When we became foster parents, we expected that children placed in our home would potentially be a different race than us. We welcomed this. We didn’t have a preference for the race or gender of our foster children. We wanted to grow our family.
We were lucky enough to foster and adopt two brothers who are half white and half Black. We were very intentional in moving into a diverse neighborhood and ensuring our kids go to a school with a variety of races, economic statuses and family styles. We recognized that there would be a learning curve. A steep learning curve. However, we had no idea just how little we knew.
Shortly after Shay came to our family, we asked to have a hair/skin consultation. We weren’t sure how to take care of his skin and wanted to make sure that we were doing everything we could to keep him healthy. It was clear what we didn’t know and we had no problem asking for help. This was the easy part of parenting a child of a different race. It was concrete.
“Mama, white people like you used to own Black people like me.”
-Shay age 4
He started this conversation a January morning at 5:45am. I’ll never forget the look on his face. He was very monotone about it. All I could say back to him was, “Yes, that’s true.” He didn’t want to talk about it anymore. He wanted to make sure that I knew this fact. I always knew I’d have a conversation with him about slavery, I just never imagined it would come at age 4.
“Mama, I want lines in my hair.”
-Shay age 5
When he was 5, he asked me to get lines in his hair. I had no idea what this meant. I googled it first and still didn’t know. So, I asked a friend. It wasn’t pretty, but I figured it out. We found a barber who could cut their hair well and now the boys have lines when they want. I consider myself to be a very fashion, trend-conscious person. Except that I’ve only ever paid attention to things that affect me as a white person. It was eye-opening to know nothing about popular culture in the Black community.
Our boys view their race differently. Tanner, at almost 7, will tell you he is half white and half Black. He’s very matter-of-fact about it. Shay, at age 8, will tell you he’s Black. Both of them are correct. How they view their race is up to them. I don’t get to pick for them, nor do I want to. For Shay, he identifies with being Black. He is drawn to children who look like him. He will also tell you the skin color of someone within the first few moments of telling a story. He notices, because it is important to him and always has been. Tanner doesn’t seem to notice in the same way, and that’s okay, too.
Recently, I took Shay shoe shopping, which is a hated task. He has some sensory issues and is very particular about how shoes fit his feet. I’ve always hated spending a lot of money on shoes because they get trashed quickly. After looking in many shoe stores, Shay and I were both frustrated that we weren’t any closer to getting new shoes. He quietly leaned over and said:
“Mama, I don’t want the white shoes you’re picking. I want shoes like the other Black kids wear.”
I was stunned and felt short of breath. Maybe this task I’ve always hated was because he couldn’t find shoes that fit into my expectations but met his identity needs. My wife and I looked at each other and said he could pick any shoes he wanted. He picked a pair of Nikes that he said his friends would like. The broad smile and raised shoulders let me know I had done the right thing. It never occurred to me that his shoes would be part of his identity. It’s moments like these that I feel inadequate as his parent.
I know how lucky I am to live in a city with resources, diversity and lots of people to answer my questions. I know I will continue to strive to understand the world from the lens of my boys. I will strive to give them everything they need to be comfortable in their own skins. They teach me so much.
I am humbled by the opportunity to be their mom.