Thursday, June 18, 2015

How I lost my Whiteness: thoughts on Rachel Dolezal, Charleston, Ferguson...

I watched the Matt Lauer interview with Rachel Dolezal. And I don't think there are any major take-aways for our culture as a whole. I think she's a person who has done some amazing things for her community but who lost her way somewhere in the process. I know what it's like to want to shut the door on your past, to walk away from your family, to build walls and try to rebuild a life from scratch. When I did it, I started pretending I was from the South (I was born & raised in Boston).  I traveled to Europe with a buddy during college and whenever anyone asked where we were from, I'd say, "Well, he's from Oklahoma and I'm from NC." It was my way of slamming the door on a chaotic childhood and starting anew. Thankfully for me, it didn't last, I got real help and was able to heal and learn how to be myself including my past.  Granted, I think Rachel Dolezal's way was entirely more harmful to others, possibly more intentional, and could have negative ramifications for the good work she's done in her community.

But that's not even really what I want to write about.

The biggest statement that stayed with me from her interview was when she said she couldn't be her adoptive son's "real mom" if she wasn't African-American.  

Would you be shocked if I told you I agree with her?

Okay, I don't exactly agree. Her comment bothered me a lot at first. I was indignant: I am my children's REAL mother, no matter the color of our skin.  However, something has happened to me since I became the mother of a Black child.

I've lost some of my whiteness.

Photo credit: Sarah Leen, National Geographic
You can't see it on the outside. My hair stayed the same, my skin isn't any darker (well, it wouldn't be if it weren't for swim team! I can't reload the sunscreen fast enough!) . I didn't adopt any kind of cultural appropriations.

But inside, my heart has changed. My life has changed. There are parts of white privilege that no longer pertain to me. I think about race all the time. Because now I have to. I used to be able to decide when I wanted to worry about race issues and pick which ones bothered me most.  Now I worry about things like living in a "Stand your Ground" state, about how to handle it when Amani walks too far in front of me and someone assumes he's an unattended child, about how we will handle it when people discriminate against my son, about how much it bothers me that my kids go to a predominantly white school, about how to explain the news to my kids in a way that prepares them for reality but doesn't scare them half to death. I worry about how to prepare Riley & Allyn to be advocates for our family, for their brother, for each other. I fell apart when 12 year-old Tamir Rice was murdered by police. Because he looks like my child, he looks like my heart. The people who were murdered in Charleston look like my family, they look like my heart.

I can't watch news like Charleston, Ferguson, Baltimore without part of my heart attaching to it. I thought I was an advocate for justice before but I didn't realize the extent to which I could set it aside when I needed to. I can no longer do that. I've talked with other White moms of children of color and one of my wisest friends said this:

"I hate that I believed in 'the race card' until I had black kids of my own. I hate that I didn't really understand my place of privilege until I had my kids. And now I hate seeing some of my friends right where I used to be but with hearts that are unable to see what I now see."

I imagine this echoes some of the frustrations of the Black community when people manage to not-see race issues. Being the mother of a black child has given me an entirely different perspective on racism. Unlike Rachel, I'm not pretending to be something I'm not. I'm still White, I still retain most of my white privilege. But, like Rachel, I do understand what it is to be connected to a culture that isn't yours from birth.  While I will never understand what it is to be a Black woman, I do understand what it is to be a mother of a Black child.

And that might be part of what makes me Amani's real mother. My heart changed to make me a better mother for him, a mother of a Black child. Being his real mom makes me lose some of my whiteness. And for that, I'm thankful. I pray every day that it will make me a better advocate. Not just for my children, but for yours too.

1 comment:

  1. I agree completely!! News like what just happened in Charleston ABSOLUTELY feels different to me now as a mom of a black child than it did a few years ago when I was just a mom to white children! That fact makes me ashamed, ashamed of how little empathy I really had before. Now so many of these news stories feel like a punch in the gut. All day today I've had the incredulous thought running through my head, "He killed them just because they were black?" as I've hugged my beautiful black daughter and watched her play, so innocent of the evil in the world, of people who would want to kill her just for the color of her skin. Praying, along with you for God to heal our land to make it a safe place for all our children!


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