Our Stories Make America Truly Great

 

If you voted for Donald Trump, we have our differences. I did not support your candidate; you did not support mine. But I do not hate you. I cannot hate you, because I don’t know your story. I’d be lying if I denied I was judging you, but my judgment is rooted in my own life’s narrative.

By the same token, if you judge me by my gender, by my speech—unmistakably Northeastern, liberal, educated—or by the brown of my skin, your judgment comes from within you. Any assumptions you make about me stem from the fact that you do not know my story, the story of my parents, the stories of my grandparents, any better than I know yours.

As a psychotherapist, as a writer, as a parent, I believe stories are the most important element of the human condition. We each come with our own and that is the magic of being human. Sharing our stories—trusting one another, listening with our whole hearts—this is also the key to reconciliation.

An acquaintance of my mother’s, who—like my mother herself—is white and Jewish, had a childhood marked by loss, struggle and misery. She and her sisters lost their parents early and grew up in an orphanage. Through enormous sacrifice, work, as well as the grace of strangers, neighbors and government programs, she and her sisters were able to get their education, including advanced degrees, find meaningful work, and in her case, a marriage that lifted her out of the middle class into affluence. Now in her late seventies, this woman owns her own Manhattan apartment, loaded with beloved books—stories, which include her own European and American history.

Several years ago, my mother shared with this woman a story—just one—about my father, whom she had already outlived.

Dad was an artist from early childhood. As a high school student, unable to make his mark as an athlete, as the other four black students in his otherwise white high school had done, my father gained fame among his peers as chief cartoonist for the school newspaper. He went on to receive an MFA from the Chicago Art Institute, studied at the Brooklyn Museum Art School and ultimately, was offered a job at a large, “Mad Men” style advertising agency in Manhattan. The date was 1964—smack in the middle of the famed television show’s timeline.

As I said, my father was offered a job at this agency. Dad was highly qualified in terms of education, experience and talent. He was also stylish, a trend-setter, who would probably have fit in well with Roger Sterling, Don Draper and their set. He was offered the job on a Wednesday, to start the following Monday.

There was a problem, however. The CEO—the big cheese, the head honcho—of this firm had been away on a business trip while the offer was being made. The subordinates had, of course, discussed my father’s candidacy with their boss over the phone, gone over Dad’s resume, raved about his qualities and exacted the director’s enthusiastic OK before offering Dad the job. The only thing they neglected to share with their boss was my father’s race. That was a detail the subordinates knew would be disqualifying, so they figured they wouldn’t mention it until Monday, when my father shook the hand of his new boss, who was, they thought, too much of a gentleman to reject him face to face. My father’s work would then speak for himself.

If you ever watched Mad Men, as I did religiously, you will remember the premiere episode of season five, where Sterling Cooper—an exclusively white agency—put out a mock ad seeking to hire blacks. While the waiting room filled with people of color, partners Roger, Don and Burt cowered inside, trying to figure out how they were going to get around this hurdle, without compromising the Old-Boy-scotch-at-ten am-sex-with-a-secretary-at-three  culture of theirs. In the end, they hired a single African American woman, Dawn, who became Don’s secretary.

And what of my father and his shot at Mad-manhood? Someone—no one knows who—squealed. Whoever it was got a message to the CEO in the lounge where he was schmoozing potential clients.

So, boss. The cracker-jack new art director you can’t wait to meet on Monday? He’s a negro.

Which, no doubt, led to the CEO sputtering on his martini, spitting the olive clear across the room.

A what?

You heard right.

That Friday evening, my father received the call. He would not be integrating the ranks of the agency after all. The man they hired, though he lacked my father’s experience and credentials, possessed one qualification my father could never aspire to. Can you guess what that was?

The epilogue to the story is bittersweet. Shortly after losing this opportunity, my father was snapped up as art director for a major publishing house. It was a wonderful fit for him, a job that introduced him to authors such as Saul Bellow, Nadine Gordimer and even Don Freeman (best known for Corduroy). His first assignment was designing the cover for Bellow’s bestseller, Herzog. My father worked at the publishing house for most of my childhood. He resigned in the 1980’s when I was entering college, due to his failing eyesight.

Dad was replaced by a younger man who was his friend and mentee, though nowhere near as qualified. Dad vouched for this man—who was white, by the way—and trained him in the practical work as well as advising him on publishing house etiquette.  Soon after relinquishing his position, my father learned that the young man’s salary would be on par with other executives at the publishing house: four times what my father had been paid.

When I learned about this, I was already an adult and it shocked me. My father had asked for raises every year, but was denied point blank. The publishing house knew Dad wouldn’t leave. Even if he could find another house to hire him, that one wouldn’t pay him any more. My dad was highly skilled, cheap labor.

When my mother told this story to her then-friend, the woman grew indignant, but not in defense of my father.

“Why didn’t he stand up for himself?” she demanded. Her personal story had taught her that no failure was insurmountable as long as one applied sufficient elbow grease. The moral she took from my mother’s tale was that my father had been weak or lazy.

What this woman failed to understand, or did not care to learn, was the story of being black in twentieth-century America. When my mother told me about this interaction, I thought about the woman’s ‘up-by-the-bootstraps’ story and the glow it cast on my father.

If I could have spoken to this woman, heard her tale first-hand, here’s how I would have responded to her:

“Try that life again—the parental loss, the orphanage, the cruel streets, the poverty—all of it. Try it again, only this time, do it while black.”

She probably wouldn’t have agreed with me that the outcome would have been different, but the discussion might have given her pause. Maybe she would have considered that going through life with black skin is quite different from ‘living while white.’ But the woman’s judgment came from her story. With all the pain she’d grown up with, she couldn’t conceive of a life harder than her own. What she lacked was curiosity about other worldviews.

One of my main criticisms of the Donald Trump Campaign was the rationale behind his slogan, Make America Great Again. Who was it great for? And when was this “great” time to which we want to return? The Jim-Crow era? The 1940’s? The era of Japanese American Internment Camps?  The late 30’s? When America turned away 900 asylum-seeking Jews aboard the SS St. Louis? I could list countless stages in our country’s past when things were less than great for many.

Trump supporters talk about opportunities that were once readily available in exchange for hard work and determination.  ‘If you applied yourself in the good old days,’ that story goes, ‘you could get ahead.’ What I question—and I am far from alone in this is—is the identity of the “you” in that statement. My father worked hard, was determined and applied himself. But blackness was a huge barrier to his success. The truth is, during the Good Old Days you could count on whiteness—the state of not being non-white—as a leg up, a handout. On the other hand, if ‘you’ were not white, you were out of luck. Pull all you like, your bootstraps would not cut the mustard.

Let’s not forget the role unions once played. Unions protected their members, increased job security and insured a living wage. Yet historically blacks were—and in some cases still are—excluded from unions.

Some things have changed in our nation. For better or for worse, the class you were born into limits your opportunities as much, in some cases more than your race. Race no longer corresponds directly to class, though frequently it does.

In any case, our multiple experiences, our pluralistic narratives—these are what will make America truly great for all of us. A first step is to listen to one another, to be eternally curious, and to challenge ourselves to exchange judgment for understanding wherever we can.

At this critical juncture in American History, we need nothing so much as an appreciation of one another’s full American stories.

lunch-counter

 

Aboard the USS Pampanito: A Story for Veteran’s Day

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Stories are what make us human. Our personal stories make us unique. And, during this time of discord and resentment, I believe that curiosity about one another’s stories can heal us.

On Veterans’ Day, we look to the past—recent and distant—honoring those who have fought, bled and died for our country. We celebrate their stories—some of which we know by heart and some we can only imagine—because they are part of our national identity.

Here is a story about a story: my encounter with a man, a World War II Naval Veteran, whom I’ve been meaning to write about for some time. I don’t know this man’s name, though I wish I did. I should, given what he and his crewmates did for our country and its allies.

I met him while I was vacationing in San Francisco with my husband and children a year and a half ago, visiting the USS Pampanito (SS-383).  A World War II Balao class Fleet submarine, the Pampanito is now an experiential life museum and memorial, docked at Fisherman’s Wharf. As you walk up the gangplank, there’s a sign that says something to the effect of:

80 men, 1 shower, 600 feet beneath the sea.

Beside this is a photograph of the crew circa 1944, all smiling and bearded.

I descended by ladder into a past far removed from anything I’ve experienced. Inside the Forward Torpedo Room, full of bolts, switches, dials, torpedo tubes and a handful of bunks, I tried to imagine this room full of sailors focused on their mission, far from home, hundreds of feet below the surface. My husband and kids were heading for the next room, so I followed through a narrow, circular opening into the Forward Battery Compartment, where mild claustrophobia set in.

There is a reason the spaces on a submarine are called compartments rather than rooms. Conditions were cramped to say the least. I felt it and I am a small woman. The eighty men must have had constant neck cricks from crouching and ducking. They must have known one another by smell, had no secrets whatsoever.

The Mess and Galley compartment was a bit more spacious, with four booths and a radio playing ballads from the early forties. Sitting at a table beside a framed photograph of Betty Grable, was a man, a veteran sailor. Eighty-something, I’d guess. Sparse, white hair, round, wire-rimmed glasses, deep smile lines around his eyes and mouth. From the badges on his uniform, I knew immediately that he was one of the few surviving members of the crew.  He sat, listening to the music, nodding slightly, glancing up now and then as people passed by en route to the After-Battery Compartment. Other tourists, my family included, seemed too fascinated by the well-preserved machinery and living conditions to pay him much attention. But I wanted his story.

“How were you able to do this?” I blurted, startling him. “There were eighty of you in these tiny little compartments!”

“Sometimes more than eighty,” he said, and shared the story about rescuing seventy-three British and Australian POW’s who had survived the sinking of a Japanese ship. On that mission, the sub was filled to almost twice capacity.

I wanted to know if he’d been scared of being on a submarine. I wasn’t even thinking of the enemy, of the bombs–only the pressure, the close quarters, the implications of being surrounded by seawater.

“Did you ever find yourself thinking about all that water?” I asked. “How far you were from the surface?”

“Never gave it a thought.” He told me how each crew member had been selected, how they were tested in comparable conditions—even in isolation tanks—to make sure no one had the potential to panic under the stress. I asked more questions and learned more from him than I would from any guided tour.

I nodded at the photograph of Betty Grable, in her famous over-the-shoulder pose.

“We always had a pin-up on board,” he said with a sideways grin.

I smiled at that, though on some level maybe I should have found it sexist or objectifying of women. I didn’t though. I knew that Betty Grable and other glamorous movie stars helped guys like him get through their grueling missions. The days with no sun or moon. Betty and girls like her were pieces of their hearts, their homes. She made them feel human when nothing else did. She was part of their story.

Now, I cannot romanticize entirely. I have no doubt that there were other stories aboard the Pampanito, stories of crewmen who might have chosen Clark Gable over Betty Grable, who had to keep their true longings, their true selves locked up for fear of abuse. Nor was it lost on me that, in the photograph of the crew, I saw not a single sailor of color. (There were integrated submarine crews during WW II, however, including the mostly-black manned USS PC-1264.) But I was there to see this surviving vessel of the Second World War. I was there to appreciate this veteran’s story for its own sake.

Before moving on, I thanked the man for speaking with me and for his service to the country.

To my surprise, he thanked me. “Most people don’t stop to talk. A lot of them don’t know why I’m sitting here.”

To me, the most valuable treasures on board were this man and his stories. I feel so lucky to have met him, because a year later, I went back and he wasn’t there. I hoped it was his day off.

betty-grable

Wishing you and your loved ones a peaceful Veteran’s day.

 

Internalized Homophobia Wreaked Doom at Pulse

rainbow dance

As a psychotherapist, part of my job is being open to the inner worlds of people who may be different from me, culturally, ideologically, religiously, racially, in orientation and in gender identity. I am trained to be curious and non-judgmental, to make people of all descriptions feel safe and accepted. When people are hostile and negative, I am trained to look to their pasts for explanations: trauma, loss, abandonment. My training tells me that every person is a living story, searching for an outcome to ease their deepest emotional wounds.

That said, I believe Omar Mateen was a monster. The kind of monster whose hatred-of-self led to the destruction of a free and joyous group of people whose joy and freedom was hard earned and long-overdue.

I am furious at him for robbing these young people of their futures, robbing their families of them. I know I would be incapable of treating him in my therapy practice. Nevertheless while families, friends and the nation mourn the forty-nine young, vibrant lives he took Sunday morning, I am trying to look at Mateen through the lens of my profession.

He was mentally ill, according to some of the reports I’m reading. Bipolar, violent toward his wife. Radicalized. A word I take exception to because of its passive tense, as if radicalization were something done to him. No, he was a radical, not radicalized. His homophobia knew no bounds, as is so often the case with the closeted.

I am familiar with this kind of inwardly-born, outwardly-directed homophobia. I once saw a young couple who were planning a family and were concerned about how their different beliefs would play out when it came to parenting. The woman was a Christian, she said. Her husband, though he was skilled at quoting the bible, had declared himself atheist.

When I met with the man alone, as I do with each member of a new couple I am seeing, he began unprompted, by condemning gays. Nothing about homosexuality had come up in the couple’s session, so my ears were pricked for relevance. Gays were sick, he told me. They needed to be corrected, not tolerated. America, he went on, was a weak country because it was accepting of homosexuality. He said that there were no gays in countries that condemned it, providing several African countries as examples. When I asked what connection the subject had to his marriage, he brushed me off, continuing his tirade. As I listened to this rubbish (the word in my mind at the time was considerably stronger), I couldn’t do my usual active listening, where I focus on the client’s every word, nodding, asking validating questions. Instead, I sat frozen, as his condemnation grew increasingly dark and hateful. If I had been seeing him longer, I might have asked him gently, what was so personal to him about homosexuality (I could guess). Why it was so important to him that I knew his feelings about it?

But I didn’t know him well enough as a client to probe or challenge what I strongly suspected was fueled by shame. Nor did I have it in me to engage this guy without getting political and possibly argumentative. He was six-four, with shoulders nearly the width of my loveseat. Confrontation would not do. Besides, he was a client, in my office for support. When the hour was up, I let him go, confident I would not see him again. His wife came a few more times on her own, sessions in which she expressed her worries about the late nights her husband often kept.

I think of that couple sometimes, wonder whether or not they stayed together, if they ever had children. I hope with all my heart not. The possibility of that man parenting an LGBTQ child is unthinkable.

He was not a killer. (Based on the admittedly flawed assessments I did for homicidal and suicidal ideation.) But if my hypothesis was correct, his hatred of gays was rooted in his inability to accept his own complex—or not so complex—sexuality.

This is not an uncommon theme at all. Look at recent American History. The most outrageously LGBTQ-hostile politicians—Randy Boehning, George Rekers and Roberto Arango to name a few—and clergy—Tedd Haggard and countless others—either came out as gay, were outed, or else were at the center of sex scandals involving young men.

Similar implications about Omar Mateen are dribbling out in the news. He may have been using a gay dating app; he had been a patron of Pulse long before the murders. His widely professed animosity toward the LGBTQ community amounted to protesting way too much.

It has been suggested that one reason so many sex offenders have been drawn to the priesthood—where all sex is prohibited—is the wish to silence their own urges. Similarly, Omar Mateen may have found in radical Islam—the part that condemns homosexuality—a balm for his own self-loathing.

Mateen was a Muslim, but from some reports, not a terribly devout one. I believe his homophobia had little to do with the Qu’ ran, and more to do with his inability to accept his own sexuality. He could not tolerate the mirror that the Pulse’s vibrant clientele held up before him. Nor could he stay away.

Mateen could not see beyond his own image to take in the beauty alive in Pulse that night. Instead, raging on internalized homophobia, he sought to destroy it. He failed though. In our memories of and tributes to the victims, hope and promise live on.

pulse memorial

Published on Mamalode!

I am honored to say I’ve been published on Mamalode, the top-rated online magazine dedicated to the stories of mothers. My article is a slightly updated version of a post that appeared several years ago on this blog.

The Bittersweet Healing Power Of Raising A Daughter Who Looks Like Me

The Bittersweet Healing Power Of Raising A Daughter Who Looks Like Me

When I arrived at Parents’ Night and met Zoe’s middle school teachers for the first time, they all said, “Well, we can guess whose mother you are!”

The truth is, our faces don’t look all that much alike; her features are more Eastern European whereas mine are more African. But our skin color and hair textures are closely matched, and that is what strangers pick up on most often. Besides, our posture and builds are similar, as are our facial expressions and the shape of our foreheads and chins. In a bad, blurry profile shot, if you took a hurried look, you might mistake one of us for the other. In any case, people easily and readily place Zoe and me together. Unlike most mothers with daughters who resemble them, I don’t take this for granted.

Read More …

 

 

Mother’s Day Postscript: Four Tweaks to help you Enjoy Your Teenage Daughter

zoe baby (19)

With my daughter in Brooklyn, some years back

Close your eyes and picture that sweet, little bundle of a girl you had twelve, thirteen, fifteen years ago—that tiny little thing you used to hold, oh, so close and hug and kiss a million times a day and she—not only let you—she soaked it up. When Mommy was a compliment, not an accusation. When you, and not a rectangular piece of metal, were first to learn her secrets and won the best of her smiles.

Remember that kid?

Open your eyes. You still have her. She’s just bigger, with a vocabulary to match—sometimes one that would put Drake to shame—and a peer group that’s more influential than you are.

We’re at a tricky time with them: just when your daughter and the most troublesome features of life—sex, drugs, booze, and general cyber-madness—have more access to one another—just when you have more reasons to want to protect her and tighten the controls, she has the developmental task of challenging you, breaking away and asserting herself as a separate entity from all you stand for.

You can’t control her; you can’t put her in time out like you once did. You can take away her devices, but that may amount to cruel and unusual punishment that may be more of a headache for you than for her. But you can improve your relationship and make both your lives easier by changing your responses to the behavior she dishes out.

Here are four common issues I’ve run into in my family therapy practice as well as in my interactions with my own teen daughter—and four tweaks to improve the outcome.

Issue #1: You personalize what she says and does.

Your daughter gets home from school, barely grunts in response to your greeting, grabs a snack and goes to her room, presumably to do homework. This irks you, so you go and knock. There’s no answer, so you open the door to find her earbuds in as she scrolls away on her computer.

You: I think I said hello.

Her: I said hello.

You: That was not a greeting.

Her: Hello, Mother. How was your day. Better?

You sigh. You leave. It’s the best you can get when she’s in a mood. But an hour later, when her grandmother pops by for a visit, your surly child becomes an angel.

“Nanna! Hiiii!!” She hugs Nanna and tells her all about everything—her favorite teacher, her favorite boy, the cupcake recipe she just learned on YouTube—the sort of tidbits you have not been able to pry from her lips in years.

Nanna goes home and it’s the cold shoulder for you all over again. Then, from the kitchen, you hear your daughter laugh in delight. You remember that laugh. You love that laugh. But don’t kid yourself. She will not be sharing the joke with you. She’s snapchatting with her friend, Samantha. You wouldn’t understand.

You do everything for your kid, yet everyone gets a better version of her than you do. What did you do wrong? Were you not around enough when she was little? Were you around too much, leading her to take you for granted? Were you too strict? Not strict enough? Did you favor her sister? Compare her to her brother?

Maybe you did. Maybe you didn’t. It doesn’t matter. You can’t change the past, but you can make the most of the present no matter what she’s mad about.

How to Flip it and give yourself a break:

Grow a thick skin. Recognize that your child is developing her identity—trying out new personas, trying to impress new teachers, mentors, friends. This is exhausting work. You—the most stable entity in her life—are the only one she doesn’t need to try so hard with.

That said, you are still her mother and deserving of respect. But keep your emotion out of it. You choose to let her hurt your feelings or not. When she stomps in with barely a grunt, try some levity. Say:

“Hold up my friend. Do-over. Repeat after me: Hi mom, how was your day? Mine was good. And for extra credit throw in a hug.” When she hugs you, say, “Ok. Love, you too. Now go get your snack.”

She may actually laugh.

Issue # 2: You kitchen-sink her.

You can’t stop picking:

“You owe grandma a thank you note.”

“You forgot to walk the dog.”

“When are you going to do something about your hair?”

“You are not going out of the house dressed like that.”

“I checked the parents’ porthole: why are you marked absent from global studies three days in a row?”

“Your room is a mess.”

No surprise that she ducks and heads the other way when she sees you coming. She knows you’re going to tell her she’s done something wrong or failed to do something right. One problem with this is that she will be inclined to tune you out, since everything she does elicits the same kind of complaint.

Another problem with this is that you can fall into the trap of failing to see and acknowledge her accomplishments because her flaws loom so large for you.

How to Flip it and give yourself a break:

Choose your battles, pick the most important issue or issues and make those the priorities. I think cutting a class trumps the messy room every time. If everything is a priority? Then space them out. Don’t deliver all your gripes at once.

Most importantly, look for opportunities to praise her efforts, just like you did when she was younger. Don’t forget to celebrate her successes–that A on a lit paper, or a the great assist in a soccer game–to balance out the criticisms.

Issue #3: Your worries shut down communication

You haven’t had a good talk in ages. Maybe years. Then one day in the car—when you are not asking her questions or looking at her, so her guard is down—she starts gabbing:

“So guess what happened yesterday when we were all at Samantha’s house? We were making a video with this guy Tony’s phone and then—”

You cut her off: “Yesterday? You told me you were at a Key club meeting yesterday. And I told you you couldn’t go to Stephanie’s house after that whole house party thing. And who’s Tony? You’re not supposed to be hanging out with boys when there are no parents home!”

Congratulations. You just missed out on an opportunity to learn something about your daughter’s inner life.

How to flip it:

The thing to do here is separate Rules Mom from Confidante Mom. Bite your tongue and listen to her with open ears, an open heart and an open mind. She is sharing a story with you, possibly sharing her feelings and opinions. These are gifts.

If she mentions worrisome behavior or dangerous activities, wait till the conversation is over and till there is a change of scenery to talk to her about that. For example, while you are making dinner together, you can say:

“I’m glad you told me about Tony’s video. It sounds like you guys had fun. But now we need to talk about a few things.”

And again, choose your priorities. Which matters more: That she lied about going to Stephanie’s house? Or that there was a boy there? You may also need to have a conversation to renegotiate ground rules about hanging out.

Issue # 4: You mistake her for yourself.

When you were your daughter’s age, you were passionate about the cello. You wrote for the school newspaper and volunteered at your church every day. You wanted to do these things. She has no interest in them. She tries sports and clubs, but only because you make her. She isn’t passionate about anything. This drives you crazy. You raised your children to stand out from the crowd like you did.

Or:

You were outgoing and sporty as a kid. You had a million friends, boyfriends too. Your daughter is quiet and bookish and has just one close friend. What’s wrong? Is she lonely? Why doesn’t she talk more? What about dating?

How to Flip it and give yourself a break:

Be accepting of who she is and how she is different from you. Then, be patient and wait for her to find what makes her happy. Find out what she likes and support it.

Here’s my personal story about this one:

I was a ballet dancer in my first professional life. When my daughter was five, I could see from her elegant posture and the shape of her feet that she had the potential to go even farther than I did in dance if she chose to pursue it. And with those feet and my genes, of course she would choose to pursue it—who wouldn’t?

Well, it turned out she wouldn’t. For years I tried her in different types of dance—from ballet to hip-hop. She’d show some promise in all of them, but no love for any. That’s the thing about children and passions: you can expose them to a dozen different disciplines, but you cannot make them fall in love. That requires the magic of what I call the experiential cupid. The out-of-nowhere spark that ignites a child’s interest and imagination. You can’t force it if it isn’t there.

So two years ago, I stopped trying to get my daughter to love dancing. She switched to gym and was instantly more confident and joyful. Now she plays on the tennis team at school and recently fell hook line and sinker for a brand new sport into which she is pouring her whole heart: ice hockey.  Something you couldn’t have paid me to try at her age.

I celebrate her new passion and am relieved that I saw how guilty I was for mistaking my dream for her own.

The Bottom line:

Your child is still that wonderful creature you used to hold, hug and kiss. She’s just a new, transitional version. Accordingly, you need to respond to her in new ways.

  • Do Listen as much as possible, without judgment, to what she has to tell you.
  • Do drop everything on those rare and inconvenient times when she’s being communicative. (Even if it’s one am. That’s when teens tend to be the most open.)

The more you are open, the more you refrain from criticizing or judging, the more she will give you and the better you will get to know this new version of her.

  • Do embrace her Individuality; acknowledge the differences in your temperaments.
  • Do remember this: as long as she is taking care of the basics—doing her best in school, staying healthy, avoiding negative influences, and making good choices—you can give yourself permission to relax a little about some of the other stuff.

In any case, when you change up your viewpoint, lighten up, let certain things go, it’s easier to appreciate the unique, magical young woman your teenage daughter is.

zoe and mom yosemite

Happy Mother’s Day to All!

Martin Luther King, Jr. Was Jewish, Right?

I’m re-posting this one today, as Black History Month Draws to a close–another post within a post–thinking about the wonderful and original ways children interpret our words and their world.

Lisa W. Rosenberg

“Martin Luther King Jr. Was Jewish, Right?”  And Other Stuff Kids from Multicultural Families come up With.

“I have a dream that one day … little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  1963, Washington D.C.

On the Upper West Side of Manhattan in the 1960s, King’s dream of racial harmony was already thriving in many households.  Growing up biracial in that locale and era I was in good company. Brownish kids with wild, free form hair were visible at every turn.  Whatever wasn’t perfect in my life, having parents of different races didn’t feel unusual.

When my husband and I were planning our family, we knew we wanted what I’d had: a hometown where being mixed was as ordinary as breathing.  That’s what we’ve got.  Our town is full…

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Thinking Outside the “Other” Box: An Inclusive Mixed Identity

I am happy to announce that I have joined the blogging team for the Mixed Remixed Festival. I thank Heidi W. Durrow, best-selling author of The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, and Joy Stoffers, author of Whasian. for bringing me on board. The following appeared on the Mixed Remixed Blog on February 5th.
Thinking Outside The “Other” Box
When I think about my own multiracial identity, when I talk with other biracial writers and friends about the state of being mixed, I usually think of the cultures we inherited from our parents—what was represented in our homes and along the roots of our family trees.

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But a question posed to The Ethicist in last week’s New York Times Magazine made me consider blended racial identity on a broader scale.

“Can I call my Nonbiological Twins black because my Husband is?”

The author of the question was a white woman, married to a black man. When she and her husband had been unable to conceive naturally, she had carried to term a donor embryo—the biological parents of whom were said to be Caucasian and Hispanic. The mother noted:

I am not comfortable being open about the origin of my children, except with family and close friends, until they are old enough for me to explain it to them.

But, when a pre-k application form asked the children’s race, failing to provide a “mixed race” or “other” box, the mother identified her children as black. “Was this the right choice?” She wondered. The Ethicist—Dr. Kwame Anthony Appiah, who is himself multiracial, white British and Ghanaian—devoted much of his response to what he would have responded had the twins been the biological children of their parents, going into depth about this country’s frequently challenged “one drop” rule. He concluded:

 …our system of racial classification … presupposes an extremely oversimplified picture of the relationship among ancestry, appearance, biology and culture …

Dr. Appiah correctly faulted the preschool for not having a “mixed-race” or “other” box to check, and suggested that the mother demand one. He also affirmed the twins’ right to claim their non-biological father’s black heritage.

But what Dr. Appiah didn’t mention is an error the parents made long before the pre-k form appeared. Waiting until the children are “old enough” to have their heritage explained implies that there is something shameful about joining their family through donor insemination, something wrong with having a different racial background from their parents’. The time to broach such information is right away, using the simplest language possible—the same way you might talk to a baby about bedtime or the toys in his room.

Years ago as an adoption caseworker, I encouraged families adopting from China and Vietnam to learn about and incorporate their children’s cultures of origin into their family life. Even in domestic adoptions where the child could “pass” for their parents’ biological offspring, I urged families to begin sharing the adoption story immediately—before the child could understand. Talking about difference and culture becomes as natural as breathing. This is your nose, those are your toes, this is a photograph of the day we met you in a place called Guangzhou, where you were born.

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This way, there’s no fraught moment in the child’s life when parents must sit them down and reveal the Momentous Truth. Though less has been written about children born via donor insemination than adoption, I believe this same openness should prevail.

Where it gets tricky is the discussion of appearance. Going back to the twins in the Ethicist’s question, what will it be like for them to identify as black if they don’t look black? As Dr. Appiah points out in his response, there are many people whose African features are not visible—he names early N.A.A.C.P. director, Walter White—who identify as black. Besides, these twins are Hispanic, which is not a race, but in many cases includes some African ancestry.

My own experience is somewhat reversed. Many people perceive me as black—not mixed—so when I identify as biracial, I am often corrected: you’re black. In graduate school, when I identified as Jewish—an ethnicity as well as a religion—it meant to some African American students that I was denying my blackness. But to identify as black and only black would be to disregard my mother’s ancestry and half of my own.

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Another troubling issue: the mother who wrote to the Ethicist was given few specifics about the embryos’ heritage. Only Caucasian (Swedish? Dutch? Irish?) and Hispanic (Dominican? Venezuelan? Puerto Rican?). The parents are not to blame for this oversight. I know from my friends who have had children through donor insemination that you don’t get much control over how much genetic information you’re given, if any. But in an ideal world, these parents would be able to share the twins’ whole heritage—genetic and adoptive— with them.

One of my closest friends had her twin sons with the aid of an egg donor. Before her boys could understand the word “fertility,” they knew that somewhere in the world was a Very Special Lady who had made it possible for Mommy and Daddy to be their parents. Now the boys are three and the special lady is part of their family dialogue, as is her country, which the twins may visit someday. As they grow, these boys will have more questions which my friend and her husband will be happy to answer. These twin boys will know who they are genetically as well as culturally. One day, they too will be faced with boxes to check. They may choose one or more; they may choose to leave them all blank. Either way, by the time they are old enough to hold a pencil, my friend’s sons will understand that no box will ever truly define who they are.