and decided to celebrate the holiday. I had the fantastic idea to make sure we ate traditional cuisine, including a Kwanzaa cake. The kids stared blankly at the cake, and I felt like I had failed at properly constructing the awesomeness of this cultural fare. Turns out, my failure went far beyond baking.
The Kwanzaa cake was a lie, perpetrated by a white “chef,” having absolutely NOTHING to do with Kwanzaa. How the fact that that she referred to corn nuts as “acorns” did not tip me off to this fraud is a testament to how strongly my guilt had overridden my ability to think clearly. I mean, why was I even watching a white woman demonstrate African American culture? What a mess. This incident was so eye-opening to me. This is when I knew that my guilt was so much more about me than about my kids, who thought I was ridiculous.
To be frank, I am worried that they’ll resent me. I am worried that I am robbing them of a rich cultural upbringing. I know there is a huge part of their identity that I will never understand. I can speak with authority about what it’s like to be woman, but I don’t have much to offer when it comes to the experience of being black in America. It is not my lived experience.
Perhaps I’ve just been in academia too long, and my inclination to think critically is overriding my ability to listen to what my kids really want and need when it comes to race. Often times, I fear that I veer into the racial justice version of Idris Elba’s Impossible Hulk (Google the SNL skit for reference). I have gotten, “I know, Mommy, stop!” several times when infusing race into the discussion of their school curriculum. Do I push past that, or do I listen? Holy cow, I wish I knew. More than anything, I want to do the right thing for my kids.
Right now, I am at a place where I just listen. I listen to my girls. I listen to the experiences my biracial students share about growing up. I try very hard to listen to others, though I know I can do better. I pray about it, but more importantly, I pray about it with my girls. I have come to realize that it is important to let them see this struggle. I don’t ever want them to think that I fully understand or hold any level of expertise on this issue. The best I can do, at this moment, is to make sure they know that I know it’s important, that I support them, and that I don’t have all the answers.