“If there is a Black History Month, why isn’t there a White History Month?”
-- Jill Matlock-Carter, circa 1992, Georgia History class
You read that correctly. I said that. I am pretty sure it caused my friend Ebony’s head to explode. I had no clue why.
“Know why black folks don’t like to open the Tylenol? They don’t like picking out the cotton.”
--Jill Matlock-Carter, 1995, Latin II class.
I really don’t know why Katika, Jhondee, and Caleshia still speak to me.
“But, Mom, We are just FRIENDS.”
--Jill Matlock-Carter, 1996, trying to convince her parents to let her go to the prom with her black friend.
So, as you can see, I started off in the same boat as nearly every conservative, Southern, middle-class, white child I have ever met: the SS Ignorance. I was not intentionally racist. My parents were not going to lynch anyone. As a teenager, I had a couple of friends who were not white. I had a couple of teachers who were black. My grandmother and my mother had two amazing black women who cleaned house and helped raise us. And I loved them. All of them. And I think this is the case for most white people, hence why we say, “I have lots black friends.” We do have a lot of black friends. We love them. But we are not really looking at their world.
So I want to share with you the story about how I began to wake up to the systematic (and sometimes personal) racism in the world, my country, my state, my community, my family, and myself. In college, I started to understand on an academic level, but it did not get personal for me until 2004.
When my husband and I had our first son, we named him Chance because bringing him into this world was a long shot. I won’t get into all of the gross medical stuff, but after months and months of trying to get pregnant a second time, I miscarried. So my husband and I decided to adopt.
When you adopt, you have to go through a thorough evaluation called a home study. This is much less about studying your house than it is about studying the home you hope to make. And there are tough questions: Are you willing to adopt a child who has been exposed to methamphetamine? Alcohol? Heroin? Are you exclusively looking to adopt a boy? A girl? Either one? What races are you willing to consider adopting? What is your budget?
Want to know what we learned? It is less expensive (sometimes by tens of thousands of dollars) to adopt a child of color, particularly black children. Apparently they are harder to place than white (or white-like) children. Now, don’t get me wrong. I do not blame the adoption system for this. I blame two things: systematic racism and fear. Want to know why I was scared to adopt a black baby girl: I had no idea of how to care for her hair. Note: we have since adopted two and I have discovered coconut oil.
Back to our story. When we decided to adopt the first time, we decided that we would be open to nearly anything, but we would prefer a biracial girl. In less than three months we brought home our biracial son, Jon Elliot, and our understanding of race in the world was forever changed.
We had worried that our card-carrying Daughters of the Confederacy family might not accept him. But here is the thing about the human heart: when you give it the opportunity to love something, it usually jumps at it. And so it did. Our families grabbed that baby and loved every colicky inch of him. They have cheered him on and kept him safe. They have encouraged him and comforted him. But this is not about how he changed them, it is about how he began changing me.
I began to see the world through his eyes. It made see how black men are highly regarded as athletes frequently but are rare as political leaders. It made me realize that our church becomes the whitest place on earth on Sunday mornings. It made me see that there are some people who will never see how handsome my son is because they can only see brown. Mostly, it made me see that racism is subtle undercurrent that pulses not just in the community, but also within me. It made me see that I want badly to fix that part of me.
When Trayvon Martin was shot and then his killer was released, there was a shitstorm on social media. Several people I love and who love me and my kids said some things that hurt. Regardless of whether or not you feel justice was served, the things said brought me to tears. Until you have had to tell your six year old that he can’t play with his air soft guns anywhere except the back yard, then you don’t understand what it is like. It is not because our neighbors are all card-carrying KKK members. It is because we live in a world where different from us is scary.
So two years after we adopted our son, we went through fertility surgeries and treatments and I gave birth to the wackiness that is our Westley. Telling about how he has changed our worldview would require a psychiatrist or an open bar. But that is a story for another time. We regularly joke that our kids’ goals are for Chance to get through grad school, for JE to open his own hot rod garage, and for Westley to stay out of jail.
Well, with all of the testosterone in the house, we decided to try for a girl. We tried for five years to get pregnant (because it is significantly cheaper and there is much less red tape). Alas, it was to no avail. So we adopted again. And, through an amazing journey (again, another story), we now have not one, but two daughters. N’Aziyah is the oldest and is African-American. Rynn is two months younger and is Caucasian/African-American. Again, my worldview has shifted and continues to change as I see the world through their eyes. I am learning that there are nuances that I had never noticed as to how our society views race and gender. The girls are still little, and I know that we will have some special challenges related to their race and sex, but we will face them head-on.
While nearly everyone has been super supportive and loves my kids, a lot of it is the same as how I loved my black friends in high school or how I loved Ms. Mattie and Ms. Nona who helped raise me. It is love. True and deep. But it lacks a little understanding of the how people who are different from us live in the world around us.
So now, when people ask me questions, I answer them. No matter how rude the question. When we adopted our daughters, I cannot tell you how many of my friends and acquaintances have wondered at their hair and been amazed when I tell them I fixed it. I could lose my cool and tell them that it is just hair, but the reason that they are asking is that our culture, for so long, has made that which is different from us so taboo that we can’t even understand that hair is hair. So I let people ask. I explain. And I let them touch. Because until we act like hair is hair, we can’t act like people are people. We are a conspicuous family, but that very conspicuousness gives us platform to inform others and maybe help re-form opinions.
I was asked what I see as the future of American racial relations and the climate concerning race. I am seeing hope. We still live in Georgia. There is still a lot of division. My oldest son started middle school this year, and had his first girlfriend. She was black. No one batted an eye. I’m not going to lie: I was a little surprised and a lot delighted. It dawned on me one day that I have no idea what my family will look like as my children start families of their own. I think that we all have this idea of what our future will look like. I had always expected to have white kids and white grandkids. But now I look ahead with wonder: who will my children choose to love? The only thing that I care about anymore is that they will hopefully choose to love someone who will love them well in turn. Who really cares about the rest?
I don’t know how to make big waves. I don’t know how to correct intolerance. I don’t know how to stop hate. I don’t know how to change policies. What I do know is how to teach my kids to love others. I do know that my actions speak loudly. I do know that there will be times when our family will be included in the “tons of black friends” people have. I also know that I can help others just like those friends from middle and high school who loved me through my ignorance. I can admire those who have large platforms. For me, I will continue to try to make my own small splash in a sea of ideas, policies, and actions that are often unfair and sometimes even hateful. When we change individual hearts, maybe that is how we begin to change the world.
28 Days is a project about perspectives of people whose lives intertwine with the black struggle either personally or through others close to them. Along with their perspective they entrust us with what they hope for moving forward.
We hope this helps drive conversation, breaks down barriers and incites change.
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