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Month: October 2015 Page 1 of 2

This stuff is hard…talking about race and prejudice

This stuff is hard…

For so many reasons, talking about race and prejudice is hard. Here’s an example of why it can be so confusing and discouraging and why so many of us stop doing it.

Last night on the news I saw an amazing story about a new salon in our city that caters to African Americans, the first of its kind. Much needed and long overdue! The owner described it as a “salon for colored people.” My stomach clenched and I thought “oh no, is that right?” Sure. For her, it was.

Now, if I asked Jebeh if she was okay being called “colored,” I know for a fact she’d say “_____ no!” In fact, she has a post in the cue about this very topic.

Some of you might say this isn’t about race or prejudice, it’s about language; but language is how we make sense of our experiences. It connects us (or not) to other people. It’s what defines us as human. Without language and communication we lose the essence of what it means to be human.

So, can we ever do it right?

For me, the goal has become to reach a level of competency and awareness that allows me to recognize my own reactions and the reactions of people around me…to know when different cultural norms or rules may apply (and not always in obvious ways). To know when certain language is appropriate and when it’s not. Like everything, we can’t always be perfect – as things that come out of my kids mouth can attest.

I struggle when people say, “I’m just who I am, I can’t/won’t change that.” Or, “I just say what I think/want, I’m not trying to offend anyone.”

Think about it this way. Do you say the same things in front of a classroom of toddlers as you do on a night out with your girlfriends? Or do you adapt your language and speech when you are speaking to toddlers, to friends, when you are in a business meeting, a locker room, or a hospital? I hope so. You should. This is communication (and cultural to a degree) competency.

You might be asking, so what am I saying…be curious, but don’t ask the wrong thing. Be open, but don’t share the wrong feelings. Oh, and the wrong thing is relative to the person, the situation, and likely the culture or place in which you are immersed.

Yes, kind of. But I’m also saying that you already have the ability and the power to be an effective, compassionate, and competent communicator, IF you are willing to put in the work to recognize and understand the person and culture in which you are interacting. And, IF you are willing to do some serious reflecting about why you think what you think, feel what you feel, and believe what you believe. Because, everyone’s perspective is based on their life experiences – and none of those are exactly the same.

Exhausting? Yes, it can be. Rewarding? Yes, definitely!

4 Lessons for Transracial Adoptive Parents

I have friendships with several families who happen to be white and have happily adopted African American children. This past summer I met a wonderful mother by chance at our local swimming pool. What struck me was her warm smile and how much she cared for all of her children.

She and her husband had adopted two beautiful boys from Haiti. She was drawn to my energy and asked me about my thoughts on our community and whether I thought her children would be accepted here. This led me to think of 4 important lessons and some helpful advice to transracial adoptive families.

1) Family is not always blood. As the saying goes, an adopted child was born in your heart. No matter the journey that you took to achieve the best job of motherhood, you’ve earned it. Loyalty is key to your child. It simply doesn’t matter and you don’t need to justify that to a complete stranger. Say it loud and proud, “This is my child.”

2) Acknowledge your child’s identity as different than yours and embrace it. You don’t need to be an expert in black history or African culture to recognize your son or daughter’s heritage. Your child should be celebrated as your child first and the rest will fall into place.

3) Have empathy. Understand their struggles are yours too. Any parent can understand the pain of a child that feels rejected or bullied. Yes their struggles will be tough but you need to advocate for your child no matter what.

4) Confidence is key. Always  tell your child how much they are loved every day. Always encourage your child to be confident in who they are and to know that they are beautiful.

I found a great resource on the Circle of Moms Blog that lists the Top 25 Adoption Blogs by Parents. There are some really touching stories to read about transracial adoptive families. #ontheblog  #transracialfamilies

Circle of Moms Top 25 Adoption Blogs By Parents


Drinks and Dungeons

I know the story. I taught the story. Or at least made sure my Intercultural Communication students were exposed to the story. In 1920, three black men, who were accused (falsely) of robbing and raping a teenage girl, were dragged from their cells at the downtown Duluth, MN jail and lynched. This was and still is a terrible and heart wrenching tragedy.

Fast-forward 93 years. Jebeh and I and a few other friends were out for ladies night at a downtown bar. An invite came to cross the street to another establishment with a unique cellar bar boasting old stone walls and a historic ambiance. That establishment had renovated the historic building connected to the old police station and jail. I didn’t think twice about the invite. Jebeh, however, said “I don’t want to go there.”

I felt terrible. Had I been insensitive? Was I a bad friend for not thinking of her feelings or perspective? Jebeh would say “no.” But the guilt was still there. That guilt. I’ll talk about it a lot. It can become consuming, overwhelming, and can cloud your rational thought process. My reaction didn’t make me a bad person, but when checked against Jebeh’s gave me an opportunity to grow, learn, and be a “better” friend. The point is she thought about it (the history, the story, the horror). Her gut said “no.” I didn’t think about it consciously, and even if I did my gut didn’t say “no.”

As a human, I question whether I should feel “okay” drinking and celebrating in a historical landmark that to Jebeh and many others has a connection to the events that transpired on June 15, 1920. I can’t imagine what that would feel like as a black American. But I can be open to asking. To talking. To learning from what Jebeh has to say if she is willing to share. I think that’s what makes us work so well – we are not afraid to share, to be honest in the moment, to acknowledge sometimes awkward situations, our own and our kids.

This led to a conversation about how they can honor the victims in that space. A plaque? An opportunity to learn? A space to acknowledge?

Who knows…But what we learned is that even things that seem inconsequential, like running across the street to a different bar, matter. They matter because we are the same and we are different. She is black. I am white. In that moment, that was my privilege; not having my gut say “no.” Not immediately remembering what those buildings had been or what they represent to many.

They don’t do Halloween in Africa

My parents and I arrived in the United States in 1982. They were graduate students trying to make an honest living and raise a family. There were no “New to America Mentors” for refugees or international students. No one came to help teach the nuances of American culture. My parents, although highly educated people, missed the mark on a few holidays and terms. In retrospect, I’d give them an “A” for effort on one particular Halloween (not celebrated in Africa) snafu.

My elementary school in Carbondale, Illinois had a school wide Halloween parade. In Kindergarten I wore a Cabbage Patch costume complete with a white mask, red yarn hair, and an oversized smock. I was happy as a clam, thinking nothing of the fact that my mother dressed me up as a white girl for my first Halloween celebration.

But it was my first grade costume that still takes the cake. Apparently, I told my mom I wanted to be a bunny – the innocent creature that eats up your garden vegetables and frolics in the woods. So, I was a bunny. Fifteen years later, while looking through pictures I saw it, my first grade bunny costume. I was dressed in a leotard, white tights, cufflinks, a pin on tail, and a bunny ear headband. The costume was a spitting image of the Playboy bunny!

My Liberian mother unknowingly put me in a Playboy bunny costume! When I confronted my mom, she laughed and said, “You wanted to be a bunny, so I put you in a bunny costume.” God bless her heart. What I’d give to see the look on the faces of my first grade teacher and all the parents at the parade when little 6-year-old Liberian me strutted out as a Playboy bunny for the all school parade.

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