I spent a few weekends ago attending The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond’s Unlearning Racism conference. This is a road of thought I’ve been on for a while now, which predates my adopting my African American son. When I moved to San Francisco in 1990, it was culture shock as all of the African Americans that I had become so used to seeing were replaced by Asian Americans. When I moved to San Rafael, Marin County in 2001, the lens changed to 100% white. Then I returned to New Orleans in 2005, and felt more comfortable in this landscape with all shades of skin color – this felt more like home, the people more like my people.
The first thing I noticed when I returned to New Orleans after a 15-year hiatus was that young black men in this city were dying at record numbers. It seemed incomprehensible to me that every day the news came of another 20something year old gunned down here or there, everywhere. Most times these young men were nameless (pending identification) and seemed to disappear from the “news” even despite never being named or identified or attached to someone, a mother, an aunt, a grandfather, or a child.
I began posting these articles to Facebook because I would read all my friend’s postings about boiling crawfish, landing a new job, and upcoming musical events but I didn’t find a conversation about the fact that in this city, our young men were dying at alarming rates and most were dying without even being identified. Surely this could not be since I had come back to live here in New Orleans because of the connections – because California felt so disconnected. San Francisco is a transient city where people come to make money and then leave when they begin to have children. You do not meet people’s families – they are disconnected from roots and ancestors. Here in New Orleans, everyone is connected to everyone. Except these dead young men who remained nameless.
As the body count for young black men was rising, I began a process of private adoption. For an older, single white woman, that led me to African American babies. Adoption is fraught with many complexities, but other than international adoption that adds more layers, a white woman in America adopting a black baby, a white woman in New Orleans adopting a black baby in an African American culture that does not condone adoption, is so complex, you cannot ever peel back all the layers and get to its source of truth.
Two times, I tried to adopt an African American daughter, and two times those adoptions fell through. Meanwhile, I kept noticing the young black men dying daily here in this city and I breathed my own slight sigh of relief that these were girls that were coming into my life.
And then my life changed. I adopted an African American baby boy and brought him from Gary, Indiana, to live in New Orleans, Louisiana, where young black men
were are dying at alarming rates.
So began my education – instead of noticing what was happening out there to other people, this news had come inside my house, inside my heart, and was up close and personal. I began writing this blog to further the conversation about race and parenting, about what is happening in America, about what is defining our beloved city. There are some people who feel that the alarming death of young black men in New Orleans is old news, someone else’s news, and not part of their life so the notices of their nameless deaths do not enter their consciousness. Just today New Orleans Mayor Landrieu said in a controversial meeting, “[Of the] 13,000 people murdered in the United States last year, about 7,000 were young African-American men killed by other African-American men, and that about 88 percent of them knew each other.” There are a lot of people in this city that hold this information in abeyance because they think it doesn’t affect them – they think that if blacks are killing blacks it does not intrude on their lives. They are dead wrong.
Each one of these young black men who have died in this city tears at the fabric of the lives of each and every one of us. So I went to this conference because I wanted to test the limits of my own understanding. I knew a lot of what was said there, but I was tested. I knew the science of race is a pseudo science. I knew the legality of race prejudice was born in this country, made into laws, and woven into the fabric of all of our institutions. We are, after all, the first country to institutionalize racism and to export it (South Africa).
What I learned was more about me, rather than the unlearning I had sought there. I learned why I have eschewed my “white” identity for most of my life because I preferred my Sephardic identity – the Spanish side of me that loves music, food and family; the Jewish side of me that loves history, art and social justice. I didn’t understand that white has no collective identity, that Jews opted in for the white identity to avoid antisemitism, that the Irish opted in for the white identity to gain legitimate access to systems, and that as each culture has given up their identity to belong, they have been whitewashed so much that they try to appropriate the culture of those identities that are still in tact = which is why the history of white people as a collective identity in this country has become a history of cultural appropriation.
I also understood for the first time that only a white person can be a racist. Racism = Race Prejudice + Power. So a person of color cannot be a racist. They can be racially prejudice, they may be ignorant, they could even by psychotically violent as Mel Gibson behaved or as one attendee described her attacker, but they cannot be racist.
I learned the disenfranchisement of people of color comes systematically from the fact that we have franchised – we the now collective whites who benefit from the poverty of a community we prop up. You know that community, the poor one with abandoned houses, with Dollar Generals, with social services and Payday Loans, with schools behind bars and barbed wire, with ragged kids playing in ragged streets – the ghetto, the reservation, the barrio, and Chinatown – these franchises that dot the landscape of America. These scary places you don’t drive through and admonish your children not to go into.
Race is a “specious classification of human beings invented by Europeans” – America institutionalized racism – I am white and privileged and so if I want to do anything for my son who is not white then I need to work towards undoing racism in my deeds. This I may do for my son, but I do it for me too, because in order for me to be happy and free – ALL BEINGS EVERYWHERE MUST BE HAPPY AND FREE.
In order for my friend who is a parent, who is white, who has white children, to be safe, to be happy, to be free, they will need to start the conversation about racism in their own household because as a parent, I don’t know any parent who does not want social change, who does not want their child to live in a better world, who is not incited to radicalism when they feel their child is threatened in any way.
If you are reading this post and asking yourself, how do I start this conversation with my child, how do I work towards social change, or how do I, a white person, help change a system that disenfranchises people of color, I ask that you join this conversation as the first step.