I am not unique. There are other white women who are mothers of Black children. Some are adopted, as are mine, others are biological. What we share is that we have an obligation, one that often goes unrecognized and unfulfilled.
We, just like Black women, must prepare our children for the experience of being a person of color in a white man’s world. Recognizing that there is an undeniable, pervasive, institutionalized perception that Black people’s lives are not as valuable has to be the first step in addressing the unique needs of raising children who are not white. To ignore it, to suggest that the best approach is to raise them among white people, so they know how to “blend-in” or to falsely suggest that economic privilege levels the playing field is to profoundly fail as a parent on a fundamental level.
Racist incidents happen all the time in all kinds of situations. As a parent you might think that you can teach your kids how to avoid these incidents but the experience of being white makes it hard to comprehend that unprovoked random acts of racism exist. Black parents know that at any time, even if they are just sitting in Starbucks, walking along the street, having a barbecue or playing in a pool, a white person can put them or their kids in danger by calling the cops.
Twelve-year-old Tamir Rice was murdered by cops because he was playing alone with a toy gun that police thought was real. Within seconds of getting out of their car, police fatally wounded Tamir. Seconds. Police did not take the time to assess the situation. They brutally executed a little boy. For white parents not to get how different it is to be Black in America and not to take the necessary steps to educate oneself as to the unending racism, is to put your child at risk.
When unconscious bias and subtle racism go unnoticed and unchallenged by white parents it can be devastating to their children. Black parents are more apt to know it, get it and work to provide a base of love and self-worth to counter the ugliness they know their children will face. White mothers – parents, often don’t hear it, they don’t understand it and are thus complicit when they let family members speak and act in ways that reinforce racist tropes.
Racism is insidious. It is a built-in feature of our society, and its impact is felt by children at a very young age. The Doll Study, originally done in the 1940’s and recreated many times since, demonstrated that Black children, as young as five years of age, already knew that their white counterparts were considered “good,” and they were “bad.” It is a lesson that provides a profound example of what a parent to a Black child is up against.
The job of every parent is to give their child the tools and experience they need to navigate the world as they grow up. Most parents will admit that the challenge of being a parent is one of the most important, albeit most difficult things they will do in their lives. And most white parents of bi-racial or Black children will acknowledge that there are additional considerations when parenting a child of a different race. Too many don’t understand what that really means.
To think that being politically active and aware is enough, is naïve. Children who come from different cultures, and backgrounds need to be exposed and educated as to their history. It is never about fitting-in; it is about honoring all that it means to be Black in this nation. They need to know that Black people literally built this country. They need to know the accomplishments of Black men and women. They need to be proud of who they are and what they look like. All of this is part of being a mother to a Black child.
When my husband, who is Black, and I moved from New York City to Westchester, we did so because we wanted our daughters to have a great public-school education. Unable to find a house that we could afford in a town that was considered diverse, we settled for a fixer-upper in a predominately white town. We did so knowing that we were going to have to make sure that our girls’ experiences included having Black friends and spending lots of time with family, so they could interact with others who understand their world, who share the fears, feelings and joy of being a person of color.
As aware as I am, and as woke as I like to think I am, I know that my white privilege shields me from a deeper understanding of what it feels like to be Black in America. As the reality of racism slowly seeps in, and as I start to see them beginning to acknowledge that they recognize life isn’t fair, part of me rages. I can only imagine what a Black mother feels.
My rage isn’t remotely enough, honestly it isn’t anything. What is meaningful is when I take every opportunity to stand up to racist behavior or comments, no matter who is talking and no matter what the consequence is to me. As a white woman who thinks herself an ally, I have a duty to be vigilant every day. My husband and I talk about it. He shares his fears about confrontation and his resolution to be part of change. I do the same. We both owe them that. But I, more than he.
As a white woman, married to a Black man, with two Black daughters, I have an obligation to take a stand, even when it gets scary, even when there may be fallout. I recognize that it is in this action that I will get the closest I ever will, to know what it feels like to be Black in America.
Black women have endured and raised children in an environment white women can’t imagine. Most do not understand what it means to watch your child walk out the door and pray that they make it home. We don’t know what it is like to have to sit down and have the conversation about how to handle oneself in an encounter with the police. However, we must be willing to find out and understand the challenges our children will face. This isn’t a social experiment that one embraces to make oneself feel good. It is a lifetime commitment requiring fierce self-awareness and courage to stand in the face of an unrelenting racist society.
Our children need to know their value; they need a mother who is going to defend them, love them, honor them and educate them in a way that doesn’t deny their blackness, but embraces it and celebrates it. A mother who will work and fight to make sure that she is part of the solution.
Janet Harrison is a writer and editor. Most recently Janet was CEO and founder of GarnetNews.com. Prior to that, she worked as an independent producer/consultant in the arts and entertainment industry for over 25 years. She has a passion for creating opportunities to tell stories that too often go untold.