I am not feeling charitable. For the first time since we moved to Ann Arbor, a retail clerk asked me if Ben was my foster son. This happened fairly routinely in Port Huron, but not here. It's taken eight months. You may think I deserve this, or it is an innocent question, or he meant well. All of that may be true on some level. My answer is, and will always be, "He is my son." No other answers will be given unless we know each other.
It made me think about how often people have reached out and touched Ben's hair, an overtly racial gesture which offends me. So I am passing this along. Maybe it will shock you, or offend you. I hope it makes you think, and spares some other little kid the sort of violation I am growing increasingly tired of.
My son should not have to be your teacher. You have lived to be 40, 50 maybe even 70. You are white. You say discrimination is bad, illegal, unthinkable, some of your best friends are black. You may even mean well. You have never touched a black person.
You have never reached out your hand and felt black skin under a rolling tear. You have never touched the dense hair that tops a black head. You have never seen the naked genitals of a black man or woman. If you are male, you might have, because your curiosity got the better of you and it seemed exotic. If you did so I bet you did so by being a patron of what we now call the sex trade, because you wouldn't have dreamed of being intimate with someone who wasn't your color.
Now, my son and I are seated next to you, on a plane, at a supper, at a lunch counter, in the bus. You do not know us, we have never seen you. My son is small, on my lap, defenseless. You reach across that barrier between us and you touch my son.
You feel his hair.
The tight curls touch your extended palm but it is not enough. You tip the heel of you hand up, and you pass through his hair again with your fingertips, applying pressure because you must feel it. It doesn’t feel like the "carpet" you taunted another child with in fourth grade. It doesn’t feel “nappy.” It is human hair, attached to a living breathing human, my son.
I want to slap you. Or better yet, I want to reach up to feel your chrome dome, or your hair spray laden coif. Run my fingers through it. The most intimate sort of touching one human does to another, and you feel free to do it to my small son. I want to inflict it on you. But I know what you would do. If I raise my hand to touch your hair you will move your head away. Because you don’t want a strange adult to touch you, but you will touch my son’s head of hair.
You would not touch a white baby, because you have touched white babies. You know how they feel. Maybe you touched your own, or your sister’s or your neighbor's. But because you have never welcomed a black person into your life, you have never touched black, African hair.
You feel free to do this because I am white and my son is black. You assume several things about me, and about Ben, and all of them are deeply offensive.
First, you assume that you may do this intimate thing because you and I are the same color. Brother or sister, you and I are a world apart. Because of Ben and what I have learned being his mother for three years, I think of myself as something other than white.
Next, you will assume I rescued him. Rescued him from the ghetto, or crack, or foster care. You don’t even begin to know what our reality is. I consider him simply and completely my son. No one rescued anyone, we love each other and we are a family. That is all.
You assume you can ask how I got him. My response to you is “ Do you know whose birth canal (or vagina, depending on how prickly I am feeling) YOU passed through? Would you care to tell me the circumstances of your conception and birth, please, here in this public place? Would you enlighten all of us on your kinship circle? Are you sure you are your Daddy’s baby?”
You think my son is lucky. He is not lucky. The family he was born to could not support him because of an economic system so squarely resting on the unpaid labor of generations of black people. That same system that handed you a privilege simply because you were born white took away my child's birthright to live in his family of origin. He is not lucky that he could not be raised with his half brothers and his birth mother, and his father and his half sister. Luck has nothing to do with it.
So, when you see us in public, my son and me, would you simply greet us politely, chat about the weather, and know in your heart that we are a happy family? And then welcome someone from a different culture into your life. Get to know them. Ask another adult what it feels like to live in his or her skin. Embrace someone who doesn’t look like you. Step outside your tight-assed little circle and live.
Don’t make my small son your social laboratory. Grow up. Get a richer life. Keep your hands and your questions to yourself. We are not your teachers, you are responsible for learning your own lessons. Get started.