Two White Moms
This piece has been a long time in the making. Today we are learning from Abi and Lisa, two moms on opposites sides of the political spectrum who agree on this: talking about race and privilege and equipping our children to do the same, is the necessary and important duty of every parent. It's not a liberal-conservative, republican-democrat, old-young, white-black thing. It's a human thing, a parent thing and for white parents, in homes where the conversation might not happen as naturally, it's just as crucial. In four years of writing Let's Be Fair I think this is one of the most important conversation we've ever published. It's a longer read but well worth the time.
Tell us a little about yourself.
Abi - I'm a photographer and mom of three little men. My husband and I have been together for fifteen years- we were college sweethearts. We are a multiracial family, and live in Oakland in a house in the hills with sweeping views of the bay. We moved to Oakland when our oldest was one because we knew diversity and representation were so important for him to grow into a strong and confident Black man being raised by white parents. We love it here and I can't see us living anywhere else, although I will admit, I day dream somedays about a different life with chickens and big open spaces for the boys to run free and a tiny a frame in the woods by the sea.
Lisa - I am a 38 year old culturally white woman living in Los Angeles. I have been married for 17 years and my husband and I have 4 children. I am a teacher at a conservative Christian school. I am a Christian which means I follow and serve Jesus Christ and His teachings.
I have been following your journey for a little while. I know growing in empathy and understanding is a lifelong process but I'm wondering if you had an "aha!" moment when issues of social justice, specifically white/black race relations in the US became personally important to you?
Abi- I did have a moment. Well, there's actually two moments that come to mind. The first was when Finn was little and we'd just moved to Oakland. Our washing machine was broken and at the laundry mat one Sunday afternoon we met a Black woman. She was sitting outside in the sunshine, we were waiting for our clothes to dry. And so we talked. She asked us about our adoption and we shared pieces of our story. She'd worked at an adoption agency years before she told us and we talked statistics and life and the adoption world. At the end of the conversation as our loads were done and we were headed back inside and she was turning to leave she asked me if I was ready. When I asked for what she told me this;"The police will come knocking on your door. They'll think he's up to no good just because he's black. You gotta be ready for that. You gotta be prepared. "At the time I was holding my squirmy toddler, who was wanting to get down. And I stopped and kissed his dimpled cheeks as she walked away, stunned and scared. In my heart of hearts I knew she was speaking the truth but I was naive enough to hope she was wrong. Still, her words haunted me. And then.
Then, my second moment was when Tamir Rice was shot dead at a park. And my heart literally ached and my bones hurt and I finally saw that she had been right all along. And it wasn't fair to my son that I was just figuring it out, and I needed to step up my game. Seeing Black boys shot in parks, walking home from stores, and no justice, it just hit so close to home. And I realized it wasn't fair that this was happening, that it had been happening for years and years and somehow, in my white bubble I had been allowed to be blind to the injustice. And I knew I had to speak up and do my part to bring awareness, for my sons, and for all the other Black and Brown sons being raised all over America.
Lisa- If asked I would have said that race relations have always been important to me but if I being totally honest my "aha" moment came as a punch in the gut, a slap in the face and a violent shaking during 2016 at the height of the election season when news stories of black Americans caught my attention day after day and when Mr. Trump was/is daily in the news.
How has learning about and learning from people of color and the issues that effect communities of color impacted you?
Abi- It has been so eye opening, so heartbreaking. As soon as I feel like I might be almost educated, something new blows my mind. Sometimes I feel like I could give up and I realize I can't. That would be so white privileged of me. People are literally fighting for their lives and I must do everything I can to amplify their voices. They haven't given up, and I can't either.
Lisa - This is a big question for me as it is still unfolding. I "woke up" to systemic racism in this country and became overwhelmed with grief and a desire to longer be ignorant. Even admitting I was ignorant was hard for me. I am a biracial person (Mexican and white) and I grew up in a diverse culture so how could I be unaware of the depth of racism and history of racism in this country. At the risk of making myself into a cliche MY BEST FRIEND IS BLACK! How did I miss this?? I began reading, listening and weeping. I sat across from POC that I deeply care for and I listened to their stories and their experiences. I wrestled internally with the fact that my experiences were different because I was "white". I began to question all that I experience in life and wonder the lens in which I was viewing this world. This awakening has changed how and what I teach in the classroom, it has changed how I talk to my children and what we read in our home, what we watch and how we watch it.
I'm inspired by how you have engaged your children on this issue. What would you say to parents who think that "kids should just be kids" and not exposed to these types of challenging conversations and realities?
Abi- Studies actually show that by families not talking about race it leads to children being unsure what their parents think of people of different races and thinking their race is superior. Colorblind ideology is actually a whole new form of racism. We cannot teach our children to be colorblind. We can’t ignore race because race is a part of who we are. Daily our children are learning new things. They're watching us, and more often than not, children repeat us. What they've seen, heard and witnessed. They mimic our actions. I truly believe that we as parents, as mothers, as fathers, as human beings living in this world today have a vital responsibility to instill our values in our babies from the moment they are born. There is no perfect time to talk about race or racism, there is no magic age when it should be addressed. Yes, they might be young, and it’s awkward to start it, but we should be talking about these things with them daily. Starting conversations. Having open dialogue about harder issues. As a mother I am shaping my children, their thoughts, their beliefs and it is up to me to raise boys who will stand take a stand. Boys who see color, and embrace it. Boys who notice differences and celebrate them. I want you to see my sons skin for what it is, beautiful and black. He is black. He is proud. We celebrate his blackness. I want you to notice his differences and to talk to your children about it.Yes it’s hard but conversations that challenge us always are.
Lisa - I get wanting to protect your children from hard things. I think its a good and right instinct. I guess for me part of protecting them is also exposing them to harsh realities in a space where they can ask questions, where they know that they are loved and in a place where hope can be offered. The truth is there are hard things, sad things, unjust things etc. in this life and this world. Painting the world as a perfect place is not only untrue it is setting children up to be greatly disappointed. If they have spent any time with other human beings then they already know and have experienced disappointment and heartache anyway e.g. any one ever taken a toy from them? had their parents tell them "no" etc. I believe there is a way to introduce difficult subject matter in a way that is age appropriate and honest. I think fear is a motivator that both propels us and hinder us depending on the situation. Being intentional with my children has always been important to me. I want my home to be a safe place to learn, to explore, to fail and to ask questions.
So let's say a mom is reading this. She wants to be active in educating her children on issues of race, privilege and social justice but she's overwhelmed. Where should she start?
Abi - I think books are the best way to start having open dialogues. Some of my favorites:
The journey by Francesca Sanna (this one is about a family fleeing war and it's my new favorite)
I am Martin Luther King Jr
I am Rosa Parks
I am Jackie Robinson
It's okay to be different By Todd Parr
Wangari's Trees of Peace: A True Story from Africa (a beautiful warrior woman)
Emmanuel’s dream (talking about special needs)
The Story Of Ruby Bridges: Special Anniversary Edition (great for talking about segregation in schools)
Henry's freedoms box (about the civil war)
Lisa - I would start with history. As an overwhelmed mom myself, I understand that it's hard to find time to start new things in an already busy life. Every child is required to learn history in school so I would start by investing time in their history lessons. Ask them what they are learning about in school and listen to what they are being taught. Pick up their history book and question the perspective of the history being taught. I have been horrified about how much education I have and yet how much I wasn't taught about the history of this country. I have been engaged in the history that my children are learning and asking questions not only of them but of their books. At a predominately white Christian school my kids hear the historical perspective of a "white Christian male". I'm first in line to point that out and ask how might this story be told if told by the oppressed instead of the oppressor? the one who was conquered instead of the one who conquered? the woman instead of the man? the poor instead of the rich?
A lot of women are afraid to speak out about social justice issues. I'm sure you have received some criticism for your views and bold appeal to others. How do you find balance between speaking the truth in a way that continues dialogue and fosters community without...for lack of a better word...whitewashing it?
Abi- Well, to be honest, I'm at a "I don't care who I piss off anymore" stage in my regard to speaking out. But I think it comes down to the heart behind it. You can spout out statistics and scream and yell and people won't listen. I wouldn't say my approach fosters community as much as others - but I'm fiercely protective and even if people don't agree with me, I think they do appreciate the honesty and openness behind my words and I think my protectiveness for my boys translates. Does that make sense?
Lisa- I don't know that I have been bold about speaking to others. I have tried to practice listening much more than speaking. My hope is to not make a judgment or reign down a verdict. My goal is to see the humanity of people and learn about their experiences. I have gotten far in asking questions and to the extent that I'm still welcome I will continue to ask and to try and learn. The conversation ends when you try to convince someone about who is right and who is wrong. Asking good questions keeps the conversation going. I think it comes down to the heart motivation behind having these conversations. If you want to "win" then take your time and contrive a knock-out blow complete with facts and figures and post it on FB where you don't have to look into someone's eyes or hear their voice. But if you want to learn, build relationships and grow as a human being then sit across from someone from a different ethnicity and ask them their story; be willing to be "wrong" about what you thought you knew. Challenge that feeling you have when you hear" white privilege". Ask yourself why you "get to" think they way you do.
If you could force everyone to read one book on this subject, which book would you choose?
Abi- Between the world and me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Lisa- Ahhh, just ONE!! I've purchased so many books in the last year. I've read only a few and am working my way down the list. I read some on my own and some with my family as a family read-a-loud. I guess I'll end this as cliche as I began. I would recommend a history book, one that tells the story of creation, fall, redemption and restoration; one that offers hope to the oppressed and to the oppressor, one that tells the greatest love story and is filled with violent defeat and glorious promise: the Bible.
(If you rolled your eyes...here is a list some friends and I have compiled)
A Long Walk to Water By: Linda Sue Park
Inside Out and Back Again By: Thanhha Lai
I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai
Code Talker by Joseph Bruchac
Orphan Train Rider By: Andrea Warren
What If? By Steve L. Robbins
Twice Freed By Patricia St. John (The Story of Onesimus in the book of Philemon)
Last Stop to Market Street By Matt de la Pena
Through My Eyes By Ruby Bridges
The Story of Ruby Bridges By Robert Coles
We March By Shane W. Evans
Rosa By Nikki Giovanni
A Sweet Smell of Roses By Angela Johnson
Sit In By Andrea Davis Pinkney
Ruth and the Green Book By Calvin Alexander Ramsey and Gwen Strauss
Back of the Bus By Aaron Reynolds
If a Bus Could Talk by Faith Ringgold
Tar Beach By Faith Ringgold
Child of the Civil Rights Movement By Paula Young Shelton
Linda Brown, You Are Not Alone
Freedom on the Menu By Carole Boston Weatherford
Freedom Summer By Deborah Willies
100 African Americans Who Shaped American History By Chrisanne Beckner
Doctor Daniel Hale Williams Twas the Night of a Miracle By Karen Clapton-Dunson
Benjamin Banneker:Astronomer and Mathematician By Litwin, Laura Baskes
Prophetic Lament by Soong-Chan Rah
The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James Cone
The Souls of Black Folk W.E.B. Du Bois
Being White by Paula Harris
Eyes on The Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years by Juan Williams
Waking Up White, and Finding Myself in the Story of Race by Debby Irving
In the Shadow of Liberty By Kenneth C. Davis
Propaganda, “Precious Puritans”
What has been the most surprising thing you've learned about motherhood on this journey?
Abi - Can I say everything?
Lisa - Sometimes protecting my children looks like wounding them. There has been much discussion in our home about race. Sometimes it has ended in tears I can't dry or questions that I can't answer. There is an unsettling and unsatisfying feeling that accompanies much of my parenting when it comes to teaching my kids about race. It requires faith and trust and an acknowledgment that I may not get it right every time and that it is ok. This journey has changed me and marked me and influences the mother that I am to my children.
Special Thanks to Abi and Lisa for their thoughtfulness, transparency and guidance. Your wisdom and the way you raise your family are making the world a better place for all of us.