I’ve been a part of the Welcome Table New Orleans initiative as a participant and as a facilitator since 2014. Last weekend, I was able to experience some of the fruits of that effort. I got to participate in an education forum designed by the Central City Circle that involved four local schools coming together to think about what students could do about racism. After a daylong student event, my son, Tin, accompanied me with an adult group in a meeting about racism at the Community Book Center. The next morning, Tin and I participated in another Welcome Table event, the Mother’s March for those mothers who have lost their children to gun violence in this city. By the end of the day on Saturday, I was filled with hope for the work around anti-racism, but also personally exhausted. Some gal pals of mine were getting together for a social night out, and so, sitter procured, cute clothes on, I went looking forward to the conversation that would be light and fun. Only that is not what happened, instead of jokes and mom talk, I had a head-on collision with racism.
We were a diverse group of mothers, Black, Hispanic, white married to Black, white mothers of biracial and Black, and white with white children. The mother next to me, a woman I had just that evening been introduced to, was proudly announcing that she had passed her CASA certification and was doing an in-service training with her first case that week. We were sitting on the patio and termites had been swarming all around the lamp posts. The patio was protected by the high walls of downtown buildings, so only one or two lone termites were visible. The case was about a young school age boy who typically had gotten good grades but had come home with some bad ones. His father had hit him repeatedly over the head and though the young boy had complained of a severe headache, neither parent had brought him to the hospital, and the next morning, while taking a shower, he dropped dead. The parents were arrested and the two younger children were suddenly wards of the state. We mothers leaned in, sipped our craft cocktails, and nodded our heads side to side in compassion.
“The little children are so articulate,” the CASA volunteer said. “They really speak so well.”
Up until this moment, none of us knew what race the family was, but that phrase immediately raised a yellow flag. “Why do you say that?” I asked her. The mother responded, “They’re African American, and they speak so well. The little girl … .”
“Why wouldn’t an African American child speak well? Most of the Black people I know speak very well,” I said.
My friend, who is Black, looked at me from across the low table where the hummus and flat bread, the charcuterie plate, the braised brussel sprouts were crammed together among our cocktails and looked away. She struck up a conversation with another mother sitting to her left, who is white and married to a Black surgeon, with three biracial children.
The newly minted CASA volunteer said, “Well, you know, heroin is really bad, it is epidemic in this country, it is so bad in their community.”
“What?” I said. “Heroin is epidemic in the white community too. As a matter of fact, the only people I know personally who are addicted to heroin are white.” There was recently an article in the New York Times about heroin addiction becoming increasingly a problem for white grandparents who are now raising the grandkids and yet another similar article that my friend, Rashida Govan, who is African American, posted on Facebook the other day. Rashida said:
I want to be empathetic and I will because I understand the horrible impact of addiction. I just wish this country invested just as much energy into creating a narrative for people of color addicted to crack cocaine. No such sympathy or empathy was ever shown to Black and Brown people addicted to drugs. None at all. In fact, they were and still are demonized. It’s actually sickening.
The news that heroin is epidemic in the white community was lost of this CASA volunteer. My friend who is Black, the one sitting across from us, who was in a different conversation, glanced back at me. I noticed the corners of her lips turned up ever so slightly. I suspected she was either amused or issuing me a warning that my situation was going nowhere fast. The mother sitting next to her with three biracial children did not offer anything up to the conversation. The woman on the CASA mother’s right, who also had been married to a Black man and had a biracial daughter, was mum as well.
OH HELL NO, I thought to myself, this was my night off. This woman, with her proud do-gooder self, with her slight accent that made me think she was either Brazilian or Spanish, was working on my last nerve. The idea that she was these children’s advocate, when she thought of them as talking dogs, made my blood pressure skyrocket. My friend, Broderick Webb, says that white people who are so impressed by educated Blacks are under the spell of the talking dog syndrome. The syndrome that an African American who is educated, perhaps even beyond your degree of education, is unfathomable to some non-Blacks. It’s as if a dog were talking.
I’ll tell you what was pulling at me all the way to the core of my own being. My son’s birthmother grew up in the foster care system in Indiana. She had very few advocates in her life and therefore when my son, her third child, was born, she did not have the support system to nourish and raise him. When I adopted my son, I was living with a partner, who became my son’s other parent. She’s seven years younger than me, and because of the fact that I was 50 years old the year my son was born, I’ve felt comfortable that there is a backup parent should I die. I had just learned earlier in the week that my now ex-partner, other mother to my son, has terminal cancer. The reality of this sad news has still not sunk in because it is overwhelming. My son doesn’t know the severity to which his other parent is ill. When I tell you that the idea of my son who is Black having to possibly be bereft of parents who will advocate for him and his beautiful Blackness before he is old enough to make his own choices is anathema to me. And sitting right next to me was my own worst nightmare.
I’m Spanish and Jewish, and white. On any given day, at any given moment, I could choose to ignore racism. Instead of collision, I can choose collusion with our racist society, because on a day when I had spent the last 48 hours in service to the cause, I could say I’m done and sip my cocktail and talk about Fleuvog shoes. That is my privilege. It is only through my own training and listening to others that I’ve committed myself to never retreat. It’s being the white mother of a Black son that I know I must always choose collision over collusion. And that evening, with not only racism being served, but my son’s welfare in the balance, I went into collision mode with no flashing warning lights on.
The CASA mother was speaking very fast, telling me and the other mothers (who seemed to be half paying attention) that heroin was epidemic in both the African American and white communities. She said that heroin addiction is so sad. She spoke in a circular language, and she said nothing I wanted to hear. She not once admitted her own bias against the very children she had just received accreditation to serve. An hour later, two moms and I left to go dancing.
On Monday morning, I called CASA to ask them what type of training they were giving their volunteers. I left a message for their recruitment coordinator, who has yet to return my call. I perused their website to see where they might be addressing bias in their training, and found there is a 30-hour pre-service training and 12-hour in-service requirement for all volunteers. Chapter Three of CASA volunteer training is about cultural competency:
Chapter 3: Developing Cultural Competence
Become familiar with current thinking about cultural competence, diversity and the adverse effects of bias and discrimination
Better understand cultural influences and personal biases
Increase cultural competence and sensitivity in volunteer work.
As a facilitator and trainer around anti-racism, anti-bias, and privilege, I wonder what CASA’s training is like and how these three take-aways from their training – become familiar with the adverse effects of bias, better understand personal biases, and increase cultural sensitivity – just washed right over this one CASA volunteer’s head. I wonder this because I am interested in how people respond to learning that every one of us are in a position to either help or hurt another person.
I understand what motivates a person to want to do good. I recall many nights watching Jerry Lewis’ telethons with my mother in tears in the background dialing the number to pledge money to Jerry’s kids. I know the pull of feeling better after dropping coins in a cup held out by a beggar with tattered clothes. I learned in childhood the self-satisfaction of sacrifice over greed, and I do own the smugness I felt having been better at it than my selfish sister. As I began to learn about institutional racism and how it affects children of color, I took many naive steps towards righting this wrong. With time, I began to realize how there is no clear way out of racism other than opening yourself up to question the dominant narrative, to seeing others as individuals as well as in context to a larger society, and also to make every attempt not to judge people.
Who am I to judge this woman. I came into collision having a Black son, what about before? Where was my voice when I worked in an all white industry, covering an all white industry, and all within an all white company that I helped build? So as this incident continued to churn in my mind and gut long after it was over, I turned to wonder. The Winter Institute developed a set of guideposts for the Welcome Table platform. One tenet is to turn to wonder if you do not know how this person came to be here and have these thoughts that are radically different from your own. How did this woman come to be a CASA volunteer? What in her experience made her want to work with disadvantaged children in crisis? Does she wonder how she, a white woman, is in a position to advocate for children of color in our system? How could she better use her privilege in this role? What was CASA missing in their training if fresh out of their curriculum, one of their volunteers could not “see” who these children are as individuals as well as who they are within a larger community?
My son has a support network: he has me and his other mother, he has godparents, and family and friends, all who love and would advocate for him should he need this in his life. There are, unfortunately, children who do not have such a solid foundation, and there are also life changing events that force some children out of theirs. Each one of these children deserves to have a true advocate for their well-being. Believing African American children are exceptional because they speak correctly is fundamentally harmful. The first rule of advocating for a child is to do no harm. The second rule is to do good, which means to be in collision with any individual or system that seeks to undermine any child’s brilliance.