What do white adoptive parents say to their black child when events like those in Ferguson, Missouri are playing out? Soberingly, my children, like many children, are already too well-versed in these conversations with us, from the verdict in the Trayvon Martin trial to Jordan Davis’s murder in his parked car. We have gone out of our way to shield them from the latest story of African-American kids shot to death by white adults… and then a random taxi screen or a thumbnail on a website catches their attention and we’ve found ourselves scrambling to explain. We’ve searched online for the right words, emailed non-white friends and experts for perspective, sit down with our children to tell them our painstaking takes on unsparing truths, hoping that we are getting it right.
This summer, though, we have been on a self-imposed exile in the Sonora Desert and so, when the news first started trickling in about Michael Brown’s death and the growing protests in his neighborhood, we didn’t scramble as we had in the past. Could there be even more to say than the words we’d already put together to explain about Trayvon Martin, about Jordan Davis?, wasn’t it enough that we’d already had to break the news of life’s breathtaking imbalances and racial disparities? Couldn’t we just coast along like desert millipedes and watch the gorgeous sunsets and revisit this on another day, at another time? That is, after all, what privilege allows. In normal life, we live in Harlem — a mostly white family with an Afro-Latina child on a historically black street. We try to make the right choices, we talk openly about our dilemmas, and we grapple with issues of race/class/unfairness every single day. We are transracial adoptive parents who took seriously our training as such; there is no anachronistic wall decoration or casual slur in our family’s or friends’ homes that goes unchallenged by us. We came to the desert tired, wanting to take deep breaths and leave behind those daily discussions of a world that, from my computer’s headlines, was looking increasingly brutal, divided and hopeless. In such a world, unfortunately, we don’t always get to pick when our extended breaks from thinking can happen. At breakfast, alas, the kids finally noticed their grandparents’ newspapers full of photos of the fire in Ferguson. When you are white parents trying to raise a thinking child of color, you are humbly obliged to maintain even less control over when those breaks can happen. It’s rough out there. If we don’t frame the roughness with some softened grace notes, the roughness will surely frame itself first.
“Kids,” I said, “do you remember when we talked about how some young people lose their lives to people with guns?” They were all ears and anxious eyes, waiting for me to elaborate. We have spoken to them before about racist assumptions as they were applied to Trayvon Martin, we have spoken about white privilege as it was used against Jordan Davis. This early morning, I’m a little too lazy to find the appropriate words to explain shootings of unarmed men by police. “Aren’t police supposed to protect people?,” my daughter asks. Sigh. I start to connect dots between the conversations we’ve already had and this one, I pause to look for words that are both truthful and not too scary, to reach for the required insight and then “HELLO, DOLLY” – my singing father enters the room, interrupting with a loud and un-ignorable “Well, HELLO, Dolly!”
We are in his spacious house, not in Harlem now. Our only tether this summer to stark reality was supposed to be my father, whose worsening dementia has been enough difficulty for any of us to handle. Indeed, in those quiet moments when my white child and my Afro-Latina child sit together with their grandfather, watching old musicals on the couch, it looks like harmony on earth is quite attainable. Who doesn’t love Hello, Dolly? Who can’t smile at Barbra Streisand and Louis Armstrong and all of our differences turned into glorious Technicolor? Who needs to think about dementia, OR murder, OR mortality, OR Ferguson, MO anyway? In those moments, I tell myself – we have made a safe home, a loving family, and the nasty curveballs outside these walls don’t matter. We have enforced thoughtful language and rules for ourselves and for other adults in our family when speaking about race and identity to our children. I think that we’ve earned the right to this summer break, when – “What’s your name?” My father has suddenly turned and asked that question of my daughter.
My heart freezes. He has known her, adored her, up until right now and suddenly he is observing her as one might observe a stranger. That is his illness. Maybe she has sung “too loudly” for him or otherwise shaken the equanimity. Whatever the reason, his expression is such that I fear what might come out next, and I rush to interrupt. “Where are you from?”, he asks her, with a tone that holds special panic for parents by adoption. I hear a THUD as I realize that there will be no summer sabbatical from explaining the extremely painful. My father has loved my daughter more than life for almost nine years, has written pure and lovely songs about his love for her, has always respected those rules that we’ve laid out. At this moment, though, he doesn’t recognize any of that, or her, and his look seems to me to underscore the power and the privilege that his color has bestowed on him all of his life. It says to her, “Do you belong here?” To tell you the truth, probably the look is not all that different from the look that, in his shakiest moments, my father has bestowed on all of the rest of us. Given to my child of color, though, this questioning look must be treated differently. As white parents, it is our duty to see its inherent power, to recognize its automatic assumptions, to react to its potential impact on our child. This look, to us, says that we can not hide from Ferguson, even out in the desert, because we can not hide from some deep realities of race and difference, even in our well-meaning and well-regulated living rooms.
“She is your granddaughter, of course!,” I shout, as I hurry to take the children out of the path of any imminent collisions, out to the desert where we can escape. Today is different, though. Ferguson is exploding even more spectacularly in the paper this morning, my father doesn’t remember us or our careful rules, and so we start to scale my parents’ subdivision wall. They live in a “gated community” built for cars; our New York need to go on foot instead leaves us climbing over the back wall of the neighborhood, balancing as if on a beam, stepping over a high metal fence, jumping onto the sand below. This has always been an added, fun adventure — right now, however, all I can think about is the gated community in which Trayvon Martin was pursued and shot to death. I worry about my children — no, actually just my one black child — one day scaling these walls as we have so casually taught her to expect to do. Without us, however, with only her own skin, what will stop others from viewing her as a stranger? How can I keep her safe then from those who would want to “protect themselves” from that stranger they think they see jumping over the fence? Today, as we, with our privilege, jump over the fence and head into the desert, instead of asking the usual, “Who sees a jack rabbit?”, or instead of asking, “Does anyone spot coyote tracks?”, I say, “Let’s talk about Ferguson, Missouri.”
We talk about the importance of citizens being able to protest. We talk in smaller-word terms about institutional racism. We talk about how rules and procedures are in place to keep things fair. We talk about Eric Holder and Barack Obama. We talk about how more white people tend to have more power in our culture, and that anyone who has more power has a responsibility to use it wisely. We hear ourselves talk and we wonder if we live by these principles as cleanly as we should, as we must. We wonder if anyone does. We tell them that we are sure that justice will prevail, but we are certainly not sure of that at all. We amend what we just said to, “Sometimes things don’t work out as fairly as they should.” We say that when people talk about racism, they are not talking about “ALL white people” or “ALL black people” — obviously people of different colors love each other wildly in our family and in many families. We say that it is our duty, as their white parents, to think and talk about all of these things even more than we already do. We resolve to do that. We have some revelations, (which will be Part 2 of this post). We see that the children are understanding us. We see that they are very interested. We see that they are fearful. Finally, we change the subject and we talk about jack rabbits.
When we get back to the house — climbing back over the wall, (“only ever do this with grown-ups!”, we say) — my father is there at home. He recognizes us again; he doesn’t remember not recognizing us. He is delighted to see the children and he playfully pretends to snatch my daughter’s nose, with all of the familiarity and love in the world. Watching them settle back into the living room together, you might again think that there is no bad news anywhere. “Oh, what a beautiful morning!”, my father sings at the top of his lungs. The children answer, in pretend baritones, “Oh, what a beautiful day!” I smile at their singing and at their familiarity, but I sit down smack in between them, a buffer and a barricade, nonetheless. I would be negligent not to. I am the white parent of a black child in a world where all of the protective rules that we establish, in our societies and in our homes, have shown a tendency to tumble down around us. It is not just my job to clean up after that happens, it is my job to work to prevent that from happening to my child in the first place. The children sing with my father, “I’ve got a beautiful FEELING/ Everything’s going my way.” Out in our peaceful stretch of desert, on the open side of a gated subdivision, it IS an incredibly beautiful day. Until the days get better in Ferguson (and in Iraq, and at the Nogales border less than an hour due south of us, and in Gaza, and in so many other places where we are divided in excruciating ways) — we have a particular duty in our house, as white parents, to make sure to sing songs about those places too.
As gaily told•tales, Gail Lauren Karp is the author, along with her daughter, of the upcoming children's book Paloma the Possible (available in November 2014), the story of one girl's imaginary search for her birth family.
Under her actual name, Gail is a long-time teacher, writer, artist, aspiring changemaker, and parent living in Harlem with her family. On the subject of adoptive families, she has chaired the Touched by Adoption group at Bank Street College of Education in NYC since 2011 and her writing has appeared in Adoption Today magazine.