Monthly Archives: January 2014

Raising a boy who comes from a different culture than ours

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During the long weekend, we were walking to Starbucks (yes, that is the destination of many a family jaunt), and Mike asked if I’d brought tissues to wipe Teddy’s nose. I confirmed that I had, but since our future track star was busy jumping over a sewer cover (the boy can clear three feet from standing!), I said we could wait until we had coffees in hand before attending to Teddy’s runny nose. Then I remembered that the Starbucks we were headed to is staffed by all black baristas. I quickly decided I wanted my boy to be as snot-free as possible before we reached the warmth of the coffee shop, as I’d already been kindly offered tissues once that week by a concerned black woman.

And in that moment, it occurred to me that a lot of decisions I make and actions I take now are inspired by the fact that my son comes from a different culture. As in the above example, some of those are to avert anticipated criticism from members of that culture, like taking care to bundle him appropriately for the weather, no matter how long we’ll actually be outside.

But it’s not always a defense mechanism. For example, Mike and I want Teddy to look good as a little black boy, even though this involves things we’ve personally never had to think about. When we’re going to be in predominantly black company, we moisturize and pick out Teddy’s curls beforehand, because we know it’s more culturally appropriate to have a mini fro than just a mass of tight locks. We lotion up his hands and face a bit more carefully so he doesn’t look ashy (dried black skin looks like ash next to well moisturized black skin). I suppose these actions also come from the desire to ward off judgement, but mostly we just want him to look good amongst his black peers.

Teddy’s culture of origin also informs more substantive decisions. For one thing, I strive to find books that my dark-skinned boy can relate to. When we first brought Teddy home, friends were wonderful about gifting us books that featured either diverse or predominantly black characters. And since then, I’ve purposely sought out the same. We were at the library a few weeks ago, and one of the books set out on top of the bookshelves featured African characters dressed in brightly colored clothes. I picked it up and was delighted to find it was the African version of the Twelve Days of Christmas. I immediately checked the author, found more books by her on the shelf, and was pleased to see that they all starred black characters, some set in Africa and some not. We’re fortunate to live walking distance from the Martin Luther King Jr Memorial Library, which has an impressive collection not only of children’s books, but specifically books featuring black children (and not books that are talking about race; regular stories that happen to have black protagonists alongside or instead of white ones). So it’s not difficult to find books that my boy can see himself in. Ezra Jack Keats and Rachel Isadora are favorite authors now.

We also do our best to take advantage of random opportunities to learn something about African culture. Teddy and I visited the American Museum of Natural History recently and while meandering through the “Oceans” exhibit, I noticed out of my peripheral vision an exhibit titled “African Voices” and immediately determined to walk through with Teddy. Without him, I might’ve thought, huh, interesting, and continued on my merry way. But my African-American sidekick was along for the ride, and I wanted to expose him to his cultural heritage—and learn something myself. Teddy of course didn’t get much out of it—besides yet another venue to dash around and burn off energy—but I learned a bit about a particular cultural phenomenon in Mali and, while eating his snack, Teddy watched a video that featured children that look like him.

Before the holidays, Mike was browsing Amazon and stumbled upon a collection of DVDs covering the history of jazz. Now, he does like jazz, but he was even more apt to put it on his wish list now because he knows jazz originated in the African-American communities in the South, and he wants to be able to converse knowledgeably about a variety of topics within African-American culture. He actually received the set for Christmas—thanks, Mom!

We’re enjoying this educational aspect of our journey with our black son is. In my day-to-day, I’ll still be hyper-aware of the little things—snotty noses, ashy hands—and will do my best to prevent any criticism from concerned black mamas and grandmamas, but keeping the long game in mind, I look forward to seeing what else we’re going to learn while raising a boy from another culture.

Life as a transracial family, two years in

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Since we brought Teddy home more than two years ago, we’ve enjoyed a new relationship with the black community. I get smiles and nods and “Isn’t he handsome” from black women and men all the time when I’m out with the little munchkin. With Teddy as an adorable ice breaker, I’ve had wonderful conversations with people I never otherwise would’ve had the opportunity to talk to. And the differentness of our family seems to invite people to share their stories. Teddy and I were waiting for an elevator in a metro station a few days ago, along with a middle-aged black man. Teddy looked him up and down, and the gentleman commented that Teddy was giving him the eyes. As we walked into the elevator, I noted that he must be special, since Teddy doesn’t eye just anyone. He stated that the little man must know he was a 57-year-old single father of a 27-month-old whose mother had just left them both. I tried to pick my jaw up from the floor as quickly as possible and offer my condolences. Seems the mother had suffered post-partum depression and couldn’t handle the child anymore, so handed her off to her father, who was overwhelmed but doing his best. I wished him the best and hoped my little guy’s brief interaction served as some sort of encouragement.

All three of us were in Starbucks last week, one of the few in the city open on New Year’s Day, right before closing. We were enjoying hot chocolate, a skinny mocha, and a creme brulee soy latte, with Teddy alternately drinking his and confirming to whom each belonged (“Teddy’s hot chocolate, Mommy’s coffee, Daddy’s coffee…), when one of the black baristas strode over to our table and deposited three pastry bags—each containing a slice of pumpkin bread—and a box of apple juice. She stood there for a moment as we stared at each other and then at her, and then correctly noted that we were probably wondering where these treats came from. As we nodded in bewilderment, she explained that it was closing and they were clearing out the extra snacks from the display case. To further explain why we were the lucky recipients (we were not the only ones lingering until closing), she shared how she saw that we were an adoptive family and she was a former foster child who was taken in by her aunt before she aged out of the system. She didn’t hang out much longer, and when we sought her out a few minutes later to thank her again, we couldn’t find her.

That’s not the only time we’ve received freebies or discounts for having our little Mr Charming along. At a downtown frozen yogurt place, presumably recognizing us from previous visits, the clerk asked if we were locals and, upon confirmation, gave us the “local discount”—which we didn’t know existed. (Unfortunately, it’s since been phased out in favor of customer loyalty cards.) Another time, during the government shutdown, I was trying on clothes at Ann Taylor Loft while Mike entertained Teddy, who was doing a fine job keeping busy dimpling at the store clerks. While one of them rang me up, she asked if I qualified for a student discount. I shook my head, but jokingly asked if there was a discount for furloughed employees. She said no, then looked at our grinning 2-year-old, and punched in the un-merited student discount.

However, not all interactions have been so welcome. Deserved? Probably. But not welcome. I have learned the hard way, just in the past few weeks, that black people tell you what they think. I imagine white people don’t agree with everything I do concerning Teddy, but they keep it to themselves, so I don’t have to answer for it. But when people make comments to your face, that’s a different story. And if response is a good reflection of character, I still have a lot to work on…

The issue lately has been the weather. DC has had a spate of cold weather and, evidently (I’m learning from my black friends), white parents tend to underdress their kids and black people overdress them. In the last couple months, I’ve been called out by black people (men and women, older and younger) on four separate occasions for not forcing a heavy coat onto my “baby”. Course, they didn’t know dressing Teddy in a winter jacket would require force and that I decided not to fight that battle for the three blocks we’d be outside—and that probably isn’t a great excuse anyway. (Actually, one admonishment came while we were still indoors, preparing to leave the library. I was holding the parka out and asking Teddy, who was running around the lobby, to put it on, repeatedly. An older gentleman expressed concern that my little boy might catch pneumonia. I wanted to hit my head again the nearby brick wall.)

In hindsight, I appreciate that these people are simply looking out for a little boy they likely see as one of their own. (Although, a white friend strollering her white baby girl was also called out by a black woman for taking her child out at all in the cold weather, despite how well layered she was, so maybe black women are just more concerned about children and cold in general.) Since I’m a big believer in the “village” helping me raise my child, the bigger the village, the better. But I’m ashamed to say I did not respond well at the time. Criticism is never received as easily as adulation, after all.

“Community is messy,” as one of my pastors is fond of saying. And as I’m invited into this community, I’ll need to learn to accept the critical interactions—and learn from them—just as I welcome the complimentary ones. I gobble up those proffered pieces of cake without hesitation. So must I learn to graciously swallow unsolicited advice, understanding the intention behind it.