Raising My Black Son

Raising My Black Son

A portrait of a happy laughing African American man

By Suanne Schafer

Twenty years ago, I adopted an interracial child—I’ll call him M—thinking a mother’s love could overcome all barriers, even racial ones. Twenty years later, I’m not sure I did my son any favors. I’m a white mom trying to figure out how to raise a black child in a hostile—and potentially lethal—environment.

M came up for adoption during my fourth year of medical school, the unwanted love child of a sixteen-year-old white mother and a black seventeen-year-old father. Unable to take her mixed-race baby home to her blue-collar family, the young woman kept her pregnancy secret from everyone except her mother then gave the baby up for adoption.

My family was tickled to have a grandchild, whatever his color.

As a physician I often think about nature versus nurture and have found that, though we’re not genetically related, he’s clearly my son. We’re both a bit shy but share a quirky sense of humor, a fascination with science ranging from dinosaurs to birding to stargazing to medical oddities, a dash of sarcasm, and the joy of using just the right curse word to express our true feelings. We both love science fiction, Star Wars, and exploring international cuisines.

Early on I bought all the appropriate books on black heroes like Rosa Parks, Frederick Douglass, and Martin Luther King and incorporated them into our daily reading ritual, but M was never interested. Unfortunately, Mr. King was not a Tyrannosaurus Rex and therefore didn’t capture M’s attention. I marched in the MLK parade alone.

After completing my residency, I interviewed from New York to California, including a small rural community in which M would have been the second black person. Ultimately I chose to practice in San Antonio, a culturally diverse city where interracial families are common. Thus, M grew up with friends of multiple racial and ethnic groups but seemed to choose his friends based on common interests rather than common skin tone.

Fortunately, we had very few racial incidents as he grew up. Probably the most blatant occurred as we ate dinner at a Chinese restaurant. A white man came to pick up his take-out, saw me sitting with my four-year-old black child, and approached us practically spitting through his teeth, demanding “With all the white kids out there to adopt, why the hell did you adopt a nigger kid?” The Chinese owner of the restaurant, who certainly must have encountered racial barriers himself, apologized profusely then escorted the gentleman to the door and asked him never to return.

When he was sixteen, we went to Tanzania together. Going on safari was on my “bucket list” and M had some desire to find his African roots. There, though no clear-cut incident occurred, he seemed very uncomfortable. He’d never been in a place where blacks significantly outnumbered whites. Because he was clearly interracial and accompanied by an affluent white woman, he was considered an mzungu, a white person, and was treated accordingly.

We live in a predominantly white neighborhood – yet M came inside one day from checking the mail saying, “Mom, these folks in a car watched me until I got inside. Guess they were making sure I wasn’t breaking in.”

About that time, the news exploded with stories of young black men in hoodies being killed. With M’s tendency to take long walks in the evening to blow off steam from raging male hormones, I grew nervous, treading a delicate line between making him fear life and teaching him to use common sense. Teaching him to avoid potentially hostile situations, to never mouth off to a cop, to not wear a hoodie, to keep his hands visible and empty at all times, to back down in a confrontation. I suspect I was more worried than he was.

Last week he hollered questions from the kitchen back to my office. “Mom, how much money did we make last year?” I raised my eyebrows at the “we” but gave him the figure he sought. After few more rather personal questions, I asked what he was doing. “Calculating my privilege,” he said. A few seconds later, “I’m really privileged.”

I asked him to come into my office to review the application he filled out and suggested he give “real” answers, not those based on his white physician mother’s income, education level, etc. The findings: He was an unemployed black male who dropped out of college and therefore—surprise—had no privilege.

A female child in blue-collar family, I too grew up without privilege. My father dropped out of college one semester prior to completing an agricultural degree, left the family homestead, and worked as an itinerant well logger in the oil field. By the time I was twenty-four months old, I’d lived in twenty-two towns across the western United States. Over the years, Dad’s wanderlust abated somewhat, but I still attended three fourth grades, three seventh grades, two ninth grades. I graduated from high school and put myself through college with scholarships and by working full-time and going to school part-time. I picked cotton, worked as an aide in a nursing home, roofed and painted houses, clerked in a bookstore, did piece work in a toy factory. Later I became a secretary and medical transcriptionist, a travel and medical photographer. I continued the wanderlust bred into me and attended four colleges and traveled abroad before deciding to become a physician. By the time I graduated from medical school, my parents had contributed a total of $275 to my college expenses.

Knowing how hard it was to juggle work, school, relationships, and life in general, I wanted M to have an easier life, easier access to an education. As a result, he’s had every economic and educational advantage possible. I realized he was intelligent but having trouble focusing, but the school district refused to believe he had ADHD because he was doing well in school. A private psychologist tested him and verified my diagnosis. ADHD, dysgraphia, and a borderline learning disability in mathematics hampered his ability to learn. Once he was diagnosed, I fought yearly battles with our school district because of their failure to follow the learning plan set out by his psychologist. Medications to tone down the ADHD turned him into the world’s grumpiest kid and completely suppressed his appetite, so for years we’ve teetered between a controlled or uncontrolled attention span.

Coupled with the learning problems, unlike his mother, he’s not a “driven” person. A procrastinator par excellence, he’d rather play video games than anything. I keep telling myself this must be his nature, because he certainly wasn’t nurtured to be lackadaisical.

At this point I am the mother of an unmotivated child, one who despite having a substantial college savings account, doesn’t wish to attend college. He’s also a black child raised in a white family. I’m not sure he grasps what it means to be black in America. I’m equally unsure I can teach him that, or perhaps it’s too late to do so.

M is a good young man, a success in that he graduated from high school at a time when blacks are twice as likely to drop out of high school, when 40% of children expelled from school are black, when 70% of children arrested are black or Latino. He’s sexually active but not promiscuous, doesn’t abuse drugs or alcohol. Except for an occasional outburst of testosterone-related temper, he is caring, even-tempered, and sweet. At some point, he’ll be a good father, but due to the procrastination issue, not necessarily a good husband as he’ll put off doing household chores as long as possible.

I’m coming to terms with the idea that M will have to make his own mistakes. Letting go has been hard. I am getting better at it, learning to offer support, rather than fight his battles for him. I no longer set my alarm to be sure he gets to appointments on time. I let him decide if he needs to take his ADHD medication to get through a job interview or other duties.

Mostly I hope that at some point he can reconcile the duality of his heritage and can integrate his exterior with his interior. I pray that American culture will evolve to the point “white privilege” no longer exists. That a black man can be simply a black man without negative consequences. That a black man can earn what a similarly educated white male does. That black children will have true equality of education. That a black man should not have to be a superman to be equal to an ordinary white man. That every black male has the opportunity to become the best person he can be.

Suanne Schafer’s short works have been featured in Bête Noire Magazine, Empty Sink Publishing and two anthologies, Night Lights and Licked. Her debut novel, A Different Kind of Fire, explores the life of a nineteenth century bisexual artist living in West Texas and will be out in 2018. Her current work in progress involves a female physician caught up in the Rwandan genocide. Suanne also serves as fiction editor for Empty Sink Publishing, an online literary magazine.







Opinion: Our Right to Buy Cookies

Opinion: Our Right to Buy Cookies

chocolate chip cookies in a cup on wooden table

By Jeanine DeHoney

As a mother who once received food stamps for a short period of time, I shopped for healthy food items for my family but still treated my children to chocolate chip cookies.

Chocolate chip cookies. When my children were little I hate to admit it was my saving grace. For those harrowing days when they just felt like falling out in the middle of a store, to get them to put their other shoe on so we wouldn’t be late for a doctor’s appointment, and just doggone it because I wanted to see their smile and chocolate chip cookies had that effect on them. Maybe it would help if I told you they brushed their teeth at least four times a day. But really that’s not my point.

I was sitting at my computer desk one evening, finishing a story I was working on and listening to the news when the newscaster mentioned that a bill was being introduced by Republican State Representative Rick Brattin, that would prohibit a recipient of SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) from using the funds for “Cookies, chips, energy drinks, soft drinks, seafood or steak.”

Digging a bit deeper on the internet, I read that Representative Brattin stated in The Daily Signal; a multimedia news organization that covers policy and political news, as well as commentary and analysis; “that his intention was to make sure that those in need have access to healthy food in a fiscally responsible way. He stated that the United States is “the most obese nation on the planet,” and his bill encourages a return to “healthy basics, just like the first lady’s healthy school lunch initiative, for which she was heralded.”

When my children were young and my husband was in the Army, we struggled financially on his income. We often relied on the care packages of my parents and in-laws to get us through the end of the month and when I couldn’t find a job, eventually we applied for food stamps, which neither myself or my husband wanted to do.

Growing up, I remember my father getting laid off one year. The odd jobs he got covered our rent but not much more and my mother who refused to get on public assistance would take my sister and I to a food pantry to get a block of cheese that would fix a months’ worth of grilled cheese sandwiches and powdered milk for our morning cereal. Although I’d beg my mother to take a different route so the neighborhood children wouldn’t see me holding that bag most knew where it came from, she’d refuse and tell me to walk with my head up.

When I was alone though, walking to the bus stop for school or playing in the park, I’d be teased mercilessly about eating, “Welfare cheese.” I vowed I’d never put my children through that if I had a choice.

When my husband and I applied for food stamps I had to get rid of that painful memory of those childhood jokes by children who didn’t know any better. I also had to remove that veil of shame I felt from receiving them.

I was not surprised but was angered over how judgmental not just of me but of my children people were when they saw me using food stamps. I overheard nasty comments from supermarket customers standing behind me at the checkout register. Some people even proclaimed themselves overseer of my grocery cart, seeing whether there were things in it that were on the “You don’t have a right to buy that on government assistance list,” even if it was a package of chocolate chip cookies.

Receiving food stamps was short lived for my husband and I but for many mothers and families whose circumstances are even more dire than ours; who may be living in a shelter after leaving an abusive relationship, who are trying to get back on their feet after losing a job, a spouse, etc., I can’t help but breathe dragon fire when I hear that someone thinks the majority of mothers, who most likely nurtured their babies with healthy foods from the moment of conception, needed to be monitored by the food police just because they received supplemental nutrition assistance. It makes me livid thinking that although there are definite health disparities among different ethnic and economic groups that there is a sanction of people who feel we’d choose junk food to sustain our children’s diet.

And for those who’d make that choice, isn’t education and nutrition initiatives worthier than a House Bill telling them what they don’t have the right to purchase? Do they recognize that even minorities want to buy organically but often it’s like searching for a needle in a haystack when it comes to finding organic products in our neighborhoods? Did they google to see that the nearest Farmer’s Market where we can buy a bounty of colorful and nutritious garden-fresh vegetables and fruits requires us to do commuter backflips to get to and the thought of doing it with a busy bee toddler is just overwhelming? Do they know that we wish we had a natural food co-op we could frequent so that our children could eat foods organically grown, produced with minimal processing and little to no preservatives or additives and some super mothers are starting a grass roots food co-op of their own?

Social welfare programs have always been a hot point in politics. The debate, both political and private, will continue far beyond this political season. As a mother who has been on food stamps, I will always combat the public shaming of other mothers who are walking in my shoes.

Let’s shame poverty and the fact that their children have to go to bed hungry, not them. They have the right to buy steak, seafood, even an energy drink if they choose to. And they definitely have the right as a mother to buy their child chocolate chip cookies like I did, even the ones that aren’t organic and gluten free.

Jeanine DeHoney has been published in Chicken Soup for the African American Woman’s Soul, Literary Mama, Mutha Magazine, The Mom Egg, Wow: Woman on Writing- The Muffin’s Friday Speak-out, Scary Mommy.com and Parent co., and in several other blogs, anthologies and magazines.









A Mom Like Me

A Mom Like Me

Portrait of beautiful serious afro american woman over black background

By Betty Christiansen

At first glance, Gwendolyn and I have little in common. She’s in her twenties; I’m in my forties. I have a house; she has an efficiency apartment with a shared bath. I work in publishing; she works in fast food. I am white; she is black. I drive a car that seats seven; she rides a bike. Yet she is a mom, just like me.

She has two small children; I have three. We have meals to make and homes to clean and staggering amounts of laundry. We both have husbands. We juggle everything around our jobs and their jobs.

Our common ground is the bus stop. Our mornings are the same: a scramble of rousing kids, feeding them, and rushing out the door by 7:45. She and her son are always on time; we are always running late. We take turns reminding the kids to stop running, to stop pushing, and to stand back when the bus pulls up. “Goodbye,” I tell my kids when they climb on the bus. “Have a good day! I love you!”

“You be good,” she commands her son. “Don’t disappoint me.”

Gwendolyn is a mom like me, except she doesn’t have a car. Some mornings, I’ll drive her to the bank or to Kwik Trip, the convenience store five blocks from our homes. She’ll get some cash and then buy milk and breakfast, or milk and beer. She asks me where I have to go that morning, and I tell her I have a meeting or a photo shoot or a press check. I’ll ask her if she’s working that day, and she’ll say yes, she’s got the closing shift at Taco Bell, or no, she’ll be home with her two-year-old, and she doesn’t know what she’ll do with her that day. I tell her I know; my youngest is finally in preschool and I remember those days.

She might ask if she can wash some clothes at my house, because there’s no laundry in her building. Sometimes, we’ll load up all her laundry when it reaches a critical mass and pile it into the back of my car, and I’ll take her to a Laundromat.

We are both protective of our children. Mine are old enough to walk the block back home from the bus stop by themselves in the afternoon, but still I watch out for them. Gwendolyn does not let her son do this; if she is home and not working a shift at Taco Bell, she will walk down and get him, or have her husband do so if he is not working a shift at Burger King. If neither one can, she’ll ask me if I’ll make sure he gets in their apartment okay, where his very frail granny is waiting for him.

“You know I will,” I say.

One morning, they’re not at the bus stop, and I ask her about it the next day.

“Anthony didn’t go to school,” she says. “He had a cough.” She then goes on to tell that he needs to go to the doctor, but not because of the cough. It turns out a woman from that damn Child Protective Services came over yesterday, eyeballing the house and following up on a police report. “My house is clean,” Gwendolyn declares. “I ain’t got nothin’ to hide.”

But apparently there were sores on her son’s arms, and a teacher saw them. A police officer came to the school, took photographs, and filed a report with CPS.

“They could’ve given me a heads-up,” spits Gwendolyn. “They said they tried to call, but my phone isn’t working. They could’ve sent me a note. They never asked me what happened.

“I could’ve told them he has these bumps on his arms, and he keeps scratching them,” she goes on. “I ain’t got nothing to hide. I make sure he has clean clothes, clean socks and drawers. I know they’re looking for that kind of thing.”

I don’t know what to say, so I just listen. It wouldn’t help to explain that the teacher is legally bound to report her fears, that everyone is just looking out for her child, that they’re doing what’s required to keep him out of harm’s way—even if that might be harm by a parent.

For all our mornings together, I don’t know Gwendolyn well enough to know if she would hurt her son, or if someone else in their house would. I have seen small, round scars on her son’s legs, and I’ve heard her threaten him for getting in trouble in school. I don’t know how seriously to take that. After all, I have threatened my children, too.

What I do know is that this would never happen to a mom like me. A professional mom, a well-spoken mom, the mom who volunteers in the classrooms because she can; she has the flexible schedule and the car. The mom who can be home for her kids, never uncertain of their safety. My own son has had eczema on his arms, and no one has questioned me.

I’m all for Child Protective Services—but how about a Mom Protective Services? Where is that agency, the one that makes sure a mom like Gwendolyn has a way to shuttle children, work without worrying about them, make sure they’re fed and dressed and on the bus on time? Who makes sure she can get her laundry done? Who makes sure that she has a way to wind down from all of this without needing the beer that might lead to arm sores and leg scars? Who’s looking out for the moms like her?

Because Gwendolyn doesn’t have a car, I drive her and her son to his doctor’s appointment. When I pick her up later, she seems relieved, even happy. It was eczema after all, and now everyone knows it. She also picked up her new glasses from the optometry department while she was there, and they look sharp. I tell her so. She looks at me, smiles, and says thanks.

Betty Christiansen is a writer and editor who lives with her husband and three children in La Crosse, Wisconsin. She is the author of two books—Knitting for Peace: Make the World a Better Place One Stitch at a Time and Girl Scouts: 100 Trailblazing Years—both published by Stewart, Tabori & Chang, a division of Harry Abrams. She’s also the editor of Coulee Region Women, the women’s magazine of the La Crosse area, and a graduate of the creative nonfiction MFA program at Sarah Lawrence College.






By Dawn Friedman

fall2007_friedmanEvery morning I turn on Max & Ruby and sit down in the blue chair with the red cushion. My three-year old daughter grabs a little chair for herself and places it between my feet. I have a wide-toothed comb, a rat-tail comb, and spray-on conditioner. I also have a box of barrettes, cloth-covered rubber bands and little plastic snaps.

First I separate Madison’s hair into sections and spray it liberally with the conditioner. Then I use the wide-toothed comb to smooth the tangles from her curls. Next I use the rat-tail comb to make parts. Sometimes I divide her hair into a dozen little squares to braid. Sometimes I give her two fat pigtails down low behind her ears to leave room for her bike helmet. Other times I pull back the top and braid it to keep the hair out of her eyes and leave the rest down to froth around her shoulders. Depending on the style, our morning ritual can be as short as twenty minutes or as long as an hour.

My daughter’s hair is rich, chestnut brown touched with auburn. It bounces around her ears in silky corkscrew curls. It is the kind of hair that captures attention in the grocery checkout line.

“Look at that gorgeous hair!” the observer exclaims. “Wherever did she get it?”

They don’t really need to ask. Underneath that mop of glistening curls is a café au lait face. It’s obvious that she got her beautiful hair from her African American ancestors. But people ask this because I am white, and clearly there is some story to our daughter’s arrival to our family. “Where did she get that hair?” is a question that comes from white people. Black people simply say, “She has good hair.”

It’s what her birth mother said at one of her visits. “I hoped she’d have hair like this,” Jessica said, twisting a curl around her fingers. Our daughter’s first mom, with whom we have a fully open adoption, has kinky hair that gave her fits when she was a child and that she now wears in a soft afro. “She has good hair.”

“But isn’t it all good hair?” I said, quoting the title of a book on African American hair care (It’s All Good Hair) that’s widely recommended in transracial adoption circles.

Jessica snorted. The snort said, “Spoken like a white person.”

Madison is not tender-headed–she never yips in pain when my comb hits a snarl–but getting her to sit (mostly) still has been a matter of training. I started having her sit for hair time before she had much hair at all. We both needed the practice.

“Do you want braids today?” I ask Madison. “Do you want your dragonfly clips?”

“I want to wear it foofy,” she might say. She means in two fluffy ponytails. If her hair was in braids before we sit down to style, her ponytails will be soft ripples. If we mist them with water, the curls will bounce right back. Sometimes she wants twists, two strands of hair twisted around each other to make a sort of looser version of a braid.

“Like Rudy,” she says, because she admires Rudy’s hair on old Cosby Show reruns. For twists we might use tiny clasps called snaps at the end of her hair. We have flowers and jeweled hearts and little opalescent butterflies. Madison fiddles with them and by the end of the day her hair is still in twists but empty at the ends. I find the clips scattered around the house and I pick them up to put back in our barrette box. Replacing snaps can get expensive.

Our babysitter Jaime is a young African American woman with inexhaustible energy and enthusiasm who wears her hair in natural short twists, which she usually covers with a pretty scarf. Every morning she greets Madison by commenting on her hair. A neutral, “Look at your hair today!” means I could have done better. An enthusiastic, “Look at your pretty-pretty braids!” and I can tell I’ve done a good job.

I knew that this was her ever-polite way of guiding me while I tried to figure out the social mores around my daughter’s halo of curls. One morning I asked her outright how I was doing on Madison’s hair.

Jaime seemed relieved I had asked. She mentioned the products that would work best on Madison. She checked out my comb and cautioned me against over-conditioning.

“What about this?” I asked. My daughter has little flyaway wisps that escape around her face. “Do I need to do something to keep them down?”

“No, but if her hair was really nappy, that would look like a mess,” Jaime answered. She paused to cup Madison’s chin in her hand and tilted her head up to see her eyes. “But we know our children’s hair comes in all grades. We know that her hair just does that and it looks just fine.”

There are other words for nappy. There is “textured” or “kinky” or “coarse.” My black friends have instructed me not to say nappy because this is a word that in the mouth of a white person has the dim, lurid overtones of hatred.

“I can call a child’s hair nappy,” explained one of my former co-workers. “But you can’t. Don’t even go there.”

After we adopted Madison, one of my white friends asked, “Can you say it now?”

“I don’t think so,” I said. To make sure I asked a black friend. That’s when I learned the word “textured.”

When I took my daughter across the country to meet her extended birth family, I was nervous about her hair. She didn’t have much then, being only about fifteen months old, but what she had was a soft blur of curls. Left alone it was cute but messy and there was barely enough to style.

“Just get the parts straight,” said a black friend. “It’s all about having a good part.”

Now I practice parts the way I used to practice my tennis serve. I try to put style, grace, and accuracy into my daughter’s parts. If the line wavers at all, I comb her hair out and start again. I’m finally getting the hang of it and now I can make complicated parts at an angle to each other. I’m proud of my parts.

I’ll admit it, I was scared to adopt a daughter. Once we knew we would be adopting a black child, I read books about hair care and felt worried. I’ve never been good with my hands. I hate to sew and crochet; even writing a letter by hand makes me groan. How would I manage her hair?

Most of my white friends don’t understand the fuss. They have daughters with long hair or with short hair and sometimes they send them out looking like they’re wearing a bird’s nest on top of their heads.

“Well, she won’t let me get a comb through it,” they shrug.

One day I was talking to a white friend about Madison’s hair and about trying to figure out how to keep my daughter walking between two worlds with her head held high.

“I just want her to look right,” I said.

“She’ll look right because she’s your daughter,” my friend said.

I found her assurance well intentioned but frustrating. When my white friends argue that I shouldn’t “have” to adhere to black standards in styling Madison’s hair, they are refusing to acknowledge that this is a response driven by white expectations, created by a culture where the texture of black hair is considered a problem, an anomaly. When they say, “Would you do this for your biological child?” they ignore the fact that my bio son is white.

When my white friends’ daughters leave the house with uncombed hair they subvert ideas about shiny neatness and little girls. My feminist friends smile easily at their tangled-headed daughters playing princess. But this is not a privilege extended to children with brown skin. I know that my daughter–like any child of African descent, boy or girl–carries the weight of racism on her curls. The cultural image of the unkempt black child–of Buckwheat and wide-eyed pickaninnies–is part of a racist legacy used to argue that African American parents didn’t care for their children and that their children weren’t worth the care.

White people, like my friend, usually assume that my whiteness protects my child. It’s a dangerous assumption. My daughter cannot escape racism just because she is my child. I don’t want to send my daughter out into the fray without the visible respect of her mother. I do her hair to send the message that her curls are worth the trouble because she is worth the trouble. I’m telling the world that she is valuable and loved and protected.

None of this is a burden to me. I look forward to styling Madison’s hair every morning. I enjoy the closeness, the quiet focus of my mind while I sift through the barrettes. I mist my daughter’s hair with water and prepare to unknot the tender place at the base of her skull, the place that my black friends tell me is called “the kitchen.”

At the end of our styling sessions I always say the same thing.

“You look beautiful.”

“Thank you, hairdressing lady,” my daughter says formally. “Thank you for doing my hair.”

Then she’s off to go look in the mirror and I put the comb away.

Brain, Child (Fall 2007)

About the Author:  Dawn Friedman lives in Columbus, Ohio, with her husband, son, Noah, and daughter, Madison. Her work has appeared in Salon.com, Yoga Journal, and Greater Good. She was an editor at Literary Mama and blogs at thiswomanswork.com.