Having been born in the Deep South I have a heritage steeped in both immense pride and terrible shame. I was born in Louisiana, lived in Texas and Georgia, graduated high school in Mississippi. I have close family in Arkansas and am raising a family in Alabama – I get it, I truly do. I get what our unique culture offers, good and bad. I have experienced it.
My friend and pastor often says that a man with an experience is never at the mercy of a man with an argument. This is so true. I have experienced a unique and sometimes dangerously different way of life that can’t be argued away. It doesn’t matter one bit if you refuse to agree or refuse to see, my experience will not yield to your arguments.
Twenty years ago I would have just turned thirty and have been feeling quite grown up with some strong opinions on the ways of life, the ways of the world. Had you asked me about racism I would have expressed that it was a terrible, unacceptable, shameful part of our past. I was convinced. I would have tried to convince you. That was my experience as a white, middle class woman of the Deep South.
Then, our life changed drastically when we became foster parents. Suddenly my experiences were changing because a whole new ‘world’ within the world I thought I knew so well was revealed to me. I began to see clearly that racism was most certainly not a thing of the past and even within the hearts of people who claimed to harbor no racism, there were invisible but firm lines drawn in the proverbial sand of what was acceptable and not acceptable.
It was one thing to bring a child of a different skin color into our home temporarily as a foster child. It was quite another to consider adopting that same child and making them a permanent part of the family. It was one thing to allow their toddler daughter to be a playmate to our dark skinned son, quite another to think they might ever date.
Little by little, experience by experience, everything changed, especially me. Some of the people we loved, people we respected, people we considered friends took a stand and they stood on the other side of one of those invisible but firm lines of what was to be tolerated and what wasn’t.
Jesse came to us as a two-week old, 5lb, premie baby and absolutely stole my heart at first glance. To this day, he is the only baby I’ve ever gone into a hospital nursery and worn a paper gown to hold. His skin was very dark and his head full of hair. He was the most beautiful child I had ever beheld as they placed him in my eager and empty arms. It never even crossed my mind that the whole world wouldn’t be as thrilled, as entranced as I was. I would soon learn differently.
So, I was a bit blindsided by some of the reactions towards this light skinned momma and dark skinned baby. There were times of bold questions, hostile glares, snide remarks and rude comments. Surely these were just the few, the exceptions, the ignorant, was how I reasoned it all out.
At first I was hurt and humiliated. Then I became angry and offended. Some days I was more long suffering than others. Some days I was more scared than others. I was suddenly quite aware that to many, the love of a white momma for a black child was viewed as dangerously different.
When we found out we would be able to adopt Jesse (two and a half years later) I knew that we could not enter into such a commitment without a plan in place. Where we lived, how we educated, the church we attended, would all be decided with this thought in mind. Little did we know that Jesse would be the first of seven adoptions.
Twenty years later, things have changed a lot. There has been improvement. But, like a disease laden cockroach that scurries into a crack when the light comes on, racism is still there. Perhaps, as many point out, it always has and always will be. Perhaps. But, the fact that is has existed a long time, that others are doing it too, that ‘we aren’t the only ones wrong’ does NOT make it right. It does not mean we should ignore or defend it. If I see a roach in my kitchen I will not shrug my shoulders and explain to my family that people in the north have roaches too. I will not justify that my neighbor has more roaches than me, so we aren’t so bad. I will address it, take measures to exterminate it and keep my family safe. I will turn on the light.
Yesterday, I took my seven children to the zoo and for the first time in a long time I was reminded of how some people view us. It was a trip down a memory lane that I honestly would rather avoid. One man dropped his hands to his side and openly gaped as my tall, man sized Jesse lovingly draped his long arm over my shoulder for a moment as we walked by. Another younger man actually sneered at me, making a point to make eye contact with me expressing his open disapproval as he passed us in the crowd. Others frowned as my son Josiah held hands with his fair skinned girlfriend. Some raised their eyebrows when my little ones called me momma. I ignored these ignorant people and like a little momma hen, focused on my brood of children around me. Were they safe? Were they aware?
I breathed a sigh of relief. They were watching the animals. They were oblivious to the people who watched them disapprovingly. We saw some very dangerous creatures yesterday. Creatures that required cages and bars and precautions. Unfortunately, to many people our family, with a wide range of skin colors was the most dangerously different of all.
“Anyone who claims to live in God’s light and hates a brother or sister is still in the dark. It’s the person who loves brother and sister who dwells in God’s light and doesn’t block the light from others. But whoever hates is still in the dark, stumbles around in the dark, doesn’t know which end is up, blinded by the darkness.”(1 John 2:9-11 MSG)