Racial Re-parenting

We sat in Fort Greene park, Brooklyn, in a circle on blue blankets while around us children cried out for their parents. Daddy, watch me do a cartwheel, watch, Daddy watch. I marveled at the interracial shangra-la, as black dads and white dads threw and kicked balls for black children and white children playing together. A black woman gently cupped her Asian partner’s swollen belly. On my blanket, a debate had broken out about gender and racial equality.

The white woman opposite me spoke with authority. “Social movements should put values first,” she said. “Not identities.”

I jumped in, fumbling but passionate: “But there is tension there. Yes, true, lots of us say we are about values like rights and access and dignity. But, but… I can’t, for example, presume to know everyone’s particular racial experience, or, like, you know…. I am not trans, so I don’t know that experience. People need space to talk about their particular suffering.”  With firmness, the white woman corrected me for the end of days “No, it shouldn’t be about identities. Besides, you are assuming that everyone who is trans- suffers, or everyone who is black suffers. You can’t assume that.”

The conversation moved on briskly and that dog-kicked feeling came up inside me, the one that signals warning, something is bad, stay away. You could get hurt. Observe. Then, I felt a small hand touch my back. As its warmth spread I suddenly realized  I had been rocking back and forth on the blue blanket, knees up to my chest and arms wrapped around my knees. The small hand– Dee’s hand– steadied me. I stopped rocking. One of only a few black women in our meditation group, I had begun to turn to her regularly, drawn to her guidance around spiritual principles. She looked at me calmly and in the lowest of low voices– and with a smile on her face to mask our conversation for prying eyes– she began her teaching without segue:

You have deep resources inside you. She touched her chest and nodded, smiling, as if to make sure that I understood. It doesn’t matter if the outside world values you– do you understand? You have deep resources inside you. Mine your resources. When you mine them, then you see when others are in ego and you have no ambition to interact with ego. And then you don’t give any fucks at all. Give no fucks and mine your resources. Do you hear me?

I nodded, only partially understanding, knowing that I would turn her words over and over again in my mind, holding them up like jewels to the light to understand their cut and shape. Already a grown-ass woman, I had not been raised right. Raised up. So, I was being racially re-parented.

Let me explain.

I am a woman of mixed-race descent. My African-American father from NYC and White mother from Iowa met in an ice cream line in the Haight in the late 70s San Francisco. After he left, when I was still young, and after every trace of him had been wiped clean, my white mother remarried a white man and had four more white children. She didn’t tell me I was mixed race, or black, because– as she later explained it, she didn’t know what to say about it. I knew I looked… different. But there were no pictures to prove anything and I didn’t want to question too deeply. Delusion, as Dee says, is the mind protecting the heart from what the heart can’t yet bear.

When I was 17, I was standing in line at a soda machine and a black man walked up to me and asked me if I was black. Sometimes I wonder if he was my father, father -spirit with oracle words, rebirthing a new world for me of hope and harm.

When I met Dee, some twenty years later, I was having a moment: my career, my romantic life, and my sense of self all sewn up like a bird’s nest in a high, high tree fragile, exposed to big gusty wind. I sat next to her at a meditation meeting and she squinted at me and chuckled as if she got something that I would never understand about myself. “How are you?” she said. “Um, not. Not ok,” I answered. “It takes a lot for someone like you to admit that,” she said, as if she spied the heavy, broad sword I lug around inside my heart and was bored already. She began her teachings shortly after that.

Between 2000 and 2010, the number of white and black biracial Americans more than doubled, yet, the Pew Research Center reports that multiracial adults with black backgrounds have “a set of experiences, attitudes and social interactions that are much more closely aligned with the black community” (June 11, 2015).  Meaning, mixed-race black folks have just enough of that “one drop” to experience racial-micro-aggressions and possibly few to no tools to deal with them. Here is the thing about being a mixed-race child in a white family, raise to believe that race is irrelevant. (Or, I imagine, a mixed-race child at all.) White people, I assert, cannot teach black or mixed children how to grow up in a racist United States.

When I looked around me at the interracial shangra-la that day, I noticed many black children had white parents. Whether through interracial marriage or transracial adoptions, our society has growing numbers of mixed-race families. There is much there to celebrate. But, I wonder–how will black children in white families learn resistance strategies important in an era of black boys shot in the streets/Ferguson, on the one hand, but “designer” Angelina Jolie/Brad Pitt-like family “diversity” on the other? Who will teach these children to mine their own resources?

My white mother, who I love deeply and honor, taught me values. She taught me about love, and kindness, and dignity. But, my white mother couldn’t give me an arsenal of responses to racial micro-aggressions. She couldn’t teach me how to “yes ma’am” them and respond on the page. My white mother doesn’t know how to smile and talk low low so I can stop rocking on blue blankets. White parents do not know how to teach us to breath through the bile that rises in our throats even as children dance all around, black and white, multiracial mirages that obscure the harms our racist world tantalizingly promises it will change only– to cut down its own.

Racial re-parenting. On the corner of 38th and 6th avenue, Dee taught me as the hot peanuts man peddled his wares: “I told my white roommates I wanted another woman of color in the house. They got a white woman in without telling me, and when I insisted on meeting her argued with me and shut me out entirely of the decision,” I ached. Dee nodded: “This house is not your battleground, those girls are not woke. Are they awake? Tell me, are they?” she demanded. And then, “No. They choose another white woman because you drew a line in the sand. It is in the zeitgeist, they don’t even know what they are doing. They cannot understand the trauma that is in your ancestral lineage. Smile and nod at them and give them whatever they want. Yes ma’am them. Your students are your work. Your battle is on the page. You concentrate on your students and your writing.”

And.

“DEE! I wove something!” Excitedly, I shared a picture of the green, grey and gold tapestry I had made on a Japanese loom the day before. “I love it, I can’t believe it came out of me! I didn’t know I could make something so beautiful.” She smiled, eyes gleaming closed, producing one-half sigh and a word.

“Resistance,” Dee breathed.

 

 

 

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