One of the many things that Danelle and I have in common is growing up in communities where everyone looked like us. As in, everyone. As in, half of the kids at my suburban-Salt-Lake-County high school were probably sixth cousins. I’m not kidding. But I do digress.
There are some serious limitations to this kind of upbringing. Sure, your own racial identity might never be in question. But you are dependent on the adults around you and the media to fill in your questions—and every kid has questions—about why people look and talk differently from you. So, when we decided to buy a house, we chose the diverse community of downtown Skokie. And I do mean diverse. The village website says there are 90 different languages spoken, which is crazy because I’m not sure I can even name 90 languages. It is also, as a hipster lamented one night at the Skokie Theater, where cool came to die. But again, I digress.
The community was almost ideal, at least from my perspective. I loved the elementary school, which did not have a racial majority, except among the staff (but nobody’s perfect). I made so many friends who didn’t look or talk like me, at the same time that I took the twins to a kung fu class in Roger’s Park where Dani exclaimed, “All these people look like me!” We connected with a wonderful church and with Danelle’s mom and stepdad. And we relied on a Black caregiver who, having retired from a successful career with an oil company, passed on to us her wealth of knowledge about the Civil Rights era and the correct way to use a real hot comb.
It may have been from this beloved caregiver that I learned the phrase “good in the Culture,” which (I think) describes someone who is involved in the Civil Rights movement. This is an essential thing to pass on to your children—they need to know about the struggle for rights. It was frustrating for me at first because it’s not like the Ethiopian (or Korean or Polish) culture classes that my kids’ friends went to on Saturdays. It has been up to me to find resources to extend what they have learned at school. Fortunately, we live in an era where these resources exist—Danelle will tell you how hard it was to find any Black faces in magazines or books when she was young (and that wasn’t all that long ago). Dawn’s favorite is the film Hidden Figures, about three brilliant Black women at NASA during the space race. Darnell really loves Ron’s Big Mission (by Rose Blue and Corinne Maden) about astronaut Ron McNair as a child, standing up for his rights at the public library. And Dani adores a very special picture book, The Story of Ruby Bridges (by Robert Coles and George Ford), about the girl chosen to desegregate New Orleans’ schools—and the backlash against her. As painful as it is for us white people to look at the realities of segregation and racism, it’s important. It is up to us to talk about race and to pass on the Culture.
This does not mean that all media about, created by, or starring Black people is created equal, nor do your kids need to be exposed to all of it. I feel this is true for a lot of the historical portrayals as well as anything explicit or scary. My kids are not ready for 12 Years a Slave nor Just Mercy. But Marvel’s Black Panther? Or the breathtaking Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse? Cannot get enough.
It’s also important to acknowledge that stereotypes will work their way in. Recently, Darnell has been on a kick against hip-hop music, although he takes his hip-hop dance class very seriously. He doesn’t particularly like rap, and he is concerned that there’s an expectation that he should be a rapper. I can’t tell you how he picked up on this—I simply do my best to affirm that he can be who he is and like the music he likes, which happens to be pop music.
In moving to Washington state, we’ve gone to the other extreme—the opposite of how Danelle and I each grew up—where almost no one looks like the twins (there are about a half dozen African-American kids in the entire school). I often worry that my kids don’t have role models, that they are up against overt racism, and that they struggle with their racial identity. At these times, I can’t overstate how amazing it is to be able to reach out to Danelle for advice. And I am humbled by the trust she placed in us when she chose us to parent her children. How did she know that we weren’t racist, or that our extended families weren’t full of white nationalists? How did she know that we were going to keep them safe, from guns and hate speech and police brutality? How did she know where we stood on issues of equity and social justice? She didn’t, but she trusted us.
We are all on a journey of self-discovery. We are growing constantly—if we are open to it. I certainly never thought I’d see Ron join a protest on Seattle’s Capitol Hill or stand with him and the kids at a peaceful rally in North Bend. (And, just to toot his horn for a minute, he’s been taking a knee during the national anthem for the past few years, following Colin Kaepernik’s example.) Not every adoptive parent is going to feel like we do, and not every Black parent is going to, either. But there was a tremendous payoff for me, at dinner the other night, when Darnell said, “Black lives matter! That means my life matters.”