Motherhood as the Work of Revolution: ON RAiSiNG Bi-RACiAl CHildREN
Seelhoff, Cheryl Lindsey
When I gave birth to my oldest child 34 years ago, a beautiful, dimple-cheeked, brown-skinned boy, huge black-brown eyes, curly brown hair, I had no idea how raising biracial children would shape my life, my perceptions of the world, politics, race, and sex, or what kind of experience it would be. I knew I was coloring outside the lines so far as race and class were concerned; I was white, middle-class, a college student, and the daughter of a highly respected professional father and stay-at-home mother. The baby’s father, whom I ultimately married and later divorced, was black, born to a single, impoverished teenage mom, raised in a Baltimore cold-water flat in the ’40s and ’50s. When I met him, he was a black nationalist, was brilliant and self-educated, and was a convicted felon and political radical. Our decision to have children together was political as well as personal. We knew the act of having children would confront and challenge white supremacy. We liked this idea because we thought ourselves to be revolutionaries, as did so many young people in the ’60s and ’70s. Those were invigorating days; we were all caught up in the thrill of revisioning the world, recreating the world. We were yet to learn what that revisioning and recreating might really mean or cost us.
Over the next 20 years, I would give birth to eight more biracial children, five girls and three more boys, for a total of nine. In the course of those 20 years I would learn what it means to be a traitor to white supremacy. My first lessons were learned in the hospital after my oldest child’s birth, when the doctor, in his chart notes, described my son as a “mulatto,” a racist term, in the United States at least, denoting a hybrid, a mongrel, derived from the word “mule.” In due time there was housing discrimination; I filled out a rental application for an apartment, was approved, and then rejected when my husband showed up to claim the keys, with the hurried explanation that there had been some mix-up, and in fact, the apartment was not really available. We appealed to the property management company and were ultimately given the keys, but not without a fight, and the knowledge that we would be renting from a hostile landlord and so watched more closely than other renters. When my children entered elementary school they were targeted relentlessly for racism, not only from white children but from white teachers and administrators. After too many fruitless and discouraging, sometimes devastating, visits with school staff, I finally quit my job, removed my children from school and taught them at home, a project which spanned 20 years. I could not in good conscience allow children I had brought into this world to suffer a daily onslaught of rejection and racial hatred under the care of teachers and professionals who were either unwilling or unable to effectively intervene or protect them. But this decision meant my family would be poor and would suffer in various ways because of our comparative poverty.
As the years passed, I was targeted for police harassment for being a white-mom-driving-with-biracial kids in an old van, and so, according to profiling, possibly prostituted or dealing drugs. I was targeted for employment discrimination by an employer who, after a company dinner, confronted me for having failed to tell her before I was hired that my husband was black. Later, as a magazine publisher and public speaker, I was told by a peer in publishing that she would no longer advertise my speaking engagements unless I disclosed to potential seminar sponsors that my family was biracial. Throughout my now 34 years of raising biracial children, there was the ongoing offensive commentary from acquaintances and friends, the endless, intrusive questions: “Why would you marry a black person?” “I admire you for marrying blacks!” “I don’t even see color, I’m not prejudiced!” “My second-cousin’s daughter’s, sister married a black person.” “Things have changed; there isn’t much racism anymore.” “What’s it like being married to ‘a black’?” In the presence of white people who didn’t know my family was biracial, I often heard overt, unapologetic racism, including offensive remarks about white women who partner with black men and women or who have biracial children who were characterized as prostituted or drug abusers, ugly, losers, and worse. Once a feminist woman described to me a woman she had met as a “white stripper with the obligatory three or four mixed kids in tow.” I challenged these insults and racist remarks, confronted them, and was repeatedly angered and hurt by them.
Then there were my children’s struggles. Being homeschooled didn’t spare them the racist commentary or behavior of neighbors, friends and acquaintances, particularly as they became teenagers and hence, potential boyfriends and girlfriends. Often, white parents forbade or discouraged their children’s romantic interest in my children and disapproved even their friendships. Black children and other children of color also often rejected my kids or excluded them in various ways. My sons, as they entered puberty, especially, were targeted and harassed by police. My two most-obviously bi-racial sons have both been repeatedly stopped, detained and arrested-handcuffed and put into patrol cars or spread-eagled on the ground, their bodies and cars searched-for no reason at all, as police went on hunting expeditions hoping to justify their harassment and to haul my sons to jail. Both my sons and my daughters have been watched and scrutinized in department and drug stores, and on occasion, have been accused of shoplifting or intending to; their white friends have not experienced this to nearly the same degree. My daughters have struggled in their relationships with both their white friends-who have looked to them for reassurance that they were not racist (even when their behavior has been racist), and who have treated them as though they were invisible at times, apparently incapable of seeing their unique beauty in a culture that worships whiteness-and with their black friends, who have sometimes resented their lighter skin and different hair texture, and who have treated them as though they viewed themselves as superior, even when, in reality, my daughters felt excluded, marginalized, and inferior to, or different from, just about everybody, and would have given anything for their acceptance and friendship.
My daughters, in particular, struggled to make sense of how different they looked from how I, their mother, look, they with their brown skin and brown-to-black curls, me with blonde hair and pale skin. As adults, all describe having, to some degree, struggled with being biracial, so deeply and completely did they identify with me and with my sisters and others of my family members.
We have found ourselves always, in various ways, navigating the margins of many worlds, hated and resented by people of all races, excluded by various communities of color, and without our own people. There is as yet no real community with which biracial families may identify. A white supremacist world still parses us out based on the color of our skin and hair and our facial features, and on that basis affords each of us certain kinds of treatment. On the positive side, some of my adult children have come to enjoy their unique location and perspective. Interestingly, all of my daughters are radical feminists, having found a home and community among the people of women. Of course, and fortunately, my children always had each other, their sisters and brothers, the diverse multiracial community which our family has, in fact, been, in and of itself.
WHAT WE HAVE LEARNEd
Looking back over 34 years, I sometimes have wondered how we’ve made it so well as we have, for we really have. My adult children are all healthy, hard-working citizens, loved and respected by their friends, co-workers and employers. We offer these few lessons we have learned together.
1. If we could start over, we would live in a culturally diverse community surrounded by people of color. The importance of living near people who look like you, and where law enforcement officials, teachers, doctors and shop owners are people of color, cannot be underestimated, especially as children get older. My children all feel that living in primarily white communities made their lives inordinately difficult and painful.
2. If we could start over, we would make a point of regularly visiting, or living near, black family members, however difficult this might be. We would make this a priority. From the time we began homeschooling, with such a large family and because we were poor, we couldn’t travel thousands of miles to visit black relatives, and because they were poor, they could rarely travel to visit us. Once the children became adults, they were able to visit on their own, and they all described the revelation their visits were in terms of how affirmed and accepted they felt and how wonderful it was to meet and get to know people who looked like them.
3. We are all glad for the time we devoted, as a family, to black holidays like Martin Luther King day, to Kwanzaa, to the study of black history, and to Civil Rights work and activism. We are glad our house was filled with black history books, the books and art of black people, and movies relating to black history and racial issues.
4. In general, finding out that a potential friend was a racist has been a deal-breaker for us. Our experience is that those who are openly racist in the presence of people of color resist consciousness-raising, cause us heartache, and may ultimately betray us. Spending time in the presence of these people-including family members-has been undermining and exhausting and just not worth it.
5. We have learned that there are wonderful people of all races with whom we can make lasting connections and create our own intentional families, often people who are marginalized in various ways as we have been. When my oldest daughter, Jennifer, was 10, she developed a pen pal relationship with another homeschooled girl, the daughter of a Mexican, Spanish-speaking father and a Jewish mother. Over time our families became family to one another.
Over the years, we have taken in one another’s children, for years at a time sometimes. Three of my adult children, one married and raising two of my four grandchildren, have now moved to live near this family in California. We have celebrated Mexican and Jewish holidays with our adopted family, and some of my children have learned to speak Spanish; their children have learned about our celebrations and holidays and have celebrated them with us as well.
6. It is important to us to say that biracial children are neither “white” nor black. White is not a race or ethnicity; it is a marker of race privilege which biracial children do not and cannot enjoy. Neither are they black (or the race of their parent who is of color). Their ancestry is both black and European. My children have very much enjoyed learning about, and identifying with, both their black ancestors and their Norwegian and Swiss ancestors.
7. One of my adult children does not believe that white parents ought to adopt children of color, just because of the difficulties inherent in raising children of color for those without black relatives and who have not experienced what it is to be a person of color. This child believes that children of color ought to have at least one parent, or some relatives, who look like him or her.
To become a parent is always to enter into an experience for which we are ill-prepared. To become the white parent of biracial children greatly intensifies the difficulties and challenges of parenting; there are few resources for our unique families. Love and commitment, as important and essential as these are, are not all we need, do not in and of themselves address the difficulties and heartaches, both for us and for our children, of raising biracial children in a white supremacist world. We need education, too, and as much supportive community as we can create for ourselves.
Nevertheless, we do have the satisfaction of knowing that just in the living of our daily lives as white women raising children of color, just in the love we have for one another and our commitment to one another, we are participating in the deconstruction of whiteness, in the dismantling of white supremacy, and in ongoing radical feminist activism and work. As such our parenting work, in and of itself, is the work of revolution.
Copyright Off Our Backs, Inc. 2006
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