By Dr. Lorena Brownlee
When I sat down to write this I thought, wow, where do I begin as this story tells a tale of racism from every direction. I will say upfront it is one thing to have a child of the same ethnicity as the parents and have family support, while dealing with the outside world and social issues like racism than it is to have a mother whose ethnicity is different than the child’s without family support while dealing with those same world and social issues. There is a balancing act that takes place raising your child in both worlds while receiving verbal abuse from both sides.
From the day I told my family I was pregnant, that was it. I lost my relationship with all my family including my grandparents. My mother, a minister in a church, asked me a question you would never in a million years think a woman of the cloth would ask, proceeded by a statement that completely contradicted every belief in the religious foundation she tried to impart to me, “Are you getting an abortion?” “You are not planning on having that nigger baby.” I will never forget that nauseated feeling in the pit of my stomach after hearing her say that. My grandmother did not say anything much different, “A Schvartze (Yiddish derogatory slang for Black person) will not be sitting at this table”. You think a survivor of genocide would have thought about the words coming out of her mouth, but no such luck. So I am separated from my family to this day and have no relationship with them.
Racism did not just come through my family; I had black people tell me I could not raise a black child properly because I was white. His biological father’s family wanted nothing to do with him, believing he would inevitably be too white to understand them. When my son was a teenager asking many questions about his father’s side of the family, he went to see them, to meet them, but they stuck to that same belief that he was just too white and did not fit in. Sadly they do not speak to him nor do they want to be a part of his life in any way shape or form, and I know this hurt him even though he never speaks of his short time there.
What was supposed to be a year-long venture of self-discovery and development of family ties, to a father my son was so eager to know, turned into disappointment and rejection. My son’s biological father’s side of the family has deep Louisiana roots; they are a close family that go to church together and speak on the phone constantly. The boys also got into a lot of trouble and the trouble cannot be chalked up to racism because they were causing it. DUI’s, guns, and drugs, they invited the trouble.
Now, my son did have his own challenges which he presented to a family that was very unfamiliar to him; he is on the autism spectrum. He did not speak until he was 4 and does need to be reminded to do things like clean a room. He did have issues with social situations but he always had friends, it just took him longer to warm up to people. These things did not make sense to the family and all the social issues were turned into racial problems with the statement “he is just too white.” He lasted two and a half months there out of the 12 months planned. I drove up and took him back home, and I always took him everywhere with me from that point on.
Driving through the south brought unexpected racial issues for a person who was slightly naive. 20 years ago the attitude towards mixed children was still ignorant to say the least. I pushed my son’s head down through the towns we drove so people couldn’t see him as a rest stop interaction with the locals taught me we were not welcome. Needless to say I had to teach him from a little child that the world would see him different, and that he needed to be careful with his behavior, dress and interaction with police. Had I not taught him those things he would have been ill-equipped to be in a world not as accepting of the African American community and from my experience it did not matter whether we lived in a rich or poor community, the behavior towards African Americans was still the same.
Oh the teenage years. Let’s be honest: these are not easy times for any child. Bodies are changing, they are figuring themselves out, they are grumpy and in my son’s case depressed. Drugs, girls, parties and worries all come with these years and for my child the reminder: you are black and you need to remember that when you are late coming home, or out with your friends, or even in who you choose to date because some families will not allow you to date their daughter. Everything I am writing to you occurred in one way or another.
My son hated school and ditched a lot. One afternoon I came home from work early to a phone call from the Marin County Police Department telling me, “We have your son. He was reported as a burglar.” Upon arriving at our home I ask him in front of the police, “what were you doing?” He said he was sitting on the curb. I said, “that’s it?” I looked at the officer and asked, “is that where you found him?” He said, “yes”. So I asked, “how that was a burglar?” Officer said, “ma’am the woman who made the call was older. You know how it is.” I asked, “What do you mean know how it is? Oh you mean she was racist? She saw a black child and marked him as a burglar and you in turn picked him up to appease her idea?” Officer’s reply, “well ma’am now that I have seen you I know it is all ok and he was just having a hard morning.” My response, “So if I had been a black mother this would have ended different?” He had no reply. We had several incidents that ended the very same way during those teenage years.
To make a long story short because the reality is I could tell you story after story about racism – be it through me, my son, or others I know, I did not raise my son to root his identity in a color. I raised my son to root his identity in humanity and being human, to respect those around him even if they could not dig deep enough into their souls to return that same dignity and respect. At the end of the day we are all human beings, regardless of what is on the outside in each of us beats a heart needing and requiring human connection.
Do you not find it odd that the biggest and greatest challenge for mankind to overcome is the differences in people whether they are from Ferguson, Palestine or Sudan? This is the global challenge, acceptance and freedom. Now, we can continue to be angry about racism, or we can come together as humans in a great campaign for humanity and meet each other through interactions of peace to iron out one of history’s greatest challenges, communication through words. This is the key, and can change the course of history for the next generation because your voice is the greatest weapon you possess.
Dr. Lorena Brownlee