About That Flag Cartoon

Last week was cause for celebration in my house.

Thursday, the Supreme Court of the United States rejected a legal challenge to Obamacare. The President declared affordable healthcare “here to stay.” Because my husband and I both work with impoverished populations, we’ve seen firsthand what the Affordable Care Act can mean.

Friday morning, I stumbled out of my bedroom in pajamas and disheveled hair to announce “MARRIAGE EQUALITY!” punctuated by my fist in the air. I hadn’t realized how badly I needed to hear that our country can do something good, something meaningful, something that proves we’re not a lost cause, until I couldn’t keep back my tears over breakfast.

I can only imagine what that moment meant for the people who had just been granted the right I’ve enjoyed for over twenty years now.

Later that day, I watched the first black president of the United States deliver the eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney: minister, senator, and activist shot to death by a white supremacist along with eight others at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. I expected it to be a mournful hour. And it was, knowing what is lost from our world, knowing that the tide of racism never stops. But the president’s eulogy reminded me of what was good in the world. I remembered the power of the black church over the last four hundred years. I remembered the courage and defiance of black activists and white allies. I remembered that history sometimes leaps forward in blazes of light after the darkness of struggle.

After all the violence of this year, I can’t help but feel that as a nation, we are on the cusp of a series of jumps forward. Through the courageous and relentless work of activists, injustice in the United States has spread from the attention of the world to – finally! – the attention of the every day American. Race, sex, and gender politics are, at last, front page news here in the United States. Americans are now seeing what the rest of the world has known about us for years, that systemic discrimination, oppression and bigotry are our great national tragedy, one we must, after four centuries, look in the face without flinching before we can move forward.

On Saturday, Bree Newsome did what we all wish we had done. Tired of the circular debate over the Confederate flag, she climbed a flag pole outside the South Carolina State House and took the damned thing down herself. Arrested and charged with “defacing a monument,” Newsome emailed the following statement:

We removed the flag today because we can’t wait any longer. We can’t continue like this another day…it’s time for a new chapter where we are sincere about dismantling white supremacy and building toward true racial justice and equality.

Over the weekend, Bob Englehart’s cartoon depicting the Confederate flag being removed was modified by an anonymous cartoonist to add the LGBT pride flag going up in its place.

Bob Englehart's modified cartoon

The cartoon went viral. It became a simple, visual statement of the victories of the week.

But here’s the thing. In the last week, six predominantly black churches have burned in five Southern states. Investigators suspect arson involved in at least three, but – let’s be serious, now – most of us outside the South know that six burned black churches in a week would be a coincidence bordering on the impossible.

We who are working for justice have to remember that just because South Carolina takes down the Confederate flag doesn’t magically take racism away. In fact, such victories often only serve to inflame racism. Folks, it’s going to get worse before it gets better.

We also can’t forget that where gay rights have gained enormous ground over the last decade, those in the margins – people, for example, who are bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual, and above all, LGBTQIA people of color – are still shouting to be heard, recognized, and even included in the movement.

After the marriage equality ruling broke on Friday, conservatives in my social media feeds seemed quiet for the most part (as long as I avoided the “comments” sections of news stories, those cesspools of ignorance). Most of my conservative friends didn’t comment, and if they did, their comments were brief and vague. However, given three days to regroup, hate is back on the menu. Only this time, it’s extra spicy.

It’s going to get worse before it gets better.

Ruby Bridges has been on my mind. Ruby, in her iconic first grade photo, flanked by U.S. Marshalls on the steps of an all-white school following desegregation.

US_Marshals_with_Young_Ruby_Bridges_on_School_Steps

She’s so small. Did she know she would become a hero? A symbol? Certainly, when Bree Newsome climbed the flag pole on Saturday, she knew she’d become a hero. She chose the spotlight, even chose her arrest. But Ruby? I think not. As an adult, Ruby Bridges Hall remembers her mother being pressured into sending her daughter to William Frantz Elementary School. She remembers not understanding why people yelled at her, threatened her, and why she sat in a classroom all by herself for all of first grade.

Sometimes our heroes don’t choose their status. History, rude and uninvited, thrusts heroism upon them.

In this historical moment, I see many in the LGBTQIA community as reluctant heroes. Yes, so many are outspoken. So many continue to take to the streets, to make themselves heard, to fight for their very existence. This is their victory. They are the ones who have done the hard work. But so many simply want to live their lives out quietly, peacefully, happily. The way I do. They don’t choose to be heroes or figureheads or, God forbid, martyrs, but so many will become just that.

It’s ugly. It’s unfair.

So, by all means, celebrate. Keep the focus where it belongs. Stay loud, stay strong.

But never think we are done.

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The Cloak of Christ: A Sermon on Mark 5:21-43

The last two weeks have been tumultuous for our nation. A week and a half ago, a young white man entered Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. He sat through Bible study and then pulled out a gun and, while shouting racial epithets, murdered nine people.

Once the initial outrage and heartache settled in, my next thought was, “I have to have this conversation with my son again. I have to tell him again that it’s not safe to be black, that there are men and women in this nation, in 2015, who hate so intensely they will kill.”

Some expressed shock that day. But anyone who has kept their finger on the pulse of racial politics in the United States knows the sad truth: that this is not shocking. This is not an isolated incident. This is just one more horrific act in a history of 400 years of racism. In the ten days since the Mother Emanuel AME massacre, three more black churches have burned under suspicious circumstances in Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina.

As a nation, my friends, we are hemorrhaging. We are bleeding violence. What are people of faith to do in the face of seemingly unstoppable evil? Several relatives of the Charleston shooting victims faced the murderer in the courtroom and publicly offered their forgiveness. Certainly, this is the hard task that Jesus gave us, the act he modeled and continues to model for us. Love your enemies. Turn the other cheek. Bless them who curse you. One relative spoke of no room for hate in the house of love her community has built. Another spoke of the need for second chances.

But many have spoken out against this forgiveness. They worry – justifiably – that this kind of forgiveness is too easy, too cheaply given. They say that these well-intended expressions of Christian love and forgiveness give America an excuse to ignore the very difficult issues of race and violence that keep us at the brink of explosion. The Charleston shooter wanted a race war. How many others are like him? And if we politely forgive and excuse, how many more will follow him? How do we confront and move past our shared history of violence? These are tough questions.

As a follower of Christ, I believe in the power of forgiveness. When we forgive, we lay down a burden. We don’t allow hate or anger to twist us. Forgiveness allows the pure love of Christ to move in us and through us. His forgiveness – so freely offered – brings us to the holy table each Sunday on bended knee. Forgiveness breaks shackles and heals broken hearts.

And yet, I don’t think that, as powerful and inspiring as it is, forgiveness alone can change our culture. Forgiveness and good will alone cannot stop the wounds of this nation, or raise us from a culture of death.

Today we read the story from Mark, the story about Jairus’s daughter raised from the dead, about the woman hemorrhaging for years who reached in faith for the hem of Jesus’s cloak and found herself healed. This story has both moved me and confounded me over the years. When I read this story, I want to believe. So often I do believe. I follow Christ because I believe that his is the way of healing. I believe that what Christ lays his hands upon lives. I believe that if, as a nation, we reached out to touch the cloak of Christ, we can be healed. I believe this.

But I confess moments of smallness and doubt, when I wonder why Jesus would heal this woman, raise this child from the dead, but not others. I don’t know why bad things happen to good people. I don’t know why children are abused. I don’t know why veterans sacrifice the best years of their lives and come home to die on the streets. I don’t know why innocent people are gunned down. I will spare you the easy platitudes about building character and faith, because in moments so tragic they shake the roots of our faith, we need more than the easy answers. When we are lost in our private – or public – catastrophes, we can’t help but ask, “Why me? Why, dear Lord, did you not save me from this pain?” So often we reach for Jesus’s cloak and nothing happens. We don’t feel miraculously whole.

But this I do know: sometimes that miracle happens. Sometimes we reach through our tears and our anger and we find faith and wholeness. Sometimes our wounds are stopped. Sometimes we or our loved ones are raised from death. And often, these miracles happen in ways we don’t expect, in ways we have trouble recognizing.

And even more than this, I believe that we – the handful of us gathered this morning in this building – we are called to be the cloak of Christ. We are called to do the work of moving among the crowds of the broken and bleeding, of allowing others to reach out and touch the healing power of Christ through us.

Now, I hear often that there is no place for politics in church, that church should not be a divisive place, that we’ll drive people away with strong opinions. But here’s the thing: Christianity is divisive. To be meaningful it must be divisive. Jesus was a divisive character with strong opinions, radical opinions, about poverty, about economics, about power and complacency. He and his followers lived and died over those opinions.

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth,” Jesus says in Matthew chapter ten. “I have not come to bring peace but a sword.”

This is a verse I’ve stumbled over many times, because it goes against everything I thought I knew about Jesus and about the Christian way of peace, about beating our swords into ploughshares. But this is what I didn’t understand until recently: Jesus isn’t talking about justifying religious war or violence. He’s not asking for another crusade. He doesn’t want us converting our neighbors at gunpoint. What he’s talking about is waging battle against evil. Yes, we are called upon to forgive. But we are also called upon to pick up the sword and fight for the cause of justice. Jesus asks us to choose sides.

If church is only a nice place to visit, to feel the love of God, to feel good about ourselves and share the peace with others like us, if we only want to fill the pews with other nice people who will open their wallets as long as they aren’t offended, we are not doing the work that Jesus died for. We are not healing our homes, communities, and nations. Jesus spoke out against injustice, and we must have the courage to do the same. We must work out how to extend the grace of God to everyone, especially those who are denied rights you and I enjoy.

Last Friday, President Obama spoke at the funeral for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who was one of those slain in Charleston. Rev. Pinckney was not just a minister. He was a senator and political activist who pushed for public awareness of racial injustices and laws to protect the exploited. He organized and led protests. He was loud and he encouraged his congregants to be loud. His career was not without controversy. But he engaged himself and his community in the work of God.

This work is messy. It ruffles feathers. It comforts the disturbed and disturbs the comfortable. We might disagree about how to do the work of God, how we bring healing to the broken masses. But if we sit comfortably on the sidelines because we’re afraid to engage in that messy work, because we’re afraid to do or say the wrong thing, because we’re afraid to fail and apologize and figure out how to work together and try again and again, we are not fulfilling our part of the bargain.

“Our calling,” Rev. Pinckney once said, “is not just within the walls of the congregation, but…the life and community in which our church resides.”

President Obama reminded us in his eulogy that “to put our faith in action is more than individual salvation, it’s about our collective salvation; that to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and house the homeless is not just a call for isolated charity but the imperative of a just society.”

But what moved me most about the President’s remarks was his description of the role the Black church has played in American history:

The church is and always has been the center of African-American life…. Over the course of centuries, black churches served as “hush harbors” where slaves could worship in safety; praise houses where their free descendants could gather and shout hallelujah; rest stops for the weary along the Underground Railroad; bunkers for the foot soldiers of the Civil Rights Movement. They have been, and continue to be, community centers where we organize for jobs and justice; places of scholarship and network; places where children are loved and fed and kept out of harm’s way, and told that they are beautiful and smart and taught that they matter. That’s what happens in church.

That’s what the black church means. Our beating heart. The place where our dignity as a people is inviolate. And there’s no better example of this tradition than Mother Emanuel, a church built by blacks seeking liberty, burned to the ground because its founder sought to end slavery, only to rise up again, a phoenix from these ashes.

When there were laws banning all-black church gatherings, services happened here anyway, in defiance of unjust laws. When there was a righteous movement to dismantle Jim Crow, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached from its pulpit, and marches began from its steps. A sacred place, this church. Not just for blacks, not just for Christians, but for every American who cares about the steady expansion of human rights and human dignity in this country; a foundation stone for liberty and justice for all. That’s what the church meant.

That’s what church means. That’s what it means to be a Christian. That we do the work both in these walls and outside them to bring justice to an unjust world, to bind up the broken, bleeding wounds, to forgive – yes, definitely to forgive and seek solace in our faith, to reach out for our own healing – but then to walk among the crowds as Jesus did and be his cloak. We must allow ourselves to be jostled and touched and moved in surprising, frightening, and unpredictable ways and channel the healing power of God through those touches.

This weekend I watched the movie Selma with my family, which documents Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s fight for voting rights in the state of Alabama. The movie reminded me again that – yes, there have been terrible things done in the name of God – but that much of the work of justice and civil rights of the last century has sprung directly from courageous church leaders and faithful congregants who followed the example Jesus set for us.

Yesterday at the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in Salt Lake City, our first African-American Presiding Bishop was elected. Rev. Michael Curry has spent his career empowering the poor, the elderly, and the vulnerable. He advocates for gun safety, immigration reform, and marriage equality, and supports the rights of black and Latino communities in particular.

Politics and religion, in my mind, are so deeply entangled it’s hard to distinguish them. Politics are the outward struggle for inner beliefs. Policy comes from what we believe about the dignity and worth of every human being. If we sever politics from religion, we are left as frozen statues in a dead monument. We have no power.

Friends, we stand on the cusp of history. Sometimes, we struggle and reach and we feel alone in the darkness. Our faith is tested.  But sometimes, history leaps forward in bright flashes, touched by the healing grace of God. We can be a part of that. Our salvation is not merely individual, but collective.

In his 1986 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel said,

We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented…. There is much to be done, there is much that can be done. One person, … one person of integrity, can make a difference, a difference of life and death. As long as one dissident is in prison, our freedom will not be true. As long as one child is hungry, our lives will be filled with anguish and shame. What all these victims need above all is to know that they are not alone; that we are not forgetting them, that when their voices are stifled we shall lend them ours, that while their freedom depends on ours, the quality of our freedom depends on theirs…. We know that every moment is a moment of grace, every hour an offering; not to share them would mean to betray them. Our lives no longer belong to us alone; they belong to all those who need us desperately.

The future lies before us, and every moment is a moment of grace. What might we do with those moments?

What Is Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD)?

If you don’t move in foster or adoptive circles, you likely haven’t heard of Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD).  Rare in the general population but more common among children who have spent time in orphanages or foster care, it’s a disorder that brings with it a flock of destructive behaviors and is difficult – some say impossible – to treat.

If you have a child or loved one with RAD, chances are, you have felt bewildered, exhausted, and isolated. Because it’s a rare disorder – a much more serious variant of attachment disorder (AD) – support groups are few and far between. For many of us, online communities are the only contact we will have with another RAD caregiver.

Many RAD children lack a diagnosis, so the source of their big behavior is not understood. When we don’t understand why our children behave the way they do, we don’t know where to begin to change those behaviors. These misunderstood children often end up in institutional care, back in foster care, or the juvenile justice system.

Understanding your child’s disorder is the first step to keeping your child safe, in your home, and moving toward healthy development.

If you found your way here because you’re at your wits end with your own RAD loved one, understand first that I’m not a psychologist or social worker. I’m simply an adoptive mom in the RAD trenches, trying to heal her kiddo while keeping her sanity. Perhaps, through this blog series, I can offer you information you didn’t have before, point you in a helpful direction, and share what has worked (and not worked) in my home.

Sometimes all we RAD parents need is to feel validated and know we aren’t alone.

What does normal attachment look like?

Usually, we learn attachment – the ability to trust and bond with other humans – as infants. We cry, and a caregiver comforts us. We are fed when hungry, cleaned when dirty, and played with when lonely. Through this process of having our needs consistently met, we learn that people – especially our caregivers – are trustworthy people who have our best interests at heart.

We’ve all seen a baby who cries if she’s held by anyone but Mom. This is a child working through healthy attachment. She’s attached successfully to Mom, but doesn’t have enough experience with a neighbor, for example, to know that the neighbor will meet her needs like Mom does. Once she learns the neighbor will provide for her needs, she will attach, though typically not as strongly as she attaches to her primary caregiver.

This normal attachment process not only helps us learn to love and trust, but also teaches us how to regulate our emotions, to recognize others’ needs and desires (develop empathy), and build the positive belief that we are worthy of love and security.

When attachment is disrupted

Several things can disrupt the normal attachment process. Sometimes children with major health challenges will spend large portions of critical development time isolated from family in a hospital or intensive care unit, where they lack normal interaction for a variety of reasons. Babies in orphanages who go without consistent human attention and affection often have difficulty attaching, learning to self-soothe, and recognizing others’ needs. Children who are neglected learn that they can’t rely on others to meet their needs. When children move from caregiver to caregiver (as in foster care), this attachment process is cut short. The more disruptions in attachment (the more foster placements, for example), the less likely it is that the child will ever successfully attach.

The good news is that these children often become extremely independent. Remember that this is a strength. A child with an attachment disorder often believes that the only person he can rely on is himself, and he will become very resourceful to fulfill his needs. However, this independence comes at a price later in life, when he has not learned the healthy give-and-take of human interaction. He will find himself without a support network, and sometimes uses unhealthy or destructive methods to get what he needs or wants.

Attachment Disorder (AD)

Attachment Disorder (AD) is an umbrella term that simply means a child has not learned the value of human attachment and struggles to form attachments of all kinds. Left untreated, AD children tend to create only superficial, fleeting relationships. With treatment, however, AD children can come to trust and attach in healthy ways.

Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD)

At the more extreme end of disordered attachment are cases where a child is actively hurt, physically or psychologically, by a caregiver or other close family figure. Abuse, abandonment, traumatic events like war or witnessed violence, and death teach children that not only can caregivers not be trusted to provide for their needs, but that trust equals pain. These children actively resist attachment out of fear – often subconscious – of pain.

If you try to attach to a parent who hits you and then abandons you, for example, you’ll learn to defend yourself by not attaching to the next parent figure who comes along. Somehow, your defenses tell you, it won’t hurt as much when this mom leaves if you don’t love her or need her. Better yet, RAD logic says, you can protect yourself by being as unlovable as possible. That creates a double assurance that painful and complicated attachment won’t take place.

Multiple foster placements can also create this dynamic.

This is Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD). Children – and later, adults – don’t just struggle to attach but become reactive in order to avoid attachment. They will instinctively sabotage relationships, because they have learned – often from events they can no longer remember but have literally hardwired their brains in negative ways – that relationships hurt.

RAD children show “big” behavior and explosive, unregulated emotions. They lie, they steal, they manipulate people, they set fires, destroy property, run away, and are sometimes violent or seem cruel. Parents often describe their RAD children as lacking empathy, which is understandable, because empathy means you can be hurt by the feelings of others. Also, the work of learning empathy happens during normal attachment, and RAD children simply have not developed that part of their brain in normal ways.

RAD children are, simply put, done with being hurt by people, and they will do whatever it takes to prevent more harm. RAD is an impressive self-preservation mechanism, creating a strength that is at once admirable, pitiable, and frightening.

These children will fulfill their own needs and desires (which often remain very basic and underdeveloped, although they look complex on the surface) in whatever way they can, because they have learned they can’t rely on others to do this. RAD children can be charming one minute and abusive the next. They are almost always most abusive to their primary caregiver, because the fear of attachment is strongest in this relationship.

Outside of the home, relieved of the fear of bonding, they are usually at their most lovable. Most outsiders rarely see the negative aspects of RAD and tend to question a caregiver brave enough to share his or her parenting struggles. This deepens the RAD parents’ sense of isolation and self-doubt. I’ll write more about this later, but for now, do yourself a favor. If someone in your life habitually minimizes your parenting challenges, makes you feel bad about yourself as a parent, or worse, undermines your parenting strategies, look for help elsewhere. This drain on your already limited resources is not worth it.

Further complicating the RAD dynamic is the fact that many RAD children also come with a variety of other diagnoses, most commonly depression and anxiety.

My RAD child

When my husband and I adopted my son at the age of three, we were his tenth placement. He left his mother as an infant and cycled through a variety of family and non-family foster placements, several of them abusive, until he reached our home. His older half-brother, who remembered the violence of his biological family and his abandonment at the age of three, was diagnosed with RAD.

But this little one, my boy with the cheeks out to here, seemed fine considering his rocky start to life. He was smart and funny. He was compliant and, except for what I considered normal toddler behavior, was generally good-natured. He didn’t hug often, but asked to be held. I had abdominal surgery shortly after his adoption and couldn’t lift him for six weeks. He stopped asking to be held after that, but I chalked it up to a developmental stage.

He was unusually stubborn and independent. He refused to allow my husband or me to teach him how to ride a bicycle, for example. He taught himself when he was five. Even though I felt like I missed out on a significant piece of parenthood, I was impressed at his independence and tenacity, and praised him for it. (Remember, your child’s deficits can often be reframed as strengths. RAD children are rabidly tenacious, which is an asset in so many circumstances. I encourage you to practice seeing your child’s symptoms not as faults but strengths. Your child will appreciate it and your outlook will improve. I’ll write more about reframing later.)

Every night when I tucked him in for that first year, he asked, “Is it tomorrow that I go to a new home?” But his question seemed reasonable to me, given his history. I would just remind him that the judge – the man in the big black robe – told us we could stay together always. We were a family. I wasn’t particularly worried that he didn’t seem to understand my explanation and eventually just stopped asking. I thought he would get it with time.

Admittedly, I was an extremely naïve new parent. My only experience was with traumatized children, so I had no frame of reference. I had no real way of knowing what normal behavior and development was supposed to look like. As Karl Dennis says, I assumed everything was normal until proven otherwise.

It wasn’t until my husband and I started seeing the characteristic “big behaviors” at around age eight or nine that we started hearing the words “attachment disorder” from the professionals around us. And the older he got and the more I watched him, the more I saw the telltale signs of RAD. More and more, things were definitely not normal.

The road ahead

My RAD child is now thirteen, and I have to admit that the odds aren’t in his favor. Last month, a child therapist told my husband, “He’s a RAD kid, isn’t he? You know you can’t fix RAD, right?”

As RAD parents, we already feel isolated, exhausted, discouraged and fearful. We try to hide our child’s behaviors because we hope we can protect them (and ourselves) from people who don’t understand. We want to preserve the child’s reputation. We don’t want him labeled. We don’t want to be embarrassed by our child’s bad behavior. And then professionals sometimes send messages of doom, and Google searches only confirm the dismal success rates for RAD treatment, especially when RAD symptoms still exist by the time the child reaches his teen years, like mine.

Sometimes it’s all RAD parents can do to not pack their child up and move him to institutional care. Sometimes – and I have to tell you this – it’s the only option left if your child is a danger to himself or others.

If you’re in this RAD boat, please know you’re not alone. Please don’t blame yourself. Please believe that there is hope for your family, for your child.

I’m in the thick of it. I’ve felt the anger, the overwhelming sadness, the periods of hopelessness, the grief over what I thought parenting would be, and the judgement of people who don’t understand the disorder, the behavior, or the unorthodox parenting techniques it requires.

But I choose – over and over again – to hope. I have to hope that my family will get through this, that my son will find a way to work through his trauma and find happiness and peace. I see all the amazing things he could become, lurking behind the fear and trauma of his first few years.  I choose to keep facing each new day, regrouping when needed and scrounging for help wherever I can find it.

You aren’t alone. Many of us chose to bring traumatized children into our homes and lives because we thought we could do an important work. Remember that great works require great sacrifice. Remember that, no matter how reactive your child is, no matter how difficult to love, what he or she needs more than anything is to know you will stick it out. That you are safe. That you will do the hard things that no one else has done to provide for his or her needs. That you’ll be here for the long haul, stable, immovable, consistent, and committed.

The road is long and uncertain, but I still believe the end goal – a child saved from overwhelming odds – is worth everything.

Race Matters

I adopted my son when he was three years old. Within the first twenty-four hours of his arrival, he told me, “I’m garbage because I’m brown.”

I don’t know what disturbed me more: the slap-in-the-face racism out of the mouth of a child, the way he had internalized the message, or the matter-of-fact manner in which he said it. He went on to repeat the phrase, obviously learned in some earlier foster home, over the next year or two until I finally eradicated it from his catch-phrase repertoire.

What took me a long time to understand, however, was that although my son eventually stopped saying “I’m garbage because I’m brown,” and even came to identify most with the black half of his genetic makeup, that phrase learned at such an early age had already seeped into his subconscious, where it was only confirmed by media messages, the evening news, and his own lived experience.

My husband and I are white, and ten years ago we were those people, the ones who believe that race is a social construct rather than biological (true) and that it is possible – and even desirable – to raise a “colorblind” child of color (false and false). So when my son said “I’m garbage because I’m brown,” I said what I thought I was supposed to say: that he certainly wasn’t garbage and that his skin color didn’t matter. It didn’t matter that he was brown and I was white (or pink, rather, as he often pointed out), or that his hair was curly and my husband’s straight, or that my eyes were blue and his were brown and Grandpa’s were hazel. What mattered, I told him, was the content of his character.

But with each repetition of the phrase over those first few months, the more my patience, my liberal smugness, wavered, replaced by exasperation and irritation. Why didn’t he get this? The phrase was illogical, nonsensical, hateful, and damaging. I told him he was beautiful. We read books celebrating diversity. We’re all different, but we’re all human, I said. Race doesn’t matter.

One evening when my son was in second grade, we sat at the dinner table. My boy scooped mashed potatoes onto his plate. “A kid in my class said I was going to jail,” he said.

I shook off the sudden chill in the room and laughed. “Why would he say such a thing?”

“He said all brown people go to jail.” He took a bite.

“That’s just silly,” I said. “You tell me: why do people go to jail?”

“Because they break the law?”

“That’s right. That’s like saying I’m going to jail because I have blue eyes. Remember what MLK said? What matters is not the color of your skin but the content of your character.”

Except that Dr. Martin Luther King never said that. What he said, as a matter of fact, was that he dreamed of a day when his children might be judged on the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. But in this historical moment, people did judge his children according to the color of their skin. Racism was MLK’s lived experience. Racism was – and still is – the reality of life in the United States.

I also ignored the fact that people do go to jail because they are brown or black, that as we spoke that night, brown and black bodies filled our prisons in catastrophically disparate proportions, that brown and black people flooded the streets demanding life and justice and were still hosed down and tear gassed and shot with rubber and metal bullets and choked and beaten and broken and hauled away to prison as thugs and hoodlums while angry white men walked away unscathed.

But this wasn’t my lived experience. This was not my reality, and I committed the cardinal racial sin of our age: I turned a blind eye from my son’s reality, assuming my reality was the only one. I took experiences that were crushingly significant to him and I brushed them away as trivial, silly, meaningless.

Later that same year, he showed me a Christmas ad from Target in which a family gathered around a Wii in red and green plaid pajamas. They smiled, laughed, and cheered as they played together.

“Sometimes I wish I had a family like this,” he said.

The family was black.

A quick, vicious stab. My center constricted. I suppressed a flash of anger and kept my voice even. “They sure look like they’re having fun. Wouldn’t it be nice if families could just play and have fun all the time?”

“Yeah,” he said. He wandered off.

But we both knew what he was talking about. I could have said, “It must be hard when you don’t look like your family. You must have a hard time knowing where and how you fit. Tell me about what that is like.” I could have – I should have – but I didn’t.

The next year, when he was in third grade, two white kids beat my son for fifteen minutes straight on the school bus while yelling racial slurs. The bus driver physically turned away from my son in silence when he asked for help. The videotape of the incident was “misplaced” for a couple of days. The next day, the principal told my husband and me that our son would just have to toughen up because kids call names. Boys will be boys. When we took the case to the superintendent, the principal retaliated by calling my son into his office in the middle of class and yelled at him for being a “whiny little troublemaker.” The bus manager found the videotape and called me, tears edging her voice. “You don’t want to see this,” she said. “It will break your heart.”

That’s what it took. Five years of denial, of living in self-imposed blindness, of telling my son his experiences “didn’t matter.” And when he came home that day from the bus, literally and figuratively split wide open, that’s the day I saw my own racism. That’s the day I understood that as a white woman, I had the privilege of being “colorblind,” but my son never would. Color did matter. Does matter. It matters to him. For him, race means life or death, freedom or imprisonment. Race – whether I want it to or not – defines my son’s place in the world, and in denying that I choose to be the bus driver, turning away from my bleeding child in silence.

A few months later, I had a chance to speak with the local NAACP president. I confessed my sins, my inadequacy, my blindness. “Honey,” she told me, “you’re gonna get that child of yours killed. You’ve got to teach that boy how to be black in this world. Whether you like it or not, that’s what you signed up for when you brought a little black boy into your house.”

Like it or not, race matters. While we’re busy talking about how it shouldn’t matter, race matters. When we refuse to acknowledge it, race still matters. When a white man guns down a black boy, race matters. When Rachel Dolezal plays dress-up, race matters. When the confederate flag flies over the state of South Carolina or clings to the window of a good ol’ boy’s pickup truck in rural Washington state, race matters. When we categorize white shooters as “mentally ill” or “abnormal” and black shooters – even if we discover too late they never actually had a gun – as faceless “thugs,” race matters.

Until white America stops averting its eyes, until we look racism full in its face, until we close our mouths and listen, until we feel something for what is happening to black and brown men, women, and children, we will never heal. And while we look away, people continue to die.