In preparation for motherhood, I thought I could protect my children, and that it was in fact my most important job. When my children’s dad and I were deciding where to adopt from, I thought I was a good candidate for mothering a child from Latin America, as a half-Dominican. He loved the idea of adopting from South Korea, where his sister was adopted from. I thought I would be able to relate to the feeling of being from two places, or as my dad would say, neither fish nor fowl, that many people who were raised by parents of another race, culture or country feel, being as I am of mixed ethnicities. I thought my work on myself regarding racism and understanding of interracial adoption was mostly to prepare myself to parent my Asian child.
I was wrong. Maybe it was the arrogance of white privilege itself. Maybe it is the individualism I bought into. Perhaps a belief in the bubble; the zone of my own head that I could control, the belief that us parents could create our own family culture that would matter above all else and the hope that education would be our weapons against a cruel world. Any parent learns that there is a delicate balance between protecting our children and allowing them to learn from the experiences of the world, and yet I still thought I could at least prepare them. My illusions, especially around race, are being shattered.
First, it was the immediate reaction to the viral video of George Floyd being killed by a police officer, or at least as much of it as I could bear to watch. The gut-wrenching fear that this could be my son. The revulsion at witnessing something so grueling and the coolness with which it was carried out. Sickened that the three other cops didn’t stop him. I was glued to the news for an entire weekend, while the kids were at their Dad’s as the protesting went into full swing and rioting and destruction erupted. In watching the news while the 3rd precinct went under attack, my mind latched on to one business on that block. The Ghandi Mahal, a restaurant I love and admire for the owner’s commitment to sustainable and local sourcing, urban farming, hydroculture and community in addition to delicious food. I felt a deep sadness about the destruction of this business and others, and the beating down of a neighborhood rich in family and minority-owned businesses; anger at the news of outside agitators and opportunists; disgust over the language and actions of our top leaders. When I had to drive out to the suburbs just to go to the bank, because they were all closed here in town, I was shocked to hear echoes of those attitudes in the suburbs and fear out there that they were somehow in personal danger.
Fear and revulsion. Sadness. Anger. Disgust. Paralysis.
Ever go swimming in the ocean? There is that zone right where the waves crash that is the most difficult to swim in. You get knocked over by a crashing wave right in that zone, then you try to stand up but are forcefully pulled under and in the wrong direction, so when the next wave crashes you are not prepared to dive into it or jump with it and you can get caught, disoriented and struggle to get your head up above the water.
That is what the next few weeks felt like. Trying to make sense of it. Trying to find my own place in it, my own responsibility to do something but not having the energy to act. In the midst of that, the next wave crashes. Well-meaning people call or text to check on me, but in the aftermath of political divisiveness, I have no idea if the asker will actually be willing to hear all the layers of my angst. Some are, some are not. Another wave crashes.
As I try to surface, I struggle with how to answer inquiries to my family’s well-being. Fear of property damage in the rioting that was following the peaceful protests was the least of my worries.
So, why did this hit me? It was that I could relate. George Floyd was close to my age. He lived in my neighborhood. I casually knew his girlfriend in her days as a barista. I frequented the neighborhood he was killed in. I prefer to use cash and have known for a while that there is counterfeit money in smaller bills in circulation. I have wondered what would happen if I accidentally received and passed one on. But it never even crossed my mind that doing so could be dangerous. There is also the horrible thought I could have given my own brown son a $20 counterfeit bill that could have been a death note. I’m not prepared for this.
This event was the last of a series which confronted my illusion that my white-ness would confer a protective bubble around my sons, particularly my older, darker, Guatemalan son. While he is a teen? No. While he is in my presence? Nope. Just six months ago I watched how airport security treated him for following me. Yes, for following me. He was 13 at the time. My presence is not protective. To the contrary.
Oh, and add to that the video of Amy Cooper in Central Park. Watching that and knowing, without a shadow of a doubt, that she is not a rare exception. I watched my son (same one) be stopped and questioned by a white mom when he was on his bike. She wanted to know if he was lost and needed help, even though he showed no signs of distress or confusion. I was 20 paces behind. It didn’t seem to occur to her that I might be his mom. We were one block away from home. And he was 10. I’m not sure neighborhood policing is really a good solution.
I worry about his mental health. I can’t even imagine, at the very time in his life when it is normal to sometimes prefer time with peers over time with family, he is now literally stuck with us and out of touch with his friends with the pandemic lockdown. To make that harder, he is an extrovert. Add in the layer of his adoption which inherently makes the struggle of identity more complex and the feeling of belonging more tenuous. Do people not get it that expressing misplaced suspicion sends a very clear message saying, “you do not belong here, remember that”?
Later I heard about the momentum of white suburbanites who are fearful. Seriously? Consider these snippets of what my family is experiencing, and we are not even black. What are they afraid of? Property damage? And educate me if I am wrong, but I don’t think there is any historic precedent of black mobs going out to the suburbs and destroying property or taking lives, and certainly not with impunity. The lack of empathy inherent in that, and the appalling sense of entitlement to express wanting a public recognition of that in the wake of yet another public and gruesome lynching in broad daylight of a black person—I just.. I can’t… ugh… I have no words.
Crash. I’m tumbling in the undercurrent.
This is what terrifies me. Not the riots and looting. It’s the presence among us of white moms who fail to see a 10-year-old boy on a bike as a potential neighbor and feel the need to police her turf. It’s the people who think this will blow over and my son will be fine. It’s the people who don’t want to acknowledge or think about the real danger brown and black people face just going about their daily business, and the psychological toll of these aggressions. It’s the stark difference between the moms whose hearts died a little bit when George called out for his momma and those who were more upset by the looting and disorder.
I’ve been feeling so unable to express this all. What difference does it make if laws are changed and the policing systems are overturned if people do not change their hearts? What is standing in the way between emotional distancing and true empathy?
This is my shot at it—my drop in the ocean, hoping that every drop does matter. Maybe you can take in my story. Maybe if you didn’t understand or doubted the reality of racism, you will be able to hear these small pieces of another reality. Maybe if you live it daily and on a deeper level, you will tell your story, or find ways to heal and keep going. Maybe more of us who live in the middle can be a bridge to understanding.
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