There was a day...Sigh.
Seriously, this was a hard day.
It was the day my 3 year old baby boy, a smart, beautiful guy, looked at me with tears streaming down his face and said,
"Nobody wants me at their house cause I'm bad."
Everyday, this sensitive kid and I seemed to encounter entitled, prejudice people. At the park, the gym, the pool. Without exception, of European descent. They'd eye my bright, warm kiddo and push him, yell at him, call him names, throw things at him, say things like,
"You can't play here."
And I dealt with it. My motto is firm and kind. When I intervened, I was firm and kind to those kids. I thought kids were "being kids." At the time, I didn't know what I was dealing with- a whole different kind of racism sweeping the U.S.
"They need to practice," I'd tell August, "Their parents need to teach them."
Where were their parents, you ask?
Usually, standing right there.
What did they do?
Well, they glared at me. Or huffed. Or turned away.
Because, as I ascertained in my glorious wisdom, they were the ones who TAUGHT their children,
"He has crazy hair."*
"He's not from here." (Read: He's an immigrant.)
"He looks like the bad guy (in the story)."
And the best of ALL-
"Go back to your country."
They said these things about my child RIGHT IN FRONT OF HIM.
But that wasn't the day I changed.
The day I CHANGED MY STORY was the day my little guy was crying for 1 hour and 45 minutes straight. I was exhausted.
I tried soothing words. I tried walking and rocking. I tried ignoring him in his room. Nothing worked. Finally, I looked at him with exasperation and hurt and anger and fatigue. I looked at his huge, tear-filled brown eyes and something hit me in the deepest part of my gut.
I realized that, just like my own mother, most of my eye contact with my baby was NEGATIVE. I looked at him when I was angry. I looked at him when I was disappointed. I looked at him when I needed to protect him. I looked at him when I told him to do something.
My God. I used to sing to that boy. I used to coo and talk to him for hours. He cried 6 hours a day when he was a newborn. 6 HOURS. I would swaddle him and seek his anguished eyes and walk and rock, walk and rock.
When did that change?
1. The Doctor Who Didn't Give a Damn
My attitude might have been influenced by my OB-GYN, who seemed like an awesome person. Somewhere right before I gave birth, the man just checked out. He almost let August die.
Nothing happened, really.
I'd kept my prenatal appointments. I'd followed his instructions. We didn't have fights or disagreements. He just refused to check the baby's position or heartbeat during labor. He forbade the nurses to do an ultrasound throughout my early labor, even though August's little heartbeat decelerated into the 50's and wasn't returning to baseline.
August was born blue, breathless, not moving, the cord wrapped around his neck. My OB handed August to the nurses without a word and sewed me up. I said, "Ow, that hurts." And he said nothing. That was it. The nurses saved my little guy's life. The doctor walked out of the room.
I felt that my baby's life simply didn't matter to him. In the U.S., babies of "color" are twice as likely to die as babies of European descent. Mother's education, income and pre-natal visits do NOTHING to prevent this. I get tired of reading academic studies that suggest this. A well-educated woman of color like me is MORE likely to lose her baby than an uneducated mother of color. Which is an appropriate punishment for someone like me, who just...doesn't...know...her...PLACE...in...Life.
2. Losing my "Blackness"
When my baby was born, my family members, who are Brown, joked about my baby's caramel complexion. Yes, even brown people have color hang-ups!
"He looks Middle Eastern," my brother joked. (And yes, this was indicative of some internalized racist attitudes). Most of my sibling's children look European.
I felt my mixed family would have been happier if my child looked more European. But my brother wasn't the only one. More and more people began telling me I looked "Middle Eastern." They'd question me- at the park, on the sidewalk, in the store.
Where are you from? No, really.
In the U.S., a strange new consciousness is forming. There are
"protected" minorities and there are "open season" minorities.
I'm "mixed," a stupid word for a stupid concept. My mother is European and my Dad is African-American. But mixed means neither of those things. Mixed means my color is mixed. My class status is mixed. My social privilege is mixed. It means that someone may offer me a job because I reflect "just" enough "not too black." And it means that someone of European descent implicitly blames my mother for "white genocide."
I, myself, in my caramel complexioned body, represent the annihilation of what should have been a "white" person.
Strange. But still...I had my warm, beautiful People. My community was African-American. Until the last few years.
In the last few years, my being of African descent no longer placed me in the "African-American" category. Protected.
Instead, my neighbors started asking if I was Hispanic (read: are you a brown immigrant). Indian? Middle Eastern? Unprotected.
"No, really...where are you from?"
They'd look at my son's beautiful, glowing brown skin and lustrous black curls and frown.
Maybe a coincidence? But Euro-kids of all ages started behaving in a hostile fashion. Out of the blue. One minute we're happily and quietly playing. The next...someone is defending the U.S. from "Muslim invaders" by screaming at my toddler son. I began to notice Euro-parents hurriedly scoop up their children and leave the park when we arrived.
SO many times. Over and over.
What was happening?
I felt like parents and children of European descent were AFRAID. Afraid of my baby. Afraid of me. I felt like they disliked us. (They were and they did.) Which was weird.
I generally like most people. I don't even consider disliking someone until they prove to be a complete asshole.
But...WHY did that old man rev his engine, honk at me, then tell me I was lucky he didn't run over the little boy in my arms?
WHY did that Euro-mother at the park grab my toddler and scream at him not to rush her toddler up the slide? What happened in my head when she literally wrestled with my toddler, while emitting terrified squawks as though she was fighting a grown man? I separated a grown woman from my baby like she, too, was a toddler.
More recently, HOW IN THE WORLD did a group of middle-aged men feel it was appropriate to threaten to SHOOT ME if I didn't leave their majority-European playground?
ONE OF THEM WAS CARRYING A SEMI-AUTOMATIC WEAPON. This man raised his weapon and mimed shooting me. In broad daylight. At a children's playground.
I began to feel- rightly- that my baby and I were in physical danger whenever we were around European parents and their children. I was filled with hurt, confusion and outrage. Mostly hurt, though. I just couldn't fathom what was happening. Were all of these people one-offs? Were they going crazy?
The hatred sweeping our nation in almost-hidden currents is bigger than that, though. It's historical. We are witnessing the priming of a nation.
Regular old people are being prepped to "fight for the nation."They really believe our president's words are true: Hispanics are rapists, Blacks are criminals, Muslims are invaders. Wouldn't you defend the values of your country if you believed this?
Regular people are stockpiling guns and actively preparing to stand as the people's army. I know many of these people. We, the beautiful people of the United States, are being prepped to view COLOR and RELIGION as markers of friendship or markers of enmity.
The FBI reports that hate crimes are surging in the U.S. "White" people are stockpiling guns. Schoolteachers in 42 states are being trained to use guns like they, too, are militia. Our police forces are increasingly focused on military-like control, rather than community collaboration.
And Euro-people in the U.S. seem to think that these things will only affect "brown" people. Their complacency will end in shocked pain. Because violence and human mistreatment is NOT and never will be color-bound.
I have the same thoughts about the grown people in our beautiful U.S.A. who are right now treating immigrant children like animals- yelling at them, kicking them, making them sleep on concrete, depriving them of food and soap. Sexually abusing them. Mocking their cries while separating them from their parents.
They seem to believe that mistreating immigrant children equates to protecting the border. They view their abuse of children as patriotism.
Real patriotism upholds the values which we U.S. citizens hold dear-
freedom, unity, protecting the weak and the innocent, loving God,
family and country.
Abusing children is not patriotism. Blame the government if you want. Blame the "poor choices" of those kids' parents. I blame individuals. Each and every American guard or officer makes a choice when they hurt those kids...or they make a choice when they turn a blind eye. It's not the "government's" fault that individual, grown people have decided to base their morals on "orders" instead of the God they claim to trust.
When did so many North Americans choose hatred over integrity?
My experiences and the experience of "immigrants" are only a shadow of what is to come. The way each person in the U.S. chooses to treat "the least of these" is an indication that folks have chosen social and physical violence as a means of maintaining power. And it's going to get worse.
We need a revival of Spirit and Conscience.
The Effects of Chronic Hatred
Each time I experienced folks' hatred toward me and my baby, a story began shaping in my mind. In that story, my baby boy was viewed as a threat to small toddlers and grown Euro-parents everywhere.
I began to anxiously monitor his behavior to ensure it wouldn't elicit
European parents' fragile over-reactions and condemnations.
I lost the child in My Story. He became the child in Their Story.
And THAT is when I began looking into other parents' eyes more than I looked into my own son's eyes. I looked at them to gauge their attitude. I looked at them to establish that my son and I were their friends, not their enemies. I tried to create a connection. I attempted to be the perfect brown parent with the perfect brown child.
I wasted my energy on those people.
That fateful day, as I looked at my baby, crying for almost two hours, I remembered a study I had read recently. The authors discussed how eye contact creates a narrative between mother and child. How it affects mom and baby's hormones. How it literally changes baby's brainwaves. Creates a bond.
A knife went through my heart.
You see, Steve and I shape our children's inner stories about themselves. Our children believe what we believe about them. My three year old had no idea that my serious eyes were thinking about protecting him. He didn't know that my tension and frustration were for someone else.
He just knew that everyone around him gave him serious, disapproving looks, including his parents. He felt lost and lonely and afraid. He felt like a bad person.
Wow. That was my fault. And I'm not alone.
Parents of color - and especially mothers- across the U.S. are more likely to experience toxic stress and therefore, more prone to break those precious attachment bonds with their children.
So...I CHANGED MY STORY.
When we went to the park and another parent gave me the "ugly look," I took a breath and said internally, "I'm here with MY CHILD, not YOU."
Then I turned to my kiddo and smiled gently into his eyes.
When I was cooking and he screamed, I turned around and smiled gently into his eyes.
When he was sitting on the floor, for absolutely no reason at all, I'd catch his eye and smile gently.
I smiled at him like he was the BEST CHARACTER in an AMAZING STORY.
I practiced parenting my child in OUR STORY. I let go of everyone else's story. I still had to protect him. I still had to navigate prejudice. I still cringed inwardly when he threw a tantrum in public or blurted out a not-nice word. But then, I took a deep breath and parented the child in MY STORY.
"August, sweetie," I said once, "You are a good, kind boy and I know we've been practicing saying kind words. What could you say instead of ________?"
To some, this may seem like common sense. Treat your child gently and with kindness. Believe the best about them and voice that belief unabashedly. Of course!
But I'm in the crossfires of an ideological war. When your hackles are always up because of daily prejudices...this stuff requires a paradigm shift. It requires a shift from fight-or-flight into reasoning-and-imagining.
So, I took a deep breath. And I imagined.
I had always taught my son good things. I'd always reasoned with him gently. But I'd never purposely spoken OUT LOUD with graciousness, his Awesomeness. Kindness. Curiosity. Bravery.
I forgot to tell him that awesome, kind, brave people make mistakes.
That's okay, awesome, brave, kind boy. Try again.
MY parents used to tell me, "I have to be hard on you so these white folks won't be. The worse I yell at you, the more they'll feel sorry for you. Then they'll leave you alone."
In a way, they were right. But in a way, they were dead wrong. It is NOT OKAY for us to be hard on our kids because the world will be harder. It is time to stop believing this Lie. Children in our communities do NOT "need" harsher discipline so they can conform to society.
Our children need love, guidance and gentle discipline so they can TRANSFORM society.
It is much smarter to be loving and kind to our kids so they grow into strong, loved creatures who have intrinsic, unshakeable tools to HANDLE the harshness of the world.
Our kids can be LOVED and NURTURED into strong, lovely people. WE can grow these kinds of kids. WE can be a safe harbour in a world of crazy hostility.
Finally, I Remembered Who We Were
I remembered to treat August like the child in MY STORY.
An amazing thing happened: He stopped having 45-75 minute tantrums. He still had tantrums but they were closer to 5-10 minutes :-) He slowly began seeking my eyes during our interactions. Sloooooooowly. Then he began to grin more. He started to laugh joyfully. He became MUCH happier.
This is the BEST THING that happened. Wait for it--
One day at the park, a little boy started in on August, per the usual. Kids are kids. They do what their parents either explicitly or implicitly teach them.
"You can't play here! You don't belong here!"
In the past, August would have hung his head and looked ashamed or hidden under the slide.
That day, when that little boy with a nasty attitude came back toward him, August turned around, faced that boy square on and yelled,
"No! I DON'T PLAY WITH PEASANTS!!"
And then he ran away, LAUGHING. He was so joyful. That was the moment I knew that parenting the child in MY STORY was working.
I'll talk to him about gracious kindness towards ungracious people another time.
How about you? Can you think of times you could support your kiddo's Story? Ever been tempted to treat your kid like a character in someone else's story? How do you handle the pressure of representing all brown people, everywhere, in the whole wide world when your kid is throwing a tantrum in the aisle?
How many times did you look that precious kiddo in the eye today and smile?
Keep trucking, mums, we're in this together.
Dear Parents: Courageous kindness towards our
kids is a form of social and cultural activism.
My heritage is mixed. It is African American, Native American, German, English and French. I've always felt well accepted by the African American community and by a mixture of other communities, as well. Recently, I've noticed a growing tide of venom in my daily interactions with my American brothers and sisters of European descent. It's been startling.
"Go back to Palestine!"
"You can't play here!"
"You don't belong here!"
"Where are you from? You're not American."
*Real comments made by parents and children on playgrounds, in the store, or on the street by people driving dangerously close to me, my husband and my kids.
Although this hostility is aimed directly at me...I'm in good company. It seems like EVERYONE lately is the target of someone else's hostility. My first reaction to hostility is natural: I feel keyed up. But when I become upset, I'm missing a perfect opportunity to teach myself and my child about WHO and WHAT really matters in a world filled with challenging people. When we experience ugliness from others, we are thrown into a beautiful space, filled with opportunity to build strong, healthy relationships with our children. We can turn the attention AWAY from the attention-seeking attacker and turn the attention TO the beautiful child whose brain is being shaped by everything we choose to do in those moments.
I cannot let the rising tide of world-wide vitriol engulf me. We are more than color. We are more than our ethnicities. We are more than our nationalities. We are greater than one characteristic. We are part of a sweeping, global community of family, friends and importantly, compassionate thinkers.
Our ability to wield integrity and kindness in moments of stress
is a powerful tool. It cuts through the lingering, sticky wounds of
chronic social hostility and gives air to new tissue.
So...WHEN IS A GOOD TIME TO PRACTICE COURAGEOUS KINDNESS?
When leaders at school tell you that your kids (or someone else's) are destined to be failures, that is the time to practice Courageous Kindness.
When shows on television and characters in books regularly depict kids like yours (or others) as the bad guys, that is the time to practice Courageous Kindness.
When voices in positions of leadership tell you that your children (or others) should be man-handled into compliance, or that they are second class citizens, that is the time to practice Courageous Kindness.
Courageous Kindness dictates that when your child has a tantrum and a stranger in the store looks at him as though this screaming baby represents ALL of "his kind," you stay firm in the knowledge that you and your child belong in a museum dedicated to awesome people. Courageous Kindness demands that when even family members make snide remarks about your child, you follow the blueprint. You look inward and say,
"Forsaking all of this, I WILL LOOK AT MY CHILD AND SEE HIS/HER INNER HERO. I will smile AT THAT HERO and lavish grace and respect upon them."
Most importantly, every day, for no reason at all, Courageous Kindness encourages you to look into your child's eyes and SMILE.
Courageous Kindness is about removing our attention from the instigators of emotional and mental violence in our lives...and placing every ounce of intentional, kind attention BACK ON OUR CHILDREN. EVERY DAY is the perfect time to practice Courageous Kindness.
WHAT DOES COURAGEOUS KINDNESS DO?
Courageous kindness flips the expectations of society on their heads. It rearranges power structures. It is a powerful tool. And it works. It works on your brain. It works on the brain of your child. And it works on the brain of any person who is watching you practice- even if they are resistant. We'll talk about what that means in a subsequent lesson. For now, know: Your Courageous Kindness is the start of a tidal wave of societal change.
The Stress of Amygdala Activation in Strangers:
The #1 Reason Diverse Parents Need Neuroscience
My oldest child, who is four, talks back at times (what a surprise). Sometimes he needs help taking turns on the slide. Sometimes, he devolves into a red-faced, screaming tornado. I'm sure this sounds normal and familiar. What is not normal: the people who react as though a major travesty has occurred when they see a four year old practicing being human. Is he any worse than the hundred kids acting exactly like him? But somehow, folks believe that mine is the One who needs a severe intervention.
This is the experience of being the beautifully diverse parent in a crowd of people who feel "the same." By diverse, I mean whatever characteristic of yours that folks feel justified in singling out. Maybe it's skin color. That is typically the most salient. Maybe it's religion. Maybe it's neuro-status. Maybe it's physical appearance. Maybe you have an accent from a different part of the world. Or maybe you wear high heels when everyone else is wearing gym shoes. I don't know.
Whatever it is, people are drawn to you like a shining star. They stare. They make faces. They get attitudes. They notice you. And that's when you know: here come the comments, the judgements, the rejections, or worse, the physically or emotionally violent assaults.
This is not an exaggeration. It is truth.
-Let's interject some Neuroscience
Neuroscience gives some perspective. There is something called the "us" and "them" effect that we humans are really great at. We separate the world into people who look like an us and people who look like a them.
When we see an us, we assume they're pretty great. We feel that interaction with them will be pleasant. When we see a them, our amygdala activates. I'll be talking about the amygdala- what it is, where it is and what it does- in my first video installation for this series. For now, know that when the amygdala activates in the brain...it can herald a fearful or hostile interaction to come. When the amygdala lights up, our inner hackles rise. We feel that we just don't trust "that" person.
Polarizing images in the media have contributed to effectively sectioning people into us-es and thems. You would think this wouldn't affect average interactions on the playground but it does. Why? One reason: media images manipulate the reality perceived by our brain.
Another reason: many people have caved to viewing the world through the lens of "us" and "them." They believe that they are individuals. They believe I and my son are part of a group. They're threatened by that group.
When it is safe, I take the time to educate people like this. I educate their children. I remove my Little Guys from their presence. I talk. I advocate. I assist in raising these people to a higher level.
But inwardly, I admit I sometimes cringe when I see these folks coming. I can sense the tension in their eyes, mouth and body from the moment they see me- which, by the way, is when their amygdala first fires. Most studies on this topic have been conducted from the viewpoint of Europeans- in other words, people who identify as white. Science has identified that when many folks who identify as white lay eyes on rich skin tones, alarm bells sound in their amygdala.
The next time their amygdala fires is unfortunate- it's when I make eye contact, smile and say hello. Eye contact is a distinctly human crossroads where we determine friend or foe. In a world where friends and foes are predetermined by stereotypes, eye contact can simply be a battleground. People who live in an us and them world can view eye contact with a them as a direct challenge.
Even the nicest, most average person can be a bully to people outside of his/her racial or religious or handicap or gender or sexuality paradigms. They may become even more aggressive if those "thems" are ALSO intelligent, well off, confident and fearless (like me). How dare a THEM act like an US?
It is hard to thoughtfully parent when I'm dealing with people like this. My mental resources are taken up by gauging the level of hostility these folks carry. These folks are my neighbors and community members. And I admit to a certain level of wishing that I could sway them with the power of good intentions.
However, the danger is sometimes too real to attempt friendship. There have been times when other parents have over-reacted on a grand scale to my toddler-the-enemy-in-their-minds. By over-reaction, I mean these adults engaged in sudden, full-blown screaming, crying and/or grabbing, wrestling, yanking, or pushing my child.
Some of them actually engaged in acts of violence that I won't discuss here. These folks became so entangled with their illogical sense of threat from an "other," they lost the ability to behave like rational, moral adults. They lost the ability to interact with others, even a mother and very small child, with something very important- integrity. These formerly very nice people are no longer safe neighbors.
(And before you ask-yes, I took care of these people and kept my kiddos safe.)
The point- When our minds are engaged in the work of deciphering threat, we lose some of the ability to decipher the integrity of our actions. This is so important.
When we are focused on surviving,
we cannot focus on thriving.
Think about this. It doesn't just apply to my illogical neighbors. It applies to me and you. When my neighbors are so focused on threat, they can't interact safely with me or my children. When I am focused on surviving around my neighbors, I can no longer see myself or my children for who we truly are. I can only see the danger. I fail to practice the "scientific, attachment parenting" that I so adore.
I correct my kids more quickly/sternly and try to "keep them in line" rather than teach them, guide them and continue understanding who they are.
I'm quite literally focused on keeping them small and quiet so I can protect them in this cultural war.
"Honey, don't do that."
"Sweet guy, no."
"Hush, baby. You don't need to cry about that."
This is the point where I've discovered the usefulness of moving through life with a strategic plan. I call it the Courageous Kindness blueprint. I adhere to this blueprint as though it's a battleplan. And I follow it with the knowledge that my kids will be strong, confident world citizens because of it. I know there are other parents out there, just like me, on my team, in my troop, who are practicing the same things, themselves.
We know that change begins with us. We are changing the world.
We are the instigators of change.
My Courageous Kindness blueprint is based in what I call Neuroscience for (Diverse) Parents. Maybe I think like a scientist (because I am one!). Maybe I'm an optimistic intellect. Or maybe I'm a parent with the best interests of my family at heart. Maybe I'm a community member who would like to see positive relationships in society as a norm rather than a surprising gift. I believe diversity of thought, diversity of looks, diversity of being is a beautiful part of a happy, productive society. I believe we CAN use Courageous Kindness in our daily interactions with our Selves, our children and with others to shift culture.
We are the powerful ones. We are the bringers of change.
Please join me. If you would like to receive my free, monthly series, Neuroscience for Diverse Parents, and learn more about Courageous Kindness as a form of activism, sign up above.
Be courageous. Be kind.
1. Martins, Nicole & Harrison, Kristen. (2012). Racial and Gender Differences in the Relationship Between Children’s Television Use and Self-Esteem: A Longitudinal Panel Study. Communication Research - COMMUN RES. 39. 338-357. 10.1177/0093650211401376.
2. Myers, H. F., Wyatt, G. E., Ullman, J. B., Loeb, T. B., Chin, D., Prause, N., … Liu, H. (2015). Cumulative burden of lifetime adversities: Trauma and mental health in low-SES African Americans and Latino/as. Psychological trauma : theory, research, practice and policy, 7(3), 243–251. doi:10.1037/a0039077
3. Sapolsky, R. (2015) Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. New York, NY: Penguin Books
4. Van der Kolk, B. (2014) The Body Keeps the Score. New York, NY: Penguin Books.
It's pretty magical.
When you hear a story often, your brain begins to believe it. Those beliefs affect your brainwaves. And brainwaves- intense, moderate or relaxed- affect your ability to think clearly and choose intelligent behaviors.
Makes sense, right?
Next, imagine that you're a kid. Or the parent of a kid.
Imagine that all the stories with characters that look like you or your kid are about other people leading you, bossing you about or rescuing you- because "you" are always in trouble.
How would those stories affect your brainwaves?
Now, imagine a story that has Your Strong, Smiling Face in it.
Are you riding a dragon?
Cooking a delicious cake?
Fighting a zombie carrot?
Winning the Parenting Game? :-)
THAT STORY changes the way you see yourself. How you feel about You and what You can do.
Stories affect the way we see ourselves. Stories tell our children who they are and what they can do. And stories can change the way we raise our children. Stories affect our brainwaves.
When we look our children in the
eye...our eyes affect their brainwaves.
Without saying a word, we've just changed their life.
The question is: DID WE CHANGE IT FOR BETTER OR WORSE?
Let us know above: What kinds of stories are you watching?