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Posts Tagged ‘Race’

Hair

Blitzen woke up sobbing and screaming at 1:00 this morning. “I hate my hair.  Why won’t it stay straight?  Why does it have to be ugly?  I want straight, beautiful hair. Andrew, you don’t know anything about girls or hair.  You don’t know how to take care of me.  Fix it, Andrew!”

Blitzen wants straight hair.  White hair.  Disney princess hair.  The first week we met her, she called us to the tv: “Look at these girls — they have pretty hair just like me!” One was blond, one was red-headed, both had long straight flowing hair.

Fast forward to yesterday.  Blitzen’s hair had been in braids for a few weeks.  She went to the salon to get de-braided, and got her hair blown out.  Yesterday afternoon her hair was straight as Barbie’s.  We worked to cover her hair before she went to sleep, but I didn’t tie the scarf around her head right and she woke up 1:00 am with her hair back to normal: curly, gorgeous and alive.  She was furious that she didn’t look like Taylor Swift or Beyonce, and furious at me for causing the problem.

Our struggles with hair don’t make the blog much, in part because they’re obvious to the point of cliche.  Of course a black girl growing up in a patriarchal, white-dominant society that objectifies and blames her is going to have internalized racial inferiority and a complex, oversized relationship with her body and hair.  Of course that relationship will be intensified by the identity issues that come with loving both your black family and your white foster family, plus the rage and pain that come from witnessing abuse.  Frankly it’s a wonder that Blitzen giggles as often as she does.

Sadly, I play my role in this cliche: the oblivious, naive, not-so-bright well-meaning white man with an intellectual interest in racism and sexism and a bookshelf full of literature.  Today, in my sleep-deprived state, prodded by two hours of tears from a loved one who’s educating me, I feel the pain caused by white supremacy.  Tomorrow, I’ll have the privilege to intellectualize it again.

In this rare moment of being human, here’s some of what I feel.  I’m pissed that women are defined first and inevitably by the way they look. I’m pissed that Blitzen will spend her life comparing herself to a standard of beauty built and perpetuated by northern European white men.  I’m pissed that Blitzen will be exoticized, sexualized and othered before she can be listened to.  I’m pissed that Blitzen, who notices everything, get messages every day that tell her black people are thugs, criminals, bad students, bad parents, poor, dependent, superstitious, helpless and undeserving.

I’m pissed about the recordings in Blitzen’s head: “You’re not pretty.  You’re not smart.  You’re not lovable.  You’re not able to make it.”   Those are the voices of institutional racism, and they’re not from 1850, they’re in Blitzen’s head right now as she stands at the mirror with a hair dryer and a brush hoping that her hair turns straight.

What I’m really pissed off and embarrassed about is my role amplifying and reinforcing the voices in Blitzen’s head.  Blitzen moved into a home where every single photograph on the wall was of a white person; it’s pretty clear what I value.  I’ve worked exclusively for culturally white institutions, even when, damagingly enough, I’ve been “serving” primarily kids of color.

Blitzen sees me wield my white privilege like a blunt instrument every time I  sidestep the line, every time I casually break a rule knowing it doesn’t apply to me, every time I tell our agency or our school exactly what I need.  My white privilege has gotten me jobs, credit, housing, access to power, and the opportunity to raise another parent’s brilliant child.  I don’t have to use words to tell Blitzen it’s better to be white.  She notices everything, and my internalized white superiority isn’t that well-hidden anyway.

You fall in love with a kid and it means you have to get better and make the world better.  We white people, in accountability to kids and people of  color, have work ahead of us.

Even if I had tied her scarf around Blitzen’s head correctly, her hair wasn’t going to be straight this morning.  But she’s right to be furious at me.  Me and my white friends built and sustain the world that makes her hair wrong.  If we want to sleep through the night, it’s our job to fix it.

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Blitzen asked me last night, crying her little worried heart out.  Sigh.  I knew what she meant but I asked her some clarifying questions.

Me, “Blitzen, I need a little more information, honey.  Why are you so upset?”

Blitzen, “Sob, sniffle, because you are white and I am american.”

Me, trying to keep a straight face and not 1) laugh 2) cry, “Do you mean that I am white and you are African-American?”

Blitzen, “Yes, we’re not the same culture so we can’t be in the same family.”

Me, “We can be in the same family.  People in the same family don’t need to look the same – some can have blue eyes or green or brown or different colored hair or skin.  It doesn’t matter that we don’t look the same.”  Now, this is a really complex issue and I am oversimplifying in this conversation with Blitzen.  I know that people notice that we are not the same and I know that she sees it.  And I am certain that it is really a mind fuck (excuse my language) for a little kid who simply wants to belong to somebody / some family and wants everyone else to know that she BELONGS.

Blitzen, “It does matter.  People will try to tear us apart.”

Me, “Blitzen, look, our friends M and C have different colored skin and they are married and they have a beautiful baby, F.  And it is all ok.”  I brought up this example because we had just a lovely playdate with this particular multi-racial family.

Blitzen, “But F is both their cultures.”

Me, to self – This conversation is really hard and she has got me, F does have both their cultures.  What to say, what to say.

So, naturally, I started talking about the Irish potato famine.

Blitzen, “What culture are you?”

Me, “Well, I guess you could say that I am Irish.”  And I am, a lot but not totally.  My mother’s family is Irish and very proud of it.  So I talked about when my great, great grandparents came to New York.  And I talked a little about poverty and immigration and well, believe it or not, it calmed her down.  Because Blitzen is a really curious kid and she likes to learn new things.

Segue to the next portion of evening where Andrew gives Blitzen her medication and she is responsible for doling out a chewable, dinosaur shaped vitamin for everyone.  We take our ‘meds’ as a family and Blitzen says to Andrew, who had not been privy to our crying culture conversation, “Do you know there is an island, where all the poor people had to eat potatoes but then the potatoes stopped growing so they all moved to the United States?  That is Carrie’s culture.”

Next time, I’ll tell her a little more.  I certainly know that being Irish is about a whole heck of lot more than potatoes.  And I know that this big, complicated, scary thing called ‘culture’ is about a lot more than looking alike.

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“Can you like people of another color?” Blitzen asked.

I turned to my go-to response for the many instances when I’m not quite sure what we’re talking about: “What do you think?”

“I think people of other colors can like each other.  They just can’t marry each other.”

I start to get it.  We just spent a week meeting lots of loved ones, all of whom were white.  Those who are married married other white folks.  “Hmmm.  Interesting.  We know some people who are different colors who married each other, right?  Like D & V?”

I was eager for conversation.  Blitzen was unconvinced but willing to concede the point and change subjects, probably hoping to sidestep listening to me say absurd things about issues around race.

I can’t blame the girl for tuning out the things I say about race.  Her favorite way to access information is through visual observation.  Here are a few of the things I suspect she notices.

1)  Whenever we go somewhere fun or special — Sea World, holiday parties, airplane trips — nearly everyone is white.

2)  When we introduce her to family, the people we love, they are all white.  Other than Blitzen and her sisters, every single person in a framed photo in our home is white.  None of the people we see sleeping in Marcus Garvey Park each day are white.

3)  Blitzen’s school is 100% kids of color.  It’s in a building with a school that is predominately white.  The white kids have the first two floors; Blitzen and her friends walk to the fifth floor.  The white kids have colorful walls, hands-on projects and lots of field trips.  Blitzen and her friends have behavior sheets and kids being physically restrained in the halls.

The list could go on for a long time, and every point deserves a full post, if not a dissertation and protests in the streets.  For now, I’m simply noticing Blitzen noticing that I’m not a reliable narrator when I merrily suggest that anyone can like and marry anyone they want to and that the race we’ve been assigned is not destiny.

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If an anthropologist from the future were to study the United States in 2011, she’d likely conclude that our child welfare system was designed to remove children from families of color.

The numbers are stark.  In New York, 82% of kids in foster care are children of color.  Studies show that black families are 10 times more likely than white families to be reported to Child Protective Services, and 15 times more likely to have a child removed from their home.  (This isn’t a footnote/bibliography kind of blog, but US stats can be found here.)

Dorothy Roberts, who wrote  Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare (terrific executive summary here — okay, no more footnotes) says:

If you came with no preconceptions about the purpose of the child welfare system, you would have to conclude that it is an institution designed to monitor, regulate, and punish poor families of color.

The child welfare system is designed to privilege white people like Carrie and me.  Doors have flown open; we were  certified in record time.  We can be confident that everyone we meet will assume we aren’t drug users, won’t neglect our foster children and aren’t in it for the money.

What’s more, because we’re not poor, it’s unlikely that our child will be perceived as suffering from “neglect,” the cause of 75% of all child welfare cases.  Neglect — poor health care, poor nutrition, lack of shelter — looks looks an awful lot like poverty.

Carrie and I can’t wait to love, nurture, support and celebrate a child in our home.  But our job  just begins there.  The real work in front of all of us is to organize for institutional change that will address the disproportionalities of our system.

Luckily, we’re not alone.  A bunch of groups are organizing the community around these disparities, including the Child Welfare Organizing Project and the Anti-Racist Alliance.  We invite our friends to join us not just in caring for Blitzen, but in creating a just, equitable world for her to live in.

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