Published on July 9th, 2019 | by Hayley DeRoche0
The Importance of Being Uncomfortable, or, What I Did When my Daughter Started Introducing Herself in Public by Saying, “Hi, I’m white and we have a Black baby!”
“Hi, I’m white and we have a Black baby!”
This is what my four-year-old daughter greets people with. In the grocery store. In Target. At Diversity Thrift, the local hotbed of Wokeness and used couches. She says it everywhere! She has taken on the mantle of Captain Fuckin Obvious and it is exactly as comfortable for all the people involved in the exchange as you can imagine!
Of course, I would like my daughter very much to be aware of race. She is white, she should know what this means in terms of privilege and power. “The Transracially Adopted Children’s Bill of Rights,” by adoptee Liza Steinberg Trigges includes this rule: “Every child is entitled to parents who know that if they are white, they experience the benefits for racism because the country’s system is organized that way.”
I like to extend that beyond parents to siblings/foster siblings, and I recommend that we start now. But this foster sibling (my daughter) is four. Which means her astute, layered understanding of race, of what it means that the baby in our care is Black and we are white–all that history is a biiiiit out of her reach. Not that we don’t put things in simple terms; we do. (“Mama is going to a march because there are people who believe that people who are not white are not good, valuable people, and these people want to hurt others. So Mama is going to walk to tell them that they are wrong.”) Buuuuut she is four, and our simplified-age-appropriate thought-out responses to her questions is usually a barked, “What.” Like, period-dot, not even a question mark. “WAT.”
I tried the approach we use for words like “goddammit” (the rule being, you can say that in our house if you stub your toe, but you cannot say it at grandma’s house; there are appropriate and inappropriate times for everything) but race. Race. Race is everywhere, it never leaves us, it impacts every ounce of privilege we white family members have, and I can’t think of a time when I don’t want my daughter to be aware of race. The trouble of course is that for a four-year-old, being “aware” means talking about it to everyone. And that’s not an awareness I want to squelch.
And so I turned to a dear friend who suggested I be as matter-of-fact about her interest in this whole affair as possible. And thank goodness she gave me this thing to say to slip into my back pocket, because there was one particularly awkward incident where it was the exact thing I needed to have without having to think about it.
“Winnie is very interested in race right now.”
I’m going to turn into a broken record with it at this rate. Yes, hello, hi, we’re here to buy a croissant, yes, oh, Winnie dear, don’t go running up to people mid-bite. Yes, thank you for our library books, yes, Winnie is very interested in race right now. Yep, Winnie is very interested in race right now. Winnie is very interested in race right now, just over and over and over again. Or yes hello hello, Winnie is very interested in race and Kroger stickers right now.
At first, I had to ask myself why this obvious thing was so hard. But then I realized: It is uncomfortable because this is simply not the way we are taught to speak about race: forthright, out-loud, before anything else. But being a family that doesn’t match means we are out-loud and it’s what people see before anything else when we’re at Kroger, getting the croissant, or prying the preschooler away from the train table at Barnes & Noble. Even if none of us say a word about race, it’s impossible not to be picked out of a crowd because of it.
Sometimes this is welcome; the silent nod I exchange here and there with another mixed-race-family mama at Target buoys me and I float along happy in being seen for the rest of the day. The FRIEND OF COAL T-shirt guy at the post office who cracks, “Where’d he come from?” or the woman who says — perhaps thinking she’s being cheeky? — “Are they REALLY both yours?” and when I nodded and said simply, “Yep, they’re both with me,” pressed and said, “Not the same daddy though!”
Talk about uncomfortable.
But. Here’s the thing. If anyone’s going to be uncomfortable, I’d sure as hell prefer for it to be me.
“What I’d ask parents is, are you willing to be the uncomfortable one?” Goller-Sojourner says. This is how he’d question a prospective parent if he were a social worker. “Because somebody’s gonna be uncomfortable, and it seems the burden is on you. You have to be the uncomfortable one.”
He means that if white parents of Black children, for instance, don’t live in Black neighborhoods, join Black churches, have Black friends, and send their children to significantly mixed-race schools, then at least they should cross the thresholds into Black barbershops even though it’s awkward, or drive out of their way to shop at grocery stores in Black neighborhoods.
Thank goodness for people’s patience with children who are learning what it means to be who they are, who their foster sibling is, who we are all in relation to each other, what this means for different people. The weight of layers will emerge in time. There are so many things I’m learning through books and blogs and Black Twitter that I didn’t know I didn’t know. And I am getting better at forging through my own discomfort in order to do the work that needs to be done. The first time I sang “Happy Birthday To Ya,” my voice warbled. It was a song I hadn’t sung before.
It warbles less now. I am stronger. I am learning. And I am giving my daughter the space to learn and process and grow, too. So in a way, I’m thankful for my daughter’s admittedly non-socially-normal way of talking so openly about race immunized me to talking about it frankly myself. I’ll continue talking to my children openly about race, and bracing myself for the awkwardness as she takes this knowledge and sits with it (and runs up to people excitedly with it). Thank goodness for people’s patience with her.
Hell, forget the four-year-old, thank goodness for people’s patience with me. Winnie and I, we’re both figuring this all out, one step at a time.
It’s nearly summer now, and it’s been months since my daughter first started on her “we’re white!” introductions. Spoiler, we’re still white, we now have a white almost-kindergartener and a Black toddler. And we’re learning, and loving, and living, and sticking out in crowds and singing Moana in the car and slurping popsicles in summer and learning “Happy Birthday To Ya” and acknowledging our privilege and working to grow our community and marveling at what a big boy he is and finding the right barber who he’ll sit still for and doing laundry, forever doing laundry, and she still sometimes tells people we’re white and he’s Black, and we still sometimes have to say, cheerfully, “Winnie’s very interested in race right now,” and that’s okay, because I wouldn’t want anything less. I am, too.