On Charleston and Guns and a White Mom’s Black Kids

On Charleston and Guns and a White Mom’s Black Kids
a poem on Juneteenth 2015
by Paula M. Fitzgibbons of Mommy Means It

When my kids were little and we were the conspicuously adoptive family,
white parents,
black children,
white child,
the comments I heard most from random onlookers who felt the right to comment were,

in order of frequency:

“Goodness, you have your hands full.”
(In all fairness, I did, so I smiled.)

“Your family is just beautiful.”
(In all fairness, we are, so I smiled.)

“Your children are so lucky.”
(You can’t smile at this one because it’s all so complicated,
but they want to think of the kids as lucky
even though they don’t know anything about them)

Now that they are older,
with my two Haitian-born children being full-fledged teenagers,
the comment I hear most often comes after a tragedy,
when a black person is shot dead,
and goes something like,
“YOU don’t have to worry.
Your kids will be fine because you are raising them to be good kids.”

I heard it after Trayvon. I heard it after Tamir.
I heard it after Renisha. I heard it after McKinney.

“What does that even mean?” I ask.

“Well, you know. You are raising them right.”

It’s pretty clear by now
in these conversations
that
right = white,

so I say as much.

“Do you mean to say that because I am a white mom, I am raising them right?”

They lurch. They know exactly how to spin this.

“I’m saying you are raising them to know better
than to engage in anything that is going to get the cops called on them
or have a concerned citizen pull a gun on them.”

Gun owners = concerned citizens, you’ll note.

Right = white
Gun owners = concerned citizens

“And what exactly is it Trayvon was doing wrong?
What was Tamir doing?
Renisha?
That girl at the pool party?”
(nobody remembers her name because she wore a bikini;
I forgot too at first,
not because I saw her mid-drift, but because I couldn’t believe I was having this talk again).

“Look!” they usually respond.

Look! = shut up; you’re wrong; I know what’s right

I can see hundreds of years of racist tropes spinning behind their eyeballs.
They are trying to find the one that fits best, the one that will make the most salient point,

but really, the one that fits their narrative,
a narrative molded by centuries of systems,
generations of privileges

What I don’t see behind those eyes is any indication that they are questioning their beliefs,
recognizing their own biases,
parsing those centuries.

“Look!
(shut up; you’re wrong; I know what’s right)
You are not raising your kids to be disrespectful
and to resist arrest like everyone seems to be doing nowadays.”

Or, “You know how bad black-on-black crime is. You are breaking that cycle.”
This one is intended to make me feel good
because right = white

I don’t feel good.
I know I have to make a decision.

I can say what is on my mind and hope they’ll see
the world for just a moment
through my kids’ eyes,
the eyes they have always claimed to adore.

Most likely, though, I know,
they will shut it down.

The discussion.

The compliments.

The friendship.

Shut it down.

I say it anyway
because —
my children,
my children’s lovers,
my grandchildren.

“I want you to know that I am worried about where this is going
because it sounds like you are stepping into waters
that feel like they are flowing rapidly towards being racist.”

(I never say it so eloquently.
I am always flustered, heart pounding, head exploding.)

Shit.

I did it.

I said the magic word, the one that makes people disappear.

Racist.

I want to be diplomatic, even when I can’t be calm.
I could sugar-coat it.
Could say, “uncomfortable” or “upsetting” or “disconcerting.”

(People are flummoxed by “disconcerting” because nobody ever says “concerting”; it’s a verbal trick)

But I don’t. I didn’t.

I see the veins pop and the eyes blaze. Or I see capital letters flying. Rage on a tiny screen.

“I AM SO SICK AND TIRED OF BEING CALLED RACIST JUST BECAUSE I RECOGNIZE HOW THE AFRICAN-AMERICAN COMMUNITY IS DESTROYING ITSELF!!!!!!!!!

(then a bit more composure)

I am sick and tired of being made to feel guilty because I want African-Americans to stop killing and raping and stealing.”

They never say black. Always African-Americans. Always formal.
It reminds me of news reports that say, “The gentleman is on the loose and has raped 8 women so far.

Because when they say “African-Americans” what they really mean is “those bad people”

So:

right = white
gun owners = concerned citizens
Look! = shut up; you’re wrong; I know what’s right
African-Americans = those bad people

This is about when I lose them, when they jump ship.

“All I am saying is that if you raise your children right,
as * you * are * doing,
then they won’t have to worry about anyone arresting them.”

(*The pauses are for effect. Silent punctuation is deadly)

“Friend,” I try to throw in.
(I know my time is limited.)
“Trayvon was walking through his own neighborhood with a snack.
Tamir was playing with a toy gun in the park.
Renisha was seeking help after an accident.
And Dajerria Becton
(they respond with puzzlement),
the girl in the bikini,
was at a pool party to which she was invited and,
when the cop was screaming at her to sit down, was, in fact, sitting down.
Are you saying I should teach my kids not to walk in their neighborhoods,
play with their toys,
seek help after an accident,
or go to neighborhood pool parties?”

They do not hear that part. Never.

They have one final thing to say,

“I am trying to give you a compliment.
By telling me my compliment is racist, you are being racist against me.
Clearly we are not going to agree on this.”

racist does not = what they think it means

Then, if they’re online, they unfriend.

If it’s in person, there’s an awkward good-bye.

If it’s a text, blocked.

But you were the one who brought it up, I say to nobody in particular,
because I know for sure they are gone.
You wanted to know what I thought about Trayvon, Tamir, Reneisha, and Dajeeria.

How would that argument go today, I wondered when I heard about Charleston?

What lesson is it I am teaching my children
so they might never be shot dead during a Bible study?
What right thing should they do?

“They should bring a gun to church with them,” says the NRA.
“If they’d been allowed to bring guns to church, they’d still be alive.”

So what if I do?
What if we all do?
What if everyone parenting a black child sends our children to church,
to school,
to the library,
to the pool,
to the park
with a gun in their pocket?

Then, when they are shot because someone sees a gun in their pockets,
another mother of black children, somewhere, will hear,

“Don’t worry. That will never happen to your kids. You are raising them right.”

Emanuel_African_Methodist_Episcopal_(AME)_Church
Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church Charleston, South Carolina

 

15 Responses to On Charleston and Guns and a White Mom’s Black Kids

  1. Massive frustration daily over just simple things. The big things hurt to the heart. I’m so glad I know you.

  2. I understand. My husband and I adopted four kids, from infancy, we are Caucasian, our children are Mexican, Black, and Chinese. People say the same things to me. I have come to the conclusion that they really are trying to be nice and they don’t realize that what they are saying is so wrong. People say the same things to me. I have come to the conclusion that they really are trying to be nice and they don’t realize that what they are saying is so wrong. It hurts me more to try to make them understand when they don’t understand. So I don’t try anymore. I’ve just decided that they are never going to understand and it hurts my heart.

    • Theresa, thank you for reading and responding. It does indeed hurt the heart. It has made me realize how hard it will be for our children, who are never without their own skin.

  3. You have brought me to tears. When Treyvon died, I wept and I fought back, and when MY black teen failed to come home that week after school and failed to communicate why, I grounded him, nearly made him drop out of track because all I could see was it could be him shot in his own community for walking while black. I’ve been an a transracial adoptive family since I was 15. It was my brothers and sisters before it was ever my own sons, and now it is both. And I cannot make this world safe for these good kids when they step out from under the cloak of my white privilege and are black men and women. Instead, I am sending them into the black community to find their identity, and I am encouraging their white siblings to go with them, to seek the answers my generation has failed to find for them, in the hopes that having had it be my brothers and sisters, having had it be my sons, maybe, just maybe I can continue to raise a generation so that it will not be my grandchildren. Maybe eight of them can do more to effect change than one of me has been able to do….and maybe I have taught my children NOT to be good, but to assume a non-threatening demeanor fast enough that it might not be me who must weep and cry for my children. But….not even that will protect them in a house of worship. So I can only teach them to be good, to fight for justice, and if they must be the one to be targeted then I and their family will continue to never let their loss be in vain. Some days, it is all I have to give, to fight and to hope this nation will see and listen to the voices.

  4. I really find this article to be provocative, and quite accurate on most points, but I also disagree with some of these points.
    First, so that you may understand where I am coming from, I am an African American single gay father, a retired journalist and former member of the editorial board of my newspaper, and I in my sixties.
    And I have a real twist on what you are writing about. I am raising a 10 year old Puerto Rican child now, have successfully raised a 19 year old and a 22 year old black male…….and–here’s the twist– I am also raising an Irish Polish white child…I adopted all my children when they were infants, and I now have applications I’m preparing to adopt more children.
    I must admit that I have not received the level of hidden racism and hostility that you have encountered, though I have had some people wonder if I have received antagonism from other African Americans because I am raising a white child as part of my family. Quite the contrary–many African Americans welcome my family, support me and my family, and have complimented me for trying to raise my child with universal values and a respect not only for African Americans but all people.
    To do that, I try to expose my children to all kinds of cultures and people, attending festivals that celebrate various ethnic groups, and I will embark on summer journeys to other countries, taking them each year to a new country and living there for one month while there.
    I want my kids to be sensitive, motivated, involved citizens of the world, not just the United states. My concern is making sure that my white child–indeed all my children, will grow up with the same kind of respect for differences and other perspectives as I have.
    Now, my main point of disagreement with you.
    I do not believe it is racist, or in any way negative to wish that the African American community would stop raping, killing, and causing injury and misery to our own people. Nor do I think you–or anyone else should feel embarrassment, shame or guilt for feeling the same thing.
    Yes, I know there is poverty. Yes I know that our institutions and schools have failed our children and our adults alike. Yes, I know that we have a totally unsympathetic political and social system. I grieve all of those things.
    But none of those are reasons to justify some of those things that are around us. I am heartsick about that kind of crime. But I am as angry as I can be that we allow ourselves to make excuses to justify or somehow rationalize that kind of behavior.
    Our problem is that parenting, regardless of race, has fallen short on imparting values, imparting a sense of responsibility, and fallen way short on instilling the value of respecting people, caring for them, and treating them as fellow human beings. And our churches have all but given up the high moral ground of instilling values in our children.
    We all need to put the computer down, turn off the television, and get back to the business of teaching values, morality and respect. And given the alarming numbers of separations, divorces and single parenting, we need to put our childrens needs first–yes, we will have to give up dating and searching for a spouse– I have–and stop putting the rest of our interests first ahead of our children–until they are adults.

    • Donald, I appreciate you taking the time to read, write, and share a bit of your own story. And I would love to meet you in person and share some coffee while picking your brain about everything you know due to your extensive adoptive parenting journey.

      I appreciate your feedback. I may be wrong in my interpretation of your comment, but I don’t think we are disagreeing. The place I usually perceive the racism is the general assumption that all black people who are shot by police, profiled, killed in sheer terror, followed in a store, etc. are guilty in some way. People have tried to convince me that Tamir Rice, for example, must have been guilty of something, that Renisha McBride must have been doing more than just seeking help. The assumption I have heard is that each of the black people we see in the news who have lost their lives tragically deserved to die — that, because they were black, they were surely doing something that merited their executions.

      While I cannot speak with any expertise on crime within communities largely populated by people of color, I do understand that, like all communities, there are issues to overcome. I also believe that the crime rate within communities largely populated by people of color do not define the communities anymore than meth use defines the white community. So when people automatically jump to the conclusion that crime must have been involved and that my own children can avoid violence simply by not committing crimes (which would obviously reduce their chances, but not eliminate them), I turn an angry shade of red.

      Thank you again for engaging in this conversation.

  5. Absolutely!
    And I would love to meet you and share thoughts! I think that the only way I can “make change is to work first with my children, and with every child l can reach–I also tutor second graders who can’t read and who cannot express themselves.
    I grab onto my responsibility for all my babies– those at school–and those in my home…ferociously…not letting go, but making sure that I’ve done all I can do to make them citizens of the world.
    Actually I think we do agree, we just come it in a bit of a different way. I think people make the kinds of assumptions they do because they have disengaged–they are fearful of others, they don’t care what may have brought those children to the points that they are at in their journey.
    In fact, I daresay almost all of us have disengaged. In my own ways, I have too.
    It is painful to have the discussion. It is painful to listen. It is so much easier to rely on assumptions we make.
    I’m also a seminary student, and one of my dearest ideas is to start up a nationwide system of dinner clubs and gatherings over a meal, where there are people of disparate views, where we can all learn about other peoples’ journeys.–not discuss issues (that’s the only rule)
    , but talk about where we have been and were we are going as humans,…..finding commonalities, learning that behind each face…there is a story. If enough of us understand the stories, we can engage once more–and make a difference in this terribly frightening world we live in.

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