Saturday, April 7, 2007

Meet Your (Racist) Neighbors

It will happen.

At some point, somebody is going to say something...not stupid, not out of bounds, just plain racist. They will think you're a "good white person" and, therefore, won't be minding their "manners" as they would have in "mixed company".

You have not spent your life building a thick skin about such matters. And this is your CHILD being dehumanized. Yes, a child, and you are a parent, therefore, jail is not an option. So what do you do?

I recently stumbled across a wonderfully written blog, the personal blog of "Aaryn", a professional columnist and adopted parent of an adorable African-American girl known as "Ruby" (pictured).

She graciously allowed me to share the experience with everyone here. The following serves as an illustration of what kind of situation we may face and, I feel, a pretty nifty response on Aaryn's part:

How A Man Becomes Ugly And Ruins My Sunday

Sam and I both knew when we chose to adopt an African-American child, that we would forever be on the frontlines of racism in America. And we were okay with this. We're both outspoken in our own way and neither one of us are the kind of people to back down when faced with bigoted comments. Still. No amount of pre-adoption coursework or reading could prepare us for the new dimension of pain racism would cause us because thanks to adoption, we see the world very differently than we did almost 18 months ago. Racism has always been abhorrent to me but now it's personal, too. The blinders are off. Amen.

Yesterday morning at the park, I had a conversation with a neighbor I hadn't met before. We were discussing the fact that our community, built around a college, isn't always safe and that women in particular need to be aware that there are sexual predators in the area. Which is when, as Ruby toddled away from me to the water fountain with her father, this young and relatively attractive guy offered me the following little gem:

"And you know that it's because these African-Americans are rolling up in the neighborhood."

"What's that supposed to mean?" I asked him directly, making mental note of his wild effort to be politically correct with his racist views. Clearly he'd seen me playing with Ruby and would at the very least have enough sense to keep it to himself. But no. He obviously assumed that I played for his team, some sort of twisted camaraderie based on the shared color of our skin. He simply continued unfiltered from his place of inherent superiority as a white twenty-something male.

"Well, the rapists and stuff..."

"What about them? There are plenty of white rapists and sexual deviants. Are you saying that only black men commit these crimes?"

He just stood there looking at his feet, saying nothing. His wife sat next to me on the park bench, mouth closed, petting her 3-month old Yorkie. The quiet air was thickening between all of us. So I went ahead and whipped out my cleaver to cut through the bullsh**:

"You know, whether someone is a sexual predator has nothing to do with the color of their skin."

"Yeah...well...yeah." He mumbled this last part while kicking at a rock, his black lab making nervous figure eights around his legs (the irony that he owned a black dog was not lost on me). His voice weakly trailed off.

"Well, you're speaking to the mother of a black daughter," I pointed toward Ruby as she climbed expertly onto the step of the water fountain, Ella pacing at her heels with the tennis ball in her mouth. "So you're talking to the wrong person about the blacks rolling into the neighborhood."

"Yeah...I guess I'm not gonna get into it." He said this last bit as if he actually had more to say. As if he had some really persuasive argument to offer but had already seen my fangs.

"I think that's a really good idea."

Then he just stood there for I don't know how long. Too long, really. My hackles were up and inside I was screaming. I fought the urge to call across the park to Sam, to let him know it was time to leave. I was so uncomfortable and just wanted to go home but this was our park and we'd just gotten there and we'd had such a lovely morning and F*** this guy. So I just stayed put, my elbow only centimeters from that of his wife who still said nothing, complicit in her silence. Finally this guy, who had in seconds morphed into the most vile person I'd ever seen, began to skulk away to the furthest corners of the park. I watched him go, privately hoping I'd sufficiently shamed him, and while I waited anxiously for Sam and Ruby and Ella to wander back to me, I passed the time trying to act normal as I engaged in the most pathetic small talk with the racist dude's wife.

As we walked home, I was unable to speak for a few minutes because I was so close to tears. When I did recount the conversation for my husband he was equally distraught by the whole thing. While we discussed how we were feeling, Ruby babbled away in her stroller, pointing at airplanes in the blue morning sky, aping the crows on the powerlines overhead, completely innocent and oblivious to what had just transpired. It was the first time I'd been confronted by such blatant, unedited and direct racism since we've had our girl and my heart was broken into ten thousand tiny shards. My child has done nothing except to have beautiful dark brown skin and I know what lies ahead for her. I want to shelter her from it, to keep her from becoming hardened by the hurtful stupidity of ignorant people but understand that this is not possible. I felt helpless, filled up with sorrow and worse than anything, overcome with a rageful hate.

Once we got home, Sam sat down on the couch and began to cry, something I've witnessed only twice before in our 9-year relationship. We were both devastated. As an interracial family we regularly intercept ridiculous comments as they pertain to both adoption and race; sometimes we handle them better than others but even with ongoing practice, we still haven't completely acclimated to being such public property. This particular interaction, however, was the kind of direct hit we'd read about, knew was inevitable and for which there is no preparation as it pertains to emotional injury. Not internalizing it is a challenge.

I know I've got to find a place of compassion in my heart for this man and for others like him. This is necessary for survival of my belief system. Hating is only going to make me a bitter person and aid me in raising a bitter daughter, neither of which I want. It's so hard to find the forgiveness that's imperative for healing; I'm closer today than I was yesterday and hopefully tomorrow that goal will be even more within my reach. But I'm still feeling very raw over the whole exchange and wondering how I can possibly face similar situations over and over again without it breaking me in half.

Many generations of black people have survived it and I can't help but wonder how.

Aaryn's blog, "Ruby Soho" joins the blogroll, under "Parent(s) Who've Adopted Transracially". Her blog mixes in liberal politics with her slice-of-life commentary, so, if you have a violent reaction against such points of view, be forewarned. I find all of her writing to come from a place of profound compassion, and she writes with considerable wit.



Jennifer said...

Thank you for linking me to aaryn's blog... I appreciate both of your insights.