I’m white. Father is Polish American, Mother is a mix of backgrounds that all pass for white these days. This is how my perspective, as a white man, has changed from loving a little black girl for the last four and a half years:
It’s hard, as a white person, to take the black American experience personally. Though my circle of friends throughout my life was mostly white, I had black friends. When in college I stumbled into an African history class that was taught by a teacher I came to admire, I ended up an Africana Studies minor. When I taught high school physics, I came to know a variety of amazing black students and co-workers. And yet, it wasn’t until a black woman chose us to parent her baby and I held that baby, that I could see how different now is from before.
It’s something that’s evolving in me, but the example that comes to mind is this: I drive through the neighborhoods of Philadelphia a lot for work. In the past when I would drive through North Philly in the morning and the kids were on their way to school, I just saw kids. Now, when I see little girls with cornrows and braids, I see my daughter. The sight of a little black baby warms my heart in a way that a white baby doesn’t, because that is my family now, and that sight brings back memories of my girl as a baby.
As tenuous as the foundations of “race” are, we live in a society run through with and based on those notions, and our eyes have been trained to see difference. I wish I could say that the scales fell from my eyes and I now see the community of man, that I no longer perceive difference. Far from it. If anything, I’m more aware of difference. It’s just that now I have a visceral sense of having a stake in different worlds, and I can’t imagine having this feeling prior to my daughter’s birth. And she’s only four. I haven’t seen anything yet.
Acknowledging white privilege calmly, without fanfare or a loss of self, is tricky and it’s hard to commit to the work involved when you have no skin in the game. Having observed my evolution and that of those close to me since the birth of my child, I know that the work involved in recognizing and reacting differently to the biased stew we’ve swum in our entire life is hard, and changing attitudes in this country will be a long process. It takes reading, listening, considering, and taking risks. I have a motivation. I’ve been blessed with a beautiful little reason to engage in this topic.
If the adoption of a white boy in Iowa had gone through I wouldn’t be writing this, but I feel so lucky, and after months of wavering, I’m putting myself out there. Recently I have feared for the first time that things may actually get worse, but when I think of the overwhelmingly positive reaction my family has gotten as we move through this city and country, I think things will get better. But it won’t happen just because minorities become a majority, and it won’t happen because every family becomes a little browner or a little less over time. I think if most white people spent time in black spaces it would help, but it’s very easy to spend your life as a white person never going where you are a distinct minority.
Things do seem to be changing though. I think when many people in this country who are not black listened to Michelle Obama speak at the DNC they thought, she represents me, not, she has overcome so much, or, she is a great representative for her people, but she represents me and she is me. Still, this country is, by and large, a white space. To paraphrase the sign I heard about at a museum featuring African American art, my hope is that this country’s informal motto could be: This is a white space, but all are welcome.
Love is not a general thing, it is a specific thing. To paraphrase a homily by a priest I respect: Love is dealing with the person in front of you who is in pain. It’s not love if we ignore it, explain it away, or take no action in the face of that pain. When a missing black girl consumes the entire country’s attention the way a missing blond girl does then all lives matter. It’s a small thing, but I’ll know all lives matter when black men don’t have to dress up to prove they deserve what they’ve earned. A rich white man can dress like a surf bum, and society is willing to look for little clues that he’s not really a bum, but rather a titan of industry.
Just because something is hard for you to imagine doesn’t mean it’s not true. Our personal experience can make it hard to understand others. But we can try to listen wider, listen deeper, and be open to the possibility that we don’t know everything. Even though I’m white, and my wife is white, we’re a black family, and we have a lot of learning to do. We’re a black family by the one drop rule. Obama is a black president by the one drop rule. Then this is a black country by the one drop rule, and we have a lot of learning to do. Everyone can try harder to take the experience of other people in this country personally. Listen to the news and imagine it was your family. You could do this for a man shot and killed, but maybe that is too big a place to start, maybe your mind finds ways to protect you from that. Mine does. Listen instead for the smaller ways people are treated that build up.
One of greatest gifts in having a black daughter has been learning to do her hair. Spending hours with her perched between my legs moisturizing, separating, combing, twisting every two weeks. Then I hear on the news about another school policy banning hairstyles like the twists you see on my daughter. Take that personally.
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