My son tells me he wishes he had "blond" skin. Like mine.
At age 7, he already feels different. He desires to look like his white parents instead of like his own beautiful mocha skin. His birth mother is white and his birth father is black. This union resulted in a beautiful, energetic boy who came to live with us as a foster child before his adoption two years later. When he expresses his wish to look like me, I tell him I wish my skin looked like his.
In the wake of the shooting and protests in Ferguson, Mo., I wonder if that statement makes me a liar. Would I truly want to look like him? To be followed by a cloud of suspicion as I walk down the street or drive a car?
A hard reality slaps me in the face: I am not equipped to protect my son from those who will harass him because of his color.
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When he was our foster son, I heard comments like "what is he?" A child. "When are you having a real child?" I am sorry, what is he? "I don't want my kids around him. Something has to be wrong with him because he is in foster care." I was speechless a long time after I heard this one.
I dismissed these statements, and these people, as ignorant exceptions, not the rule.
Now I see my error. I am the exception.
When I look at our family photographs, there are two white adults, two white children and one mixed-race child. It has not been until recently that I have become aware of our differences, leading to an ever increasing amount of fear. Fear that he will say the wrong thing to the wrong authority figure, resulting in tragic consequences. Fear that I have not prepared him enough for those who see him differently because of his pigment. Fear that his level of anger and emotion will always be looked at as extreme or violent instead of normal reactions to an agitating situation.
Fear that someone will be afraid of him. And subsequently act on that fear.
I lay awake and wonder "what if"' on a weekly basis. I have frequent meetings with school officials to make sure he is making friends and is being treated equally by teachers and staff. We spend hours on homework and proper grammar so he is seen as "articulate" and "well mannered."
His two closest friends are adopted and of color. Is that deliberate? Yes. I am not ashamed to say I sought these friendships out. My son needs it. He should not have to make sure he has friends who look like him. But he does. He already knows his skin is different, which makes him think he is different.
As a former prosecutor, I have seen firsthand the racial disparity in the Kentucky criminal justice system. I now see it is not just happening here. How do I make my son believe in justice when my faith is flailing? How do I impress upon him the necessity to be respectful to law enforcement without making him fearful of those who are charged to protect him? How do I encourage him to keep his head up when statements of ignorance and hatred are spewed in his direction?
Perhaps what terrifies me most is the knowledge that others in the community value his life less than my own as I would willingly give mine up for his benefit. What a contradiction to carry.
There is no definitive answer. No magic wand to fix a problem that is centuries in the making. What I do know is how much I love my son. I love the freckles on his face, the way he flies by on his bicycle, how he says he loves me best.
I may not be equipped to protect him in perfect ways. But I love him perfectly.
How I pray that will be enough.