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.