My name is Rachel, and I'm white. I've benefited from white privilege my entire life, most of the time without knowing it. When I became a mom, things changed for me, dramatically.
My husband and I chose to build our family through adoption. We agreed that we would be open to adopting a child of any race. We didn't take the decision lightly. In fact, every night for four months straight, we talked about race: where we grew up, where we lived presently, our past experiences, our questions. We read books, and we met with transracial families and families of color in order to ask them honest questions. After our four months of heart-, mind- and soul-searching, we decided that we could be great parents to a child of any race.
On a balmy November Saturday in 2008, we got a phone call from our social worker. We had been chosen by a woman to adopt her newborn daughter, and the baby was already born. Our first daughter had a full afro, medium brown skin and dark, large eyes. She was absolutely beautiful. Two years after her birth, we were chosen to parent another girl. Her skin was deep brown, prompting strangers to ask us what country she was from. A little over two years later, we were placed with a third child, a little boy, and like his sisters, he is black.
Parenting our children has been a joy, an honor and a challenge. As white people, we have never been judged as suspicious, lazy, unintelligent, or dangerous immediately upon walking into a room. We've never been followed by a security guard in a mall or pulled over by a police officer because of the color of our skin. No one has tried to touch my hair out of curiosity, told me I'm a good dancer because dancing is "in" me, or quoted Martin Luther King as a means of telling me how I should feel about injustices.
It wasn't until our children were born that my husband and I began to get a taste of what it's like to be a person of color in America.
First, there are the microaggressions -- strangers who have tried to "pet" my daughters' intricate, beaded cornrows. Watermelon jokes, comments about colorblindness and assumptions about my kids' athletic abilities -- all have taken place. Are my kids "full" or "mixed" or "what are they?"
Second, there's the name calling and labeling, like the white woman who took it upon herself to call my toddler son a thug. There's the young man who drove past our house, saw my daughters riding bikes in the driveway, and yelled the n-word at them, twice. There have been joking references to the word "ghetto." When Michael Brown was killed in our neighboring town of Ferguson, I heard more references to "those people" and "thugs" than I could count.
Third, there are the statistics, the realities. Black children are more likely to be disciplined more frequently and more harshly than their white peers. Black children who go missing are less likely to make local or national news than white children and adults who go missing, thus the existence of the Black and Missing program. Black children are grossly absent from media such as in movies and books, and when black characters are present, they are often relegated to the roles of the villains or the sassy, street-smart individuals.
Finally, and perhaps most disheartening and damaging, is the dismissal. One morning at the beginning of a new school year, I stood outside the doors of my daughter's preschool waiting. As the students poured out, one little boy ran into his mother's arms and exclaimed in excitement, "There are brown kids in my class, mom!" His mother shushed loudly, her eyes darting around to see who had observed the situation. She didn't realize that I, the woman standing right next to her, was one of the brown kids' parents. The mom sent her child a powerful message: Difference shouldn't be discussed, nor should it be celebrated. We've experienced several other similar situations.
Watching my children encounter racism, judgement and discrimination solely based on their skin color has blossomed and fostered a deep empathy in me for people of color. Their battle is constant. They cannot go a single day without someone -- be it a stranger, a co-worker, a reporter or even a dear friend or family member -- treat them in a less-than manner. The culmination of these experiences is exhausting and infuriating. Black people have every right to be angry. Like Rosa Parks expressed when she refused to give up her seat to a white man, they are tired of being tired.
Most white people don't "get it" for the simple reason that they haven't lived it. This is something I can relate to, because for the first 27 years of my life, I didn't get it either. It wasn't until I walked very closely alongside people of color, my own children, that I understood.
As I watch the scenes in Baltimore unfold, much as they did in Ferguson, my heart feels heavy. My frustration grows daily as I see more social media references to "those people," as if black people are aliens, as others, rather than fellow human beings. With each brown face that fills my television screen, a child or man who has died at the hands of those who have sworn to protect and serve, I feel increasingly conflicted on what I will teach my own children about police officers.
I know it's more comfortable to speak rather than to listen. I know it's tempting for some to post #AllLivesMatter instead of #BlackLivesMatter. I know it's easy shake heads at images of destroyed property and preach about how admirable Dr. King was for touting non-violent approaches to injustices. I understand these things, though I do not agree with them.
I've been asked by a few people what I think is the answer to racial tensions that have exploded in recent months. I've thought long and hard about what racial reconciliation could look like and what actions would have to be taken for peace, justice and equality to coexist. All I can say is, I know what changed me, what brought me to not only the realization but the recognition of the struggles of black people, and that was willingly opening my heart, my mind and my arms to people of color.
We don't develop empathy by speaking, by judging, by advising or by criticizing. We certainly don't gain much of anything by closing our ears and turning our backs. If white people continue to refuse to engage openly, honestly and willingly with those who are persecuted, stereotyped and vilified, things will not change.
It's time to recognize white privilege as a real thing.
It's time to intentionally pursue empathy.
It's time to count all people as people, my children included.