Tag Archives: ending racism

Meet W. Kamau Bell– if you haven’t already.

Trying to face racism honestly and keeping my mind pointed at the reality of racism, ending it, and in particular, racism as it comes at my own daughter, is in large part, the reason I started writing this blog. If you’re white (yes, I am) and you have a child of color (who I love so much) and you keep your eyes and ears open (I do) you see racism– in the biggest picture– (think Trayvon Martin, think the things that have been said about and done, including by members of the United States Congress, in the direction of our own president, President Barack Obama, think economic and health and educational disparities in the US and think about a million other things). But if you are honest, you also see racism in every day life, coming at your child (think Student Council, think who is consistently touted as the best student in the class at school, who gets chosen for things– the lead in the play, the best poem or essay, etc., etc.). And then if you are white (which yes, I still am) you really have to start to look at and face your own racism which is harder to excavate honestly, but I do work at that too.

There should be posts about my own racism– what I have faced about how and where it is threaded into me as it is into all of us who are white, and about what I’ve done about it. But I don’t have the focus or courage to write about that publicly– not yet. For all of us, whether we are targeted by racism or members of the group that perpetuate racism, someone who has the gift to point honestly at racism and keep us laughing– has a goldmine of a gift. A black man who would bother to talk to us about these things and let us laugh at ourselves (if we’re white) along with him, someone who is black and who says “Ok, let’s take an honest look. Ok, now laugh really, really hard. Now let’s go back and take another honest look, a little longer this time, …now laugh some more”– That is someone who is going to help lead us out of this mess we’re in and to a world which we will someday have, without racism. He also does equally beautiful and hilarious work on sexism and tackles in some way, what it takes for men to face sexism honestly.

W. Kamau Bell is certainly that someone. He stands on the shoulders of other black comics and artists who have been so very important for all of us, but I’ve been looking to him lately. And you should too.

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Birthday gift

Yesterday– Monday– was my birthday.  Many lovely things happened over the weekend in celebration.  On Sunday, I did what I’ve done a few times in the past few years.  We invited a handful of people to meet me anytime they wanted over the course of two and a half hours– at my very favorite neighborhood coffee shop and we reserved the big table up front, reservation being a thing allowed only to old regulars like myself– and we sat for hours with different friends who came and went and talked to me and to my daughter and partner and to each other.  I drank two great iced decaf Americanos with half and half and talked to people I love.  If you are someone I love and weren’t invited, please don’t take offense– I didn’t do a thorough job with the guest list.  I invited people I don’t see enough, people who live really, really close by– and a few people who are really special to me, but not my regulars.  

Later, Sunday night, one of my oldest and best friends and her partner and son cooked a truly incredible dinner for me and we all talked and caught up after many months out of touch. 

Monday, on my birthday, for whatever reasons, I woke up too early, feeling so sad and needing a big cleansing cry.  I got a small cleansing cry a little later in the morning and I went to work.  I felt instantly better at work, in the nice cool air conditioning and with a purpose (work) and time to get organized.  It was far from my most productive day work-wise, but, I got a few things done in spite of myself.

At work no one knew it was my birthday.  My job is still relatively new.  And I’m a woman past 50 with an 11-year-old child, and even when I was younger without an 11-year-old child, I wasn’t someone– and I am definitely not now someone, to go to work in a fancy dress, saying, things like “oh, why am I dressed up?  it’s just my partner is taking me out to (name chic restaurant) for my birthday.”  I like other people to know it’s my birthday– but I had no natural lead-in and I couldn’t quite bring myself to just announce it to my colleagues.  So I enjoyed my birthday at work, in silence.

Elsewhere there was plenty of fuss.  My daughter baked an incredibly fabulous chocolate cake all by herself.  My partner spent three days making me feel so special and gave me a card with a beautiful note that she wrote.  People I love called and texted and emailed and even sent a card or two through the regular old-fashioned mail. And then last night our neighbors who are two of our closest parent buddies, just back from two weeks vacation, invited us to join them and their four daughters for dinner and my daughter contributed her delicious cake. So there was plenty of celebration.

At lunch time I walked over to an office building about 5 blocks away with the crashed hard drive from our old computer where there is a document recovery place.  (Now keep a positive attitude and maybe I’ll get my lost data back.  For 200 and not 700 bucks.)

Even though there was plenty of fuss, it turns out that sometimes, as you get older–the real gift is not the fuss, or the gift in a box, but the connection.  While I was out on my lunchtime walk, two things happened that touched my heart and with them, I was certain my birthday was complete.  First while walking back from the document recovery place, one of my best friends, out-of-town because her father was dying, called me and cried and cried into the phone.  For a long, long time.  Her mother began years ago, and now continues to torment my friend about her being a lesbian and this harshness and meanness continues through my friend’s father’s final days.  

My friend apologized to me several times for calling me on my birthday and needing me to listen to her.  But mostly she just really needed someone to listen while she cried and I was really happy and honored to listen.  I’d been out walking in the heat and stepped into a Payless Shoe store into their air conditioning– and sat down on a stool meant for sitting while you try on shoes and we talked for 20 or maybe 30 minutes.  Or mostly she talked and I listened.  It felt like a real gift to me.

Then, I headed back to the office.  I stopped in Starbucks, bypassing a man outside on the sidewalk selling our town’s newspaper of the homeless.  He had made eye contact with me on my way in, and I had nodded that yes, I’d buy a paper when I came out.  So when I left with iced Americano in hand, I was already committed.  I walked up to him and asked him to hold my coffee while I fumbled for my wallet.  He asked me how was my day going and I said, slowly, thinking it over, it’s a good day.  It’s actually my birthday.  For real?– he asked me.  Yeah, for real.  Really? he asked again, a little disbelieving.  Yes, really it is.  Well, happy birthday, he said.  I mean really, happy birthday.  We talked a little.  I told him that I was working and glad to be working again after having been unemployed for some time.  He told me a little bit about himself. 

He showed me an article about him in the newspaper he was selling.  The article says he was recently reunited with his children and thanks the people who helped him along the way.  He offers encouragement to other homeless people to work hard and that they can get their own place and get off the street.  He writes about homeless people who have reunited with their own children as he did. 

Somehow he managed during the course of a short interaction to say, happy birthday about four times.  And he said to me, maybe three times– Hey– you’re real pretty– you really are.  (A comment that was and felt sexist when I was younger and now, at the age that I am, feels or at least from him, felt, like something different– an affirmation of the beauty of women with gray hair and some pounds to lose?)    There was a kindness there on both sides–him toward me and me toward him.

I know that with this story, I tread dangerously close to all the white middle class racist stereotypes that would hold onto the lie that a white middle class working woman in the middle of a busy workday, stopping for a kind, human exchange with a black (formerly) homeless man is something for him to be grateful for.  Or even the racist notion that the same white middle class woman, mingling with a poor black man is enriching to us white people in a strange, distorted patronizing way– like being a tourist in a foreign land. 

But for me, it was a small moment where two strangers dropped that stuff about class and race and gender that divides us– the stuff that cannot really be dropped at all– but was dropped anyway, for a just a minute– and connected.  He stopped me because he wanted me to buy his paper.  I told him it was my birthday because I wanted him to wish me a happy birthday.  I wanted to talk to him as myself and not as another passing white woman.  And then we talked for real for just a minute.   

I paid for the paper and wished him good luck and I walked away.  Then a few steps up the block, I circled back and asked if I could take his picture and post it on my blog so I could remember him and my birthday wishes from him.  So here he is– my one-time birthday friend.  Thank you, Mr. Phillip Black.  I forgot to ask, but Mr. Black, Happy Birthday to you too– whenever it comes around.

Mr. Phillip Black
07.16.12

Hoodies

I have posted, from time to time– my daughter in her school outfit for the day.    I love her style and I some mornings I feel like I can barely bear to part for the day.  These photos are from earlier in the week.  A cool morning when it was cool in the apartment.  Her great and comfy fashion sense.  A cooler day than the few before.

Mama C. reminds me that these photos have some resonance in a hard way, with current events in the world.  I am always conscious, especially as a mom, of the world we adults have participated in, created and also inherited.  And whatever you or I did or didn’t do to land us where we are, I think about our job as people and as parents, to leave the world and our young people with something better– in particular, a world in which we’ve ended racism.  I didn’t set out to write a post about Trayvon Martin or about his mama and daddy or about the racism in the world, and I wasn’t thinking about the world outside our door when I said, “go stand by the bookcase, so I can take your picture this morning”.   She (my daughter) and they (the pictures) are just beautiful.   I wish there weren’t such current meaning in these sweet, silly morning photos.  I’ll enjoy them and hope you will too–nonetheless.

On Public Schools, race and class

I wrote a long post to a parents discussion list that I participate in recently– in response to a question posed by a smart and very thoughtful mother (someone I’ve met very, very briefly but don’t really know) as she was trying to think through the variety of values, concerns and goals she has in choosing a school for her son who is just getting ready to start school in another city.

It is such a big moment for a parent as well as for a child– when a child starts school.  All parents send our children off with all our love and all our hopes and all our worries.  It is such a big part of our lives; participating in an institution like a school, with all the hustle and hurry, with all the lively, good and interesting things that go on and all the challenges, upsets, and real deficits that every school operates with– though some schools operate on deficit of resources to address the real needs of their students to a greater extent than others.  Wherever we send our children to school we all do so with a desire that they will do right by one’s own particular child.

I remember well the fears and the intense focus of the year or so before my daughter started school as we, along with many other parents we knew with a child in our daughter’s age cohort, tried to figure out what was important to us, what our options were, what the different options honestly looked like and what really mattered to us about schooling.  Looking back, it was a clarifying time.  I had a little cohort of mothers who were also doing the same looking and evaluating.  I got to notice what we had in common and I got to notice our differences in values and also in approach.

As I set out to write a bit to the list, what came out was a piece in which I tried to reflect and speak honestly about our decision to send our daughter to a public school and my thoughts about public school now that we are five and a half years in.  I have edited it to take out some references to things either personal to the writer to whom I was responding or things that don’t fit here.  I’ve also added to it to reflect some shared assumptions that had already been established in the correspondence.  But although I have alluded to these ideas, this is the first and only “whole cloth” piece I have written to date about my thinking about why public schools.  I thought I would share it with you.

Dear T,

I love your question and I loved the chance to sit and work on writing some of our experiences.  This is one of those topics that makes me remember how much I want deep connections with other parents as I figure things out in my own family, and how much I love to listen to other parents as they work to figure things out in theirs, how valuable it is to be listened to well by other parents and how valuable it is when I can listen well.  The questions about school for our children are informed by our ideas and informed by our feelings and it’s good to be able to work on both thinking and feelings.

My very short, shorthand, general view of why stick with public schools is this.  I identify as someone with mixed class background– working class and middle class– but raised primarily middle class and currently middle class.  And I’m white and Jewish.  In the context of those identities (mine) the reason I think that sending a child to public school is important is that for all the deep failings and failures of public schools (but there are deep failings and failures of all schools in the world as it is)– public schooling is a very important foundation/demand in the society.  In my mind it (public schools for all) really is a foundation for a certain kind of democracy and equalizing of people in a society that is deeply stratified.  Pursuing public schooling puts us up against the need to eliminate racism and classism.  Public schools currently reflect all the racism and classism we face as a society, but they also seem to me to be the correct outcome –the right goal– good public schools for all–where young people build community with those around them to learn.

Participating in public schooling offers us and our children the chance to push ourselves to share in the many good things that are happening around us and in our communities and to not separate ourselves from others in our communities.   And public schools offer us the chance to face honestly and together– the difficult challenges we face as a society.   And they offer us the opportunity to work together with parents and with teachers to reach for change as quickly and effectively as we can figure out how to do so.

I think that for middle class people, participating in the public school system is an opportunity to take an important stand against individualism and the capitalist (and particularly middle class) notion that there are individual solutions to our difficulties or that we can somehow buy or even organize our individual ways out of the messes we face as a society, rather than make the whole system right.  I think about this in much more nuanced terms and I think there are good reasons at times– given the options– to make very different choices.

Those ideas were the overall thrust of my partner’s and my decision to lean toward and ultimately to participate in the public school system.  Looking back at our five and a half years of our daughter’s participation in our public school, it seems clear that this has been a particularly important stand for us as a middle class family.  That to have made a different choice would have had profound ramifications in terms of not just her schooling, but in the position it would put us in– in the world– as apart from others in our community.  These separations have effects both in terms of who we get to know, and how we come to understand ourselves.  I think that these are separations that aren’t the cause of, but do perpetuate the deep and unjust class and race divisions of our society.

My daughter is 10, in the 5th grade and has attended public school since she started school in kindergarten.  We live in a diverse neighborhood (both race-wise and to some extent still class-wise– though gentrification has made this neighborhood much less diverse than it was even 10 years ago when my daughter was born).  We are fairly centrally located (as opposed to some of the outer edges of our city which have a more suburban feel to them) in an urban neighborhood in a major US city.  Like you, we were very committed to public education for our daughter, but we wondered if it would be good for her, and if we should reach for something else.

Early on we looked at and applied to one progressive private school.  She was accepted there, but we couldn’t afford it– but more importantly we decided that the benefits it seemed to offer– which were quite a few– didn’t outweigh the sense we had of that school as a place “apart” from the mainstream of our city and in the end the benefits didn’t outweigh our desire to have her in a truly diverse, not a selective– environment.  So we didn’t explore options for financial aid or other ways of raising the money to send her there.

Both my partner and I are white, and my daughter is Chicana.  Knowing that she already faced, at age five, and would continue to face racism kept us focused on our desire to take a meaningful stand against racism/ classism in our decisions about schooling.  Though I don’t mean to imply that this would have been any less important to our own well-being had our daughter been white.

Looking back I would describe our decision for ourselves and for our daughter as a decision to cast our lot with the working class people of our city in the particular way that public schooling provides.   I want to be honest here.  There were public schools in our neighborhood, including the school we were zoned for, that seemed too harsh and like places that it didn’t make sense to send her to– so we “cast our lot” to the extent we could, while also holding onto our thinking about what we thought did or didn’t make sense for her as a young girl, to face in her school on a daily basis.  Some of the schools we completely rejected served predominantly working class people of color.  And some of the schools we rejected out of hand, were deemed “good public schools” and were dominated by middle class white families but also seemed harsh and unworkable.

We ended up sending her to a public school here that is walking distance from us– though we, like you, were just a block on the wrong side of the school zone line.  She got her spot at the school she attends through a lottery system that is available to any resident of our city who wants to send a child to a public school outside of their school zone.   Because her school is considered one of the several “good” schools in our school system, many working class and poor families apply to it through the lottery, as we did and many who attend this school come from outside the school zone and outside of this neighborhood.  This school is a dual immersion, Spanish English bilingual school which is heavy on Latino/a staff, leadership and families, a fact that was very important to us.

You also asked about people’s perspectives on the importance (or lack thereof) of choosing a school that is in close proximity to home.  I will say that for us, school has had some big ups and downs and having the school be convenient has been very helpful.

I have always worked– and we live — not terribly far from school, so I have had the chance to pop over there when she’s having a hard day, when I wanted a better sense of what the heck was going on, when I have wanted to increase my connection to the school or to her when things have been hard.  It has helped that I can get there easily.  But there are other things about the school that probably would have made it a great choice even if we hadn’t had the convenience of the location.  Also, because this school is considered a “desirable” public school– although we live nearby– many, many of her fellow students are young people from families who live all over the city and long distances from school.  And because our family, and my daughter, in particular– has been successful in building friendships with many young people across race and class lines– we have many relationships that involve a fair amount of commuting to different parts of the city– some not very close at all.

A couple of other observations.  We have had our share of good and not-so-good and many somewhere- in-between teachers.  We share your perspective that there is a need for a profound change in the culture overall to afford deep and full respect to young people and their minds, your perspective on the value of big opportunities for young people to show rather than stifle emotion– including heavy tears, laughter during lessons etc. and your perspective about the importance of lots of play and deep connection as integral to any learning environment.  So with all that as our baseline and with all the conditions of capitalism and in particular with teachers and teachers’ unions under increasing attack and criticism and the increasingly difficult conditions in classrooms (testing and all that stuff that you know well)– we’ve had our ups and downs.

We’ve tackled difficulties one at a time, some very successfully and some not as successfully.  Like any young person, my daughter has her struggles in school and out of school, but she has not been squashed by her schooling even though it leaves much to be desired.  She is a wonderful, inspiring person and she definitely has her own mind intact.  We’ve done lots of special time, and wrestling and staying home from school when things just feel too hard, talking and many other things to make it so that she feels our support and backing and can tackle the challenges as they come along.

I think there has been great, great value for my daughter in being part of a truly public school and in casting our lot with our neighbors– close in and throughout the city.  And I know it has been very good for me to be part of this institution even though it has challenged me in many ways.  I think that in our particular mixed race family– our love of the school and our relationship to it has been an important stand for us white adults to take against racism.  It appears to me that her seeing us take this stand has made a huge difference to her.  And her being part of such an amazing and diverse group, with all its strengths and naked difficulties– has also been great for her and for us.

She has had some incredible teachers– in kindergarten and the next year a first grade teacher who were Latinas and were both so incredibly loving and tender and reassuring and enthusiastic, and relatively welcoming of tears and feelings, I couldn’t have found anyone better if I been left to hire the teacher myself.  Last year her teacher was a young black man who is an amazing guy.  She adored him and chose (over my offers to move her) to endure a Spanish teacher who was unfairly very, very harsh with her, so that she could be with Mr. R.  My partner and I also  adore and have the deepest respect for, Mr. R.

Mr. R. was a great teacher and offered her some valuable perspectives on herself and on the world, that I know will stay with her forever.  Over the course of her difficulties with her Spanish teacher, Mr. R. became our ally and her ally in some remarkable ways and our chance to get to know him so well was one of the big gifts of that school year.  Mr. R. would not be found in a school other than a public school.

Having a young person in school and reaching to make it work in the biggest sense for the child is a project, for sure.  We adults have thrown all we have at the project of making this education work well.  My partner coaches the 4th and 5th grade girls basketball team with another parent, and I have volunteered in the classroom a lot and taken on some projects to make us visible as Jews and to address racism and “diversity” issues in the school.  We spend a lot of time getting to know the teachers and we have fought hard for good relationships with everyone from the security guard, to the lunchroom folks, the principal, the librarian, the janitorial staff, the front office staff and with many other parents.  (My partner is especially good at this kind of relationship building, one at a time, from security guard to principal.)   And we have succeeded in many of our efforts.

One other thing I love about public schooling that I think would be different in a different setting is that there is a certain lack of pretense.  The administration isn’t trying to “sell” the school, so that to some extent when we’ve had complaints the teachers or the principal have been more free than I think they would be in a different setting to say something along the lines of “yeah– that is really a problem but we don’t have the resource or don’t know exactly what to do about it”.    And the lack of pretense has been helpful even when the situation wasn’t good.

Those are some of my many thoughts.  I’d love to hear more of yours as you navigate these waters.

With love,

Laura

Our neighborhood school, race and racism; by the numbers

It must be a part of the package of privileges that are attached to being white– the package of privileges that I have– that I am so stunned by certain things.  Or at least part of the package that I would remained stunned by certain things past the age of about 30 which I am well past.  I carry with me some basic expectation of fairness, some sense that if things are wrong someone will notice and step forward to do something about it. On some level this is still my sensibility.

I have written in passing about the lunch tables– the now-segregated lunch tables at my daughter’s school and perhaps I will write more.  If it weren’t a set of young people involved whose parents should give permission, I’d go and take some pictures of these beautiful, lively girls and boys– arranged now so carefully with, for the most part, dark-skinned children together at one set of tables and white children at another set of tables.  They are laughing and tossing things and telling and shouting and generally having a good time–with some food-trading and some eating in the mix of the scene.  But things have happened and the effects of racism and its enforced divisions have sunk in and been absorbed and for the most part the children eat separately divided by race and by class.

I had hoped for better in the world by now– hoped that things wouldn’t look quite so starkly like this for children 10 years old.  But if you came to our school at lunch time with your eyes open you could see for yourself that racism and the resulting divisions according to race–are alive and well at this good school.

Toward the very beginning of this blogging project I wrote a piece called Student Council, third grade.  I cried while I wrote that piece and I cried many times as I talked to people about the incident I had written about– my daughter literally saying to me that she guessed you “have to be a different kind of person” to get elected to student council– and then naming by name– the young people who were the “different kind of person” and all of them white people.

I cried because I was witnessing her sadness, her self-doubt, her internal struggle not to give up on what she wanted which was, on that day, to be able to run for student council and win.  And I knew that this wasn’t only, or even mostly a personal struggle, but something more like a tsunami of hundreds of years of mistreatment and racist laws and institutions and struggles that brought us and her to that day and her singular question about what kind of person can run for and be on the student council.  But she didn’t know that.  To her it just felt personal.

My heart broke that day and many times over after that day.  I don’t know what to do about it.  I have, as all of us do, an obligation to fix that situation and I have not fixed it.  As her mother, I don’t want the conclusions that seemed to be forming in her mind, to take hold of her brilliant and interesting mind in any way.  Preventing that is, in my mind, the battle alongside the battle to end racism forever.

Now time has passed, not a long, long time, but a significant amount of time in the life of a 10-year-old.

Yesterday she came home and told me about still another student council election.  This year she didn’t run for student council and she didn’t seem sad, she was pissed off.  She helped another friend of hers– another girl of color to run.  But still she said that everyone said (she mimicked jeeringly) that the smart kids should be on student council.  And again, when I asked who those kids are– it turns out the smart kids are all white, every single one.  Seven young people ran and three of the seven are girls of color– good friends of my daughter’s.  Three young people won and all of them are white.  My daughter told me of her efforts, some successful, to get others to vote for one her friends.  To my credit, I didn’t lecture her about not giving up.  I decided, to not even point out– at just that moment, that there is something else at play here.

Instead I listened.  And then I went and did a little research.  So here it is.  The demographics of her middle-of-the-city, “desirable and succeeding” urban school.  The student body of the K-8 school is as follows: 662 students.  9% of the student body is black;  57% Latino;  3% Asian;  3% mixed race;  28% white.  So 72% of the students are young people of color and 28% are white young people.

Every year when the Student Council elections happen– with the exception of last year when she had a young, very aware, African-American guy as her teacher–she comes home and tells me about two or three white young people who got elected.  It’s the same young people, it’s different young people, but the demographics and the story are the same, year after year after year.  There is so much to this of course, that many, many books and academic papers fill our shelves and journals– but it comes down to racism and internalized racism and there’s not really a lot more to say on that front.

I mean, really– is this acceptable at our public school?  It cannot be acceptable. I have a lot to figure out, and that is indeed my job– as a white Jewish woman in this world and as the lucky woman who is the mother of my Chicana daughter.  I’d better get moving and for certain I’ll need your help.

This white mom; talking racism.

I haven’t written directly about race and racism in a while.  I notice it all the time, all around me in all kinds of ways.  It is more striking and takes-my-breath-away–  not the in the good way, but more like having the wind knocked out of you, as my daughter gets older.  In other ways it is less startling and just more grinding as she gets older.  There is some way you always hope, when your child is very young, that she will somehow be the person who escapes the effects of the things you haven’t been able to change in the world.  I surely signed on for the job of mothering a daughter of color with my eyes open about racism and with the expectation that I would only learn more as I went.  I have definitely learned and seen more.  And more.

If I reflect on why, I think I have stepped back from writing about racism for a bit because I notice how defensive white people (of which I am one) generally feel when the subject is even mentioned.  It isn’t exactly that I want to save us from those hard feelings, I think we will not be able to end racism without feeling some very hard feelings.  But it is true that I keep trying to figure out a way to talk about these issues– and the racism that is all around us, before our very eyes–  in a way that my fellow white people will actually engage with and can actually hear.  Or sometimes I give up and retreat, but eventually someone asks me innocently, what I think of something– like how school or religious school or something is going for my daughter.  Then I go and open my mouth.

I have been fortunate to have had the opportunity to do enough emotional work on the subject that I don’t feel quite so, so badly about myself.  And not feeling so, so terrible about oneself (as a white person) seems to be one key to being a halfway decent ally as a white person to people of color.  Knowing solidly enough that you are a good person, despite racism (around you and your own) seems to be key to honestly facing what goes on and how you are a part of it.  And it does go on around me and I am a part of it– as well as a part of the work of the world to end racism.

There are things I can look at without going under emotionally.  I can face the fact that racism is not “out there” but right here– in all the institutions in which I participate, in the life I live.  It’s just braided right into the life I lead as well as out there in places I don’t ever go (also as a result of racism).  The world is still very heavily stacked against the flourishing and full humanity, dreams, self-determination and entitlement of people of color.  Like, for example, my daughter.  I don’t mean to sound hopeless here– or like she is a victim– neither is true in any way.  She is great and amazing and she is flourishing in so many, many ways.  But there is something about facing the fact that being adopted into a middle class white family doesn’t solve the racism she faces.  In a variety of ways it makes matters worse.

I have been fortunate to have a number of close friends of color who have been willing to forgive me my mistakes in the area of racism (mine).  I am certain there have been even more mistakes than I know and yet these friends and colleagues have hung in with me, talked openly (or at least I think somewhat openly with me), listened to my ideas and continued to tell me what they really think about various important things.

But on the home front with other white people, I’ve had quite a string of conversations over many months with white women who are parents in my daughter’s school, other white adoptive parents of young people of color, white women at our synagogue, and with good, progressive lesbian friends who are not parents and others.  We talk about issues I see in our school, our synagogue and elsewhere–and then the actual dialogue comes to a halt and the person I am speaking to starts to argue that what I see isn’t really there or isn’t racism.  They ask for specific evidence, they argue that my (admittedly often inept) descriptions of what I see that is so clearly the result of racism– is really something else– or that I have to offer proof that someone’s intent must be consciously racist for the effect to be racism, or they want me to be able to outline the plan of what should be happening differently.

My daughter has not escaped the piece of racism that is manifest in the fact that children of color struggle academically in school in numbers disproportionate to white children.  They call this the achievement gap.  The achievement gap doesn’t apply to someone else– she is in a catch- up reading program this year.  It’s a big intervention– she is pulled out of her regular classroom with a small group of other 4th graders for 75-90 minutes each day.  The independent data on the success of this program is quite underwhelming but schools have been buying and using it for over 10 years now.

Progressive educators have written about a wide array of concerns about the program– from ineffectiveness to racism resulting from the fact that to allow time in the schedule they pull kids from their “specials”; art, music gym– and in many schools, like ours– it isn’t the white kids who miss out on these opportunities; it’s a group of young people of color.  When we were told she was slated to participate we went through a lot of angst.  How we arrived at the reluctant conclusion to allow my daughter to try this out for one semester is another story that I may never write, though you can write me privately if you want to know it for some reason.

I do know a few things about the program first hand.  If my daughter was going to be in it, I wanted to observe it.  As a 4th grader, my daughter who loves to be with me, said it was too embarrassing to have me come to her class– so I have been helping out regularly in the 5th grade class.  In my daughter’s reading class there is one white child.  In the 5th grade reading class there are none. The young people are wonderful, lively, funny, very hard-working and often, I think, bored.  It has been– not surprising– a deep experience for me to be with this whole group of 5th grade young people of color.  I have put my own mind to the task of trying to think and learn about what it would mean to have this urban school really meet their needs.  And what is needed for no one to give up on them and more importantly for them to not give up on themselves or each other as brilliant learners and thinkers.

So why am I writing all this?  Well for one thing it is just always on my mind– as much as basketball and sadness at the turn of the year; as much as poems and reflections about writing and blogging.  I had gone silent out of the fear that someone would say, “Can she ever stop talking about that?”   I debated about whether to write this because it hauls a struggle that my daughter and sometimes I, would probably prefer to keep quiet about– right out into the light.  But I don’t actually think this is just a personal struggle of hers.  It’s our struggle;  our collective racism and effects of racism, our collective problem to solve– for my daughter and for all young people– especially young people of color.  So I just decided it was time to speak up again.  That’s what I call getting the new year off to a good start.

At the table

When I wrote the entry, Girls, Undefeated, I wrote about the lovely mom of the fierce little point guard (she really is little) on our school’s 4th-5th grade girls basketball team and how that mom sat down next to me and said warmly, almost admiringly, “you’re the coach’s partner aren’t you?”  I enjoyed that game and that mom that day.  I remember thinking that no one at the school had ever talked to me in that tone about my partner– although years ago when my partner was doing the public, important feminist/literary/community work she did earlier in our relationship, people spoke of her to me in that admiring, warm way often.  And they did again when later when she had an important role in a national lesbian and gay civil rights organization.  

I had never met that mom before that day, but I have seen her several times since, and a very wonderful thing happened last week.  The girls won their division championship and the season is almost over.  They are still undefeated.  It was an exciting game; a real game with a score of 19-10 at the end of the game and when it was over, I got to watch the girls unabashed joy and excitement.  Hugging.  Each other.  Their trophy.  Their moms.  Their dads.  

When the buzzer sounded and the game was over, in my mind I could hear the music rise in the closing scene of a wonderful documentary we have watched over and over at home about another triumph of young inner city competitors in another city, another context as they prevailed in something they worked hard for and they win the championship trophy at the end of the documentary.  Like in that movie, my mind slowed things down at the end of the game– the girls were moving in slightly slow motion and I savored the good ending to a perfect season.

There was so much warm, heartfelt appreciation for my partner and the other coach– from the mothers of the girls.  Hugs, high fives, laughter and many kind words.  I was touched by the warm feeling and some of it spilled over onto me.  They wanted to pull me aside and tell me how much they appreciated the fine work of my partner and her love and support of their girls.  I told each one who spoke to me how much she loves coaching, how her contact with their daughters makes her life better, our lives better.  It was such a good, nice afternoon and I was glad to be there to be a part of it. 

But later, mulling it over that night, it brought some bitter, sad tears to my eyes.  Not so much the tears of triumph, but a sadness about the things we hardly think about, yet live with every day.  For one thing, though I didn’t know most of the basketball moms before my partner started coaching, my mind slid to the group of women we do know and not all of the women we do know at school have always been kind to us.  Never unkind overtly, but we are a slightly older, lesbian couple.  For the most part they don’t invite us to dinner or coffee, to brunch on Sunday or to whatever else they do together.  In almost four years with our daughter at school our track record with so many of the parents– (though not all),  for social contact that we didn’t initiate is never.  Never.  Why this fact and its meaning has taken so very long to dawn on me is the real mystery.  Why I have so often made excuses about why it would be that way is a mystery.              

There is another story too.  It also took me awhile to register.  Weeks or longer.  Actually if I recall, it was my partner who first talked about it with me.  Before I fully came to be aware of it.  Last year my daughter made a close friendship with two girls; one white, one black.  They played together often at our house, and at the homes of the other two girls as well.  The white girl comes from a fine family, affluent and active in the school.  Friendly with everyone.  Involved and generous with their time.   The school year ended and our daughter had a busy summer schedule.  She was in an interesting summer reading program, attended an interesting science camp for a couple weeks and an arts camp that was beyond wonderful.  We went on vacation and before we knew it, the school year was starting again. 

This year neither girl was in my daughter’s class.  My daughter was sad that they wouldn’t be in the same class, but she was ready to resume her close friendships with both girls as soon as they were back in school together again.  But with the white girl — well here is where it gets murky.  Though maybe only to me.   My daughter started reporting that her friend wouldn’t speak to her at school.  Wouldn’t really speak to her at all.  Not angry– the girls are still an age where they show it when they are really angry with each other.  But her friend was just quiet, wouldn’t speak or engage.  As though maybe she was told that they couldn’t be friends anymore.  I have seen it myself as well as heard my daughter’s puzzled reports. 

Early in the school year my partner said that amidst the noisy excitement of dismissal and the children careening around, she started to notice that the after school plans for my daughter’s friend, the girl who came home with us many times last year, seemed always to be planned by her mother; one girl going home with them, or little groups of girls going home with them.  Never my daughter.  All white girls.  No daughters of lesbians.

I want to say, “I don’t know what to think.”  But I am sure if this were you, someone else other than me, and your family looked like our family and you told me this story with as puzzled a tone as I feel about all this– I would not say “I don’t know what to think.”  I would probably say quietly, “you know what that is.  I know what that is.” 

These are the things we don’t often speak about.  We speak about racist violence.  We speak of teenagers put out by parents who learned they were lesbian or gay.   Or the town or the school that drove a child or a family out– because they were black or the child was gay or the mother HIV-positive.  We speak about astounding rates of poverty and unfathomable rates of incarceration of people of color.  And well we should, we should be screaming from the rooftops about these things and many more.  But some of these things, so subtle you think it is you–so quiet and slow you  think you must have imagined something– we don’t talk about easily, or at least I don’t.  And there is some feeling of shame that these things have happened to you.   Or that they got under your skin.  They confuse you about who you are, or undermine your confidence.  You were the kind of someone who would work on these issues, but you were bigger than these things, they were the things that happened to other people in other less enlightened places.     

I am reminded of a brilliant black woman I have had the pleasure of meeting who has done a great deal of leadership work with groups of black people but with white people also, on ending racism.  Many years ago, in the organization where I met her, she had started a campaign directed at white people who explicitly wanted to work to end racism.  It was the simplest program you can imagine, at least in terms of the length of the to-do list.   

Her instruction to white people was simply this:  Make friends with people of color.  Build close life-long friendships with black people, the people descended from people brought to this country as slave labor, and with other people of color.  Just do that.  Face what you need to and make the mistakes you will make, then clean them up if you need to, apologize.  Pursue friendships with people and face it if they seem not to want a friendship back.  Then try again.   With the same person or with someone else.  Show people that they are wanted.  Welcome.   But make friendships.  Real friendships.  Persist.  She often talked about who you had at your table for a meal, and whose home you went to.  That kind of friends.  There was a lot to it, and I understood instantly when she spoke of it; she was talking about the gap between the theoretical and the real.  The resolutions about diversity in our schools and our organizations vs.  who we could each actually reach for to sit down to eat lunch with.   Dinner.  Who could you really count as friend and love and listen to?  Whom will you trust to tell your troubles to? 

I am also reminded of the commandment in Judaism to love the stranger, “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”  In Eastern Europe this meant that a traveling Jew could always find a home to be invited into, a table at which to be welcomed for a Shabbos meal or for Passover seder.  The tradition was not that you will say hello to the stranger and set up affirming policies about strangers, diversity training.  But you will open your home and your table and welcome the stranger. 

I don’t worry that much about the loss of this one friend of my daughter’s or that family’s friendship.  And we do have some wonderful friends at the school, and often it is ok if we do the inviting.  But I do want to face the why of the loss of that one friendship, and the why of the many times we do the inviting and reaching out, rather than the other way around.  I think I have to honestly understand these things for myself and my partner and for my daughter.   

And I do get hungry every single day and I often like to share a meal with people whose daughters and sons are growing up in our neighborhoods, figuring out all the complicated things like science fairs, friendship, ending racism, basketball, reading, swimming and ending homophobia and sexism.   I like a group around my own table at home.  But I also love it when we three– two adult women who love each other and our brown daughter who loves so generously and wholeheartedly, are gathered, laughing, talking around someone else’s table.  Welcome, wanted, at home.