Thursday, July 25, 2013

Auto Immune Disorder

Following the George Zimmerman trial, Facebook turned into a cacophony of racial, legal and political experts.  Oddly enough, I found some I thought would be indignant about the verdict relieved Zimmerman wasn't convicted.  Others I assumed would join in the idea justice was served were utterly frustrated.  Responses failed to follow racial lines.  Regardless of perspective, the fact remains that racial tension is alive and well in the United States.  That conclusion can be achieved either through the details surrounding Trayvon Martin's death or the polarizing outcry for justice from all sides afterwards including other racially associated tragedies.

For what it's worth, I find it tragic that an unarmed seventeen year old was shot at least in part because he was followed by a neighborhood watch volunteer for being black.  At the same time, I'd like to think that a jury dedicated to determining the facts of the case could take the details presented and interpret justice accordingly.

Regardless of anyone's opinion, racial, legal or otherwise... we are still left with the reality that racial issues did not die with the Emancipation Proclamation or the Civil Rights Movement.  However, while I have heard of these racial tensions experienced in other communities and races, I feel immune.  After all, I'm a white male living in suburbia with relatively homogenous surroundings.  I'd like to think Trayvon Martin would not have died in my neighborhood, but that's mostly because he doesn't exist here.  No one would suspect a white seventeen year old walking through a neighborhood at night of anything more than toilet papering the house of one of his classmates whether he is wearing a hoodie or not.  The outcry for a white Trayvon Martin would be unsupressable, but again the parents of white Trayvon Martin don't worry about him getting into a fight or shot on a neighborhood street.  So I've felt immune to the entire ordeal, or at least I did until I looked across my living room.

Across my living room sit three hispanic children, ages 4 to 6, and an Ethiopian teenager.  I had been told transracial adoption would require me to change my preconceptions, but racial profiling was not one I considered.  I thought I'd be challenged to help my children retain their cultural heritage through foods, language and clothing.  In my mind, no one would degrade them because of the color of their skin because they were mine.  I am a white, middle-class American, so they would be treated like white, middle-class Americans.  I don't ever fear someone calling me names or looking at me wrong outside of the fact that I have a large, multi-ethnic family which warrants some confused stares and curious questioning at times.  But when adults or other children see my children apart from me, they don't see me, and more importantly, when my children look in the mirror... they don't see me either.

The world is not colorblind.  My children are not colorblind.  But I have been.

And now in the wake of Zimmerman's trial, I'm forced to reconcile my felt immunity with the reality of life and the experiences my children will certainly endure.  In my teenage daughter's Spring semester of school, several weeks of racial conflict took place in the underpinnings of high school society among her classmates.  A group of white students chose to target black students, and the bigotry ensued.  When she told me about it, I was outraged at the idea that anyone would call my daughter the N word.  They hadn't although it had been directed at some of her friends.  But, the very possibility of it had me ready and willing to fight for her dignity.  In the eyes of these white students, they didn't see me when they saw my daughter... they saw her and her black friends.  My daughters and sons aren't immune.

In an entirely separate incident while drinking some beers with some neighbors late at night, one of them casually used a few racial slurs and stereotypes.  In the moment, I thought it was out of place and wrong, but it didn't occur to me until recently that he and I were both completely unaware of the implications of his statements towards my children which I suppose only feeds the belief that my kids are somehow immune to any prejudice because they live under my roof.

So, how do I prepare my children for the conflicts that await them without developing a complex where they can't trust anyone?  Unfortunately, there will be other Trayvon Martins in the future.  The details won't be the same, a child may not die, but there is no hiding our kids from it whether they're racially different from us or not.  My initial instinct is to give them free rein on their response, and while I believe a busted lip, swollen eye or bloody nose is entirely just, I don't want my child shot because they refused to acknowledge the color of their skin meant others would suspect them of things inconsistent with their character.

I would suggest some measure of a history lesson is in order including age appropriate discussions on slavery, the Holocaust, the Civil Rights Movement and the complexities of immigration in our Great State.  Movies are great conversation starters:  Schindler's List, 42, The Help, To Kill a Mockingbird.  (Some of you moms are going to have to suggest kid-friendly movies here... knowing what is age appropriate is not my strong suit.  I showed my kids the Passion of the Christ and just the lack of English being spoken made them cry and leave the room.  We didn't even make it to the flogging scene.)  Nonetheless, identifying and occasionally setting up teachable moments to make this a regular point of discussion is needed.  For our family this isn't too difficult.  Anytime they meet a new friend we always get a, "Is that your sister/brother/mom/dad?"  Our kids respond completely puzzled, "Yes?"  Teachable moment.

On a softer note, we embrace the diversity of our family and attempt to expose everyone to a variety of life.  Simultaneously, we don't make "being white" out to be a bad thing as if it mandates some kind of superiority complex.  Attempting to define what "being black" or "being white" means is a chasing of the wind.  So, not only are we working at exposing ourselves to diversity, but we find this effort to be an equal opportunity for everyone we come in contact with assuming they're willing to join us.

Sadly, I don't know that there's a way to prepare my kids for avoiding an altercation that could lead to death outside of avoiding altercations completely.  I want my kids to be able to stand up for themselves and suppress stupidity or the poor choices of others who share their skin color.  I want my kids to know they don't have to play by the world's rules, but ultimately, they will have to be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.  They will have to shed whatever immunity I've already instilled in them believing we're all equal, because the only truth there is that we're equally broken... equally susceptible in judging others.  In all of this, my sense of immunity has reached an abrupt end... I hope yours does too.

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