Category Archives: Childhood in America

Apartment #17D – An Ode

nick nacks 17DThis is the site of my childhood. Notches on a closet doorway mark my growth. Outside, on the balcony, a dark stain on one brick betrays the spot where Teenage Me hastily stubbed out a cigarette as I saw my father approaching. This apartment has seen my first steps, heard and felt an ocean of my tears, witnessed my friendships and my loves—wholesome, thrilling, sometimes toxic. I said my last goodbye to each of my parents here. For Dad, that was twenty-three years ago. For Mom, it’s been two months.

And now I face the task of packing up, clearing out, cataloging the pieces of our history. The estate sale “specialist” broke it down for me. Everything—every thing—can be placed into one of four categories: Sell, Donate, Trash, and Keep. A simple formula. But wherever I turn, something indispensable catches my eye: An ancient datebook, a ring, the sort of icepack they no longer make. A telegram sent in 1947—my father assuring his mother that he had arrived somewhere safely. I have no idea where or how to start.

We were the Williamsons—Dad, Mom and me. The only family who has ever lived here. Mine is the only childhood these walls have held. The building went up in the late fifties, part of a complex of four red-brick structures with one- and two-bedroom apartments to rent. My parents chose one above their means at the time: A two-bedroom at the end of the hall on the seventeenth floor for two hundred dollars a month. It looked out on the corner of One Hundredth Street and Columbus Avenue, boasting a balcony from which you could see Central Park if you craned your neck. From the dining room window, you had a red-and-orange steam-bath of a sunset in summer; cool, lavender twilights in winter. From one spot behind our dining room table you could gaze past rundown church steeples and the dingy sides of housing projects to catch a glimpse of the Hudson River. Everyone who visited would remark on the view I took for granted.

It took cunning to rent such a place back in the nineteen-fifties. My parents had a system for apartment hunting. Mom would view each place by herself, my father’s long list of preferences and aesthetic requirements in mind. Dad knew about real estate. His parents had owned two homes back in Chicago: One that they rented out, and one where they lived with their sprawling family of children and grandchildren. But Dad could never accompany Mom to view any apartment until she had signed a lease. To rent the apartment of their dreams, my mother needed to present her prime qualification: whiteness. Her husband, she would tell the building manager, was at work—which was true. What was also true, but what she didn’t share at this point, was that her husband was black.

Mel and Lorraine

Mom and Dad moved here ambivalent about children, but not entirely opposed. When they wed in 1950, friends who were interracially married and parenting mix-raced children didn’t recommend it. Their kids were picked on at school, accepted by neither the black kids nor the white kids. No. Best leave well enough alone and enjoy one another without children. My mother was a teacher, surrounded by kids all day long. She claimed that she had no need for her own. Her work taught her all the things that can go wrong with children, the risks of illness and disability, the emotional turmoil they could face in the best of circumstances. Best not, she agreed with my father. Best enjoy the children of friends, to be God parents, to be free. Then Mom turned thirty-nine and changed her mind. “I want one,” she told him. “I want my own.” “Let’s have one then,” Dad replied. And crossed his fingers, hoping for a girl.

Here is another box of photographs, starring me as a newborn, an infant, a toddler. It happened easily considering their ages, the pregnancy, the birth, though my early months were marked by colic. No one slept much until I was at least a year old. But in the pictures of that year, my parents’ faces betray nothing of the challenges, only the joy. In me, in one another, in the life they’d made from scratch. Together they created a joint culture in our home, made of art and music and books. Made of black and Jewish heritage, made of Chicago and New York and Louisiana (from his parents) and Russia (hers). And that was our place.

“You just need to decide what you want,” friends have said. Just. A word offered to simplify, minimize the effort involved. These friends have been supportive, accompanying me to my mother’s place (it hasn’t been Dad’s for twenty-three years), they have washed, folded, tossed and recycled, and again and again, held up some vase or salt box or kitchen tool, eyes questioning.

As my friends exhume relics of our life, as they dust, shine, wash and dry, our dining room table fills with the mismatched decorative pieces—Dutch cookie jars, Egyptian Scarab beads, and Senegalese wooden masks—looking like a life-raft packed with strangers thrown together after a shipwreck.

But through the chaos and clutter, I still see us three, sitting here: Mom to my right, Dad to my left at the head of the table. They trade sections of the New York Times, talking politics over my head.

“That S.O.B.” My mother says, which I know means Nixon. She begins to read aloud, but Dad cuts her off.

“You see? You see?” He sets down the second section of the paper to drum an index finger on the table. “This is the kind of thing I’m talking about.”

Williamsons 1970It was part of an ongoing discussion in which terms like race and fascism and civil rights were thrown around. When the discussions were too intricate, the words became a soft, spring rain on my shoulders, nurturing, soothing. Because even as they ranted, their joint indignation would keep me safe from whatever evils were out there. It’s what I believed unequivocally.

What do I want? I want my parents back. Of course. But I’ll settle for the obvious things, like my mother’s photo diaries, my father’s memoir, his unsold screenplays, his short stories and articles. The sentimental things. My father’s Panama hat—straw with a colorful pink and green band. My mother’s gold chain belt from the seventies. I want the photographs with all three of us together, but also the ones that predate me, documenting those first sixteen years of their marriage. My parents, living it up at the Vanguard in 1952. With friends on the Maine coast in 1954. I want the photographs that date back even further, to the years before they met. My father at the back row of Class 5B at the Willard School. My mother and her little sister at the 1938 Chicago World’s Fair. Dad in the army, Guam World War II. Mom as the Queen of Hearts in the University of Illinois Hillel Stunt Show, 1945.

Time is running out quickly. The place must be emptied by the end of the month. My parents are gone. I live with my husband and children in another state where we are rapidly accumulating our own memories. It’s time for this apartment to hold someone else’s stories.

There is healing in the going-through of my family’s past, in touching each treasure, each building block of our existence. In both hands I cradle a stone water-buffalo that my mother acquired on a trip to China. I breathe life into it for one final second, then set it down for good.

Me 17D

17D CW photo

Image above: me photographing “Nobody Knows My Name” by my father’s friend and mentor, the great Charles White

 

Advice for the Multiracial Community #3

Today on my third Multiracial Media column:

  • A biracial man grapples with anger when his widowed, white father begins dating a white woman.
  • A young white woman worries about saying the wrong thing to her new black boyfriend.
  • Two American moms are alarmed and upset when their Guatemalan tween daughter rejects her culture of origin.

Click here for the whole “Ask Lisa” column.

Submit your own question on the Multiracial Media site!

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!

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.

 

The Heartbreak of Striving

img002I know the heartbreak of striving. If you’re a dancer or a writer or anyone who has ever put your all into something, be it an art or sport or pursuit of a truth—knowing the odds of success might be questionable—you know it too.

It’s the moment “hobby” turns to passion. “Like to” turns to “have to.” “Want to” turns to “my heart will break if I don’t.”

For me, that shift happened in ballet when I was at that pivotal age of eleven. For years my friends and I had danced happily, loving the music, loving the combinations our teachers asked of us. High on childhood and music and ballet, we had a rose-colored view of ourselves. Blind to the work ahead, we could imagine that we were ballerinas already. We were being taught technique in such a loving way, it fed our dreams without building the muscles of self-critique. We soared on our dreams.

But suddenly, around the age of eleven, something dawned on all of us—especially those with talent. Ballet is hard. Really, really hard—even if you have talent for it. It’s a strange phenomenon. As you get closer to being a real dancer, as your teachers demand more of you and you demand more of yourself, you begin to feel the pain of not being good enough. Not yet. Your ability to happy with the pictures you make in the mirror must be delayed. It was a hard realization. To suddenly feel inadequate at the age of eleven. My first heartbreak.

The thing is, in order to become good at ballet, I needed to recognize that there was room for improvement. We all did. We needed to push through to become better at it. Our teachers impressed this upon us. We were not good enough yet. Those of us who truly loved ballet understood that it would take years before we were good enough. And because ballet was what we wanted, we were willing to do the work and to wait. Even though we were just kids. Even though we knew that, even with work and time, some of us might not make it. I hope I do, we’d say. I hope I make it. We were competitors, fellow strivers and fellow sufferers.

One day half the girls in my class had learned they were going on pointe. The other half—myself included— were told we weren’t strong enough and would have to wait one more excruciating year to get our satin pinks. No matter how hard we’d worked, we were not ready. A second heartbreak.

Beginning then, our four-times-per-week ballet class was extended fifteen minutes. Our teacher would clap her hands say the words—ladies, put on your pointe shoes! And the lucky half would run for the corner to wrap their toes in lamb’s wool and slip on their hard-tipped shoes, lace up the gleaming ribbons. The rest of us, with heavy hearts, joined in their special exercises in our normal “flat” ballet slippers—our dreams deferred as our classmates blistered and bled, building callouses they would later show off.

The year passed. I got my shoes, then my callouses. Another year later, no one in our ballet class could remember who had gone on pointe at eleven and who’d had to wait. But now the work of becoming real ballet dancers kicked into high gear. We had ballet class six days per week, knowing that other girls our age danced three classes per day to our one. Still, there was plenty of blood, sweat and tears. Some of us made it.

As a writer, I have revised my novel umpteen times, received great feedback, but also rejections. I will continue to revise and work until my book is good enough. Just as I did with my dancing. If you are to strive for something you love, no matter what the endeavor, there will be heartbreak along the way.

teaching at MAD LOMI saw a germ of this in one of my little ballet students just two weeks ago. I was teaching the class a new skill—a single pirouette from fourth position. We’d been building up to it, working on passé, passé relevé, spotting the head, opening and closing the arms, proper placement. This girl was ready to turn, I thought. So I stayed with her as she worked through the steps and tried the turn. I was patient and encouraging in just the right measures, I thought. She was determined—I could see it—and I would not let her give up.

“That’s it,” I kept saying, between more technical instructions. “You’re there.” I kept pushing, gently, sure I was going to get a result that delighted us both. She’d have that feeling of balance, of landing, of making the illusion of spinning.

“Once more.” As I said it, I realized it was too much. Her brown eyes were welling up, spilling over. Soon she was sobbing, having put her all into something that was not working. Not yet.

I felt awful. So guilty. I had made a child cry. But then I remembered how many times I had cried while I was striving for my dream—sometimes because I was hard on myself, other times because I was scolded by my ballet teachers. Granted, in my day, adults were more openly critical of children in ways that weren’t always good. Today, we have expressions like “It’s all good.”

Of course, in ballet, it isn’t all good. As teachers, we have the difficult task of expressing that in a non-damaging way. I don’t believe it’s necessary to be negative with children, to “draw the talent out of them,” as some teachers did when I was growing up. Instead, I think we need to find creative ways to inspire children, to nurture their passion for art or sports or science or music. When they love what they are doing, striving—having a self-imposed standard to meet—comes naturally. And, though there will certainly be heartbreak along the way, hearts are resilient.

To my little, tearful student, to all children moving from play into passion, my advice is as follows:

Whatever your dream—enjoy the journey, keep your eyes on the prize, and don’t give up when it’s tough. You’ll get there.

Does the “White Privilege” Umbrella cover Black and Biracial Children? (Survey included)

Baby 1966This is the first post I have written soliciting responses to a survey—so I’m stating it up front: At the end of this post is an actual, honest-to-goodness survey for those who are interested and who fit the demographics* I’m looking for.

So, what is this about “White Privilege?” Sounds kind of political, kind of threatening, no?

The first time I heard the term “White Privilege,” I was in my late twenties and teaching at a very exclusive, private girls’ school on the Upper East Side of New York. Peggy McIntosh, PhD., the feminist, antiracism activist and associate director of the Wellesley College Women’s Project, had been brought in by the Parents’ Diversity Awareness Committee of said school. McIntosh, who is white, was there to discuss her famous paper, White Privilege, Unpacking the Invisible Backpack, as part of a workshop for staff, parents and students about the ways in which whites unwittingly benefit from racism on a daily basis.

I was fascinated as McIntosh described white privilege as an

invisible package of unearned assets which [she could] count on cashing in each day, but about which [she] was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious.

However, as she began to list these assets and privileges, I found myself thinking: hold on a minute—I grew up with a lot of those assets and I’m not white! What gave?

As I thought it over, I realized that, as a child—regardless of my color—I had walked through the world in the care and company of a white mother. I had un-harassed entry into upscale department stores and swimming pools. Most everywhere I went, people had treated me with the same respect they paid my mother.

When McIntosh went on to list the ways in which her skin tone worked in her favor:

“I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented …When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is … Whether I [use] checks, credit cards, or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability.… I can swear, or dress in second hand clothes, or not answer letters, withouthaving people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty, or the illiteracy of my race.

I started to see her point. Okay, maybe all of those privileges hadn’t been mine, but under the umbrella of my mother’s whiteness, the world had been a different, more accepting, place than it might have been otherwise.

When I was alone with my father, we visited restaurants  and little shops in Harlem—which was mostly black at the time. It was a world apart from the Englewood, New Jersey pool club my mother’s friend belonged to, where Mom and I went almost every day in the summer. As a child, I felt equally welcome in both places. However, if the whole family had shown up together in either location, there might have been stares or even questions.

My father taught me to be aware—and sometimes wary–of racism, that I might be treated differently because of my color. But my mother took me everywhere; the hostility, if there was any—was subtle enough for me not to notice. I believed I belonged anywhere my mother did.

The stories of black and biracial children raised by white parents are as varied as humanity itself. I know my own, but am curious about others. For this reason I’ve started a project I’m calling Under the “White Privilege” Umbrella: Children of Color in their White Parents’ World.

As part of the project I have created a survey where I ask adults of color, like myself, who were raised by at least one white parent, to reflect on their childhoods. My purpose is to understand the experience of growing up black or biracial** in the care and company of a white parent, to learn whether–and how–any of us benefited from the day to day privileges our white parents might have experienced.

*If you are between the ages of 18 and 70, identify as biracial or mixed, the product of a white parent and a black parent, or if you are adopted, either black or biracial/black-white, and raised by white parents, interracially married parents (one of whom is white), or by a single, white parent), I would love to hear from you.

Please note, I have no hypothesis to support and no political agenda. And here is the link to my survey.

**The reason I’m only including black and white in this project–at first at least–is to understand whether parental “white privilege,” dilutes the very specific biases directed toward blacks.

Don’t hate your Thighs, Baby!

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I almost rolled my eyes at the PC police. Granted, as a member of three at-one-time-or-another oppressed groups, I tend to applaud the PC police. When something is politically incorrect, that means it has the power to hurt someone. And why is it okay to hurt someone if only to get a laugh out of someone else who’s standing there going, “Lighten up already?”

But this time, I almost said, “Lighten up already.”

Until I thought the issue over for half a second. The issue is a onesie for babies, printed with the phrase: “I HATE MY THIGHS.”

It’s funny, okay? It’s funny because it’s so ludicrous. I mean, who doesn’t love fat thighs on a baby? And what baby has any opinion whatsoever about his or her thighs? What baby even knows he or she has thighs? I am sure that’s what the people at WryBaby were thinking when they created said onesie as part of their infant apparel line, marketed at new parents and their friends.  I am sure they did not expect the uproar that came.  Who, us? Fat-shaming babies?

Were people really getting up in arms about baby clothes? I wondered. Even if the baby did have body image issues (like that could seriously happen) babies can’t read!

But then, I remembered who else might be reading. The babies’ older siblings and cousins, for a few. My daughter could read by the time she was five. I used to stand in line at the A+P checkout with her, wishing I could cover up all the tabloid headlines waxing catastrophic about Jessica Simpson’s cellulite. Check out all the best and worst beach bodies! Guess who gained a hundred pounds? (Answer on page 27.) My daughter would study the pictures, read the headlines and then ask me questions I had to come up with answers for.

“Mommy, why does it say Kirstie Balloons?”

“She was blowing them up for a birthday party.” Thinking fast, Mom.

Remembering those days, I could only imagine what a newly reading four-year-old might think about seeing her baby brother suited up to declare loathing for his own little gams. Kids that age are concrete thinkers, yet absorb every piece of information around them. Wondering why Baby Ezra hates his thighs might lead a young child to wonder if he or she should start hating his or her own thighs.

Doesn’t seem like a big deal? Think I should lighten up? Take a joke? Well, maybe you’re right about that. Often, it takes much more than a little joke to set body image issues and disordered eating in motion. But, just as often, all it takes is a passing comment, a few misguided words.

Just saying.

P.S. Since the controversy, WryBaby has replaced the onesie with one that makes the healthy declaration: “I Love My Legrolls.”

“Latkes and Paper Birds” or “How I Took Back Christmas”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn 1995, the year my father died, the eighth candle of Hanukkah fell on December 25th. I could not have been more relieved. Though my father had died months earlier, as the December holidays closed in I was feeling increasingly anxious and ambivalent. How would I, could I, do Christmas without my father? For me, Christmas revolved around Dad.  Of course, my mother did all the baking, all the cooking, as well as the bulk of the shopping. But everything was orchestrated by Dad. The tree, the decorations, the annual four-letter-word-enhanced battle with the strings of lights, which would devolve each year into a massive tangle in their box. The music on the phonograph—from early morning gospel (despite Dad’s atheism) to Handel in the afternoon, to late night Louis Armstrong. It was all Dad. Who was, after all, the child of Christians—real ones. For whom Christmas was not about gift-giving and shopping and cookies and sweeping up glass because the damn cat got into the tree again.  No. Christmas, for my paternal grandparents, was about the guy himself. Jesus. It was His Day. And for my grandmother—who died long before I was born—this involved Church. And cooking and gifts and keeping the dog out of the tree. But first and foremost Jesus.

So with Dad around, I could embrace Christmas for what it was to my family. An annual tradition of sharing—gifts, music and food. Inviting loved-ones from around the area, telephoning loved-ones too far-flung to see in person. Taking the time to pause and love one another. My mother participated wholeheartedly. Being Jewish was her history, her family background, but not about religious affiliation. Besides, there was nothing in my family’s “Christmas” traditions that went against Jewish culture or values. (See above: love, food, music, sharing.) My parents had co-created a unique family culture during their long marriage and Christmas—Williamson-style—was just part of it.

We did Hanukkah too—there was a Menorah, dreidel, chocolate gelt and actual gelt coins which came tucked in little pockets of specially designed cards. And of course, latkes.

But Hanukkah is neither the Jewish Christmas nor the Jewish answer to Christmas. Hanukkah may be the most famous Jewish holiday as far as gentiles are concerned; it’s the one all of them know about. Because it coincides with Christmas, Hanukkah has taken on a commercial meaning in the same way Christmas has. (Why should Jews be left out of the December shopping frenzy?)

It starts for little kids in school. In planning the Holiday art project. Children are asked—not are you Jewish?—but which does your family celebrate, Christmas or Hanukkah? (Now, they are including Kwanzaa and Ramadan, but they didn’t even when my children were little.) The teachers just want to know how many trees to cut out, how many Menorahs. But what is created is a false sense of balance. They have Christmas; we have Hanukkah. So it’s fair.

But the analogy is half-baked. Hanukkah is not as to Jews as Christmas is to Christians. We have our High Holy Days and Hanukkah is not one of them. Instead, it is a beautiful holiday commemorating a miracle, celebrating freedom.

But this mini-rant wasn’t the point of my post.  The point was Christmas 1995—my first without Dad—and the coinciding last night of Hanukkah.

For some time, I had been struggling to justify celebrating Christmas as a Jewish person. What right had I? On the other hand, as a person of color, constantly questioned about my claim to Jewishness*, how could I call myself a Jew if I grew up celebrating Christmas anyway?

Clearly, the problem was celebrating Christmas itself. If I took that off the table, I’d have nothing to explain, nothing to justify. So how convenient was the timing of that eighth candle? I think it was a relief to my mother also, not to have to recreate the Williamson Christmas without Dad at the helm. It would have been too sad. Too soon.

What we did instead was throw a big, beautiful latke party. We invited all the friends of the family who used to join us at Christmas—most of whom were Jewish anyway.  There were about three or four Hanukkiahs but no Christmas tree. There was loads of food and plenty of music—klezmer, Jewish folk songs, Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah!, Tzena, Tzena, Tzena! As well as some Louis Armstrong thrown in for good measure. It was a wonderful, healing night.

And for me, it was a send-off to Christmas itself. My father was gone. I had new traditions to make. Christmas was part of my past. It was time to say goodbye. Things went on smoothly from here. I got married to Jon, who was Jewish—more culturally than religiously, like me. We celebrated the Jewish holidays with family in a low key sort of way, ate Chinese food on Christmas, took it as a given that our future children would do the same. We’d explain Christmas the way many Jewish families do—as a holiday for others. I didn’t miss Christmas; neither would they. As American conspicuous consumers, we’d make fanfare and share gifts for Hanukkah.

And so we did, until our children were one and three.  Something changed my mind. No, it wasn’t a visitation from some spirit of Christmases past. It was a shopping mall, frankly. One of those spectacularly American, sprawling malls, where you can buy everything from fine furs to motor oil. I went to this mall with a friend—another mother of two, who was there to do her Christmas shopping.

And, while I can think of nothing more bah-humbug-eliciting than a mall at Christmas time, there was something there that touched me. It was not the Christmas Carols, pumping aggressively from every speaker; not the endless array of oversized wrapped faux-presents or oversized branches of faux-holly or gargantuan faux pine trees sporting gargantuan balls and lights. It was not the cloying scent of too-sweet cookie samples on trays outside every chain bakery in the place, or even the mile-long line of sweating parents with screaming children determined to sit in the well-worn lap of Santa. (What’s wrong with that man? My daughter asked, pointing at the red-suited sage.)

It wasn’t any of that. But it was sort of all of it. All around me—as far as the eye could see—was stuff my dad would have poked gleeful fun at. The cartoonish decorations, the over-the-top promotions, the music, the urgency in the eyes of the shoppers (acquisition as a competitive sport!), the music, the clawing one’s neighbor for a spot in line to see Santa, the absurdity of the whole thing, would have just tickled my dad to pieces.

As I walked through it all, pushing my son in the stroller, checking occasionally to make sure my daughter was holding on tight, I found myself flashing back.

I’m five or so, Christmas shopping with Dad, heading for Gimbels on East 86th Street, to buy my mother a present. Normally I love Gimbels because of the lights and colorful scarves and exotic smells of perfume, but today I am frightened because of the men in red suits who guard all four entrances. They have white hair and beards and say Ho-Ho-Ho in a deep, throaty growl. When we get close to one of them, I begin to scream and refuse to take a step further.  My father is used to this. Each year, he and my mother assuage my fear of Santa Claus by assuring me that he is only pretend. Well, this guy looks pretty real to me. My father slips guy a five dollar bill to make himself scarce long enough to get me into the building. Inside there are no more scary men, just beautiful things to see and touch and smell. At home, my mother is baking gingerbread men that I will decorate later. Then I will fasten my special family of paper birds with wire feet to the lower branches of our Christmas tree.

All these years later, pushing a stroller through a mall in New Jersey, it occurs to me that I still have that family of birds—or my mother does—somewhere in a box, wrapped in tissue along with the other decorations from my childhood.

And it also occurs to me that maybe—regardless of my religion or lack thereof—these birds and the traditions that went with them are still part of me. And part of my children’s birthright.

So, before I left the mall, I bought my children each a painted wooden Christmas ornament—one in the shape of a toy train, the other shaped like a dancing doll. Later that night, I shared my epiphany with my husband, who understood—about my dad, about the birds, about my wish to share it all with our kids. Let’s get a tree, he said. We’ll do this.

And from that year on, we did. Christmas—in our modified, Rosenberg kind of way.

_________________

*In truth, the two components of my ethnic identity have never felt mutually exclusive to me. But as a social work grad student, for whom the topic of racial identity came up in class just about every day, I kept finding myself in a position of having to explain and frequently defend who I was. How can you be black and Jewish? If you claim Jewishness, aren’t you also claiming whiteness and rejecting your blackness? If your Jewish Grandmother rejected you, how can you in any way identify with her culture? And so on. It is one thing to know who you are inside, but another to be put on the spot to explain it every day. I did not always have the right words ready to defend myself. Why bother? To whom did I owe an explanation? Ultimately, to no one but myself.

 

 

 

“Pretty” is the Wrong Question

imagesCASDTSYLWhen I was in fourth grade, the boys made a list of the ten prettiest girls in the class. My best friend was number one. Though I was not on the list at all, I don’t remember being terribly upset. Being one of three non-white girls in the class, I hadn’t expected to make the list. My parents told me that I was beautiful every day, but even at the age of nine, I understood that there were different standards of beauty in different environments. At home I might be beautiful, but at school pretty and me didn’t even fit in the same sentence. In some ways not being pretty freed me. I was able to be the funny one, the fast runner, the flexible gymnast, the one who wrote stories.

In other ways, though, it made me feel less than the girls who had made the list. The fact that there even was such a list made me start thinking about “pretty”—the thing I was not. In fact, this list may have been one little brick out of many that built my road to an eating disorder.

Today these boys would be considered bullies, now that the definition has expanded to include all those who put down and victimize in ways to which they themselves are not susceptible. At the time, however, they were only making “personal observations.” I like to think that they didn’t mean to hurt anyone, that they were simply oblivious to their power.

In any case, the list popped into my mind while I was reading an article in last Sunday’s New York Times. It involved a girl with poor body image and a fragile sense of self, a YouTube video and some brutal comments from angry, mean-spirited people. The result wasn’t, but could well have been, tragic.

In the New York Times article, Tell Me What You See, Even if it Hurts Me,  by Douglas Quenqua, a thirteen-year-old girl turned to YouTube to answer a burning question: Am I Ugly or Pretty? The responses she got ranged from positive to brutally honest, to downright cruel. Another girl posting a similar video received a comment recommending suicide.

Thankfully, the girl didn’t take that dire advice, but another child might have. We all know that cyber bullying has led more than a few targets to take their own lives. The internet allows anyone—of any description, any position, any age—to be a co-conspirator.

In my day (we’re talking the 1970’s and 1980’s), you knew who the mean kids were. They name-called, stuck signs on people’s backs, sent notes with nasty messages, played tricks, and made crank phone calls. They tripped people the cafeteria or stole their clothes during gym. They made exclusive lists. These were awful things at the time, but they seem quaint and cliché—the stuff of John Hughes’s films—compared with what today’s bullies can dish out with the click of a mouse.

Pre-internet, anything a mean kid (or adult) did could be traced back to the perpetrator with minimal effort. Victims might keep quiet for fear of retaliation, but they knew the faces and names of those who picked on them. Today’s bullies have the luxury of total anonymity. A clever username, a cute cartoon character or slick silhouette image masks anyone’s identity. The comments section serves as an arena to tear down the self concept of anyone who dares venture in. The “haters” are a group anyone can join with no ID card, and more importantly, no consequences.

What hasn’t changed—despite our efforts, as parents, educators, therapists and bloggers, despite Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth and Dr. Mary Pipher’s Reviving Ophelia—is the abundance of young girls with poor self images, who seek approval from the most questionable sources.

I looked and found, as Quenqua reports, that there is a proliferation of “Am I pretty?” videos on YouTube. Some of the girls look as young as nine, imploring viewers: “Be honest, I can take it.” While some comments are supportive—for example, “U R beautiful. It doesn’t matter what other people think”—other comments are pretty ruthless. One compares the subject to human excrement, another says, “Yes U R ugly, plz die.”

This directed at eight- to fifteen-year-old girls. You might ask, what did these kids expect? This kind of query, posed on the internet, is an open invitation to the most vile among us. Why would anyone post something like this? Because these girls are young, because they are afraid to ask people close to them—afraid to hear lies or truth from those whose faces they know—and because they think an objective opinion from strangers will reassure them, rather than feeding their fears of inadequacy.

I remember the self-doubt of being thirteen. By that time I’d moved beyond the list from fourth grade. For better or for worse, pretty no longer felt unattainable. But suddenly looks mattered more—for more reasons. I remember asking those questions. Do I look bad? Do I look fat? When you are a dancer, as I was, you stare in the mirror for hours each day, constantly checking for—and attempting to correct—flaws. What you see starts to play tricks on you. Whether you approve or disapprove of your image depends on your mood. How many times did I say to a friend—or have that friend say to me,

“I can’t tell what I look like any more. Am I hideous?”

Of course we knew we weren’t hideous but we needed constant reassurance. We were young and driven; our bodies were changing and so were our perceptions of ourselves and the world. We were also ashamed—not just of our bodies—but of this very need to hear that we were okay. That’s why “Am I pretty?” was the kind of question a self-worth-doubting young girl would pose only to a close, trusted friend. Maybe to her mother or sister.

Now, girls turn to the internet—the anonymous, opinionated majority—with their most intimate questions and confessions. The sharks are ready and waiting.

As a therapist and writer, I always seek to understand the motivation behind bad behavior. I do not believe that anyone is innately evil. Nevertheless, there are some people out there who are always in the market for a victim on whom to work out their own personal rage against the world. The internet empowers the inventive cruelty of these cowards. Again and again their victims are young, vulnerable girls.

It’s up to all of us—parents, teachers, therapists, all responsible adults—to stop the cycle of damage. That means teaching our children to love who they are—which sounds hokey, but it’s essential—not what they look like.  I’d love to take each of these self-flagellating video-makers aside and ask her, “Who are you really? What matters to you besides how you look? What do you love to do? Do you play sports? Music? Write poems? Make your friends laugh?”

Those are the questions we need to encourage these girls to ponder. Not “Am I pretty?”

I’m not saying appearance doesn’t matter. I know there have been numerous studies suggesting that good-looking people have better lives—get treated better, make more money—than so-called unattractive people. But are those studies—which measure inborn physical gifts as opposed to aspects of ourselves that we can control—helpful to anyone? Instead of encouraging our daughters to present themselves nicely, let’s teach them to embrace who they are as individuals. Let’s take time to learn who they are for ourselves while we’re at it.

Here are some ideas to get your daughter’s mind off “pretty”:

  • Don’t fuss over your daughter’s clothes or hair more than she does. (It took me years to learn this. I think I got there in time. I could fill a whole post with that lesson, but I am honoring my daughter’s request that I stop blogging about her.)
  • Encourage activities that capitalize on something other than the physical: coding, robotics, music, writing.
  • Encourage sports, which emphasize what the body can do more than how it looks doing it.
  • If she dances, or acts, or does anything stage-related, compliment her on the achievement; don’t focus on her appearance. (With dance, you can say, “you danced beautifully,” which celebrates the images she creates with her body, but not her body itself. It’s a fine but important line).
  • If your daughter asks you if she is pretty, tell her she is beautiful inside and out.
  • Then ask why she is asking. It could open the door to an important conversation. Is someone bullying her—cyber or otherwise? Did someone make a hurtful list? Did someone criticize her in a deeply painful way? Open the floodgates. Have the discussion. It just might save her years of self doubt. It might save her life.

Not Everyone will Like You–and That’s OK.

Yesterday, which happened to be Father’s Day, I was invited to give the keynote address at the Annual Empowerment Celebration at a wonderful organization called Sister to Sister, which provides professional women in my town with an opportunity to mentor teenage girls aspiring to college and careers 

I decided to post the body of my talk because even though it was aimed at high school girls, I think it fits here. The theme is knowing and liking who you are, regardless of how others may feel about you.

 

??????????????????????????????????????This is June, a season of moving up, moving on, graduating, saying good bye—if only for the summer. It’s a good time to say to yourself—so what is next? What is next for me and how can I make the best of it without getting sidetracked by negative influences, without listening to people who might bring me down and stand in my way?

So in the spirit of father’s day, I’m going to share with you a piece of wisdom my dad gave me.

I was about ten at the time, and I had a lot of friends. Kids liked me, because I was silly and made them laugh. Grown ups liked me because I knew when to stop being silly and at least look like I was paying attention. Things went along pretty well until I went to Gymnastics camp and I had to room with two of my teammates who were a little older than me. These girls, Cece and Lila, they didn’t let me hang out with them, they made fun of me for being homesick, and when I finally made another friend, they made fun of her voice and made us both feel bad. Since I’d made another friend, camp got okay, but I still lived with Cece and Lila; I still dealt with their meanness every day.

Well, when I got home, I didn’t say anything to my parents about it at first. Then one night, in tears, I told my dad. We’d been talking about something else and I just unloaded on him. I didn’t usually talk to him about social drama, that was mom’s area. I don’t remember why I used him as a sounding board this time, but I did. Anyway, Dad listened carefully to my story, thought it over, and finally laid one on me.

“Not everyone,” he said, “is going to like you.”

Well. As you can imagine, this piece of information came as quite a shock. I was not accustomed to this kind of candor. I was used to my mom, who would have reassured me that no one meant me any harm, that I must have misunderstood their intentions. Not Dad. He got it. These girls did not like me and I would have to live with that, because sometimes there is just no changing someone’s view of who they think you are.

Dad wanted me to understand that who Cece and Lila thought I was didn’t matter. Cece and Lila themselves didn’t matter. What did matter was who I thought I was and those girls should have no bearing on that. I would never have Cece and Lila for friends, but I did have me. And as long as I liked who I was, I was going to be okay.

The thing is, to like who you are, you have to know who you are. What does that mean—to know who you are? It’s more than, hi I’m Jessica, I’m from Montclair, my mother’s family is from Trinidad and my father is African American and Irish. It’s more than I play the cello and I’m allergic to peanuts and I’m with T.J.. It’s way, way more than I’m with T.J. Sure, those things are part of it, part of who you are, but they don’t define you unless you want them to.

Who you are is what you love, what matters most to you, what you won’t stand for, and what you will always stand up for. It’s what you are passionate about, what you dream of, but also the little parts of your personal reality. I don’t like crowds, I get insomnia if I drink coffee, chocolate makes me happy. No one can change those parts of you unless you want to change them.

Who you are comes from within (that sounds like a cliché, but it’s true). How you feel inside, what you want in your heart, that sixth sense you have when something is not right for you. That voice that helps you decide between what feels good right now—like someone else’s approval—and what is going to lead to something good for you long term, like working hard in school.

A girl once came to me for therapy. This was about ten years ago. She was in a pretty good state over all. Got along with family, did well in school, but she was lonely. She liked going out and meeting new people, she loved to dance at parties, but since she didn’t drink or smoke weed, she never got invited to any. She did have friends at school, girls who didn’t drink or smoke, but they had no interest in parties. So her choices were either start drinking or else be bored. I’d like to say she joined a club where she found kids who were like her, but she didn’t find that until college. MHS is bit—you don’t always find everyone who is there. She dealt with parties where kids made fun of her for not drinking, or she hung out with the girls who didn’t like to dance. Still, she remained true to herself, and found ways to be happy in this. She knew who she was and had to be true to that.

More recently, I knew another girl who really liked this guy. They got together at a party and sort of became a couple. I say sort of, because in my day, you were going out, but I know the rules and definitions are different now. Anyway, she was with him for a while—just hanging out, kissing, but no sex. He wasn’t pressuring her at first, but after a few months, he started to and she started to feel like she should. And did, though she didn’t feel she was ready. What she didn’t know was that he had been giving his friends updates on his conquest of her. What she also didn’t know what that he had found a way to film what they were doing. What she didn’t know was that it was all over Youtube before she got home. And she hadn’t even wanted to do it.

She learned the hard way how important it is to be true to yourself. You know deep down when something or someone isn’t right for you. You owe it to yourself to listen to yourself.

Some people will pressure you to do things you don’t believe in. Others will judge you for holding those beliefs. Not everyone will like you. You have to be able to hold your head up and be proud and happy with yourself even when others are not. Never be afraid to stand out, never be afraid to take a stand.

This is a women’s organization, but in honor of father’s day I will close with a fatherly quote by Dr. Seuss (who, by the way, never had any kids of his own): Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.