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Posts Tagged ‘Race’

The other day I was at my son’s preschool to pick him up. Often, we have “big yard” playdates with some of his classmates after school. The big yard is one of the common areas at the school where the kids play on the jungle gym, run around, pretend to be pirates on the big ship and eat leaves from the vegetable garden. On this day there were a lot of kids playing in the big yard, including little girl visiting the big yard with her younger sister. This young girl, who I’ll call Marla, couldn’t have been more than 6.

The Littlest E was playing with his friends as I sat at one of the children’s picnic tables.  Next to me was this beautiful, little girl with long, wavy hair, a round face and doe-like eyes.  The following is a conversation we had. I ask that you read it with the innocence of a 6-year old.

Marla: Is her your son?

Me: Yes, he is.

Marla: He’s really your son?

Me: Yes. Would you like to know how he’s my son?

Marla: Yes.

Me: We adopted him.

Marla: What’s that?

Me: Well, he didn’t grow inside me, but in his birth mom. For whatever reason, she wasn’t able to take care of him and he needed a Mommy and Daddy. My husband and I wanted a family so we adopted him and he became our son.

Marla: He has brown skin.

Me: Yes, he does.

Marla, said with great concern and caring: We have peach skin and there’s no one else here with brown skin. Will he be okay?

Me, smiling: That’s a really good question. He’ll be fine. He has lots of friends and, in his class he has other friends with brown skin.

Marla was quiet for a moment.

Me: It’s a pretty cool thing that there are all kinds of families, isn’t it? There are many ways to become a family.

Marla: Yes.

There’s another quiet moment.

Marla: Do you love him even if he has brown skin?

Me: I love him because he has brown skin, because he’s my son. I couldn’t love him more than if he grew inside me. I love him.

There’s another quiet moment.

Marla then yells to her sister: What are you doing?

Our brief exchange has ended and she left the table to play with her sister.

© 2015 Melanie Elliott

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Several weeks ago my husband and I took The Littlest E to African Cradle, a heritage camp for Ethiopian adoptive families. We all had an amazing time and I was excited to share about it on my blog. Then we came home to news about Michael Brown’s death and our amazing camp bubble burst. I’ll still write about our weekend, but it’s important to talk about what happened in Ferguson and to Michael Brown.

Once again, an unarmed black teenager was shot and killed this time by a police officer. The death and subsequent protests, militarization of police, unrest, deployment of the National Guard, peaceful protests, and Michael Brown’s funeral have occupied much of the news and, as upsetting as it has been, I’m glad it’s out there for the world to see. Why you might ask? Because the incidents in Ferguson highlight what’s going on in America. We are an incredible and wonderful nation, but we also have a dark side, and that dark side is our racial divide which doesn’t seem to go away no matter how many young, unarmed black men are killed, and no matter how often these stories make the airwaves.

Every time an unarmed, black youth is killed, I can’t help but think, that could be The Littlest E. He’s only 5 years old, but he’s already 3’ 9” and could be well over 6’ by the time he’s Michael Brown’s age. Who knows how much he’ll weigh by then? Currently, he’s this energetic, engaging, lovely, bright child, but someday, in the not too distant future, unless we shift how we view people of color at a cellular level, someone is going to walk on the other side of the street when he walks down the street. This happened to a black friend of mine. Or, maybe someone will follow him around a store when he’s shopping to see if he’s going to steal something, which also happened to a friend of mine. Or, maybe he’ll be pulled over for no reason whatsoever except that he happens to be a young, black man driving in a white neighborhood. This hypothetical list could go on ad infinitum, which is heartbreakingly sad.

At the root of the issue is this (and this is my opinion only) – ingrained in a number of Americans is the idea that black men are threatening. It may be unconscious, it may be masked as something else, but it’s there at a deep level. This can also be said of basically any person of color. Not all people of color are bad and not all white people are good. But knowing it, and KNOWING it are two different things. Maybe Michael Brown’s death will finally force us to have unpleasant discussions about race in our country. Maybe this will lead to some healing. Maybe things don’t change and Americans aren’t able to rise above our issues. I don’t know. It seems we have a lot of work to do as a nation. We could all use a course or two in diversity training. Seriously. We can’t ignore Michael Brown’s death.

Across the board, police need to undergo special training when dealing with teenagers and mentally ill people. Shortly after Michael Brown’s death, another man, Kajieme Powell, in St. Louis, was shot many times by police and killed. I watched the video of this on YouTube. It was horrifying. The man obviously had serious mental issues and was carrying a knife of some kind, but there wasn’t any reason for the police to shoot him as many times as they did after he was down, and then put him in handcuffs when he was obviously dead. It’s the same with Michael Brown. There was no need to shoot him 6 times. I’m not saying give teenagers or mentally ill people a pass, especially when there is a real threat to a police officer or person, but what about shooting to wound and not kill? A shot to the leg or knee can do an awful lot of damage, stop a person in their tracks, and give the police officer time to regroup without having to shoot to kill. Maybe I’m being naïve.

Police officers also need to not always jump to conclusions when they see a black man walking down the street. On Monday, television producer, Charles Belk, 51, was arrested in Beverly Hills and held for 6 hours because he fit the profile of a suspected bank robber. Here is a bit of his Facebook post: “Within an evening, I was wrongly arrested, locked up, denied a phone call, denied explanation of charges against me, denied ever being read my rights, denied being able to speak to my lawyer for a lengthy time, and denied being told that my car had been impounded…..All because I was mis-indentified as the wrong ‘tall, bald head, black male,’ … “‘fitting the description.’”

The police mishandled the aftermath of Michael Brown’s death. Was there a need to militarize the police force? It only fueled the flames of unrest that first week. Thankfully, calmer heads took over and they actually had someone from the community in charge, which inevitably led to lesser violence. But, will justice be served? Will Darren Wilson ever be arrested? Why is it that he didn’t file an incident report until days later, and when he did, there was no relevant information about what actually took place that day? Why is he still on paid leave? There are many unanswered questions that will hopefully be answered in due time.

Another thing that really upsets me is why people feel it’s important to demonize Michael Brown, demonize the victim? Yes, he got into a bit of trouble as a teen. Yes, he stole from the convenience store. I’m not saying he was a saint, but he was your average teenager. So, because he was flawed he deserved to die? Who knows how his life could have turned out once he started college? His parents will never know.

What we need is a continual, honest, national dialogue on race relations in our country, no matter how uncomfortable it may be, starting at the community level and reaching out to the states, then regions, then nationally. This issue isn’t going to be solved overnight. We must make a conscious effort if we are to learn, understand and grow.

What will it take for us to dig down deep and shift how we see those we consider “other?” Since becoming The Littlest E’s mom, my acceptance of others and openness to diversity has broadened considerably. Did you ever see the Matthew McConaughey movie A Time To Kill? Samuel L. Jackson plays a man on trial for murdering two white men after he learned those men raped his 10-year old daughter. Mr. McConaughey plays the lawyer defending him.  In one scene, there’s only a shot of Mr. McConaughey as he describes the events of Mr. Jackson’s daughter and what happened to her. He asks the jury to close their eyes and he goes through step-by-step detailing what happened to the little girl, so the jury and the movie-watching audience is taken on this journey together. At the end of his monologue he says something like, “now imagine she’s white.” We can’t ignore Michael Brown’s death.

©2014 Melanie Elliott

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While I jog in the mornings after I drop The Littlest E off at preschool, I use that time to let my mind wander and see what thoughts come my way.  Since the acquittal of George Zimmerman, I’ve thought (as I’m sure have many others in the United States and around the world) about race and the problems we have with race in our country.  I’ve always cared about injustice and inequality, for women, minorities, and the LGBT community.  However, since my husband, Tom, and I adopted our son from Ethiopia three years ago, I pay even closer attention.

When the story broke last year that an innocent, unarmed 17-year old boy named Trayvon Martin was murdered while walking home one night that most certainly got my attention.  I followed the story, even wrote a blog about it, and when the trial commenced last month, I sat riveted watching the trial unfold.  I have a hard time understanding how Mr. Zimmerman was acquitted, but I don’t live in Florida, and I wasn’t in the courtroom, nor was I on the jury.  Only 2 people know what really happened that night.  One of them is dead and the other will have to live with his actions for the rest of his life.

Rally for Trayvon Martin 24

The acquittal caused a firestorm of legal arguments from both sides and at the center of it, race.  Thankfully, the race dialogue hasn’t stopped since the trial ended.  President Barack Obama made a speech about race a week after the verdict and commented (I’m paraphrasing) on how a disproportionate number of African American males are victims of and responsible for crimes.  He also mentioned (again paraphrasing) that most African American males, at one time or another, have felt the brunt end of the effects of their color – like someone moving away from them walking down the street, or someone clutching a purse in an elevator.   He recently went on The Tonight Show and elaborated a bit more on race with Jay Leno.  Melissa Harris-Perry did a segment on her show on MSNBC on how to talk to your children in the wake of the acquittal and featured a mostly African American panel.  In each of these interviews, there was a sense of hope that when dealing with race we are, as Melissa Harris-Perry put it, “Building coalitions that are broad.”

Around the time of the trial, another appalling thing happened having to do with General Mills and a lovely, innocent commercial for the cereal Cheerios.  It’s now on television and YouTube aired it as well.  It featured a cute little girl asking her mom if her dad was correct in Cheerios being good for your heart.  The mom replies, yes, and in the next brief scene, you see the dad lying on a couch with his heart and chest area covered in Cheerios.  Here’s a link to the commercial: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n6yzITiMSJ0.  It’s cute, right?  Nice, attractive family.  Lovely commercial, except when General Mills posted it on YouTube, they had to take down the comments because of the hatred and vitriol toward them for featuring a transracial family.  I know racism still exists in this country, but slamming a TV commercial for something like this?  The outcry from this racial hatred was immense.  Many mixed race and transracial groups posted pictures of their diverse families holding boxes of Cheerios on Facebook pages and websites, including MASC (Multi Racial Americans of Southern California).  Bravo General Mills for continuing to air this harmless commercial about a healthy cereal.

Cheerios (Old School)

The Trayvon Martin murder and the hateful comments about the Cheerios commercial are harsh reminders that race is still a big issue in this country.  I’m grateful that the dialogue is continuing.  My son is only 4, and he’s such a spirited and beautiful child who lights up a room when he enters it, with his big brown eyes and bright smile that goes from ear to ear.  There’s going to come a time when he goes from being this charming little boy who everyone loves, to being the young man who women hide their purse from.  My heart will break the day he comes home and says to us that something like this happened to him, whether at school, on his way home, or God forbid being stopped by the police for no reason while he’s driving.  I hope and pray that attitudes and beliefs change by the time The Littlest E is 17.

Eventually we will have to talk with him about what he can and cannot do in public as an African American male.  Here’s a list I’ve compiled so far:

  • He can’t run in public because that’ll look suspicious.
  • He can’t run with something in his hand in public for someone may get the wrong idea.
  • He can’t walk too slowly because someone may think he’s casing out a place.
  • He can’t wear a hoodie because of what hoodies represent, yet I know people who’ve been stopped by police while driving for no reason and they were wearing suits.
  • If he gets stopped, always be respectful to police officers and say as little as possible.

Million Hoodies March

It’s  our job as parents to educate our son when the time comes, and it’s a delicate balance we’ll be striking.  We want to give him the facts, while guiding him not to be defensive or have a chip on his shoulder because of these present realities.  Who knows how it will go.  We made a conscious decision to adopt a black child, knowing he would be welcomed and loved by our family, but we can’t possibly share with him the African American experience since my husband and I are white.  We can teach him the history of race relations in our country, where it started and how far our nation has come.  We can continue to enrich our lives with diversity and make sure he has mentors to whom he can turn if needed.   If we are good stewards, we’ll have nurtured within him his spirit and self-confidence so, hopefully, if  an incident happens, it won’t diminish who he is.

Class Picture

Getting back to Ms. Harris-Perry’s comment on broad coalitions, there was an outcry from the spectrum of colors in Sanford, Florida after the verdict was read, so perhaps things are changing.  And, there’s a wonderful video on YouTube on kids’ reactions to the Cheerios commercial.  You can watch it by clicking on this sentence.  What lifts my spirits is that these children see color, but it doesn’t matter to them.  It’s no biggie and they’re astonished that someone would be hateful toward the family just because the dad is black.  That is hopeful.  I look at my son’s preschool class and he has classmates from different races that come from all kinds families (single parent, parents of the same sex, divorced and married).  His class represents a microcosm of our country today, and the kids are the richer for it.  This generation of children will be our future.  My ongoing hope is that this spirit of diversity and acceptance continues throughout their lifetimes so that by the time they are all 17, the racial divide will be a miniscule crack.

Images: Ryan Varsi, theimpulsivebuy, Elvert Barnes, Heather Temske

Post Script: In honor of the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s march on Washington, please check out this amazing tribute at http://www.time.com/onedream/.

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