Saturday, January 22, 2011

Moving

Next month we are moving. In part, we're moving because T wants a dog. In part, we're moving because our landlords/duplex neighbors are racist.

When T moved in, readers of this blog might recall that the landlords went to see their attorney before they even bothered to shake his hand or speak to him in person. Despite the fact that he was only 15 at the time, they tried to block him from moving in by claiming that he was an "adult roommate". They told us that they "know what these kids are like" and that there "used to be some gang bangers in the neighborhood" whom they knew to carry weapons. What any of this had to do with T went unsaid; they clearly saw his Black face and felt sufficiently justified to form paranoid opinions on that basis alone. We quoted the advice we'd received from the Office of Fair Housing back to them, and they backed off.

I've never been able to forget it, nor really to forgive them. Over time, I realized that I am subtly stressed and angry raising T in close proximity to people who may not wish him well. If he comes in the house late, or makes too much noise, or fails to speak to them politely when they cross his path, I find myself fretting over how they might treat him. I do worry about (and try to support him in preparing for) the effects of racism in his life - the teacher who assumes he can't read, the police officer who pats him down on the subway. Worrying about it at home is just one thing too many.

So we're moving. We live in a great neighborhood in a central part of Los Angeles that is not only truly integrated, but also has an unusual number of interracial and non-traditional families. We rent rather than own so that we can stay in this area, for that reason. On our block, we have several African American families, several white families, a group home for developmentally disabled adults, a halfway house for recovering alcoholics, a postproduction studio for an African American television station, and a couple houses full of recent college grads.

So we're staying in the neighborhood. But we're trading the racist landlords for a professional property management firm. I want my lease to be a business deal, not an opportunity for comment on my family composition. We have new neighbors including two young female rock musicians and a fashion designer - they make noise, and are unlikely to find us particularly odd. T wants to graduate high school next year and live at home while he goes to junior college. We are feeling good about finding a place we can all commit to long term.

I often notice the impression we make on new acquaintances. In general, people are nice and perhaps a little curious, though we often have to be fairly explicit in the beginning in order to establish that we are, in fact, T's parents. For example, recently T and I went to the animal shelter to look at dogs. The volunteer asked me how many children were in the home. I pointed to T and said, oh, he's the one. Confused about what I meant (and perhaps by his height) she said, "Oh, T, how many children do you have?" He looked at me aghast. "T is my kid," I explained, and laughed. "He's our only child." "Oh!" she exclaimed. "It's okay," I said. "He's very tall." The moment passed, and she was very kind and took to T and helped him find his perfect pet. It just took a moment for everyone to figure out what was going on.

But things aren't always so friendly. People do stare, and sometimes leap to conclusions. Planes seem to be particularly awkward - T often travels in his pajamas, and he tends to hang all over us on the plane. More than once, other white passengers have openly stared throughout a flight, obviously unable to conceive of our relationship. Recently, on a ski trip, the lift attendant saw T and I approach together and said to me "Oh, it's okay, you can ride alone." I said, "I'd prefer to ride with my kid," and got on the lift with T.

I find that African American women have been the most openly skeptical and also the ones with whom I feel the greatest mutual understanding. They are not afraid to raise the topic of race, which I appreciate. I work with a number of African American women older than myself who see me with T on a regular basis. At first, I had the sense that some of them questioned my qualifications and my motivations. They probably also felt concerned about a Black child being separated from the community. At the same time, because that dialogue is on the surface with them, I find it can evolve. Recently, an African American colleague who had been polite but distant witnessed me in the hallway at work giving T some guidance - I was handing him his allowance, reminding him of our agreement about how he'd spend it, and telling him what time to be home. He was hopping from foot to foot, pulling my hair playfully and agreeing to abide. After that, she gave me the nod of approval. Whereas before, I had the sense that she regarded us with critical distance, now we are friendly and familiar - she asks after him and after me. I think she is convinced that I am doing the work. And I think she'd be pleased that when T talks about my work, he talks about people like her. "African American people work there," he tells his friends with great pride.

Recently I read an excellent article that is more than 20 years old and still captures a great deal of truth about interracial relationships. The focus of the article is on interracial romantic relationships, but I think much of the insight contained there pertains to interracial parenting as well. I think interracial parenting is probably hardest on those who are most sensitive to other people's opinions. I might seem so here, but in general, I am independent minded and so is T. We are both introverted and autonomous by nature, which I think protects us from some of the more intrusive attention we attract by being an interracial family.

I have heard it said of interracial romance that it matters greatly where you live, and I that's just as true of interracial parenting. I am satisfied that we live in the midst of a major city on the West Coast, where I think it is perhaps easier to be an interracial family than in other parts of the country. I'm also grateful for T's friends and for his generation in general, which is astonishing in its total embrace of diversity. The gulf between people his age and people like our former landlords is enough to make the latter look antique, and I hope that soon they are.

5 comments:

semiferalmama said...

Your posts always seem so complete (thoughtful and finalized) that I never really feel I have anything useful to add.
But I am a fan. And I am so glad that you found a new place in the neighborhood that you want to be in that also allows pets. Having had many pets for many years, I know how tough that can be.
As for your soon-to-be ex-landlords.... I hope every decent potential renter who shows up is a color that makes them uncomfortable. And if Karma works the way it should, in the end they will rent to white people who sneak in dogs, cats and ferrets that are not housebroken.

marythemom said...

He he! Love semiferalmama's karma comment!

I wanted to comment on the fact that I feel guilty because I often feel the need to identify my son as adopted. Not because I need to explain racial differences (he actually looks a lot like my husband), but I think because so many people think he's older than he is and I look a lot younger than I am. I want to be clear that I'm his mom (not his sister or wife! both of which I've heard), and that I didn't have him when I was a child (I was actually 26 when he was born).

I don't know if this makes it harder for him to feel part of our family or if it makes a difference at all. With his RAD and the fact that he didn't really join our family until he was 14, I think it would have been a problem anyway.

Is this ever a problem for you, or is the point moot since he's so obviously genetically not yours?

Mary in TX

MM said...

It's important for me to have people like 'you' to read and follow - because parenting my itty bitty black son will soon become parenting a teen, and ...well...cute little black boys do grow up to be black teens and then black men. We are working on our own family plan for raising our son in a space where he and we will get as little of the odd comments and looks as possible. Of course we'll get them - but I am so grateful to witness how others do this with such awareness.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for writing this blog. I connect with your words more than with anyone I know. It helps to realize that my experiences and struggles and joys spent with our first foster son are not completely abnormal, but in fact, just the way things are sometimes.

Thanks again for the time you spend on your posts!

Lulu McCabe said...

Hi Mary. To your question, I do often need to identify myself as his parent. I was relatively young when he was born (24) whereas in our urban California demographic it is common for people to wait to have kids until they are nearly 40. So T and I are closer in age than many parents and teens in our area. That, and the fact that we are obviously not biologically related, and he is 6'4" means people sometimes puzzle over our relationship, unsure whether he is my boyfriend, or some other indeterminate type of companion. I always use the same words to clarify: "He's my kid." I think he likes that explanation. It's clear and simple, and he is very proud of being adopted as he sees it as a success for a child his age to be adopted from foster care. I like to think that rather than camouflaging adoption to look as much as possible like biological family, maybe with older kids it works better just to fly the flag loud and proud. :)
Thanks to everyone who commented - I am so grateful for the support we are all able to give one another through our blogs.

 
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