Tag Archives: 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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In my house, remember last Saturday, September 8– Integrity.

Before another Saturday goes by I want to mark something about this time and last Saturday.  My daughter has started middle school.  Officially.  It’s a big change; a big transition for all of us in so many ways.  I’m going to spend this school year delighting and marveling at certain things, shaking my head in despair at others, and trying to wrap my mind around 11 years old and middle school.  I don’t know exactly what all of you, who send your children to school in cities or suburbs or more rural or more uniformly middle class neighborhoods, or  more urban or impoverished neighborhoods are seeing.  Some of you went to middle school or junior high school a long time ago– some more recently– and I’d love to hear about your experiences– about your children’s experiences.

As we enter into this year there are new reminders to me, that though our school is considered one of the gems of our urban public school system — this is an inner city school with a slightly “lite” version of America’s “get tough” approach to young people and young people of color in particular.  Maybe this is going on everywhere.  I don’t like it much.  I am glad that our school doesn’t face certain of the harshest difficulties.   I love this school and I love many of the teachers and administrators, many parents and young people.  Still, the harshness toward young people as they become older young people, and the particular slant on this for young females (boys get a different and equally crummy version)– is more evident than ever.  It’s all right up in her face and in our faces– as her moms.

Despite all the good things there is an undertone and also not undertone, but such blatant  mistrust and constant disrespect of young people in schools, even the best of them.   There is less room, as your child gets older, to “opt out” or find individual solutions (“I don’t want my child kept in at recess for x, y or z behavior” doesn’t fly so much anymore.).  You can’t opt out, you can just resign yourself or … or organize for change in whatever ways you go about it.  Last Saturday my daughter reminded me of the strength we have in each other.

In the first week of school and into the second my daughter stopped eating to some extent.  She is nervous.  Her stomach is upset.  It happens to me too when I face something new and scary.  That in itself is ok– to take on a big new challenge, a big step in life and to face big feelings, nervous, scared feelings.

One night I was talking to her over dinner about what else she wanted to eat and about what she had or hadn’t eaten and then about school.  She started to talk about the new detention system.  I’d heard a bit about it already.  I’d heard that rather than start the year with a talk about the joy to be found in poetry, Spanish literature, the amazing worlds of science and exploration, math– they were getting a lecture from every teacher about the rules and the detention system.  Three “points” in one week and you get detention.

On this particular night I learned that they rack up points toward detention if they have to go to the bathroom during class.  And if they forget the right books to bring to class.  And if they bring their backpacks into class rather than leave them in their locker, and if they go to their lockers too often and…  I learned these things first from her, and then later that week from the 14- page booklet they sent home.  As a culture, we are increasingly harsh and punitive toward young people– as if teenagers are responsible for our problems in the world, as opposed to our bearing responsibility for theirs.  It’s among the more misguided things– a deep confusion–in our world– the idea of “fixing” our failed schools and our failures with young people through increased inflexibility, harshness, punishment, disrespect.  I decided to and did write to the principal talking about a number of concerns about the detention policy and though the policy hasn’t been changed, for a number of reasons I think my ideas and my letter were taken seriously and fairly well-received.  But I keep grappling with the fact that protests or suggestions from my partner and me alone are not really the stuff of change.  You need a bigger group to fight for something.

Fast forward several more days to this small but meaningful conversation that made me proud.  Made me want to kvell— (Yiddish for swelling, gushing with pride).  My daughter’s friend A. from kindergarten and the intervening years, has become a new best friend to my daughter.  Since the very end of the school year last year, their friendship has blossomed and it has been a joy for many reasons.  Last Saturday  A., was at our house for dinner after spending the day with us.  The twosome makes quite a duo.  One of the most hopeful, appealing things about them and their friendship, is their laughter.  They laugh and laugh and laugh and laugh.  Loudly. Uncontrollably. Hilariously.  Happily.   You never know what they are laughing about and often if you ask them, they don’t know either.  It’s so good.  So healthy.  Such fun.  They seem so much on the right track with each other and the laughter seems to grease the wheels for closeness and support and solidarity as two young female friends.

At dinner, they were telling us more about the all-present detention system– and they were telling us that A. had racked up a couple of points toward detention– for laughing in a class they are in together.  She was laughing while they were all playing scrabble– a fun and assigned activity in their literacy class.   For those of you of a certain age and life experience I’ll say I feel a little Arlo Guthrie-ish, a little Alice’s Restaurant coming on here.  I mean we wouldn’t want a bunch of 11 year olds walking into class and enjoying themselves so much they start laughing would we?  It’s terrible, dangerous–downright nasty– all that laughter.

But here is the real story.  As we were talking about this over dinner, my daughter’s mood shifted for a moment and got serious.  She said very seriously  “I was laughing too.  And I didn’t know what to do.  It wasn’t fair that A. got the detention point and I didn’t.  So I wondered, should I ask for a point?”  I shook my head no, very quickly.  Too quickly– and it interrupted her own thought process.   And besides interrupting, I was wrong.  Then my brain caught up with hers, kicked in and overtook my protective side.

I said it was an interesting idea to go ask for a detention point for yourself if someone else got in trouble.  I spoke to them about how brave it is to back each other and to not leave alone someone who is being treated unfairly.  We talked about how banding together when things are unfair is usually the best way to change things.  We talked again about the ACT UP documentary– United in Anger that she had seen with me earlier this summer.

We talked for a minute about the idea of organizing all the young people in their class to ask for detention point anytime anyone gets one.  The idea passed quickly and the conversation shifted quickly– but I felt hope and pride about my daughter’s mind, her big heart and her integrity all week long.

Prince of Broadway; Truth telling part two

Go out and rent the movie.  Prince of Broadway.  You may love it or you may not, but it is one of the more original, interesting, real things going on out there in the film world to which I have access.  I loved it.

It’s made by an independent filmmaker named Sean Baker and his vision and his sensibility– his openness to reality flies in the face of so much of what we are fed; from the kinds of multi-million dollar homes that are depicted as “an average suburban home” in any light Hollywood romantic comedy; to the lies and utter black-is-white and down-is-up distortions of the various Republicans duking it out for the presidential nomination.  In other words, I liked the film because it is truthful in some important sense of the word.  The plot goes roughly like this.

An undocumented immigrant from Ghana named Lucky works as a hustler in a counterfeit fashion sales business in Manhattan.  He has a girlfriend.  He’s getting by.  One day a woman, his ex-girlfriend, shows up with a baby, asks Lucky to hold the beautiful 18-month old boy she is carrying “for just a minute”– and when he does so– she announces that the baby is his baby and she needs him to take care of the child.  And she bolts.  Leaves.  She says she’ll be back in two weeks.  The rest of the story goes from there.  I don’t completely know why I loved this film so much though “authentic” and truthful is one big piece, though not at all the only piece.  It is also hopeful.  It is a film that is definitely deeply flawed in certain ways, but in my book it is a perfect kind of flawed.  And so much more worth watching that most of what passes for flawless.

The 18-month old boy who is the baby in the film is a boy with whom most of us, if we still have, as my partner often says, a pulse, will be hard-pressed not to fall in love.  I thought a lot about what it must mean to make a movie with an 18-month-old in the midst of adults shouting and play-acting the things that are depicted in the film.  It is not a terrible, violent story but it is a hard story.  Harsh things happen and the environment is harsh.

One of the biggest, and perhaps only big flaw of the movie, is the fact that the 18-month-old– whose existence and whose presence in Lucky’s life, is the center of the story– that 18-month-old does none of the things an 18-month-old would do under the circumstance of actually being abandoned by his mother.  Left with a man who is, father or not, a total stranger to the boy.  But I was willing to suspend judgement and let that fly– knowing that the actor was an 18-month-old and that he was, gladly, as he was being filmed, obviously not frightened or lost in the way he would have been if those things had actually been happening.

The film is about a world I don’t inhabit– a world where the confluence of classism, racism and poverty sits hard, hard on people and shapes things in very harsh ways.  And also in some very alive and loving ways.  It is about heavy stresses and pressures that are not the particular stresses and pressures I face.

But I think I loved this movie in part, because it is about the lives and the courage of parents.  Two parents in particular– and the challenges of parenting, under the pressures of racism, classism, poverty and other forces too.  In addition to the very hard, and the hardship– there are tremendous strengths among these characters; a clarity about rising to the occasion, a clarity about love and not abandoning our own– and in this film “our own” is not only about blood relations; and a vision of taking what life hands you and making a good life.   And those are certainly good life lessons for me and for all of us.

Columbus sailed the wide ocean and my daughter’s big mind.

I don’t like to face it in certain ways, but we are just a little tiny– I mean teeny, bit out– from my daughter turning 10– which seems like a big milestone in the life of a young person and certainly in the life of this mother.  I don’t know exactly how this post will work (as in well or poorly) but I am trying to write some about the mind and perspective of my daughter as she gets older.

This is also my call to those of you with children who are no longer very young children, to do the same.  Sarah— more, more about your older children!  Mama C. get ready, and tell us more as Sam gets a little older and then later, Marcel!  Others of you blogging about young people 10 and up, more about their ideas and the things you are discussing with them, wrestling with– and watching them wrestle with– not just how problematic it is (and no longer cute) to pick up their laundry, and not just about the feelings we have as they turn their attention away from us.  But I want to hear more, and learn more about issues of identity, perspective, ideas– theirs.  I want more about what is on their minds and then what is on yours as you listen.

I almost never write about going through elementary school again which is, in a certain way, what one does as one’s child goes through elementary school.  For sure I am not going through it again in that I am not subject to all the arbitrary and harsh and often unfair rules, I am not subject to the oppression of being a young person, and I don’t get out there and do great things like run around and use my body every day the way many (mine among them) elementary school students do each day until they are made to stop.  I don’t learn new things at the drop of a hat, as my daughter has taken up Latin Dancing with barely even a nod from me. (Really, she learned about, went to one Latin Dance class after school, and then decided to rearrange a standing tutoring session so she could attend Latin Dance– who knew?)

But I did stand at the counter, making dinner the other night, and asked my daughter to pull out her homework and work on it in the little table in the kitchen with me.  I learned that she was doing a segment on Columbus.  Oy, I sighed silently to myself, and silently, inside of me said, “another instance of mother-needing-to-pull-against-the-grain to teach her something real.”

I began mentally trying to figure out where on the shelves did I put the book I bought many years ago, the Rethinking Schools publication called Rethinking Columbus.  I mean this was a big moment.  My Chicana daughter learning about Columbus.  What and whose perspective was she going to learn?  I said to her, testing the water, “what have you learned so far?”  She answered matter of factly.

And these were, I think, her exact words, “that he slaughtered a lot of people.”  I said something like “well that’s a useful thing to know” and I asked (because she works with several teachers in her bilingual school) who was teaching this unit?  It was Mr. R.

This year she has a young, African American man as her teacher– Mr. R. (also Coach R. because he coaches the 4th and 5th grade boys basketball team)  and he is great.  He is the essence of “cool” and she and other young people love that– but that isn’t what I love about him and actually, when I think a little more deeply, I don’t think that is really, really at the heart of what she or they all love about him.

What I love about him is quite simply, his perspective.  For one thing, he likes them.  He likes the boys who are always in trouble.  He likes my daughter.  He gets her, as far as I can tell, in a way few of her teachers have really understood who she is.  And besides liking and getting her, his whole perspective, as far as I can tell, is quite different from any she has encountered yet in school.  Actively anti-racist, actively pro-young people in a very profound sort of way.  Much later, that evening, when I talked to my partner–and told her what my daughter said to me about Columbus, she just said, “think about who is teaching her this.”  I did and I do.

I could see her mind, as she wrestled with this material, was really at work, in very fine form, engaged in thinking about the “discoverer” and the so-called “discovered”.  I won’t go on about the writing she did about Columbus with me listening and helping a little, but I am tempted to publish the short piece she wrote and if she gives me permission I may yet do so.

Book review and give-away: Adoption Nation

When I decided to become a mother, I tried to get pregnant.  I read a lot during that time.  I read What to Expect When You’re Expecting; I read Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions and a bunch of other new-mothering books.

Time went on, I wasn’t pregnant, and we started planning an adoption.  A lot of other things and emotions happened, but that is the short version.  It wasn’t an easy transition, there were tears and very hard days, but we made the transition.  My reading list changed.  I subscribed to Adoptive Families Magazine (to which I still subscribe) and I read and read and read books.  I read to learn and I read to fill the space in my heart that was there because I had thought I was already going to be a mother by then.  And I read for the joy of it.  As a woman in a lesbian relationship, who had been part of a lesbian community for many years– I loved the part of our lesbian culture that was about making new ways out of old ways of being.  Making community, family, culture out of whole cloth–figuring things out.  What is a family?  What do I love, care about–that I want to pass on to a child?  What kind of home will we make with a baby?

It didn’t take me long to notice that many of the people who wrote about adoption were (not always, but often) also thinking about very fundamental questions about family and kinship and closeness in a fresh way.  They were thinking about race and racism and about culture– the one you are born into and the one you grow up with.  They were thinking about the deep question of what is it that binds us together, as humans, in love, that has nothing to do with genetic lineage.  They were trying to figure out some things about what young people actually need.  I got more and more excited and I kept reading.  And reading.

On my shelves today I count 36 books related to adoption.  Because we are long out of shelf space for books, I have many books in boxes and at least two of those boxes are full of more books about adoption.  I probably own about 100 books about adoption and there are many more out there than the ones I own.

Until last week I not read Adam Pertman’s Adoption Nation.  The book was first released in 2000 and was just re-issued with updates and revisions.  I have mostly been drawn to very personal accounts of adoption.  Adoption Nation is indeed a different book than my usual reads.  But I am very glad I read it and very glad Adam Pertman wrote it.  It provides something we don’t have so much of, but should– which is actual data and comparative discussion of laws surrounding adoption.  It tracks actual history of adoption practice, both domestic and international.  We need to know these things in order to inform decisions and policies about adoption practice as we move forward and to understand what we are a part of as individual adoptive families.

I think Adam Pertman and I have much in common.  He is an adoptive parent; he clearly adores his children; he is Jewish and he cares very passionately about adoption.  And like myself, he wasn’t content just to parent two children who came to his family by adoption (a big enough job)– he wanted to know and to think more and deeper about adoption.

Adoption Nation is long and not a quick read.  It is divided into three sections; one called “Don’t Whisper, Don’t Lie– It’s Not a Secret Anymore” about the long history of adoption in U.S. culture as a practice rife with secrets and lies– to birthmothers and to those people who were adopted out of their birth families and into a new family.  The section does a great job of detailing some of the history of international adoption and the role of the Hague Adoption Convention.  The middle section of the book, “Sensitive Issues, Lifelong Process” discusses issues affecting each of the members of the adoption triad; birth mothers, adoptive parents and adoptees.  He does not shy away from discussion of the many abuses that arise in the context of adoption, nor does he trivialize these abuses.

In matters like adoption, where those of us who are touched by adoption have such deeply personal experiences and views, there is so much that is important, but that we actually know so little about— or worse, that we think we know, but where our “knowledge” is based solely on personal experience– which is important, but not enough.

I hope Adoption Nation becomes just one of what I hope will be a growing body of more comprehensive work on adoption.  We need discussion of adoption as he provides, not just as it plays out for individual families, but in the context of the whole of the societies affected.  Adam Pertman is knowledgeable and writes about a much bigger picture than just that of his personal experience– which is depth that I think we need.

I learned a lot and I am sure I will open it again in the future as a reference for information I will want and need as I continue to think and write about adoption.  It is quite a feat to have compiled so much useful data, considered adoption from the standpoint of each member of the triad and discussed a wide array of state laws regarding adoption, international adoption law and practice as well as practices that are not codified anywhere.

My criticism of the book is not in what it is, but in what is missing.  Throughout the book, Adam Pertman talks a great deal about birth mothers and about the data regarding race– who adopts, who is adopted.  There is a lot of discussion about the increase in transracial adoption and many aspects of that shift.  But he does not ultimately place his discussion of adoption directly in the context of two of the larger social issues which I believe are at the very heart of why adoption, as we know it in the U.S., is what it is.

He does not write directly about racism nor does he write directly about sexism.  The omission of this overall context is most significant in the third and final section of the book, “Tough Challenges in a Promising Future” in which he discusses the public adoption/ foster care system and also offers a frank discussion of the role that money does and should or should not play in adoption.  Yet all of this would be a fuller, more meaningful discussion if placed in the context of the larger social forces that are at play in all of these issues.

I think it is inescapable that the conditions that give rise to the placement of so many children of color in the U.S. and throughout the world are utterly connected to racism.  I am neither pointing a finger at any one person or family nor blaming adoptive families in the slightest.  But I am saying I can’t fully understand my wonderful daughter’s life story, without understanding racism and its effect on her Chicano people.  We all, individual families and policy-makers alike, need to look at this bigger context as we look at adoption.

Likewise, I believe that any real discussion of adoption history and practice must be at least in part, a direct discussion of sexism.  By this I mean discussion of adoption must include discussion of the sexism facing young women and single women, women in marriages and the level of control and economic autonomy that women do or don’t have.  Adoption in inextricably bound with the conditions facing birth mothers, all of whom are women.

The individual reasons that any individual woman or family chooses an adoption plan for a child, or abandons a child are as myriad as the individual birth parents who make such plans.  And yet all women’s lives, and especially our economic, reproductive and child-rearing lives, are circumscribed by sexism.  Sexism isn’t the reason for every adoption, but no adoption happens outside of a world in which sexism has a profound effect on the lives of birth mothers as well as adoptive mothers.

Nonetheless I am glad this big book exists, and very glad to add it to my collection.  I am glad the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, which Adam Pertman directs, and which may be the only institute dedicated solely to adoption research, exists.  I hope I’ll meet Adam Pertman one day, and I hope to continue to play a small or perhaps even a bigger role as our thinking and the understanding of adoption continues to grow.  There is certainly room and a need for many minds at work on this important issue in our world and in our families.

Last of all, if you read through to the end–this is your last chance to participate in my first Blog Book Giveaway!!  If you’d like a new copy of the book, please email me your name and address at laurawrites1  at verizon dot net no later than Saturday and I’ll do a drawing and send off two copies of Adoption Nation.

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.