What if everything you’ve ever been told is wrong?

The churning I am experiencing means that everything I have to say will not fit neatly into a single blog entry. But let me start by saying this:

It’s not about what you think it’s about. Or rather, it’s not that simple. If nothing else, remember that. There is so much going on beneath the surface.

I have so much to say and it pains me so much to say it and it is going to take me a while. But let’s start with this phrase: “Implicit Bias”.

Got a minute? Take one of these tests. Or a few of them. Then ask yourself how you came to believe the things that you believe. The things that you don’t even *know* you believe.

This mess we’re in came from somewhere. We want to believe that we woke up one day with our enlightened, post-racial selves and that we are not carrying the baggage of our nation’s history. And why can’t people just get over it?
A poem by June Jordan, called “Jim Crow: The Sequel” is haunting me these days. It was written roughly in the Clinton era, and I think I came across it in an issue of Essence magazine. Here’s an excerpt:

But for two hundred years this crazy
land the law and the bullets behind the law
continued to affirm the gospel of
God-given White supremacy.
For two hundred years the law and the
bullets behind the law, and the money and
the politics behind the bullets behind the
law affirmed the gospel of
God-given White supremacy/
God-given male-White supremacy.

And neither the Emancipation Proclamation
nor the Civil War nor one constitutional
amendment after another nor one Civil Rights
legislation after another could bring about a
yielding of the followers of that gospel
to the beauty of our human face.

I know that the phrase “white supremacy” will upset some people, but please know that I am not talking about someone with a Klan hood in their closet. In fact, I am not talking about individuals at all. And I think that before I can go further, I will need to define a few things, will need to explain why I label myself a “recovering racist”. As disorganized as my rants may be, I would be so grateful if some of you would be willing to see through that and to join me as I continue to wrestle with these issues.

Advertisements

Of leather belts and broken cutting boards: Why I don’t believe in spanking

***trigger warning***

(This started out as a comment on a Facebook post that shared this article about the difference between black and white styles of parenting. But then I found myself seven or eight paragraphs into it without being anywhere near done, so I decided that this might as well be a blog post…)

I am glad that the article points out the difference in the “why” here. Sooo intrigued by the idea of permissive parenting as white privilege…profound and absolutely true. I get “those looks” when I am out with my black godson in public…it seems that I might be a leeeeeeeettttttttttttllllllllllleeeeeeeeeee tiny bit overly permissive…but I get that children of color, and particularly black children, need to be raised differently. I “get it” enough that I never try to tell them that the police are their “friend”. I know that they can’t afford for me to teach them that lesson.

(My godson was in his second year of Head Start – so maybe four years old?-and he was telling me about a policeman who had visited his class (in what was likely a “policemen are your friends!” and/or teachable moment about safety type of thing) and the first words out of his mouth were, “He didn’t do nothing to us, though”.

Four. years. old. This is the world a black boy’s parents have to raise them in. And Mona ([Cecil] Elijah’s momma) and I disagree sharply about spanking, but I have to admit that he is a really good little boy and I struggle sometimes with how much the threat of physical punishment has shaped that (in a positive way).

BUT I also subbed in a classroom yesterday where a five-year-old, two weeks into her kindergarten career, punched another child in the nose. Children are taught in school that hitting is not okay, that we shouldn’t put our hands on each other in hurtful ways–but then purportedly go home to quite the opposite message. A neighbor of a friend has a girl of maybe 14 watching her younger cousins, third and fourth grade. She was walking around the street yesterday, in broad daylight, with a man’s leather belt, threatening (half in jest, but there was a seriousness underneath it) to handle them if they didn’t get it together.

I was mortified the other day to hear that 75% of Americans think spanking is okay. (This study from 2013 shows the numbers to be even higher.) This was presented as sort of a side note on NPR, and I don’t know if there was any differentiation between “open hand on bottom” and the myriad of other ways that children are disciplined. But it’s not okay to me, and it never will be. I know of a child who was punched in the eye, but because he was pre-verbal, there was no way of proving it. I feel the same way about physical punishment of children that I do about any other form of violence (war, guns, football itself): Those who live by the sword” (or the switch, or the leather belt) “will die by the sword”.

And here’s the thing: I KNOW that this all comes from my own scars. I clearly remember two spankings (white folks’ verbiage?!) I received as a child. I suppose there were more, but maybe not…who knows. One was my mother in a rage, cursing (which I never heard her do) and hitting my bare bottom (it was summer, and I was running around the neighborhood in a bathing suit) with one of my father’s leather belts. This was followed by her telling me to leave the house and not return.

I can’t remember if I was 7 or 8 at the time, but I was either going into or just out of second grade.

The other spanking I remember is from my father, only because it was done reluctantly (my mother had delegated it, since whatever I had done she deemed to have needed a heavier hand). I remember that one because he did it reluctantly. It might have been the only time he ever spanked me. And he did it without being in the rage I saw him in whenever he beat my brother.

I believe that I am scarred emotionally by my own limited memories of being the recipient of that belt, but much worse was what I witnessed in terms of my father’s behavior towards my brother. (My brother who, like me, was adopted. I never saw my oldest brother, their biological child, get hit, but granted, I was six years younger. Maybe he experienced it when he was smaller. I’ve never asked him.)

What I remember of my father, in contrast to his reluctant and almost gentle spanking in my case, was his rage when he beat (and I use the word “beat” because to me, it was more than spanking) my brother. I remember my brother being on the roof of the garage and my father dragging him down (his own parents were there, and I have a vague sense of feeling like he was more angry that my brother was acting up in front of them). I remember walking into the kitchen and seeing a wooden cutting board, broken in half and bloody. My brother, who has a “tough guy” exterior and has been in all kinds of situations in his life, told me not too long ago that he was never in his life as terrified of anything as when there was a bad snowstorm and he had to call our father for help with his paper route. He was maybe 12 at the time. He is 48 years old and he still remembers this as clearly as if it were yesterday.

Part of the difference in our case is that we were not having these experiences in the context of any knowledge or certainty that we were loved. We knew that we were what people in our community called “lucky” to have been adopted. My parents “got” my brother when he was about a year old, after another failed placement. No idea what happened there; I just knew that his bronzed baby shoe was much bigger than mine and my oldest brother’s. What I have learned from my brother, and only in the last dozen years or so, was that when he was younger and misbehaved, my mother would sit him down in the back porch and tell him that they were going to send him back. My father would come home from work, and apparently would join her in shaming him. “We’re going to send you back wearing only a diaper, the way that you were given to us”.

It’s safe to say that both my brother and I came into this family with attachment issues, something that wasn’t talked about in those days. With that said, I am still bewildered by the fact that my parents passed whatever constituted a home study in those days, and wonder often if they ever would have been approved in this day and age. But I digress…

In my early twenties, I would watch young black mothers (on the ferry or the train going into the city) interact with their children. What I saw was something I couldn’t fathom. They would be so harsh and strict with their children, but at the same time, I could tell that they loved them. Five minutes after a scolding, they would smile or laugh at something the child did. I could not reconcile this in my mind. Would I feel differently if I had been spanked as a child by people whose love I was certain of, by parents who didn’t have the threat of “sending me back” to hold over my head? I don’t know.

And I read these words as well, and they resonated with me:

The pernicious, toxic and inescapable lifelong effect of being disciplined physically – either to the point of abuse, or to the point that the distinction between acceptable and unacceptable blurs in your mind – is that you almost have to say you turned out fine, just to redeem the fact of being who you are. That you “turned out fine” is the only way to make sense of having once felt total terror or uncontrollable shaking rage at the sight of one (or both) of the two people expected to care most for you in the world. The thought that you might have ended up relatively OK or perhaps even better without all that fear is almost unbearable: the suffering only doubles if you admit that it truly had no purpose.

The thing I always say is that I (almost) can understand physical punishment if it is separated from rage. But I don’t believe it ever is. I think it’s a rare thing for parents to lash out at their children in a calm manner. with perhaps the exception of Michelle Duggaroh wait. And again, maybe it’s different for children who have some level of confidence that they are loved by their parents-but the above quote seems to prove otherwise (although I don’t know for certain that the author is actually a biological child of his parents).

AND I cannot say this often enough: I get that I don’t know what it is to be raising a black child in this society. But this doesn’t mean that I think that a belt, or a switch, or anything else used against a child (I respect, to some extent, a parent’s right to use an open hand on a bottom, but that’s as far as I can take it), is okay, no matter what color you are. (<—-the recovering racist in me shudders at the use of this phrase, as I know it’s not that simple…but then, in some ways, it really is. I could take this further and talk about the generational PTSD that people of color are dealing with, but like the author of the original article that started this rant, I still don’t think it’s okay.)

A thing people sometimes say to me when they don’t agree with my views on something is “You are just seeing this through your own scars”. Yes I am. That’s because those scars (in my case, more emotional than physical) are still there. I was spanked. And it wasn’t okay.

Apparently 75% of Americans disagree with me. But I’m okay with that. It doesn’t mean that I will ever stop speaking out against what I consider to be child abuse, pure and simple.

A football player’s actions have sparked a heated debate in this case…but lots of kids are living this on a daily basis, and that’s barely in the news. I am speaking out, not because I want this to be about me, but because I need to let it be known that some of us do NOT think it’s okay. Not for any parent, at any time, famous or not.

I don’t know what it’s like to be black in this society, but I certainly know what it’s like to carry the scars of childhood abuse. And I hope that this somehow gives me, white as I am, some credibility in speaking about the subject.

(untitled)

I don’t know what title to give this post…and I honestly don’t know how I will spit out all of the words that are swirling around within me.

I am home from Elijah’s birthday party, and for the first time in at least three years, he did not come home with me. Partly because I am finally beginning to admit to myself that I don’t need to save him from his life, his surroundings, but also because he has more to keep him there, and it would be selfish for me to force him to come with me.

My house is empty, but my heart even more so.

This moment has been so long in coming. I shouldn’t be surprised. I’ve been seeing traces of it for at least a year now. He has friends on his street, and there’s just no reason why he should want to come and hang out with me…especially not now that his buddy Donovan’s not around. And it’s normal…he’s a big boy now…and I don’t begrudge him that.

But my heart is broken.

Make no mistake about it…despite what anybody may say, my love for him is, and always has been, selfish. I got to play “second mommy” to him…everything I did was as much for me as it was for him. People will be quick to say that he is “lucky to have you”…but I call bullshit. It was all my greed to have someone to love, my selfish desire to belong to someone. I’ve been lying to myself, and I’m paying for it now.

Mona keeps telling me that I need to change my shift at work so that I can take him on weekends again…she is oblivious to the fact that he has no reason to want to come spend time with me, and that I wouldn’t do that to him. I’ve already delayed the inevitable by filling his summer with exciting trips to hotels with water parks, and to ‘Acago to see his buddy. I can see now that I was trying to hold on to the last remnants of a time that is now behind us.

When you’re the real mommy (or so I imagine), you feel a similar ache in your heart, but it’s different. Though the relationship changes, you’re still and always “mama”. Come what may, there’s nobody or nothing in the world that can take that title away from you.

But me? I’m Puff the Magic Dragon, not just with Elijah, but with everybody in my life who grows up and moves on, to the type of life that “normal” people have.

A dragon lives forever, but not so little boys
Painted wings and giant strings make way for other toys
One grey night it happened, Jackie Paper came no more
And Puff that mighty dragon, he ceased his fearless roar.

His head now bent in sorrow, green scales fell like rain,
And Puff no longer went to play along that cheery lane.
Without his life-long friend, he could not be brave,
So Puff that mighty dragon sadly slipped into his cave.

My “cave” right now consists of eating too much, sleeping too much, and crying loud, jagged, gagging tears. And despite my therapist’s insistence that I can now “focus on myself” and get my life figured out–“invest in me”, or some such crap–I am not quite ready to crawl out of my cave just yet.

My grief is selfish…it’s pathological. At best, it indicates just how emotionally stunted I am…at worst, it’s just short of creepy…and real mommies’ love for their children is never considered “creepy”…

Please understand that I’m not writing this as a way of fishing for people to try to convince me that what I’ve said here isn’t true, or that I “shouldn’t” feel the way I do. I don’t need to be told that I should be proud of the way that I’ve invested in his life or that he will never forget me or that he has been “lucky” to know me…please, make no mistake about it. I’m the one who has been lucky. I have loved him selfishly, and I am paying for that selfishness now with these tears.

I am quite certain that I have never loved anyone as much and as fiercely as I love that little boy…and that love is not diminished, I know. But I also know that the most precious times we have had are now behind us…behind me, truth be told…and I haven’t prepared myself for what comes next. At some point, I am sure that I will crawl out of my cage and reluctantly face the too-bright sun…

But today…today is not that day.

God, grant me the serenity…

The first part of this well-known prayer includes the phrase, “…to accept the things I cannot change”. True confessions: I am really, REALLY not good at this. Case in point: almost four years later, I still all but refuse to call my godson “Cecil“. I am being forced into it more now that he is in school and is used to being called by that name, but I do whatever I can to get around it. He can be “Lovey”, or “Cecil Elijah”, or, by habit and/or utter stubbornness, just “Elijah”, but it’s rare that I will call him only by that man’s name.

That man is his dad, though. God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change…

A lot of the acceptance that I need to find is around issues with Lovey, oops, I mean, “Little Cecil” (another variation). This has always been the case…he is not my child–I know that–and as much as I would want many things to be different for him, I have to accept and respect his parents’ choices. The phrase that came to mind, given recent circumstances, was, “Don’t do anything for someone that they’re not willing to do for themselves”…but does that apply to what a person is not willing to do for their child? Do I still do my best for him, or do I do no more than what they’re doing? Those of you who know me know what I end up choosing, but it’s a struggle.

There are plenty of other areas where I need to find acceptance…who the people I love choose to spend their lives with and how those choices affect my own relationships with them; the prayers that seem to always get answered with “no” or “wait”, or with no answer at all; the waiting and waiting for whatever is coming next. God, grant me the serenity…and not the “SERENITY NOW!” type of serenity–but real, true peace–“radical acceptance”, as the term goes–acknowledging that I don’t like the situation, but that it’s not something I can change right now. Okay, probably ever.

I’m stubborn. More often than not, I want things to be different than they are. But I know that I waste a lot of energy fretting over things that I can’t do anything about, and I know that I need to find a way–somehow–to live in this tension.

I don’t know what it means that we have to pray that God will “grant” us that serenity…the dictionary’s first definition of the word “grant” describes the word as “to consent to the fulfillment of”…so who fulfills this? Do I? Does God? Is it some combination of the two?

Either way, I clearly need this prayer, no matter how much I resist–or maybe precisely BECAUSE I resist.

It’s no easy task.

Being safe

I imagine that my godson is often confused. The rules at Aunt Lorraine’s house are quite different than the ones that he is expected to follow at home. I know that he was bewildered when I COMPLETELY FREAKED OUT over him nonchalantly throwing a wrapper out of the car window. “We DON’T do that! That’s mean to the people who work here–they will have to pick it up!” (having worked retail, I am constantly trying to teach the children in my life to respect the fact that someone will have to clean up after them.) Clearly, he had seen someone casually throw garbage out of the car window before, most likely more than once.

Having a different set of rules means that it’s inevitable that some of what I tell him to be true will not be true in his “other” world. To be fair, some of the things I say are not really true in my world either, but they are things that I wish to be true. Case in point: “If someone loves you, they won’t hurt you”. Simple enough, right?

When a child is three, it is difficult to discern how much truth there is in anything he says. “My brother called me a punk”–well, that I believe, but I know that the brother in question would have said this in a joking way. I also know that this little boy knows that he has his Auntie’s heart, and that I will pour out compassion and sympathy on him at the least hint of a wrong being done to him–and this despite the fact that I also know him to have a self-righteous/”poor me” mentality much of the time. In his world, even accidental slights can be cause for dramatics, and one’s motives are often questioned. (“You DID do that on purpose!”)

I believe with all my heart, though, that although children’s words may not always be truthful, nonetheless they have ways of telling that come through loud and clear and that are the Gospel truth. We recently had one of those moments. Through a combination of what he said, what he acted out, and the surrounding facts that I was aware of, I knew that someone who loves him (or claims to love him) had hurt him. And because he is three, because our society does not believe children, because I cannot “prove” anything, there is very little I can do about it. Direct confrontation would be met with outright denial or worse, with me being cut off and therefore even less able to try to shelter him.

(I had a therapist once who said of abuse that “children think they tell”. I think that’s somewhat of a cop-out. Are they really not telling, or are we just not listening?)

Ever since this incident, I have spent a lot of time trying to reassure him with this lie–“people who love you are not going to hurt you”. The night he disclosed to me, he had a lot of questions for me. Well, really the same question, asked in a myriad of ways–“Snoopy (stuffed animal) is not going to hurt me? Max and Ruby are not going to hurt me?” and so on. I had told him that love and the infliction of physical pain were incompatible, and this was very much at odds with what he knew to be true.

His brothers adore him, but yes, they are boys, and so they play rough with him . . . but they do love him, and they are not usually cruel. It was not one of his brothers who did this to him. But he has often reported to me that his brothers did this or called him that, and that is when I tell him another lie: “They’d better not hurt you or call you names! If they do, you tell me and I’ll stop them.” It’s another variation of the same lie I tell him when he is clinging desperately to me because there is a dog nearby, or he is convinced that Chuck E Cheese is hiding somewhere. “I won’t let anybody hurt you . . . I won’t let anything bad happen to you.” How do I explain to him that what I mean is that in this moment, and when I can control it, I will keep him safe, but that I cannot promise to keep him safe every moment of every day, because the world doesn’t work that way?

“If someone hurts you, you tell me, and I will do something about it.” Lovey,  I so want this to be true, and yet I know that this statement must confuse you. Because you did tell me, and I know in my heart of hearts that you are telling the truth, and yet I have lied to you–there is nothing I can do, or at least nothing that will not make things worse for you.

I can’t “prove” that it happened, and I am too much of a coward to confront either the perpetrator or his enabler. All I can really do is to try to teach this child that this is not how things should be. In the meantime, I continue to speak these words that he must surely take in with bewilderment and a sense of despair: “You deserve to be safe. If someone hurts you, tell me and I will protect you.”

I will find a way, Lovey. You deserve to be safe. You deserve to live your life unafraid. And if I really love you like I say I do, then I need to push past my own cowardice and fight for you until all of the lies I am telling you become truth.