My husband, Matt, is an excellent story teller. He comes alive in every detail of each moment in such a way that his stories can often be longer than the event they’re describing. He’s engaging and people hang on his every word.
However, there is one story I despise hearing from him—the story of how he and his friend Ryan were roughed up by police officers outside of Chicago.
Matt and Ryan were driving in Matt’s swanky 1988 Ford Taurus and were pulled over because Matt didn’t use his blinker correctly. During their drive, they had been listening to a lecture by one of their college professors on a handheld mini-recorder. Seeing the flashing lights behind them, Ryan suggested they record their interaction with the officers on the recorder. Matt thought the idea was hilarious and Ryan crossed his arms and positioned the mini recorder so that it was pointing out from under his left arm.
As the officer approached Matt’s window and looked into the car, he suddenly jumped back and ran back to his vehicle because—as the black men reading this have realized all along—the end of the recorder resembles the barrel of a handgun.
What followed was 45 minutes of being surrounded by 12 squad cars, listening to screaming obscenities over a megaphone, being ripped out of the car, slammed and pinned on the ground, cuffed by S.W.A.T. team members with guns drawn, and, Ryan, having a gun pushed into his ribs (as the officer said, “If you make one move, you’ll be breathing through your chest.”)
Every time I hear the story, all I can think of is how close to death Matt was.
Still, when Matt tells the story he’s clear that even though the incident was physically excruciating and terrifying, the officers acted appropriately considering the situation.
And I’m quickly reminded of how two of my children would never have survived the same ordeal.
Matt and his friend Ryan evoked fear in the officers because they appeared to be armed and ready to fire.
As two of my sons grow up they will elicit fear because of the color of their skin.
They are so innocent.
Yet, we’re raising them in a culture where they will one day be guilty until proven innocent.
We have to learn how to better parent them so they can be the safest they can be in a world that sees them as a threat.
We Need to Listen
When it comes to racism, we can learn concepts, but we will never have the opportunity to learn from experience. We live in an age where it is easy to find voices to listen to. We need to listen to black men and women. We need to listen to mothers of black men and women. We need to listen to grandmothers of black men and women.
We need to listen to the angriest voices. We need to listen to the voices that make us most uncomfortable.
We cannot pick and choose. Every black person has a perspective and that perspective is influenced by his or her experience and every experience shared is a gift as it’s an opportunity for us to learn so we can become better parents and community members.
With adoption, it is particularly important that we listen to transracial adoptee voices. Once I heard an adoptee speak about how different her life was as a black woman once she went to college because she was no longer experiencing the umbrella of white privilege she had by being her parents’ daughter.
It was the first time I realized my black children experience white privilege.
It was the first time I realized one day they won’t.
Unfortunately, many of us adoptive parents didn’t realize the impact of racism before adopting black sons, and now, we aren’t immersed fully enough in communities of color.
We Need to Humbly Seek and Engage in Community
We need community to raise our children well and our children need role models who look like them.
I couldn’t agree with him more. Furthermore, as white parents of black children we need to embrace humility so our black friends know they can directly confront us on the parenting of our children. We need to invite their criticism.
Beyond that, my sons need to have safe men to look up to who look like them. My children shouldn’t be responsible for finding everyday role models on their own.
If I want my sons to respond to racism safely, bravely, and in a way that evokes respect, I must raise them in relationships with people who experience racism.
We Need to Take What We Learn and Teach our Sons the Rules
Often, with adoption and children with a history of trauma, routine is better accepted than rules. Yet, if we as parents are unaware of the rules black men follow to stay as safe as possible, we’re unable to start the right routines—routines that may keep our sons alive.
Due to some special needs in our family, we started many routines long before our friends began teaching their same-age, black sons simple rules, such as “how to wear a hoodie.” We always narrate the “why” behind the routines in a developmentally appropriate way, and yet, we know our children may not yet trust us enough to believe us. They DO come to trust routines though. Routines feel safe.
Informed routines could lead to their increased physical safety as well.
We Need to Correct Our White Community
When we’re in community with folks who honestly believe we can either be loyal to black men or law enforcement, we need to lovingly call them out.
When our friends or family members use offensive and outdated language to refer to our black children, we need to lovingly educate them.
When our community members make broad brush racist statements, we need to lovingly speak up.
When opportunities present for us to lovingly point out racist behavior in others who are not in community with people of color, we need to seize those opportunities.
This goes beyond being an ally.
This is first about being parents.
Parents willing to take risks to love our children well.
We Need to Be Willing to Cut Ties
I’m going to be honest with you, being unfriended is a gift. At least you don’t have to initiate the conversation when you’re unfriended.
Also, we can no longer associate with some people who used to be friends. When we initiate brave conversations and the response from a friend is hateful or dismissive, we need to veer our path from theirs.
Please hear me. Of course, we still care about former friends as human beings. We hurt for them. We love them. Our children learn compassion as we love those who are incapable of loving us back.
But, if a relationship with a friend is a threat to my child’s trust in me as a compassionate human being, the friendship must end.
We Need to Consider Trauma and Trust
With adoption and trauma, we often have to be so much more sensitive in our conversations with our children because if our words overwhelm them, they can go into fight, flight, or freeze.
We know that our children’s fight, flight, or freeze responses often look scary (or guilty) and generate fear in those around them—making them targets for the very violence we hope they can avoid.
Adoptive parents, many of you get this. At times, it will be a challenge because people of color who do not have extensive experience with early childhood trauma will disagree with how you’re raising your black sons.
Still, we must be brave and be faithful with the wisdom shared with us by those who’ve experienced racism while considering our children’s already complicated experiences.
It won’t be easy.
I’m reminded of a beautiful evening Matt and I had about a month before our sons came home. We were surrounded by friends who came to our house to pray for us and for our sons. Matt and I were the only white people present.
As my friend Regine prayed, she wept over our bravery to choose to raise black sons. Over how scary and heart wrenching the journey would be. About how, as white people, we could have avoided the vulnerability and the risk we were actively seeking by becoming parents of our sons.
After she prayed, I noticed most everyone else in the room was nervously shifting and avoiding eye-contact with us as if they were all wondering if we had any idea about the weight of raising black sons.
I was also wondering if we had a clue. We’d heard stories. We knew facts. We knew statistics. But we did not know what it felt like to be the mother, father, brother, sister, aunt, or uncle to a black male. Neither of us knew what it was like to grow up black.
Neither of us were yet weeping specifically over the weight of raising black sons.
And we’ll never know the weight in the same way the other people in our living room that night knew as we can’t change our past experiences or the privilege our skin color affords us.
Which is why we know we need help.
Many of us didn’t adopt knowing how high the stakes were for our black sons.
But now that we know more, we need to be responsible with our knowledge.
Let’s be brave.
“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” – Maya Angelou
About the Author: Nicole Pritchard is parenting four sons through both birth and foster care adoption. She blogs over at Coffee Colored Sofa where she shares her story of how parenting is changing her. You can also find her on Facebook and Twitter. This post was originally published on her blog.