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.