America’s search for the 21st century Aunt Jemima – updated


America is loving this photo but when I first saw it, I was uncomfortable. When I found out that the child had been adopted by white parents I felt more uncomfortable, but not at all surprised. When I read how much his parents were sharing about this child’s very personal history, I nearly threw up.

Now many parents who have adopted children are extremely proud of the gigantic obstacles their children have conquered -I am one of those parents – and there is nothing wrong with marveling at our children’s resilience and perseverance. But there is something VERY wrong with sharing your child’s history as publicly as these parents have chosen to do. It’s the internet. There are no take backs. This information is following this kid on every date and job interview he goes on for the rest of his life.

And that would be bad enough, but beyond the negative impact on this on this young boy, there is also the dangerous narrative that this image and story perpetuates for us a country. Because there’s a reason this photo went viral, and it ain’t new or good. It’s old and bad.

Nope, it perfectly illustrates both the white savior complex and the idea that affection from white folks turns black folks into “one of the good ones.”

Case in point: Michael Brown, raised by his Black family and he robs a convenience store, magically morphs into the Incredible Hulk, and winds up riddled with a cop’s bullets in the middle of the street. Tamir Rice, raised by his Black family (including his dad who is reported to have had involvement with the criminal justice system), takes a fake gun to the park and is shot by the police before the patrol car even stops rolling. In contrast, this young man in the photo: saved from drugs, abuse, and poverty in his Black birth family and raised by a white family; makes a poster offering free hugs; wears a fetching chapeau; and solves racism by hugging a white cop.

Now let me be clear, I’m not saying that this child should not have been removed from his apparently abusive and neglectful birth family or that his white moms did anything wrong adopting him. What I’m saying is that we, as white adoptive parents of black children, need to be extremely careful of how and when we insert our family’s narrative into the national discussion of racism. Because if we’re not careful, instead of helping to enlighten white folks about their privilege and institutionalized racism, we enable them to have a feel good moment in the midst black folks’ trauma and horror, all the while reinforcing dangerous stereotypes that ultimately damage our very children.

Many friends of mine have posted this photo and more than one has talked about this kid overcoming incredible odds to “change the world.” God bless him, I hope he does change the world one day. But he didn’t change it when he hugged the cop. Instead, he was used as a tool to keep the status quo exactly the way white people want it. The media and social media shares and likes have turned him into the Aunt Jemima of the 21st century, with white lesbian moms for an added splash of modernity.

Update: I wrote the above based on the assumption that the photo in question was an accurate portrayal of a spontaneous and genuine interaction. Since then, it has come to my attention that the photo was staged and cropped to make it look like something it was not, the police officer in the photo was a supporter of Darren Wilson and has not back down from this stance since the photo was taken, and the child (god bless him, really!) is the subject of numerous similar, odd, and disturbing videos on Youtube that show him crying and intimately hugging adults in public. This additional information has been included in numerous threads and yet, folks keep talking about how the critical thinking surrounding the image re: privilege (which I haven’t even touched on), voyeurism, and racism is inappropriate and everyone should just enjoy the image.

Well folks, thanks for making my point even more effectively! Talk about a hollow victory…

Because the photo so beloved because it shows “genuine human emotion” is nothing of the sort. It’s exploitation and Hallmark packaging of genocide. This photo, however IS real and honest genuine human emotion, but it’s not so warm and fuzzy.

Protestors hit the streets in Clayton



Fear of righteous anger

As I wrote here, I’ve gotten some concern and push back from friends about how much I shared with my daughter about the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO. They say I’m scaring her.

Tonight we marched through the streets with anarchists, beat drums, and listened to speakers from local rappers and poets to pastors and Nation of Islam members. A cold front blew in and it drizzled on us for over two hours. She was transfixed.

That fear you sense? It’s not hers. It’s yours. She’s just pissed. Maybe that’s what you’re afraid of…

E with sign

And here are my daughter’s feelings about it in her own words.

How I felt last night: angry, bold, joyful, grateful, sad, proud.

I felt good being with the people I need to be with. I also think that one of the pieces of poetry really touched my heart and at that moment I knew I was not alone. I knew that there was people to be right at my side making me to be a part of my community and make sure that in this world that I’m in they are here to protect me. I’m trying to express how I feel and that is the most important part of me.

A post script from Mom: Since I posted the first part of this last night I’ve gotten a number of emails from white parents of children of color asking for advice about how to have these conversations with their children without scaring them. I knew how I wanted to answer the question but asked my daughter about her experience of last night to test my hypothesis. She proved my point perfectly above.

In a nutshell, it is flat out irresponsible and cruel to avoid preparing children of color for our racist world. It is equally critical to their safety and success as making sure they learn to read and cross the street. BUT if you only tell them about the hard stuff without surrounding them with a community that is working to make things better you’re only doing half the job and yeah, you’re going to scare the crap out of them. Sharing the hard stuff in an age-appropriate way and then empowering them with opportunities to effect change surrounded by people they know, love, and respect who share their experience of racism and take those experiences and turn them into protest, song, poetry, and dance that is the most powerful message a child of color can get.

So no, it’s not okay to avoid the conversations. It’s not okay to live in an all white environment and take field trips to places where your child will see people who look like her/himself. Your child doesn’t need a zoo. They need a community!!



Hands up. Don’t shoot.

This weekend, I was driving to the grocery store with my seven year-old daughter in the backseat when I came upon a police checkpoint. I waited my turn and reached in my purse for my wallet. I produced my license for the police officer but when he looked at it, he did a double take. The woman in the photo has long auburn hair (my hair is short and mostly grey), is nearly a decade younger than I am, and a good 20 lbs lighter. I joked that the woman in the photo was me but, given that we can renew online in the state where I live, the picture was now eight years-old and well, the intervening years had not been kind. He laughed and asked me a question in broken French (my surname is identifiably French) and I replied in equally broken French. He handed my license back, waved me on, and as I was driving away my daughter commented, “He was nice.” I felt a chill go down my spine as I realized that my casual and joking interaction with that police officer was setting my daughter up for that expectation of interaction with the police and I needed to think about how to handle future interactions in way that was better modeling for my black daughter. I didn’t know exactly what I needed to model but I was sure that I was setting my daughter up for disaster if, as she grew into adolescence and adulthood, she expected to be able to be as casual as I had been. When we got home I –honest to goodness, I kid you not- added “teaching black children to interact with police” to the tickler list I keep of things I need to research with regard to parenting.

About 24 hours later, Mike Brown was murdered by a member of the Ferguson, MO police department.

As I read, listened, and watched the coverage of how Mike Brown had been murdered and then unfolding militia-level police action against protestors in Missouri, I, like millions of others around the world, was horrified by what was happening. In, ahem, post-racial America. In 2014.

But my fear and horror was not only in the name of humanity. It was personal. I have skin in this game. My daughter’s black skin. I am raising a black child. In post-racial America. In 2014.

So I emailed a friend who is a black mother I deeply respect and I said, she seems so little but given everything, I think it’s time to have “the Talk.” When and how did you do that with your kids? Her reply, though completely reasonable and rational, was startling to me and shook me to my core. “There is no “Talk.” It’s just life.” She clarified that of course she reminds her kids how to behave in all sorts of situations, including with the police, but mostly they just see the way she and her husband act and know that’s how they expect them to behave.

I couldn’t even reply I was so racked with sobs. Despite all of the books I’ve read, straight forward conversations I have had with my daughter about race and racism, skill-building related to the importance of stewardship of my white privilege, and black friends and mentors I have, as a white person, I lack critical skills my beloved black child requires to survive as a black person. In post-racial America. In 2014.

But then, with pretty much everything else about parenting, when you get thrown shit you have no idea how to handle, you just figure that shit out and keep moving. So I did.

I went online and did that research I put on my list just a few days before. But I didn’t just research how to teach black children to interact with the police. I also looked at specifically how white parents should teach their black children to behave with the police. Because my mom friend is right. In black families, it’s unconscious modeling and even if I do it consciously, which I am committed to doing, it’s easy for me to unconsciously slip back into my privilege and I can’t make the police see me as black. It’s obvious I’m white and they’ll treat me that way.

That afternoon when my daughter came home from camp, I did what I always do when there is potentially frightening event in the news. I sat her down and told her what happened and what was continuing to happen to protesters and that she needed to understand that it was very far away so there was no reason to be afraid but that it was important for us to use this event to talk about things that she could do to help keep herself safe just in case. I explained that not all police officers were racist or shoot people without cause. It is their job to protect everyone but, the fact is that some police officers are racist and she needs to know how to do her best to be safe. We did role playing with me as the police officer (“Mama, if a police officer was really racist, he’d talk way scarier than that. Try again.”) and then her as the officer (Let’s just say if she goes into police force –watch out!!). I talked about remaining calm, being still, following directions, keeping hands in view. We talked about how she might do these things and then find the officer to be really nice – how great!- but if not, she’d be doing her part to stay safe.

Needless to say, it was an emotionally draining experience and knowing that I have many friends, on Facebook and IRL, who are white with black children I posted something about the experience. And yes, many of my friends were having the exact same conversations with their kids or asking for advice on how to do it from those who have. But I also see why many people will not understand why I would share such things with a seven year-old and why I would teach her such things at such a young age.

Here’s why.

The first part is based on personal experience. When I was about little, I saw a snippet of the news – video of Vietnam that included discussion of guerilla fighters. I knew Vietnam was very far away so while I was scared, I felt safe. Then something happened in a city quite close to where I lived and there was discussion on guerrilla tactics. In my little kid mind I was convinced that gorillas were getting closer and closer to where I lived. I spent night after night for weeks, awake in my bed making plans for where I’d run and hide when the gorillas came to my house! Given the presence of the media in our lives these days, I cannot begin to assure that my child will not hear about Mike Brown’s murder, or any of the other awful things that have happened in the last couple of years, so instead of trying to keep it from her, I assure that she gets information that is correct and as gently as possible – from me.

The second part is that if this last few days has reinforced one thing, it’s that it is my job to wake the hell up, see where my child might potentially experience danger because of her race and get about teaching her either 1) how to avoid it or 2) how to most effectively handle it.

And with regard to her age, will a police officer randomly walk up to my seven year-old and harass her? Not likely at all. But she does not benefit from my white privilege umbrella all the time because she’s not with me 24/7. She has friends who are black and in black families. They have older siblings and parents. She could easily become collateral damage if they are stopped by the police and she does not know how to behave. In addition, she will not be seven forever. One day she will be a teenager, will all the asinine decisions kids make at that age. She will be driving. Black kids who grow up in black families get modeling in all these things every day. Black children adopted by white parents don’t get that benefit and in order to learn them they need 1) black role models and 2) white parents who are willing and able to see through their privilege to talk with them about race, racism, and how to deal with it and these things need to be reinforced over time in order for them to integrate them and be able to use those skills when they need them.


Last night my daughter and I attended a Moment of Silence event. One of the speakers who followed the silence gave an example of how to teach children to act with the police and then asked parents who had told their children similar to raise their hands. Before I could even get my hand up my daughter proudly proclaimed, “You did that Mama!” A woman in front of us turned around, looked me in the eye and said, “You’re doing a good job.” I dissolved into tears. After 48 hours of feeling like a completely ill-prepared and inept parent, I really needed that!