The color between black and white.

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We had known each other exactly three days before I had to reckon with what Black History Month had to do with my “brown” children. Three Mexican-American foster girls had moved in with us at the end of January and by the beginning of February they were riding home from elementary school with triumphant tales of the end of racism.

“Aren’t you glad that Martin Luther King, Jr. made it better for everyone once and for all?” our third grader asked me, minutes after I pulled away from the congested carpool line. Well, yes and no, I fumbled on the fly. Yes, I am glad but no, it’s not better for everyone. You and your people, child, are still seen in that amorphous category called “brown” in a country contrived for “whites.” 

Three years and three solemn adoptions later, I am still fumbling to educate myself and my girls–now 9, 11, and 13–on the color between black and white. It wasn’t until the lights came up on another movie about the black experience in America and another disheartened child squeaked, “Why does that have to happen to them?,” that I knew we had to keep connecting the dots with our girls, however imperfectly, between us and them. Not to diminish the impact of racism on black Americans. But to grow our understanding of its shared history with Latin-Americans. Always we begin again, echoed St. Benedictine.

And so it was that I awoke one Sunday morning possessed. Still in my pajamas, dog-hair sprouting off my hoodie, I sat on the living room floor and googled my guts out. (Because, I’m learning, that’s where white people start. By asking a white friend. Reading a book–like this powerhouse–by an ethnic minority. Hopping on the world wide web. Not by asking the first fill-in-the-blank friend we know.) What I found was a revelation in plain sight. 

I would tell my girls that millions more African slaves arrived in what is now Latin America than did in the United States, birthing the marriage of Afro-Latin history. (Mexico, then called New Spain, is thought to have had more slaves in the 16th century than any other New World colony.) I would tell my girls that seven years before the official start of the civil rights movement a Mexican-American woman led the way on desegregating public schools, winning a verdict for her district that later rippled to the entire state of California. (Caveat: nowadays, resegregation is a major problem.) I would tell my girls that Hispanics are overrepresented in traffic searches and arrests and second to African-Americans in the rate of police killings of minorities. (You know the talk Starr got in The Hate U Give? We’re giving it to our girls, too.)

It was a lot of information to take in all at once. It was for me. It would be for them. And, so, as we gathered at the lunch table later that Sunday for our weekly family meeting–our plates piled high with tuna fish and pita chips and clementines–I invited them first to draw a self-portrait. It centers my girls to color during hard conversations; it allows them to take their pain to the page and remain present. And, so, as the stories and statistics rolled off my tongue, one of the girls asked hard questions, one chewed slowly, and another drew blue lips.

We came back to those drawings at the end of our time. What did you notice? I asked. We reflected on the crayon color we each chose for our skin; I used apricot, two used brown, and two went surrealist. Race, I explained, is how these physical characteristics are perceived by others. Although race is not real, it has been used to do real harm which is why we need to know how others see and sort us. Ethnicity, on the other hand, is defined by the cultural characteristics with which you yourself identify. (So, for instance, we shared that on the U.S. Census, Latinx might identify as any one of five racial categories but could mark Hispanic or Latino for their ethnicity). You can be more than one race, just as you can be more than one ethnicity, I reminded us, but everyone is more than the sum of our parts. All of us have what the poet Mary Oliver called a maverick self within.

After a full lunch, where we still managed to talk about gymnastics and tutoring and date night in the week ahead, we all put our multi-hued hands into the center of the circle and did our version of the Bayside high-five which culminates in us shouting our family name. The only catch is we have four last names in our family. My husband kept his. I went back to mine. And we chose to keep the girls’ Spanish double last name to honor whose they are before they are ours. So, our family name is essentially a combination of the first two letters of each of our four last names. In a confusing twist, we sound vaguely Italian.

There is more work to be done as we work for justice or–as we’re defining it in the context of our faith tradition–“making it right so everyone can belong.” While this first week was focused on answering the question “What’s not right?” (education) about racism, we’re planning on spending the next few weeks asking “Where do we need help in getting it right?” (confession), “What will we do differently to make it right?” (repentance), and “How can we make it right together?” (action). These coming weeks will be crucial containers for my and my husband’s own continued work around white supremacy, “privilege“, and fragility. 

The invitation is to go slow as I learn, ask for help as I learn, and take the long view on this life of learning. But I’m also going to keep coming back to our family high-five as a fitting symbol of a spiritual mystery put simply by Maya Angelou in her poem, “Human Family:

I note the obvious differences
between each sort and type,

but we are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.

We are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.

We are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.

One response to “The color between black and white.

  1. Thank you for so thoughtfully and honestly sharing your journey and framework. It inspires me to think more deliberately about how we navigate these conversations and realities in my own home. Glad to have you as a witness and teacher in my life, dear friend.

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