You Just Don’t Get It

“You just can’t understand.” It frustrated me when my daughter would tell me, “You just don’t get it. You can’t get it.”

I remember the day that she was born. My daughter was 23 hours old when she was placed in my arms by her birth mother. A literal waterfall, a sheet of tears, obscured my view. And when I could see again, I marveled at my miracle, this God-granted miracle girl. This act of love. Her birth mother had released this precious cargo in my keeping, and I became a mother. At the hospital, I also remember when the birth mother said, “It’s not everyone who would take a biracial baby.” I didn’t know exactly how to respond. I think I smiled and said something about how beautiful the baby was.

Perhaps as a country we might not ever fully understand each other. Yet we can be open to the story of another.

And in my naiveté, I felt superior. I must have thought, “Well, I am not just everybody. I can love this child. It is absurd to think otherwise.” I couldn’t understand why any person would turn away from such magic, such a miracle, such beauty. It didn’t matter that I was a very pale white woman and my new child was not. Her little brown eyes looked up at me, and I was smitten.

As the years went by, I adored my child – I still do. I wonder now if I thought the fierceness of my affection would somehow obscure the reality that she was not my biological child.

For example, when I went on sabbatical and took her to Sweden when she was but three months old, a biracial family was still not the norm. Sweden was still fairly homogenous at the time – though much has changed since then.

One incident I remember clearly: I was waiting at Tunnelbanan, the subway, to roll the baby carriage into the opening car. Two elderly ladies looked down at Annika and then looked up and me and looked down at Annika and then looked up at her Caucasian dad, and gave us a look of disapproval. It was amusing. I had so much love and affection for my daughter, it didn’t matter that we were not of the same ethnicity.

When Annika was 6, I remember her saying to me, “Mama, my skin in brown.” And I smiled and I asked, “What color is my skin?” And she answered, “Your skin is bright!” And I laughed and I thought, That is so wonderful, right? Because she began to distinguish between the colors of our skin.

And I truly believed that even though our skin colors were visibly different, we were mom and daughter. Everyone should be able to see that.

To be honest, I believe I thought that because Annika’s birth mother was also Caucasian, it would be easier for her to embrace me and love me as the adoptive mother. My daughter always knew she was adopted.

In her growing up there didn’t seem to be many barriers; generally, a parent is always with a young child. So as a parent, you see what they see. Or you think you do. OK, you do register a few odd looks here and there. As a college professor in a town where there are a lot of families who have adopted children from other ethnic backgrounds, I thought our family wasn’t as unusual as it might have been elsewhere.

“LEAVE ME ALONE!”

But when my daughter hit middle school, things began to shift. She became more frustrated with me when it was obvious that there were problems at school. I tried to counsel her to be patient, to be kind, to try and fit in. I began to hear from her, “You don’t get it. You just don’t get it!” When she began to become angry at her treatment by others or at perceived slights, she would storm off to her room, sure of my incompetence as feeling person. Otherwise I wouldn’t ask such dumb questions. I should just leave her alone!

I thought, “Is this the terrible teens?” She was the one who didn’t get it. Of course I could understand. She could tell me anything; I was her mother. Through the closed door of her bedroom, I’d say, “I love you. I can understand if you let me.”

But I was naive, I really didn’t.

“Just leave me alone!”

My daughter began to think that in order for her to be black, she had to disdain or disown the white part of her – until she had a very wise counselor who helped her. My daughter trusted the counselor because she got it in a way I could not. Her counselor was black like her. Eventually, Annika told me what her counselor told her: “If you hate white people, you hate half of yourself,” and that, she said, woke her up.

Yet Annika developed a stereotypical idea of what a black city kid would do, how other black children would behave in a certain way. She began to speak in a different way. Dress differently. Distance herself from me and her family. I don’t know if it was from what she was seeing on television. But she was convinced that had to be “ghetto” in order to distance herself as far as she could from the white middle class reality she lived in.

“I’m ghetto,” she used to say.

“No, you’re not.”

“Yes, I am!”

And she and her best friend would tell me again and again that I just didn’t understand who they were.

I didn’t like the change. We argued about who she was and who she wanted to be. She became irritated when I would correct her grammar, conveniently forgetting that I taught public speaking. I had to ask her to speak “properly” when she was with me. It became a point of contention.

FEELING THE DISCRIMINATION

My daughter’s school was predominately white and middle class. Yes, there were students of color, but many of their backgrounds were vastly different from the comfortable cultures most kids came from in their classes. Some of these kids had experienced great loss with absent parents. Others knew first-hand about poverty and abandonment. Overall, there were very few people of color among the students and almost none among the instructors.

She was bullied too. I don’t know if it had anything to do with race or just the cruelty of middle-schoolers. But she began to think of it as oppression because of her race. She began to view white people as racist.

She was a young black girl beginning to see all the things that her friends from African-American, Jamaican, Caribbean, Black-Americans had known for years: There were differences in treatment because of the color of her skin.

I never have been followed in a shopping mall, but my daughter has been. I was never kicked out of a food court when I was young, hanging around with my friends. My daughter and her friends, also black, have been several times.

Driving kids to and from movies, I heard references to me as “other.” Annika and her friends would make jokes about their parents, and say to me, “well, you’re a white mom” – again implying that I didn’t understand the world she and her friends lived in. They would say how differently a black mom would behave, for example, how she would handle discipline differently and keep her kids in line – and I felt as if I didn’t measure up. Of course, I tried to be the cool mom and act like it didn’t bother me. But it did.

I felt her attitude was a rejection of me as a mother. I didn’t understand her need to try and establish differences that were obvious to her because she was different in appearance. To her she must look like a graft on a tree. A mulberry graft on a plain apple.

My child is biracial.  She is a young, beautiful, black woman in an all-white family.

She identifies as black.

I REALLY DON’T GET IT

It wasn’t until I went to a bullying prevention conference and I met an extraordinary woman who works with youth and children that I started to understand. We struck up a conversation about why I was attending the conference. I told her a bit of my story. Then Deidre shared her background. She, too, was biracial and raised by white parents.

As I’ve explained, I was hurt and bewildered and that Annika kept saying that I didn’t get it. Or rather, that Annika said to me, “You just don’t get it! You don’t understand!”

I said, “She says I can’t understand!”

Then Deidre said firmly, “You can’t understand. You can’t understand what she experiences.” And it really hit me.

No. I can’t.

I caught glimpse of what my daughter was trying to tell me. Finally, I caught I glimpse of myself: uncomprehending. Thinking that because I was empathetic, I could understand her situation.

Here’s the truth: I can’t understand what it’s like for Annika to negotiate the world when she’s not with me. I can’t understand what it’s like for her to go into a store and be followed by security. I can’t understand how people would not see what a beautiful, beautiful heart she has and how they would treat her poorly.

I was naive when my daughter was put in my arms. When her birth mother made the comment about how unusual I was to adopt a biracial baby as a white woman, I felt somewhat superior. This mixed-race family wasn’t going to matter, because I was going to be a good mother. I was an intelligent professional woman; I had the tools to deal with this. Moreover, I loved her. Wasn’t that enough?

But I didn’t really understand the ramifications for my kid – the difficulties and struggles she would have negotiating the codes of differing worlds – black, white and mixed, as she prefers to say.

And the problem is, if I am to admit it honestly, the code that she chooses is different from mine. It is uncomfortable.

Growing up, I never had to consider that I had limits beyond those of safety and prudence and morality. I could live where I wanted, make goals and achieve them. I didn’t have trouble finding jobs as a teenager or getting into college. I had parents who were generous and put me through undergraduate school. I was not hampered by my race. I was privileged. It never occurred to me that race would matter for my daughter – because I felt so strongly that she was part of me. If it had even registered, I might have thought that my cultural privileges would extend to her as my child.

Raising my daughter has been an education. Now I try to look at the world as best I can from her perspective. I have learned that her experiences always will be vastly different from mine. I have learned about redlines to keep races in certain neighborhoods. That she might be stopped by the police when she drives to work. That some shortsighted people will judge her without knowing her.

I keep trying to “get it.” And my world is enriched because of it. I ask questions of her friends, and sometimes they explain a bit of their world to me. Some of her friends have lived in two-bedroom apartments with nine other people. A lot of them don’t have beds. Some kids move every few months. Some live with aunts, some with grandmothers. Many aspire to college but don’t have parents who can afford to send them.

When I am confused by a song lyric or something that I overhear, I ask them to explain what a word of phrase means. “Who is that singing on the radio in the car? How do they get to work without a car? What do they hope and dream for their futures?” I amuse them a great deal.

DAMAGING RHETORIC

Then, one day a few weeks ago, I listened to the news on the car radio and began to think about the rhetoric of today’s politicians.

I wonder how people of color and of different identities and faiths must feel in today’s political landscape. We’ve all heard the judgmental statements and inflamed rhetoric, what some candidates think they know about other people and groups in our country.

And guess what? I want to say, “Some of you don’t get it! You can’t understand – and you aren’t trying to get it.”

When powerful people point fingers and make assumptions about specific religious faiths or ethnic groups, they make those determinations from their very limited vantage point. And from what I can ascertain, these powerful influencers assume they are right. They know. They should decide the futures of those they do not and cannot understand.

These divisive perspectives do not serve us.

I want to stand and say, “You just don’t get it!”

I want to implore these influencers, “Please, be open to not knowing everything; try and be open to learn about what we and you don’t know.”

My daughter and I are a family because we choose to be. Because we love and try to understand one another. And when we don’t, we forgive one another and try again. We keep trying to “get it.”

Perhaps as a country we might not ever fully understand each other. Yet we can be open to the story of another and realize how limited our perspectives can be about the situations and contexts of other people’s lives. We can care for one another intentionally. After all, the United States, where I live, was founded on inclusion, not exclusion.

But in order to “get it,” we have to care more for others and recognize the limits of our understanding. And listen. And learn. And listen again. And keep trying when we fail to “get it.”

Debra L. Freeberg teaches communications at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Photo: Foundry, via Pixabay; CCO Public Domain  license.