Saturday, October 11, 2008

Black Sabbath (rerun)

Intro - I posted this a few months ago and it really caused a stir. This story is about my wife and I adapting to our new identity as a multiracial family. Enjoy!

When our son first came home, a friend said to us, “We’re so excited! Our child doesn’t have any black friends.” Immediately, the phrase ‘token black child’ rang in my ears. I suddenly became aware of my own whiteness. I’d always considered myself racially progressive. I’d always been careful not to say stupid things like any sentence that begins, “I don’t mean to sound racist but…” I resented people like Pat Boone and The Osmonds who make the white race look like dorks. I appreciated Spike Lee’s movies, although I’m still not sure why he calls them ‘Joints’. Carlton from Fresh Prince of Bel-Air had always annoyed the junk out of me.

But being racially progressive and racially educated were two different things. I thought about an interview I saw of Miles Davis where he said he can always tell a black band from a white band. “I don’t know how I can tell, but it just doesn’t go into my body the same way.” After watching the interview, I tried approaching the radio and my CDs for weeks from this perspective but honestly could never seem to tell the difference. I understood how one could tell the race of a vocalist by the tone of their voice. But I couldn’t figure out how he could determine the race of a saxophonist or drummer just by listening.

Our foster care training had emphasized the need to instill a healthy ethnic pride in our children. “Become students of your children’s culture,” an instructor told us. So we began to research the hygiene of a black child – hair care, skin care, etc. We began to build a library of books on multiracial adoption, child rearing, and black history.

Then we set out to surround ourselves with families of other races, families that might understand the things we were going through. At the time, we only had a few acquaintances but none we were close enough to ask the kind of questions we wanted to ask like, “Does his hair look like it was done by a white person who doesn’t know what they’re doing?”

Our first attempts at casual conversation tended to be awkward, bordering on nosy. We might see a child at the store and try to find a nonchalant way of asking his mother what kind of lotion she used for their skin. A nice, black man sold us our van and during our test drive. While I concentrated on the performance of the vehicle, my wife interrogated him about things like where his wife liked to shop for his kids’ clothes and if he knew a place in the area that sold ethnic toys? He responded as graciously as could have been expected. I know I definitely would have been caught off guard if a stranger asked me where I would want my kids to attend private school.

After a few months, we decided visit a church that was primarily black. My wife and I had spent weeks researching the church online. Really, it took up this much time to work up the courage to go. By now, we were used to white people staring at us. But this was going to feel different. What would it feel like if they stared at us?

We pulled into the parking lot and sat in the car for a minute or so to mentally prepare. My wife and I had both been attending church regularly for years, but neither one of us could shake the feeling like this was our first time. I took a deep breath. “It’s natural to fear the unknown,” I told myself.

We walked in the door and were greeted by two fresh-faced college students. “Welcome to Lifeline,” one of them said cheerfully as the other handed me a program. I waited for a dirty look or even a double take but it never came.

As we walked in, the boy looked around and began pointing to people and shouting, “Mom! That person is African-American like me!” This was his new thing. Weeks ago, he’d begun to notice other people’s race and to point it out loudly in public. At the mall or the grocery store, we could usually shush him before the person noticed or figured out what he said. Now, surrounded by African-Americans, his zeal and volume exploded. “Dad! That big guy is African-American like me!” We expected dirty looks, but people smiled and even laughed.

We proceeded into what looked like a basketball stadium and found seats in the back corner. The website told us the service started at 3pm. We had arrived five minutes early and sat around for nearly twenty minutes watching people trickle in and mill around. Finally, some singers took the stage. They began to clap and chant, “Welcome, to the Lifeline family.” I noticed people shaking hands and hugging and figured out this was the greeting.

A few minutes of this went on until the pastor took the stage and greeted everyone. “What’s up, Child of God!!” he shouted.

“What’s up, Child of God!” everyone shouted back at him.

“I can’t hear you! I said, ‘WHAT’S UP, CHILD OF GOD!!’”

“WHAT’S UP, CHILD OF GOD!!” everyone repeated louder.

“All right, then. It’s time to break into your small groups.” My wife and I looked at each other in matched confusion. White church never made us break out into groups on Sunday. It was much simpler; sing some songs, listen to some preaching, then stay and socialize for two hours. Small group time was supposed to be later in the week in someone’s living room with couches and snacks. A young, very tall girl must have noticed our confusion because she approached us and invited us to sit in her group.

As we sat down, each member of the group introduced themselves warmly. The group leader explained to us that small groups discussed the text the preacher would be using throughout his sermon. Once we got into the discussion, my wife and I began to like it. The discussion felt genuine and the group had a lot of fun.

After small group time, the pastor directed everyone to their regular seats for praise and worship. I had tried, on several occasions in the past, to teach my wife how to clap with music. Sadly, she is hopelessly incapable of finding the beat. When the worship leader directs the congregation to clap, she consistently manages to clap the exact opposite of the rest of the congregation. I had always found her lack of awareness endearing. People would look over and she had no idea why. She just kept on enjoying herself. However, now I couldn’t help but feel self conscious. What saved me from total embarrassment was that this entire congregation was totally uninhibited. There was singing and clapping and everyone was in tune. At one point, I looked over at the boy and noticed he was standing on a chair, clapping enthusiastically, and stomping in his chair. I noticed everyone smiling at us and couldn’t help but feel as if he, even at the age of two, knew he had found his roots.

At the end, he closed in prayer, made a few announcements, and invited everyone to stay because his mom had made barbecue. My wife and I exchanged glances that let each other knew we liked these people. They had been welcoming and inclusive. We had a great time. That is until we made our way to the back to eat and a white man approached me and asked, “Is he yours?”

Returning quickly to the mindset of a Caucasian, I considered several responses. “Actually, he was our ticket in. How’d you get in without one?” But since we were at church, it felt wrong to antagonize a total stranger. So I forced a smile and said, “Yes, he’s ours.”

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