Mothering as credibility: a cross-post

I initially posted this a few weeks ago on my personal blog. Struggling to reconcile my nice white lady identity with my messy insides, I ended up posting there instead of here. Based on my new commitment to personal honesty, I give you: some mess. 

I would like to distance myself from women who use their children to demonstrate their own credibility as whatever it is that they want to be.

I would like to. Can I though?

Let’s warm up with the simple stuff. I have ostentatiously fed, changed and interacted in public with my daughter in ways that were self-consciously coloured by who was watching. Hey, look at me, I use cloth nappies! Look, a breastfeeding mummy! Oh, see, now this is how you get your child to behave beautifully in supermarkets, look, see how I do it! Watch me performing perfect motherhood, watch and learn! Give me cookies!

My child: the ultimate parenting accessory, a unique demonstration tool.

Oh, yes, those curls, well her daddy is black, you know. His family are from Jamaica. Yes, that does make me rather special and unique, fancy giving birth to a coloured child, how brave, how progressive, how very revolutionary. Where’s my cookie?

Have I done that? Of course I have. Maybe not often, maybe not in so many words: I have a more subtle approach. I also don’t actually use words like “coloured” – those are just the words I see in the eyes of white women and men when they learn that my child is not white. I do it because it makes me feel superior – more radical, more interesting, more colourful. I get the sudden urge to prove that I am one of the good guys. Right.

Maybe I get points for even recognising (a) that I do this and (b) that it is really, really not cool. Maybe there is mitigation in the fact that I have been actively refusing, on a conscious level at least, to take radical feminist credit for my non-white child, for refusing to make her into my fluffy blogosphere credibility poodle. Right.

Is there any point to this castigation? Will it be cleansing? I hope so. At least, it will be getting some of these maggots and worms out in the open, ready for processing.

I keep trying to write something measured, something that takes the personal out of the political, not entirely, but enough for me to feel that I am not using my little girl, that what I spew is safe for publication. It doesn’t work, it isn’t flowing, it gets tangled in this bottleneck of thought that makes me ache with love and regret.

Long before I was married, before I was pregnant, my ex told me during our (first) big breakup that he didn’t want to be in a long term relationship with a white woman, that it would be too complicated, and some other stuff that came completely out of the blue because it was the first time he had ever started or entered into a conversation about race in my presence, let alone with me. At the time it seemed purely an excuse to cover up the “real reason” for his rejection, even more so later when I discovered that he was at the time in what we might call an overlapping relationship – with a woman who I can only assume was not white. And although I still think there was a lot of that, the fact that it was the only possible explanation I had for this sudden sharing of his non-white perspective shows you how far up my own colourblind arse I had reached.

I used him as a trophy, too. He was my wonderful black boyfriend/husband. Not too black though, just black enough to be the forbidden exotic. He was just dark enough that being with him felt like breaking a taboo, like a rebellion against my racist upbringing. I’m not about to start feeling sorry for him, but I can at least start to sort through my own junk and come clean. Was his exciting but always unmentioned darkness the reason why I saw only his charms and never, not until too late, his faults? Why I saw what I wanted to be there and not what was actually there? He was charming, urbane, witty, bright, fun, reckless, knowledgeable, well-read, captivating. All those things. He was also selfish, self-centred. There was a wall around him, impenetrable. He was unmoving, unchanging, there was no sign of growth, exchange, development. He gave without taking, took without giving. He broke me. I broke myself, hurling my soul and my body up against that wall. Maybe I would have seen it coming if I wasn’t so pleased with myself about my wonderful black boyfriend.

No good guys here. Just mess.

But a few feet away from me, there is a good person, a clean person. She is sleeping, she knows none of this.

And if I don’t watch out she will see it. She will see her mummy playing the White Mother of Colour card, she will see me looking expectantly, watching for the cookie, just for being her mother. So I need to sweep this childish need for validation and praise away fast. And I need to be ready to acknowledge the maggoty brain-worms and to let her know where they came from. To let her know that I am not playing games with her.

I don’t regret her. Obviously.

But I am becoming increasingly aware of how unmindfully she was created. We weren’t trying to have children – no way – she just came along, and although the whole idea was initially unwelcome we embraced it, we chose not to – I chose not to – abort* the pregnancy. We weren’t trying to have exotic little mixed race children either to coo over, or to brandish as revolutionary symbols, or to raise with intentionality and political consciousness. I had no race consciousness (I was colourblind in the worst sense. After all, if I could love a black man, I couldn’t be racist, right?) and my ex’s awareness of the racism he personally experienced never translated into a political position, an analysis or critique of race or white supremacy. It was just there. Somehow unposken. And in such circumstances, how could I mindfully choose to procreate with a black man, with that black man? I didn’t, and couldn’t have, even aside from the fact that my pregnancy and our parenthood was itself wholly unplanned.

[*This whole post but this paragraph in particular, that word in particular – it is hard to write because I can imagine her reading this blog one day – hi sweetheart – and seeing all this which I have kept down and hidden, kept away from her, until today. Writing about aborting her feels bad, even if all I’m saying was that this was a viable option that was not chosen. (I say viable option – it was never a real option with me, not this time – it was others who wanted that, not me. Not me, not this time.) Honey, even those in favour, they never talked about aborting you. We didn’t even know you.]

So.

That I conceived her unmindfully is bad enough.
That I birthed her unmindfully is bad enough.
That I have spent the last three years with her unmindfully is bad enough.

This is the day that it stops.

This is the day that I let the noise in, let it crowd around and try to strangle me if that is what it comes to do. This is the day that I start opening all those cans and looking for the source of my stinking issues, so I can pull them out and look at them and own them and strip them down and come out of it all as some kind of mother.

I want to be clean.
More than just feeling clean – I want to shake out the mess and be clean.
I don’t know if I can ever be clean.

This is the day that it starts.

White mother, light daughter

Who am I?

I am a woman, a mother, a white mother, a single mother, and plenty more besides. What I rarely add is that I am not the mother of a white daughter, but of a light one.

I have had two important reasons for this silence.

One is that my daughter’s identity is not a part of who I am – that I am her mother is a part of my identity; but who she is is not. Out of respect for her privacy, her right to find her own identity, to define herself for herself – for these reasons I have preferred not to impose my own vision upon her, not to develop my ideas about her identity before she is able to develop her own.

The second is that (in terms of discussions of my own white privilege and my own collaboration with white supremacy) I know that this is a distraction. The fact that I married a black man, the fact that I birthed a child who was (however briefly) fathered by a black man, make not a jot of difference. I am not going to play the “I have loved a black man” card, or the “I have birthed a mixed-race child” card because those cards do not mean anything. Those experiences have not made very much if any difference to my white privilege, or to the way I see the world, the way I have been taught to see the world: trading on those cards would be downright fraudulent. So they are not relevant and I have preferred not to muddy the water with what is not relevant.

Well, maybe sometimes things shift a little.

I am finding that “white mother of a light child” is creeping into my identity. I am finding that mothering a non-white child is a topic that I am now ready to explore. I wasn’t until quite recently, and I am still on shaky ground here, but this is important so please bear with me while I grope around for meaning.

Because what I have been remembering of late, and it is no co-incidence that this has been happening in parallel with my emerging at last from a kind of post-marital numbness – what I have been remembering over the last few months is that my daughter is not white.

Don’t laugh.

She has such fair colouring that it is easy to forget: her skin is very light, her eyes are grey, and her hair is made of soft brown curls that shine bright bronze in the sun. Most people who don’t know otherwise don’t even realise that she isn’t white – although that too may shift a little as she grows out of her baby face. In a world where white/light privilege means so much, it has been easy to want to forget – especially when remembering her parentage brought such painful associations, all those memories of hurt. And the task of teaching her, alone, about a part of her heritage that I know almost nothing about (a fact which is not to my credit, I know) has felt so big… There are so many reasons to pretend, to forget, to act as though it makes no difference, to kid yourself that it doesn’t matter.

But my daughter is not white.

And if I don’t help her to find her own identity, then somebody else will. And that, actually, is what I have really been re-membering, coming to understand not just intellectually but in my soul.

I am learning, slowly – perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I am starting to learn – that this can be done. A birthday card from her (paternal) Grandma means I can show my daughter a picture I have of Grandma, and show her Jamaica on the globe, show some more family pictures from her Daddy’s people, few that we have. An interest in Mary Seacole – also a Jamaican nurse, like Grandma – follows and we have been talking about that.

It is easy to try and say too much, too fast. She doesn’t understand much about time. In her Mary Seacole book, there are slaves who make sugar. At nursery, she uses sugar to make a cake. Is that the same sugar? Did people get hurt for that sugar? A long time ago, people were hurt really badly for the sake of sugar. That doesn’t happen any more. Things are better than they used to be. She doesn’t get it, it’s too much, all she can think of is the sugar in those biscuits she made me today.

By little steps, faltering, revising, learning, practising –
little steps will take us a long way.
Because my daughter is not white:
my little, light, beloved daughter
is. not. white.

What mothers can do… Take 2

When I wrote on this topic last week, I was labouring under a weight of confusion, sloppy thinking, white liberal training – I was floundering around, knowing that I was missing something, that I was reaching for something – but not knowing what. So I have done a bit of thinking since then, I have heard what others have got to say (thanks, especially, to Dark Daughta and Amy) and, anyway, here is Take2…

*******************

What can white mothers do to raise their children as antiracist?

The first thing that we must do is to remember the goal – we are not trying to bring up our children as “not racist” but as “antiracist”.

Just to be clear: someone who is “not racist” does not support (overt) racism; while someone who is “antiracist” opposes racism.

To put it another way, if you see racism as an institution*, call it white supremacy, then you can view someone who is merely “not racist” as someone who tries to do the impossible, to stand outside the system, ignoring racism in the vague hope that it will slink quietly away; whereas an “antiracist” is someone who will actively stand up against the system, draw attention to it, oppose it, and try to make it go away. Colourblindness is an attempt to stand passively outside the system. It will not work.

[* In the way that we see patriarchy as an institution – and see this post by secondwaver.]

So that brings us to the question – what can we do?

We want to raise our children so that they have the will, the vision and the tools to fight white supremacy. And they have to see it first.

We must explain it to them. We must tell them the story of the world – how white people enslaved, trafficked, exploited and abused black people, why they did it, and how they persuaded themselves that this was just. We must tell them how those systems of oppression and justification have been refined and perpetuated right down to right now. We must help them to see what, and why, and how. We must explain it so that they understand.

Once they see it, their natural empathy and keen sense of justice will do the rest.

To keep that empathy, that insistence on justice, good and sharp we must also be on the lookout for othering behaviour or attitudes.

Proactively, we can head off othering by giving our children real and positive understanding and experience: by telling them stories from other cultures, by having them play within mixed groups, by excluding white supremacist books and toys from our homes. Reactively, we can address othering where we find it, by quickly engaging our children’s sense of empathy/fairness whenever we come across prejudice or discrimination, by pointing out what has happened.

But mostly, we must talk.

We must talk and talk and explain and discuss. We must show them what white supremacy is and how it works. It’s hard to know how to do this with a child, especially with a young child, especially if we ourselves feel that we are on uncertain ground. We must learn. Keep doing it, and eventually it will start to make sense.

Teaching white children about white privilege.

I’ve been thinking about Dark Daughta’s conversation with Maia, Amy and reSISTERance about white mothers, and our responsibility to teach our children what white privilege is, same as black mothers have to teach white privilege to black children. Black mothers teach black children that they are held to higher standards in all situations than white children are, in order to achieve and to be recognized. We white mothers have had blinders on, blind to our children’s privilege.

My own children are now grown, all in their early-to-mid twenties now. Whatever degree of success they enjoy, I am sure that white privilege has helped them immensely, as it has helped me.

My youngest child is currently in trouble with the law. She is not so-called successful, but her white privilege has helped protect her from harsher punishment than she would have received, if she were black–a likelihood borne out by statistics.

Even though my children are grown, I am trying to tell them now about their privilege, and will continue to. I can still try to influence them (better late than never). In addition to my own children, there are other white children in my life. Even though I may never be a grandmother, there will probably always be white children that I converse with, and I’ll be looking for opportunities to raise awareness, of children and adults.

What can mothers do?

Throughout patriarchy, men have petted and patronised wives and mothers, claiming that our power as queens of the hearth and heart gave us all the say we needed over the doings of men… We’ve heard that so many times, haven’t we?

Not only did this totally hide the reality for women who were not married, it was clearly false (even married women often had very little say over anything of important) and in any event it completely missed the point because it offered the wrong kind of power. The dignity of being treated as full human beings in our own right cannot be compared with the derivative “power” that comes with docile and submissive loyalty as an adjunct of Man. However, like many powerful myths, there is a grain of truth.

If not as wives, then certainly as mothers – especially as feminist mothers living the examined life – we really do have a kind of power. We really can influence our children either towards or away from repeating the harmful patterns of their fathers.

What can mothers do?

I’d like to throw this post open now, and hear what mothers and daughters have got to say about it. Let’s think about ways that we or our own parents have subtly (or not so subtly) perpetuated divisions, prejudices and stereotypes. Let’s think about ways that we can do better, ways that we can move on and help our children to break free of those mistakes. Let’s help each other to do right by the next generation.

I’ll start. Then it’s your turn.

[Dark Daughta, I’m going to stay on this.]