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Comedian Chris Rock has a bit he does where he talks about his role as a father.  In the punchline of the joke, Chris Rock says his role as the  father of a little girl is the same as every father raising a little girl….”To keep her off the pole!” Its a funny bit and I enjoy his presentation and comedic approach.

My role as a father of two Black boys doesn’t elicit the the same chorus of laughter.  My role, which has become more and more immediate almost on a daily basis, is to keep my sons off a list that continues to grow and grow and grow.

Michael

Michael Brown

 

Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Renisha McBride, and Michael Brown; They were all young Black children who were unarmed, shot and killed because of what someone thought they were.

Renisha

Renisha McBride

I am raising young Black men in my home and with each unjust death of someone like them I have less to tell my sons. I don’t know what to say to assure they will be safe in a world that has declared open season on those that look like them.  I haven’t followed the Michael Brown case very closely because I don’t want to look at it in the face like I did with Trayvon.  Trayvon’s picture is burned into my brain and instinctively when I see his picture I go back to that night where I’m sure he was scared, and wet, and terrified and died with his executioner standing over him as he drew his last breath.

I can’t do that with Michael.  I don’t want to see the face of another Black youth that will no longer age.   I stay blissfully ignorant because the facts and circumstances are too real, too painful.   The more I find out about Michael Brown the more I can draw comparisons between him and my young Black sons; the easier it would be to mentally photo-shop my sons faces on to Michael’s body. Too scary.   Too real!   Too heartbreaking.

When Trayvon was killed I told my sons when they are confronted to move slowly, hands out of their pockets and hood or hat off their head. I told them to do whatever they had to to get home alive.   But that didn’t seem like enough.   The stalking and killing of a young 16 year old like he was an exotic animal is hard to protect against or strategize around.

Tray

Trayvon Martin

A few years ago, I was riding my bike and came up to a “road closed” sign. Not wanting to take the long way around I decided to continue down the closed road.   As I came around a corner there sat a police cruiser with a young White officer behind the wheel.   I knew enough not to turn around; not to run.   He saw me and there was no way out of it.   So I slowly pedaled forward. As I got even with the cruiser the young officer bolted out of the car and into my path.   He was frantic, waving his arms wildly,  and yelling in my face.   He was about half my age which added an interesting sting  to the story.  As I grow older the treatment I  receive from some  younger White people adds to the pain and frustration of moments filled with such disrespect.   As he stood 6 inches from my face yelling, I had a decision to make.  I could meet his intensity with my own or I could take control.  I paused, took a deep breath, and as I motioned with my hands as if pushing air down in front of me, I calmly and quietly said, “Okay,Okay.”  I knew I had to negotiate a way out of the fight that he seemed to want.   My calm demeanor and quiet voice caused him to reset.   He lowered his voice, slowed his movements, and became calm.  I apologized for ignoring the sign, he took my license, ran it through his computer and let me go.

Jordan Davis

Jordan Davis

 

From this incident,  I  gained the words to instruct my sons. I will now tell them you must be the cool head. You must become the negotiator. If you fire back with the same intensity you will burn from the explosion that results. You must shrink, but not cower. You must control but not overpower. Speak calmly, be humble, never step forward,  stay as still as possible,  never move quickly unless told, and stay calm because your life depends on it.

Concentrate on the mission: The mission is to come home to your mother and me.  Understand,  I can’t be the parent at the No-Justice-No-Peace rallies marching with your picture talking about what you were going to be in life. Selfishly, I need you to stay calm and focused and negotiate your path through our front door.

I am fortunate because my sons are small and their skin is light.  A large dark skinned Black young man activates warning signals in the minds of many.   If they were big I would tell them not to raise up to their full height while in this situation.  I would tell them to make themselves small; no puffing of the chest, no flexing of the arms, stay relaxed in this tense situation.  Be humble; be calm, because your life depends on it.

Oscar Grant

Oscar Grant

I shouldn’t have to tell my children to be the mature one in this situation. I shouldn’t have to set up these rules.  I shouldn’t have to…But I do…because their lives depend on it.  This is what I tell them today knowing the next incident will add more rules and more conditions and more “what ifs.” Until then we will talk about Oscar, and Trayvon and Renisha, and Jordan and Michael hoping the list and rules will stop growing.   We will talk about what to do to stay off the list and I pray what I tell them is the right thing and I pray they will never need to use it and I pray if they need it they will remember, and I pray…

and I pray

and I pray

and I…

*Note:  Since I began this,  the list has grown.  John Crawford III was shot and killed in a Dayton, Ohio by two police officers because he was carrying a toy gun in the store.

John Crawford III

John Crawford III

I’m Done!

“We have a hard enough time getting our 4-6 year olds adopted. We don’t have much hope of getting our teenagers adopted.” This was said by a supervisor at a child welfare agency;   an agency who is tasked with finding homes for children…all children.

My ears heard it but my mind was having a hard time translating it. This sad statement was said in a meeting between the agency, myself, and a group of recruiters from the Dave Thomas foundation. I sat with the recruiters and we tried to convince the agency to allow us to help with the recruiting of families for their teenagers who were aging through the foster care system.

This sforktatement was said in the presence of other supervisors and case workers who sat silent nodding in defeated agreement and I was done. I spent the last year working as a recruiter trying to find homes for these wonderful kids but at every turn the agency we were trying to help resisted, and fought, and kicked and screamed, and rejected our assistance. Every meeting, every conversation, every contact with the agency was like entering in to a world where the floor was the ceiling and the ceiling was the floor and everything I thought I knew was contradicted, challenged and shot down.

In this same meeting, I was chastised for presenting to the agency a perspective adoptive mother who was looking to adopt one of their “unadoptable” teens. I had done my job and brought to them a woman who was qualified, had done the requirements, had a valid home study and was willing to begin the conversation of adopting one of the agency’s youth. During the meeting the supervisor asked me what she should do with the home study I had forwarded to her. I didn’t know how to respond.

I wanted to scream, “How ‘bout you do your job and we try to find this child a home?” Why was she asking me how to do her job? Didn’t she know the process?   I simply responded, “ That sounds like an internal process that you and your people will have to address.” I was done and tired from walking on the ceiling.

I spent the last year meeting these great kids and in each one I saw me. In each one I saw what could have been my fate and it hurt. I hurt for them and the guilt I felt weighed on me. I saw amazing children that were camouflaged in hurt who had been “saved” by the system only to be victimized by it. I saw kids who were pushed through a process; a process that took priority over the needs of the kids and I wanted to scream. The Dave Thomas Foundation saw value in these kids and has put together an amazing program to find homes for the children. In the agencies where the Dave Thomas Foundation has been allowed to work success has been found and the results are impressive. Unfortunately, the agency I was working with refused to see what could be done. Instead they would respond saying things like, “We have done it this way for over 30 years….” Again, my mouth dropped open. I can’t think of any other organization who would take pride in the fact that they haven’t changed in 30 years. The organizations that don’t change– fail and this organization has a long history of failure. It has become a relic, a floor model TV with a tube; just something taking up space and I was done.

For a year I was trapped in a system that didn’t see the need for change and trying to get them to change was like trying to change the course of a cruise ship in a back yard pool; it was impossible. My ability to impact lives and exact change was bound and gagged and I struggled mightily to find my place in this upside down system.

The morning of the meeting where I was told teenagers don’t have a chance at adoption, I was offered a job and the opportunity to go back to being an insurance adjuster. This meeting and the frustrations of the past year made my decision easy and after a year in the system I HAD to get out.  I accepted the offer at the insurance company and gave my two week notice.  Over the last year, these are the lessons I’ve learned. .

  1. My strength is not working from with in the system. My joy comes from impacting lives and making change and the system I was in was not built for that and I was not built for it. I have become accustomed to making a difference. In this  blog, or when I speak, or do training I know I am helping someone and that matters to me.
  2. Working with kids in care is not my gift. It was too painful and my skill set is not designed to work with kids. My skill set is to work with adults who are interested in making things better for children. The energy that was drained from me was not healthy. In that year of work I wrote maybe two or three blogs. The triggers that went off for me while working with these great kids dissolved my creative energy and didn’t allow me to do what I am good at and enjoy.
  3. Finding what you’re good at sometimes means finding out what you’re not good at.
  4. The system is broken and I’m not sure how it will get fixed. The group and system that I worked in was like a large boulder that was pushed down a steep hill. No one knew who pushed and no one dared to try and stop it. The momentum behind the boulder is too great for any one person to change its direction. It will take a courageous cultural shift within this organization to redirect its course and the leadership to do that isn’t present at this time.

I choose to walk away because this is not my lane of travel. Many will argue that I gave up and walked away and turned my back on those caught in the system and that is something I struggled with over and over.  Believe me the guilt that is attached to me from walking away is felt with every step. But in the end, I am not much good if I too am bound. I don’t have within me the power to change the system and I had to get out before the evil fog of the system enveloped me and changed me.   My hope is the impact I will make will be in a place where I function best and the best me hopefully will make others better. I look forward to getting back to writing and contributing the best I can.

A Higher Calling

I’ve never been good at asking for money.  My gift is not in fundraising and the thought of asking people to donate money makes me nervous.  But to broaden the scope of the people I can help and touch the fundraising is a necessary evil.  

Initially, when I came up with the idea to create a film about my bio-mom’s decision to have me aborted, I thought I could fund the project myself.  When I sat down and started adding everything up it became very very clear that if I wanted to do this right I was going to have to ask for help.  So I swallowed my pride understanding that to get to the next level, to respond to a calling that won’t let me go I had to ask for help.

Presenting the vision of the film to people is easy.  I tell them the story of my mother approaching her sister to borrow money to have me aborted and right away people are enthralled and captivated by the story.  When I explain my White mother was pregnant with me as a result of an affair with a Black co-worker in the late 60’s in Detroit people are riveted by the drama of the story.  The point when I share that I was born in the wake of the Detroit riots in 1967; a biracial child in the midst of this racial tornado people are stunned.

The story is compelling and the messages that are hidden in it are endless.  So many conversations are embedded in this juicy tabloid-like story.  There is race, their is shame, there is guilt, there is drama, there is life, and there is death.  It is a compiling story that could be the gateway to a higher calling.  It is the reason why the story and this project just won’t go away.  It has been in my mind for two year incubating, growing, and churning.  I’ve tried to put it down, I’ve tried to walk away but it follows me like an haunting shadow.  The good this film could do far outweighs my pride.  So I humbly have to ask for support, and assistance.

Many have remarked at how they could use the film to impact people and right away they brainstorm about the effects the story could have and where it could be used.  But the truth is,  if it is not funded the good that it can do will never be achieved.  The lives we could touch, the conversations we could start go quiet.

If you can help it would be wonderful.  If you are not in a place where you can help would you forward this blog and link to anyone and everyone you know who may be interested in joining this Calling?  Please take the time to view the Kickstarter page and see what great work has already been done in hopes that people will latch on and take the ride with us.

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1670593502/irreversible-short-film

A Cause For Pause

Kevin & Helen

My mother made the decision to have me aborted.

She borrowed the money and she was on her way to an abortion clinic.  She left her home in the suburbs of Detroit to take the 90 minute drive to Flint to have me terminated.

That decision rings in my head and the “what-if” scenarios play on a looped reel.

I found this out  2 years ago and I wondered why she changed her mind.  As I was wondering about my situation I came across this statistic:

 “40% of all abortions occur in the black community.

I then began to wonder about the lives that could have been.  Why is this number so high?  Why didn’t I know it was such a high number?

Because we don’t talk about it.

About this time, someone asked me why those in the black community don’t adopt.  I tried to explain that a lot of kinship adoptions occur without the paperwork so some of those statistics are flawed.   But the rate at which those in the black community adopt isn’t where it should be.  I can’t ignore that fact.

All these thoughts and stats were bumping in to each other in my head and I wondered if there was a way to unite them to create a change.

So I began to wonder; If the abortion rate is disproportionately high and the adoption rate is disproportionately low  there should be a way to encourage and educate from these numbers.  My hope is that there would be a way to use the stats to cancel each other out.

The education and awareness would come in the conversations we don’t have.

So how do we start the conversations?

I am the result of an aborted abortion.

Could I use this story to show others there is another way out?

How could I do that in a powerful way?

What if I created a film that shows my mother, her decision to have an abortion, and her decision not to have an abortion?  If I can keep the film to 3 minutes, then it could become this powerful tool to start the conversations we are not having.  It becomes a tool that I can place in someone’s hands that gives them an alternative.  It becomes a tool I can use not just for the black community but for everyone who may be faced with a tough decision with only one way out.

I hope you will join me in this mission and help me raise the funds to make this mission a reality.  I have designed the project through Kick Starter (click here to see the project) and my hope is you will join me to change lives.  Share this with everyone you know and let’s partner to not only change lives but save some as well.

 

CLICK HERE TO PARTNER WITH ME TO MAKE A CHANGE

Search

In my last blog I spoke of the issues I had with my reunion with my biological family and I received several messages from people asking if there were things that could have been done to help create a better outcome.  Below are 5 ways to help adoptees with the search and reunion and beyond.

1)      Plant the seeds of connection early.  As the children are growing up talk about their biological family in a positive way.  This helps establish a positive emotional connection PRIOR to the reunion.

2)      Prepare them.  Talk about the possible outcomes of the search.  Help them to prepare for all possible outcomes.

3)      Create a map.  Ask your children how they want the relationship to look AFTER the reunion.  Create a plan that coincides with their vision.

4)      Give them space to exhale.  Often the energy involved in the search leaves the adoptee burned out.  Give them space to just sit and be still with the new information they uncover along the way and/or after the reunion.

5)      Give them the wheel & the brake.  Let them know they are in control with the pace of how things develop; they can coast, speed up or stop at any time and that is alright.  Be mindful it is THEIR search.

 

In 2009 I searched for and found my birth-mother.  Unfortunately, she passed away in 2003.  I was 6 years too late to meet the woman who gave me life.  Shortly after finding out who my birth-mother was I found the rest of her family.  It is interesting that “her” family is actually “my” family but I still struggle with applying definitions to this new family even after 5 years.  I vacillate between calling my birthmother, Mom and Helen and neither seems to fit right.  It is small things like that and the relationships after the reunion that no one really gives you guidance as to how to make those work.

There is so much energy that goes in to the search for biological connections; so much anticipation.  It becomes the chase; the hunt, that often drives you forward.   I found my birth-mother after searching for 20 years in October of 2009(view blog about search here).  By the end of 2009 I had met a sister, a brother, a niece, an aunt and uncle and several other relatives that I am not sure how they all fit in to this new family.

Shortly after Christmas that same year, I was exhausted!

People came out of the wood work, messaged me on Facebook, and with each contact I was excited yet more and more exhausted.  They were all excited to find the lost relative that many didn’t even know existed.  I was the buried treasure that came from an affair Helen had with her black co-worker.  This was juicy gossip and many were just curious.  I was curious too but at the time I just didn’t understand the light and curiosity would be all directed to me like a scorching spot light and the result was a tiring and overwhelming experience.

Over the next two years contact would be on and off with the new family.  The last physical contact between me and my biological sister would take place in 2011 shortly after Christmas.  She invited  my family and I  to come visit her at her home in Plymouth, Michigan.  She advised our brother and his daughter would be there as well.  I was excited to see them again and made the short hour trip up north with my wife and two boys.  We knocked on her small apartment door and someone I didn’t know answered.  I asked for my sister and soon she appeared after wading through the apartment that was packed with people.  She welcomed us in and walked us in to her living room.  In the living and spilling over to the kitchen and dining room were relatives I didn’t know.  They were all introduced but their relationship to me didn’t register.  I couldn’t comprehend much because too much was being plugged in to me.  My brain was growing dim and one circuit after another was shutting down.   I sat down in the closest seat hoping to just melt in to the fabric.  My eyes searched the room and began to count the guests in the tiny two bedroom apartment.  When I reached 20 I stopped.

Image

On a small TV in the corner the PBR championships were on.  PBR used to mean Pabst Blue Ribbon but on this day it meant the Profession Bull Riders Championship.  They were watching a rodeo and as a person of color that is not the type of TV that makes one feel comfortable.   My family and I are the only faces of color at the party so blending right in wasn’t an option.  I tried to act unaffected but I was OVERWHELMED and couldn’t wait to leave.  The evening finally ended and I was relieved to get in our small car with my small family.

The weeks that follow, were filled with mixed emotions.  I understood my sister was happy to show off her long lost brother, but no thought was given to how I would feel.  I wasn’t given enough information about the party to make an informed decision as to whether I wanted to be put in that position.  My contact with my sister faded over the next several months and I was okay with this outcome.  Technically we are family but we don’t have a map as to what that is supposed to mean or what that looks like.

Today it’s been at least a year since I talked to my sister or brother.  I exchange messages on Facebook with my brother’s daughter and I enjoy that contact.  The risk of re-starting those relationships scares me and as I get older the risk of opening up to people who could potentially hurt me or reject me is more and more unattractive.  Surrounding myself with people I know and trust is much more comforting.

Overall I am glad I found and met my biological family and I think they are all interesting people.  The difficulty comes in trying to fit them in to my life and them fitting me in to theirs.   Right now the logistics of all that makes my head hurt.  When you add in my growing preference for a smaller group in my circle of contacts it makes the likelihood of continued contact and relationship building very doubtful.

Looking back on the search I realized the romantic idea of the reunion was the pull for me.  Seeing genetic connections, and digging up the lost treasure was what excited me.  The chasing of information and connections becomes like a game and all the twists and turns and dead ends made it more exhilarating.  What I lost sight of was the information did connect to people and navigating those relationships would take work, energy, patience and risk.  I didn’t realize digging up those connections would also dig up and expose my fears about relationships and relationship building.

Image

Although it was not a Normal Rockwell ending the search was necessary for me.  I needed to find those connections and I needed to learn those lessons.  I am thankful for it all even the missteps.  Finding the treasure gave me more peace than the frustration that followed.  This journey is never static and that’s part of the wonderful ride that comes with the admission in to this amusement park called Adoption.

 

Whenever I speak, one of the most common questions I get is “When should be begin the conversation on race with our children of color.”  From that popular question I developed a 6 hour training course that fuses my experiences as a transracial adoptee together with research about race, childhood development, and racial awareness.  It took over two years to get the format and content right so that I would be able to present to families and professionals as a trainer in Ohio.  It was the most frustrating and rewarding experience I have had to date.  In the end I learned so much about how children see race as they develop and that knowledge has been invaluable.  I thought it would be great to share some of what I learned with parents who are raising children of color.  I took pieces of a few studies  I use to show how race awareness develops and then after each stage I give suggestions as to what the talk on race may look like at those stages.

 

Children, Race and Racism: How Race Awareness Develops

By Louise Derman-Sparks, Carol Tanaka Higa, Bill Sparks

Parameter of Study: Two-part study conducted in Southern California during 1978-80.

  In one part, pre-school, day-care and elementary workers recorded children’s comments about racial identity and racism. In the other part, interviews were conducted with 60 parents of children ranging from three to twelve years of age and representing a range of racial and economic groups. (Interviewers were of the same racial or national identity as the persons they interviewed.)

 

Three- to Five-Year-Olds

We found that preschoolers indicate most interest in physical characteristics of themselves and others; their second area of interest is cultural characteristics that are readily observable, such as language and dress.  While young children are excellent observers, their experience of course is limited. When faced with a new experience, children will attempt to explain it in terms of a previous occurrence, even though it may not be applicable from an adult’s perspective. (This approach Piaget describes as “egocentric,” i.e., the child’s explanations make sense from the child’s point of view, but may not be accurate from an adult’s point of view.) It is difficult for them to understand that people who look and act differently are part of the same group.

 It is difficult, if not impossible, to clearly separate the influence of ethnocentric and racist attitudes heard or seen by young children in their contacts with parents, relatives, neighbors, other children, books, TV and movies from their lack of experience and egocentric thinking. It is also highly possible that what starts out as the latter can, with inappropriate handling, quickly become prejudice.

Whatever the source, inaccurate stereotypic and caricatured images and information about racial/cultural groups are particularly harmful at this age. Having not yet fully formed clear concepts of themselves or others, preschoolers are still in the process of learning to determine what is authentic and what is not. Especially when children do not have many opportunities for feedback about their ideas through direct interaction with people different from themselves, caricatured images can form the basis of their thinking.

It is important to realize that children notice race much earlier than most adults think.  Some studies suggest children notice racial differences as early as when the child is 6 months old.  Unfortunately, many adults assume that if we don’t recognize racial differences they remain invisible.  This would be like me refusing to recognize to my sons that girls exist and the denial of their presence will render females transparent.    But as soon as someone utters the words, “she’s a girl,” then and only then will my sons be aware of the female presence.

The studies clearly state children notice differences in pigment levels early.  Between the ages of 3-5 children, children easily notice physical characteristics.  Just as a child notices there are children who weigh more or less than them, they also notice different skin tones.  It is during this period that children digest the world through their eyes and their experiences(egoncentric )  If a child has limited contact with other children that look like them, how do they decipher what being a child of color means.  Visually they see the difference but intellectually how do they define what the difference means.   Unfortunately, TV, movies, and magazines provide the wrong definitions.  Often the children around them that don’t look like them will define what that difference means and rarely is that a positive definition.

which one of these things...

(This is me at 5 years old with friends.  I knew I was different.)

Parents, I implore you to be the ones during this period of development to define for your children what being a child of color means.

When I was young my parents didn’t talk to me about sex.  I depended on the older boys in my neighborhood to define and interpret what sex was and how the female anatomy was constructed.  My definitions come from boys that had no clue as to what they were talking about.  But because they said it with conviction and authority I was convinced they knew it all.  Later I found out THEY HAD NO IDEA WHAT THEY WERE TALKING ABOUT.  Simple anatomy was misplaced, relocated and just plain wrong.  As parents, we need to be the ones who define race for our children and it begins as early as 3 years old if not earlier.

At this early stage confirm  what your children are seeing.  Note the differences in skin tones, and hair.  Reinforce for them that their skin is beautiful.  Reinforce for them that although there are differences in skin tones and hair, their skin and hair is just as good as anyone else’s.  When you are giving them a bath or putting lotion on their skin comment on the differences in skin color.  Make it a natural conversation so the message is sent that race is alright to talk about.  This will help them later in life when race becomes as issue.

Five to Eight Year olds  

This is the period when children’s sense of individual identity evolves into group identity both cognitively and emotionally (Piaget describes thisstage of development as “socio-centric”). Children become conscious ofbeing part of a group different from other groups. They want to know moreabout their own group and have public expressions of their groupness, andthey develop a sense of pride in their identity and identify with well-knownrole models. 

At the same time, in a racist society, five- to eight-year-olds’awareness of racism against their group is heightened. And conversely,personal prejudice can become an integral aspect of a child’s attitudes andbehavior. It is important to note that we do not think it is the crystallizationof group identity per se that is responsible for the development of prejudice,but the fact that it develops in a racist and prejudiced society. A common expression of personal racism at this age is racial name-calling, whichchildren begin to use against others with intent to hurt.

As children grow not only do they notice differences but as they mature they begin to group with those similar to them.  Group favoritism begins to form intellectually but not yet physically.

It takes remarkably little for children to develop in-group preferences. Vittrup’s mentor at the University of Texas, Rebecca Bigler, ran an experiment in three preschool classrooms, where 4- and 5-year-olds were lined up and given T shirts. Half the kids were randomly given blue T shirts, half red. The children wore the shirts for three weeks. During that time, the teachers never mentioned their colors and never grouped the kids by shirt color.

The kids didn’t segregate in their behavior. They played with each other freely at recess. But when asked which color team was better to belong to, or which team might win a race, they chose their own color. They believed they were smarter than the other color. “The Reds never showed hatred for Blues,” Bigler observed. “It was more like, ‘Blues are fine, but not as good as us.’ ”When Reds were asked how many Reds were nice, they’d answer, “All of us.” Asked how many Blues were nice, they’d answer, “Some.” Some of the Blues were mean, and some were dumb—but not the Reds.

Bigler’s experiment seems to show how children will use whatever you give them to create divisions—seeming to confirm that race becomes an issue only if we make it an issue. So why does Bigler think it’s important to talk to children about race as early as the age of 3?

Her reasoning is that kids are developmentally prone to in-group favoritism; they’re going to form these preferences on their own. Children naturally try to categorize everything, and the attribute they rely on is that which is the most clearly visible. ( http://www.newsweek.com/even-babies-discriminate-nurtureshock-excerpt-79233)

During this stage in development, the children cognitively begin to associate those like me are better than those unlike me.  It’s interesting that the children still played freely together but held strong beliefs about those different from them.  An outsider looking in would see the children playing together and inter-mingling and never realize what is happening subconsciously.  It is here too where racial name calling begins.  The first time I was called a nigger was when I was 7 or 8.  The first time my son was called a nigger he was 9.  The study is pretty accurate even in a world where our President is a person of color.  It is at this stage that you begin to reap the rewards of talking about race at 2-3 years old.  Now the children are comfortable talking about race and share with you when the racial slurs begin.  Here is where you continue to tell your children of color that they are just as good.  You provide everyday role models that look like them that they have access to on a regular basis to help create a solid base for the racial identity that is beginning to form.  The conversations continue and racial prejudice and racism are introduced all with the same message.  NO ONE IS BETTER THAN YOU.   If it is during this age that this is the first time you are talking about race, you begin as laid out above.  You continue with honest conversations that may be something like this.  “You know what I’m afraid of as your mom/dad.  I’m afraid that not everyone will see the beauty that we see in your skin and hair.  I’m afraid children will tease you because your skin or hair is different because this could happen.  Do kids your age ever make fun of other kids because they are different?  Do they make fun of the kids who are overweight or have physical challenges?  That isn’t right is it?  They shouldn’t do that because although kids are different no one is better than another.  You and your beautiful chocolate skin are just was good as anyone.  If anyone ever does make fun of you because you’re different I want you to know you can tell me.”

When they do come home and tell you.  Take a deep breath.  Parental instinct will tell you to go medieval on the perpetrator.  DON’T!  Tend to your child now and fight injustice later.  Ask your child how they want it handled.  You going up to the school or to  the other kid’s parents and dropping an Atom bomb may only traumatize your child further.  Remember group membership is important at this stage and you turning over the school may be cause for their membership to be revoked.

Nine to Twelve year olds

Pre-adolescents deepen their understanding of the various factors defining racial/cultural identity.  Children at this age begin to understand historical and geographic aspects of racial identity, as well as the concept of  “ancestry.” Feelings and knowledge centered on cultural values and personal struggle against racism become more complex. A deepening awareness of cultural/political values also occurs.  Children in this age group can achieve what Piaget calls “reciprocity,” i.e., understanding the interaction between individuality and group membership and the concept that we are all simultaneously humans and members of specific sub-groups, meaning that we have both similar and different needs.

 

It is usually during this stage of development that schools assign the family tree assignment as children begin to understand deep concepts of ancestry and history.  These projects are often misguided and can cause a lot of hurt to children who are not from a “traditional family.”  (Here you can read about our experience with the such a misguided  project-Click here).  Talking about ties with biological parents and family at this stage is important as they wrestle with their own ancestry.

Typically during this stage the children begin to separate physically and the playgrounds are much more segregated than in previous years.  Group favoritism becomes even more pronounced.  Yet children also begin to develop the ability to understand that you can be individuals as well as members of groups.  As they mature, children become more and more aware of racism and how it impacts their lives especially children of color.

The talk about race continues and becomes more layered.  Prejudice and racism are explained in more detail.  Matching TV with your children and pointing out stereotypes and racism is a good way to talk about race in a less personal way.  Again, the work you have done with these conversations in the past will make this much easier.  If this is the first time you discuss race with your child the conversation above can still apply with the inclusion of deeper conversations on racism and prejudice.  Enlisting the help of friends who are of color may help.  As always you reinforce the system of institutional racism is broken NOT your child.

The study on race awareness and development only studied children up to twelve years old.  I have included an additional piece that includes how race impacts teenagers, especially teenage boys.

Teenage years

Based on their fieldwork in U.S. high schools, Fordham and Ogbu indentified a common psychological pattern found amount African American high school students at this stage of identity development.  They observed that the anger and resentment that adolescents feel in response to their growing awareness of systemic exclusion of Black people from full participation in U. S. Society leads to the development of an oppositional social identity.  This oppositional stance both protects one’s identity from the psychological assault of racism and keeps the dominant group at a distance.

                Sometimes the emergence of oppositional identity can be quite dramatic, as the young person tries on a new persona almost overnight….We need to understand that in racially mixed settings, racial grouping is a developmental process in response to an environmental stressor, racism.  Joining with one’s peers for support in the face of stress is a positive coping strategy.  What is problematic is that the young people are operating with a very limited definition of what it means to be black, base largely on cultural stereotypes.–-Dr. Beverly Tatum-”Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together In The Cafeteria?”

During the teenage years I can remember when the weight of racism and oppression hit me.  I understood this was a battle I could not defeat on my own.  With that realization came anger and my oppositional identity showed up complete with fireworks.  It is here where I became everything I thought black was not realizing I had become the stereotypes I was raging against.  Peace came to me from other black children who intimately understood what we were up against.  Here is where children of color need a place to exhale and share what they are feeling.  If the conversations have been set up correctly some children will feel comfortable sharing with their parents what they are feeling.  But some teenagers may not.  Enlist the help of people of color around you who can share with them their experiences and provide them a place to exhale.  This period of development may be a struggle from some transracial families because the anger and frustration may appear to be directed towards the family.  BREATHE.  Their anger is more about the system of racism than about their colorful family.  They still are able to distinguish individuals from groups  Carefully, create a way for them to express themselves and their frustration.  If this is the first time race is discussed again share with them your fears and clearly let them know home is a safe place to talk about the complexities of race.

The assumption of this piece has been that you all have contact with and regular interaction with people of color.  I know for a lot of you this isn’t true.  My prayer is that in 2014 you will proactively find ways to give your children access to people who look like them on a regular basis.  The contact I had with people who looked like me growing up built a solid foundation on which I erected by racial identity.  It helped my caramel skin fit better.

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