By Joanna Owusu
I can’t sleep. Sometimes the burden just feels too heavy. Are the kids thriving at school? Are they getting what they need in the classroom? Are they being harassed or bullied? Can I keep them safe beyond the brick walls of this house?
All parents wrestle with worries like this. But I’m a white mom raising half-black kids. Being half-black is a distinction I make to my kids all the time. I want them to understand that they’re both white and black. But I also know the world will see them, and likely treat them, as black.
I grew up in a progressive, open-minded home but lived two decades in blissful ignorance of this weight that’s now part of my existence—and is the daily grind for people of color. I began to feel it when I started dating my now-husband. But nothing prepared me for seeing it through the eyes of my children.
It’s often subtle but it’s too often there, as soon as we leave our house. The moms who give my sons side eye for the rough play every little boy engages in on the playground. And then change their demeanor when they realize I’m their mother. The librarian who directs my sons to the picture book section when they’ve been frequenting the chapter book stacks for two years. The parent who assumes my toddler daughter is wandering a soccer field unattended, when I’m three feet away from her. It could be an innocent mistake, but it happens a little too frequently. A presumption of poor performance or neglect or misbehavior.
And I guess I want to share this for every white person who’s ever said they don’t see color. For the well-meaning friend who insists that education and income have much more to do with how a person fares in life than race. The friend who insists that in this day and age, racism isn’t a big factor anymore. Because we had Obama! For the friend who tells me my husband will never have trouble finding a job because he’s “diverse.” I struggle with what seems to be almost willful obtuseness.
My son makes a new friend and is invited over for a playdate. I’ve seen the parent’s social media comments on political topics. She’s all in for #PoliceLivesMatter. How can I trust her with my son, if she doesn’t accept a hard but irrefutable truth about how law enforcement has and continues to treat black people? What about the parent who seems to thrill in reliving her adolescent misbehavior by encouraging her preteen son to engage in similar hijinks? Let’s give them toilet paper and suggest they TP their friend’s house! As I’m sure parents of black children have always known…black kids don’t get the luxury of preteen or teen mischief. It’s not safe for them to run down a neighborhood street at night. And if I have to explain that to you, how can I leave my kids in your care?
My younger son, a math whiz bumped up to the next grade for math instruction, gets a coveted spot in a school for talented and gifted kids. He’s thriving academically, irritated and motivated by the fact that one child in his class keeps beating him at math bees. But he’s the only black child in his fourth grade classroom. My husband and I swore we’d never do that to him…and here we are.
The relative who calls the NFL players who kneel during the national anthem “delinquents.” The same relative who dotes on my sons, but can’t see that she’s painting NFL players with a broad and bigoted brush in precisely the way my boys are likely to be labeled if they assert themselves in ways that make white people uncomfortable.
My daughter, telling me she wants her skin to change color, at age three. Maybe she just wants to look more like Mommy. Or maybe, despite our efforts to surround her with dolls and book characters and peers of all shades, she’s already absorbed the message that white is the societal ideal.
It’s real and it’s constant and it’s relentless. And it can take a toll, if you don’t learn how to manage it. I’m learning. But sometimes, late at night, the weight of it feels like too much to bear.
About the Author
Joanna McFarland Owusu is a freelance writer and editor based in Dallas, Texas. A federal government analyst in a former life, Joanna now spends her days wrangling two not-so-little boys and a toddler daughter. Her work has appeared on huffpost.com, Scarymommy.com, and bust.com.