Friday, September 9, 2011

Our hidden biases

I recently visited home for a few days and my mom asked if we could go see The Help together. She had already seen it once, but loved it so much she wanted to go again. I agreed to go, although I honestly had no gripping desire to see the movie. It ultimately was a more than decent film and I even got emotional a few times. Through my peripheral vision, I could see my mom getting choked up quite a bit. She has a tendency to get drowsy in movie theaters, but she sat through the entire film spellbound. I found myself wondering why this movie resonated so much with her, particularly as a white woman. What value did it have?

Over dinner following the movie, I decided to ask her how The Help made her feel. She said both sad and happy: sad because people of color had to endure such unfair treatment but happy because society has become more accepting since that time. It suddenly clicked in my head that my mom was alive during the time period portrayed in the movie. She was a teenager then and living in the south, even. It is so easy to take your family for granted, but they can give you the kind of history lessons you don’t get in school. My mom has seen decades of things that I was not around to witness. I realized that I don’t know my mom’s full history and experiences with race. So, I decided to ask her about what she saw back in the sixties and this is what she shared.

Fresh out of high school in Florida, my mom took a job at a Laundromat. One of her co-workers was a young black man whose name she can’t recall now. She said he had a family and that he was a nice person whom she liked working with. She said that the Laundromat was located right near a Burger King where workers would often get lunch, but the establishment refused to serve people of color, so my mom would routinely get the man’s food and bring it back to him. She also recalled a time when her father was late picking her up from a shift. This man wanted to give her a ride home, but ended up not doing it out of fear. He was scared that white men would see them together and beat him up for it or worse. My mom expressed sadness at the ways in which he was so limited and I could see that her emotion was genuine.

I know it’s not some grand social activist story, but I was still touched by my mom’s actions and by her capacity to care about someone whom society said not to. However, it also raises more confusion for me. This simple story rewrote some of my understanding of my mom’s views regarding race. Throughout my life, my mom never had a nonwhite friend. Our community is predominantly white. My mom’s social circles consist of other white people. It really is white suburbia. Crossing color lines doesn’t happen by chance. If you’re going to cross those lines, you do it deliberately. And my mom never really did that. Heck, I never really did that. It’s so easy not to do that, no matter where you live. The city I’m in now is diverse, but glaringly segregated. There are plenty of kindhearted people living in complacent existence. Movies like The Help come along to remind us of the history and the struggles, but then we slip back into our everyday lives which aren’t quite so multicolored. The movie screen is one thing and reality is another one entirely. Have I mentioned that my mom has 'banned' me from ever dating a black guy? And that she has never been able to provide a reason why?

As a woman of color, it is difficult for me to comprehend how my mom chose to bring me into the family, yet can still turn her back on other people of color. She has said she wouldn’t mind me marrying an Asian guy at all. She enjoys my Korean cooking and supports my exploration of Korean culture. She is willing to share me with my birth family should we ever reunite and wants to know them, too. Asian is okay to love. But black isn’t? It’s okay to work with a black man, but not to bring him home. I do believe that she genuinely liked her co-worker at the Laundromat. And that she genuinely felt sympathy for the women in The Help. But those feelings have never translated into cultivating a close personal relationship with a black person. How do all these thoughts and emotions coexist in one person’s mind? How can you simultaneously care about and reject someone?

This is all so convoluted. Is my mom some horrible raging white supremacist? No! But has she in her heart truly embraced all people of color? No. The dating restriction she has given me speaks most clearly to that. As a public matter, race is a no-brainer for my mom. She believes that people of color should be treated no differently than whites, that everyone should be respected and have access to the same resources. But as a private matter, race is not that simple. Out in society, everyone is valued the same, but in our home, a white or Asian husband for me is more valuable over any other. Is race the same for you as both a public and private matter? I’m not even sure what my own answer is right now. At times I have considered one day becoming a foster parent or adopting an older child domestically. Most youth in the child welfare system are not the same race as me and you know what? I do heavily question my ability to provide for a black child what they need when I myself do not even have a close black friend. I’m so imperfect in all of this, too. I don't believe people who say "I don't see color" because we ALL have our biases. Are your beliefs still the same when you’re in your house and when you walk out the door? It’s something for everyone to think about as uncomfortable as it may be.


  1. I've been following your blog for a while and I wanted to thank you for being so open and sharing your point of view. I just wanted to chime in on this topic.

    When we adopted our son, we realized how few black friends we had. It was a weird thing to notice. Our good friends and family are Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Pakistani, and I could go on and on, so how could we have so few black friends in our close circle? It made us think about how even though things are better than the days of segregation, those cultural lines are still there. Fortunately, we have a few friends who we've gotten closer to since our adoption. They are great role models for our little guy and have offered help him feel more comfortable in his birth culture, but we've had to reach out and work to build those relationships. It's not something that would have just happened, and I wonder why that is?

    I think if you were a foster mom, you'd be sensitive to this issue and you'd seek out what your child needs. Ideally, children would be raised with their birth families and cultures and it wouldn't be an issue, but this can't always happen and so we have to do the best we can.

  2. Hi and thank you for your comment! I'm glad to hear that there are parents reaching across the cultural lines. I think my mom represents a different, less informed adoptive parent generation in some ways, but today I absolutely expect parents to have more awareness and to seek out connections the way you have. You're right--they don't just happen. The more we all work at it, though, the easier it should become!