#TBT: parents, please educate your kids about adoption so mine don’t have to

On Thursdays I post from the vault. May is National Foster Care Month which seems like a great time to revisit this post from 2012.
I took the kids to the park the other day, and I was seated just close enough to the play structure that I could faintly overhear a conversation that occurred between Kembe and several older kids.  At first, I had a hard time understanding what was being said, but something about Kembe’s posture caught my attention.  Typically, he’s a relatively cocky over-confident kid with a lot of swagger., even around older kids.  But in this setting he looked . . . almost cornered.  He seemed intimidated and a bit helpless.  As I strained to hear, I though I heard one of the kids saying, “That is NOT your real mom.”  I had an immediate pit in my stomach, and tried to check myself.  Surely they are not ganging up on him about adoption, I thought.  I stood up and started walking casually towards them, so that I could hear the conversation and intervene if needed.  Sure enough, this is what I heard the four other children saying to Kembe:
“That is not your real mom”
“Yeah, where is your REAL mom?”
“So you are adopted”?”
“You HAVE to be adopted”
“No way that is your mom”
“What happened to your real parents?”
I don’t think these kids were trying to be cruel.  But the way that they were surrounding him, asking questions and refusing to accept his answer as he repeatedly pointed to me as his mom, made the situation feel confrontational. Kembe looked embarrassed and I decided to intervene.  I approached them and tried, in my most friendly and casual voice, to introduce myself and then asked if they had some questions I could help with.
“We were just wondering what happened to his real parents, “ one of the kids asked.  I told them that this was a personal question – that it was up to him if he wanted to share but that it might not be polite to ask.  They seemed to get that.  We talked a bit more, and the kids were all very nice, suddenly seeming to take quite a friendly interest in our family.  The only girl in the group, who I’d guess was about eleven, starting gushing about how great it was that I adopted him.
“It’s SO NICE you took him in. Because orphanages are a really bad place.  They just make you clean all day long, and then people come in but they might just be pretending to be your real parents for money.”
It was clear her only education on orphan life and adoption was the movie Annie.  Then, the clincher.  Another kid – a boy of about 10 – seemed relieved that I came over to explain this whole mix-up of our family.  His actual words:
“I mean, I could tell that something was wrong.  Something was not right about that
I corrected him then, my patience running a bit more thin.  “There is nothing wrong.  It’s different, huh? Most families match and we don’t.  But it’s different.  It’s not wrong.”
This isn’t the first time my kids have been questioned on the “realness” of their family by their peers.  I suspect it won’t be the last.  I know I can’t expect every single kid to have been educated on adoption, and inevitably my kids will be the ones educating their peers.  But is it too much to ask that other parents, whose families don’t have exposure to transracial families, take a couple minutes and explain it to them so that my kids aren’t always the center of the After-School Special on Adoption in the school playyard?  Because it’s already getting old, and we’ve got a long ways to go.
In fact, I will make it really, really simple right now. Here’s a script.  You can ad-lib.  Freestyle it.  Or just say this:

1. Sometimes kids have different skin colors from their parents. It could be because they are adopted, or because their parents are different races, or because they have a step mom or step dad.  It’s no big deal.  They are still real families.  There is nothing wrong or weird about families with different skin colors. (Insert examples from your own life here. Or have a come-to-Jesus meeting about diversifying your friendship circle).

2. When someone is adopted, their mom is just a mom.  The person who gave birth to them is called a “birth mom”.  Both of them are real moms.

3. It can be nosy or embarrassing to ask a kid if they are adopted or ask what happened to their birth mom, especially if you don’t know them.  That could make them feel bad, so don’t do it.  If you are curious, ask me about it and if I know the answer we can talk about it.

And while you are at it, you can throw in a bit about how some kids have parents that don’t live together, or have two mommies or daddies, etc. Because no child from unique family circumstances deserves to be singled out on the playground because we’ve failed to explain the world to our kids.
Another really easy way to explain adoption to kid: books.  Here are a few good ones:
Or, you could watch the Disney Channel show Jessie, which features a transracial family.  Could be a good conversation starter, as well as a way to normalize racially mixed families.
There are also several movies that explore adoption that could further the discussion:


On the flip side, if they’ve seen Tangled or Annie or any other number of Disney movies, you may have some deconstruction to do about what adoption is really like and what language is appropriate.
I know we’re all doing the best we can, and that there are a million things we are trying to impart to our kids.  But taking a minute to talk normalize adoptive families with your kids would be doing my kids a major solid. 
In the meantime, we’ll be continuing our role-plays at home, in which I play the nosey kid on the school ground and I help my kids come up with comebacks that they are comfortable with. Jafta’s favorites:
You don’t have a very mature understanding of adoption.
Does she look like a fake mom to you? 

The break-in that wasn’t: on raising black sons and interacting with law enforcement

Last night we had a experience that rattled me to the core. In the middle of the night, I heard the sound of glass breaking. But that’s not the part that has me still reeling. Because we thought it might be a break-in, we immediately called the police. They came out and searched out house and yard. The kids were still sleeping. As they searched the backyard, with guns held up in front of their chests asking an intruder to make himself known, they woke Jafta and he screamed and ran down the hall into my room. And suddenly I had the thought – what if they had been in the house at that moment, with their guns in hand, as a black male, who is about my size, came barreling down the hallway? What could have happened as they searched for an intruder and saw a child who looks like a man, who doesn’t fit what they might expect a family member of mine to look like? I couldn’t get back to sleep thinking about how badly that could have gone – and about the video on implicit bias I’ve show to countless students over the years that illustrates the way our society perceives black men to be a greater threat than they are. (For more on what I’m talking about, read this.) Everything ended fine – Jafta was safely tucked back into bed and we discovered the noise was an animal breaking a planter in the neighbors yard. But it was hard going back to sleep with the vision of what could have happened. I couldn’t help but think of Tamir Rice, who was the same size as my sons, who was gunned down in broad daylight while playing with a toy in the park. It was a reminder to me that parents of black children have to be constantly vigilant with every interaction with law enforcement. In retrospect, I should have identified all members of our household, and their race, to the 911 dispatcher and again to the police before letting them in. And not because I think police officers are racists, but because we are all swimming in this insidious bias that can be life threatening, and that requires careful attention.

Why I protest police brutality

While I was in New York last month, I had the chance to attend two protests against police brutality and racial bias. I wanted to explain why I attended them, and what the purpose was behind them.

Photo Dec 12, 1 58 14 PM

I attended the marches because I believe that there is a pervasive pattern of overreaction and brutality against people of color. This does not mean that I think every cop is bad. My sister was a cop for many years, as was my brother-in-law. I understand the heavy and real risk of being in this line of work, and that it is a daily sacrifice of personal safety. I don’t think all cops are bad. In fact, I think many of them are good. I am not protesting those cops.

What I am protesting is the idea that a crime is punishable by death in the streets if the criminal resides in a black body. What I am protesting is the bias and resulting overreaction that leads to a man (or a child) being shot dead for holding a toy gun.

I’m also protesting the micro-aggressions that don’t always make the news, but that foster the environment that leads to life-threatening violence. I’m protesting the black producer being detained as a robbery subject because he fit the description, the black mother being pulled over and having her children be forced to exit the car at gunpoint.  I’m protesting the black college professor who was arrested and thrown to the ground for jaywalking on a closed-off street as white men cross the street during the arrest. I’m protesting an arrest of a black woman that involves beating her in the face repeatedly.

I’m protesting the fact that my nephew has been pulled over and had his car searched numerous times since getting his license last year, simply for driving while black.
And of course, I’m protesting those whose lives were cut short unjustly. I’m protesting Eric Garner. Tamir Rice. Mike Brown. Yvette Smith. John Crawford. Kimani Gray. Aiyana Stanley Jones. Reka Boyd. Sean Bell. Ezell Ford. Alex Nieto. Oscar Grant. Anthony Baez. Akai Gurley. They are the why.

As to the how . . . the first protest I attended was organized by Faith In New York. It was a rally for clergy and people of faith. I was invited by Shane Clairborne as a part of the Red Letter Christians movement. We heard from several faith leaders in the black community, as well as Muslim leaders and Native American leaders.

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This protest, held outside City Hall, had a very specific agenda that was thoughtfully outlined by Faith in New York. I am including it here, because I think it is the most comprehensive task list I’ve seen for making lasting and impacting changes.

Faith and New York Policy Priorities

As people of faith who are deeply troubled by the state of police and community relations in New York City and abroad, we are calling for the following measures:
Restoring Broken Trust: Steps to Improve Police and Community Relations
Proposed policy: On-going training for all police officers that includes  training on implicit bias and cultural sensitivity

The “othering” of community members in non-white communities and the history of racism, classism and bias in this country undergirds many of the acts of violence committed in our communities. Asking police officers to both learn about and address these issues can led to more productive relationships between cops and the communities they police.

President Obama can mandate this on a federal level by tying it to federal funding for police departments. New York city could also develop its own policy. End the militarization of police departments across the country by passing the bipartisan “Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act 
As scenes of tanks and automatic machine guns in Ferguson have shocked the world, it is essential that America ends the militarization of its police through a military surplus give away known as the “1033 program”. The federal government should discontinue its supply of military weaponry and equipment to local law enforcement. And though Congress seems to finally be considering measures in this regard, it remains essential to monitor the demilitarization processes and the corporate sectors that financially benefit from the sale of military tools to police. In NY, we should create a mechanism for city administration and police to have a public review process for all 1033 purchases and deployment
Police Accountability to End Brutality and Racial Profiling
Proposed policy: Require police to wear voice activated body cameras with cloud data storage
Although the Eric Garner case has proven that a video is not enough to prosecute, there is strong evidence that show that police are less likely to commit acts of violence or abuse if they know they are being filmed. This technique proved to reduce instances of police abuse by as much as 88% in one year in Rialto, a heavily Latino city of  Southern California with a history of tension between police and the non-white community. Voice activated with full data backup.
Mayor de Blasio has authority over the New York City Police Department which has already implemented a pilot program that he can mandate and expand. President Obama can also enact this change by requiring it off all  departments that take any federal funding
Pass the “Right to Know Act” in NYC
Help to reduce excessive and abusive stop and frisk tactics in the city that lead to disproportionate incarceration of young men and boys of color. The legislation would allow people interacting with police to demand name, badge number and officer’s rank for any interaction that doesn’t end with an arrest or summons. It would also require that officers inform people that a stop and frisk search is voluntary before beginning any voluntary search.
Comprehensive and mandatory reporting of all incidents of police brutality across the country and locally
Currently the scope and scale of police abuse and violence is difficult to determine because it is not centrally tracked or required of law enforcement departments. By creating a centralized data base and mandatory reporting of police brutality and racial profiling, we can not only begin to understand the scope and scale of this problem but also begin to find best practices and solutions.
President Obama can make this a reality by tying federal funding for police departments to the collection and timely reporting of this data. At a local level, the NYPD should publish quarterly and annual reports of summons and misdemeanor arrests, as well as use of force, to include demographic data.
Fixing Our Broken Judicial System
Proposed policy: Develop a policy that appoints a special prosecutor to hear all cases of police brutality or misconduct
This is important because of the close working relationship between police departments and district prosecutors. There is widespread perception by the public that it is nearly impossible for prosecutor who overwhelmingly rely on police testimony and evidence to perform their jobs to prosecute these same police without bias. The evidence supports these concerns, with only X indictments after X of cases of police brutality in New York City alone. See this NY Times Op-ed for more information.   This change can come about by executive action by Gov. Cuomo. He can empower the current elected Attorney General to serve as special prosecutor in cases of police brutality. We also encourage the Department of Justice to launch its own grand jury to indict officers responsible for murder of victims of police brutality across the country. 
Creating Violence Free Neighborhoods
Proposed policy: Provide funding for Ceasefire violence prevention activities
Ceasefire is a nationally tested and data driven method of identifying the small number of community members that are the most high risk for committing acts of violence against other community members and creating pathways out of that lifestyle. It involves close collaboration between clergy, community members and police departments and has been proven to dramatically reduce instances of shootings and killings in cities across the country.
PICO National is calling on President Obama to create a funding mechanism to support this important work.

I really appreciate the practical ideas outlined here, and I think they are reasonable and achievable. I’m hopeful that they can be implemented. The second protest I attended was the Millions March. This was a larger-scale protest with the aim of demonstrating the solidarity and sheer numbers of people who are outraged with what is going on, and from my perspective it was incredibly effective in that end. DSC00518
The volume of people who showed up was astounding, and the diversity was encouraging too. I saw people of all races and ages, bound together in their determination to see things change. It was peaceful and hopeful. Photo Dec 13, 2 26 11 PM
To learn more about how you can lend your voice on these issues, check out the resources at Black Lives Matter.

What it’s like being a young black man in America

This guest post is by Wesley Hall. It is a repost from last year because I think it bears repeating in light of current events.

Man, I’m just glad I had a mom who gave me the realness from a young age. I can remember thinking she was so stuck in the past for telling me that I couldn’t do or say or wear certain things, that I could not stay out as late as my white friends could, that I could not “experiment” with any of the things my white friends did. I struggled so much with her for trying to impress upon me the fact that I was different. Because I’m not supposed to be. I lived in a nice house, spoke more than one language, was well educated and well socialized and I did not understand why I needed to constantly act in a manner designed to disarm another person’s suspicions about me.
What I want you to know about being a young black man in America.
But wow, I get it now. Every black kid has that moment where he has to decide to accept the armor that his parents present to him to get through life as an American black male, or walk around naked. And the crazy part is, it’s probably something most people outside of the black community never see. I can remember my mom talking to me over and over and over again about what to do and who to call if I was ever picked up by a police officer. She made sure I knew that I needed to declare that I was exercising my Miranda rights rather simply evoke them without notice. If you were in JNJ your mom probably made you take a WHOLE FREAKING CLASS on how to deal with police officers and other people who were perceived to be threatening.
And I say that to say that as scary as people think black males are, black males are conditioned to be ten times more afraid of everyone else. We’re conditioned to be afraid of going to certain parts of the country, afraid of people with certain political views, afraid of police officers, and sometimes even afraid of other black and Latino males. The most sickening thing about this whole trial has been the deliberate campaign to rob Trayvon of his right to be afraid. I know I would have been.
I owe my mom the deepest of apologies for all of the times that I accused her of overacting or trying to force-feed me a vision of a society long since passed….. One so different from the one that exists today.
What I didn’t get was this….
It doesn’t matter how well traveled you are or how many languages you speak or who where you went to school. It doesn’t matter how many friends you have or how much good you’ve done in the world. From afar we are all the same.
It used to hurt when my mother would tell me I couldn’t put my hood up or that I couldn’t stay out as late as my white friends. She told me I was a young black male and I couldn’t afford these things, and I figured she never knew how much it hurt for be to know that she did not have faith that I could transcend the many stereotypes that swirl around me and be seen as an individual.
But when I think about my own mother having to come down the police station, and identify my naked body and come home and go in my room that would feel strangely empty. She would have to walk past my favorite custom built aquarium and the framed boards my class in Japan made for me on my last day of study abroad, she would have to open my closet and go through all of the clothes I would never wear again and find my favorite suit and then walk out of a room where every object holds a memory.
She would have to go on interviews and meet with lawyers and try to be strong in the face of unimaginable tragedy. While people picked apart my character and found every face book status where I cursed or every stupid picture I was ever captured in. She would have to sit in court and dignify people who sought to put me in the ground with not a shred of justice with her presence and her silence. And then on top of that, after a year of pain, to hear from 6 other mothers that my life meant nothing……..
And the thought that after 24 hours of labor, thousands of dollars on tuition and extra curricular and trips and summer activities, and millions of tiny sacrifices that she could be left only with the dust of my memory and the guilt of having not prepared me for this thing called America.
I joke about it, but I know how much I mean to her. Before I go parasailing I think about her, and before I jump in the ocean I think about her, and when I had tigers crawling all over me and licking my face two months ago, I was thinking about her. But I did those things because I knew that even if I got poisoned by a cobra or mauled by a tiger, that although it would have been hard…… she would have derived comfort from knowing that I died pursuing happiness, adventure, and experiences that were worth their risks.
But I know that she would never ever be able to recover from knowing that I died the way that Trayvon died. And so I understand so well why she taught me to think about the world in the way that I do. To remember how to love life, be open to others, but to always remember who I am and to be so secure in who I am, that I accept that I must constantly think and behave with consideration for that one person who might think they already know.
I have fought with my mom, dad, and step dad about what it means to be a young black man in 2013. And I have at times been annoyed at all of them for presenting me with my constraints. But I am so lucky to have been armed with the truth at such and early age. The world can be so confusing for us. So much kindness, and so much cruelty. We’ve all accused our parents of over estimating the dangers out there. But they managed to teach us not to allow this country to fill us with fear, while simultaneously not allowing it to rob us of our vigilance. Shout-out to all of the parents out there, giving that extra course on how to keep your children from being victimized in a society that does not believe that they can be victims.
You can keep up with Wesley on facebook and youtube.

White privilege doesn’t mean what you think it means

There was an article making the rounds this week in which a Princeton freshman does a “take down” of white privilege. It has been widely circulated as some kind of gotcha moment for people to subscribe to the idea that racial inequity is a thing to be concerned with. And while I hesitate to connect issues of racial equality to a political party because I strongly believe that racial reconciliation should be a bi-partisan effort, I’ve been disappointed to see the glee with which certain conservative news outlets have highlighted Tal’s piece as a wrist-slap to the concept of white privilege. If I were a Republican, I might be asking myself why some of the mouthpieces in my own political party seem to be so bent on disproving the experience of racism. And I might ask myself what I could do to change that narrative within my politic party. image But politics aside, 19-year-old Tal Fortgang wrote a compelling argument against having to “check his privilege”, outlining the hardships his own family faced in getting where they are today. It resonated with a lot of people, and you know what? I understand why. If I believed that “white privilege” was a term meant to diminish my personal achievements . . . if I thought “white privilege” meant that I had to apologize for things that happened before I was born . . .  if I thought that “white privilege” meant that I need to be ashamed or embarrassed for being born white . . . if I thought that “white privilege” dismisses the very real hardships and challenges that I’ve had in my life . . . if that was my understanding of white privilege, I’d probably be a little resentful about it, too. But instead, I’ve taken the time to really understand the concept. I realize now, as I hope Tal can someday realize: white privilege isn’t about me individually. It’s not a personal attack. White privilege is a systemic cultural reality that I can either choose to ignore, or choose to acknowledge and attempt to change. It has nothing to do with my worth as a person or my own personal struggle. This is what I find so frustrating about Tal Fortgang’s piece. He didn’t take the time to learn what white privilege means, and instead railed against it in an essay that clearly shows his lack of grasp on the subject. And worse yet, Time magazine reprinted it. (No doubt they are basking in the glory of the pageviews on this one.) Here’s what our fresh-faced Princeton undergrad gets wrong as he spends several paragraphs outlining the struggle of his own family:  the concept of white privilege does not deny individual hardships. Hardships can be circumstantial, they can be born into, they can be at our own doing, or they can be outside of our control. Some hardships, for some people, are related to race, and those who haven’t experienced those particular race-related hardships hold white privilege. That doesn’t negate the hardships others have faced because racial privilege refers only to issues of systemic racism. It doesn’t mean that people haven’t experienced difficulty. Nor do the hardships not related to race negate the very real discrimination some people have faced. (And ironically, as Tal outlines the discrimination his Jewish grandparents faced, he acknowledges the imbalance for them while glossing over it as a possibility for others.) There are many types of privilege: economic privilege, gender privilege, heterosexual privilege, and of course . . . racial privilege. “White privilege” is simply an interchangeable term for racial privilege, and refers only to race, not to other privileges a person may have been born into. This is what Tal Fortgang gets really wrong, because his essay assumes that white privilege refers to any kind of privilege. Not so. It’s possible for people of other races to hold other kinds of privilege. They don’t negate it either. . .  we’re not playing oppression olympics. When we ignore one form of privilege because another exists, we’re being dismissive. Tal Fortgang is also incensed that he has been asked to “check his privilege” in conversations around these topics. And once again, he is railing against something he doesn’t understand. The phrase “check your privilege” is typically invoked when someone is being woefully ignorant or insensitively dismissive of the oppression of minority groups.It’s not because someone wants a white person to apologize for being white, or dismiss someone’s opinion based on race. It’s a way of reminding someone that they may not know or understand what they are talking about. It’s a gentler way of saying, “You are kind of being a self-absorbed asshole and you should maybe learn more about the minority experience before you continue talking.” And based on Tal’s essay . . . yeah. I can see where he might have heard this phrase before. But here’s how a privilege check usually works: If I suggested that black people were over-reacting about Trayvon Martin, I might be told to check my (racial) privilege. If I said that gay people should stop complaining about marriage rights because they are free to love each other and that’s all they need, I might be told to check my (hetero) privilege. If I suggested that my kid’s school should stop sending home paper assignments and just let the kids do their homework from their own ipads, I might be told to check my (economic) privilege. If I whine about the presence of handi-capped parking spaces at a concert venue, I might be told to check my (ability) privilege. Being told to check your privilege has nothing to do with apologizing for being white. It has to do with being insensitive to the life experiences of others. “Check your empathy skills” might be a better phrase, but nonetheless, it’s not an attempt to shame someone’s race, but rather to point out that someone is refusing to acknowledge privilege differentials. Fortgang goes on to imply that it is his families ethics and virtue that have gotten them where they are . . . which again, no one is denying. But it’s missing the point. Morgan Jerkins says it well:

When Fortgang speaks of altruism and self-sacrifice as values that are deemed as privilege, these are abstractions.  We are talking about human beings.  There are those who have these characteristics and still face a tougher time trying to secure the same opportunities.

Tal Fortgang refuses to apologize for his white privilege. Fine. But I think he does need to apologize for writing about something that he hasn’t taken the time to understand. White people: no one wants you to apologize for being white. If that’s what you are hearing in conversations around privilege, it’s your own bias or unwillingness to examine yourself, and your attempt to instead create a straw-man situation to avoid seeing racial inequality. And that’s exactly what white privilege is.