Appreciation Day!

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I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I really appreciate our town.

Today was High School Staff Appreciation Day. So the PTA moms and I headed over to the  high school with our covered dishes and laid out an amazing spread. I brought stuffed grape leaves and almond cake. There was black beans and rice, lo mein, barbecue ribs, spanakopita, vegetable curry, fried rice, and tons of pasta dishes. Salads, fruit, sandwiches, bagels, pizza, pupusas…we went crazy.

I don’t have to cook tonight–there was so much food.

And the moms were just as varied as the dishes: Indonesian, Japanese, Cuban, Lebanese, Italian, Puerto Rican, El Salvadoran, Guyanese, Jewish…

I can’t understand people who feel threatened by such richness and variety. Recently I read an article in the Atlantic that many who voted for our Orange Overlord really did so out of a sense of “cultural anxiety”.  They felt they were losing their America to foreigners.

Not only do I feel such people are losing out on one of the nicer things in life (new foods! new friends!), but I also know that there never was a time when the world was that pure and that stagnant. Humans have been moving around the planet ever since we walked upright. We marched north from our birthplace in Africa, spread to Asia, and crossed the land bridge into North America back in pre-historic days. We traveled and traded and mixed it up–sometimes for good reasons, like trade along the Silk Road, and sometimes for not good reasons (colonialism, slavery). But we were always migrating and immigrating.

So when, where, and for how long did white Christian America even really exist? I read that there are pockets in the Midwest where people feel they are the “true” Americans, but I put that in quotes because they only got there by displacing the Native Americans and riding railroads built by Chinese and free black men. Nevertheless, they believe they own America.

The Women’s March folks wanted moms to have “daring discussions” with people who believe differently from us in honor of Mother’s Day. I tried. I got into a discussion with a DJT voter about undocumented immigrants. He said anyone here “illegally” should get deported. I asked him whether something had happened to him that made him feel this way. He didn’t come up with anything. I told him I had a different point of view and explained how I felt compassion for people who have committed no other crime than trying to escape violence or poverty. He said, “They aren’t citizens and they should get out of my country.” I gave up, because there was no discussion. Just a whole lot of anger.

I am not going to worry about understanding people like that anymore. I don’t want to understand people who feel threatened by children brought here by parents who wanted a better life for them, papers or no. I don’t need to understand people who feel threatened by refugees fleeing war. People threatened by a diverse bunch of PTA moms feeding a diverse group of school staff a multicultural buffet are never going to make sense to me, if they can’t even explain why they feel that way. I am not ever going to change their minds, or even understand their minds, no matter how many “difficult discussions” we have.

Anyhow, it’s their loss. They’re hoping for the return of a fantasy world that never really existed, and they are very much on the wrong side of history–because humans travel, and fall in love, and mix it up. That’s what we’ve always done, still do, and always will do.

And I guarantee our multiculti feast was better than an all-white, all-Christian buffet any day.

 

 

 

 

 

Falafel in the time of Trump

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The other day my co-worker Layla (name changed to protect her privacy), gifted me some homemade falafel mix. If you’ve ever made falafel from scratch, you know this is quite a present. Falafel from dried fava beans is a lot of work. I was definitely touched by this gesture.

Layla is Egyptian, and as the only two MENAs (Middle Eastern North Africans) in an Anglo-Saxon work environment, we’d bonded over food. As we followed the children we were tasked with protecting around the halls and fields of the school, we talked about recipes, ways to preserve the excess mint and cucumbers in our gardens,  and what stores we favored: Super Jordan, Patel Brothers, or Maharaja Farmers Market. When a recently immigrated relative of hers was applying for jobs, I looked over the resume and corrected the English. We complained about our husbands and kids like all moms; she invited me to a festival at her church.

Unfortunately, our relationship became awkward after November 8th. You see, even though Layla is Egyptian, she voted for DJT. The day after the election, she was all smiles and I was shell-shocked. We had a weird exchange. I’d made the assumption that, as a Middle Eastern person, she wouldn’t go for him.

I had this strange experience again with another woman friend. My across-the-street neighbor is a single mom with three daughters. Let’s call her Nataly. She’s an immigrant from Peru, and over the years I’ve given her kids rides to school (she used to leave even earlier than me for work), and we’ve had coffee together. Lately, we’re both so busy we only meet when we are gardening in our front yards, or as it happened after the inauguration, when we are both in the street shoveling snow. I was wearing my pink Women’s March knit hat, and I proudly said, “I went to the Women’s March!” Nataly replied, “Oh, I went to the March for Life.”

Again, cognitive disconnect. I’d made the assumption that as a Latina immigrant, she wouldn’t go for DJT.

I was trying to figure this out with my husband. The two groups DJT demonizes the most are Middle Eastern people and South/Central Americans. And he disrespects women. Yet these women voted for him.

“I guess they’e one-issue voters,” my husband said.  Of course he meant abortion.

I think he may be right. Both women are some form of Catholic. But I think there’s something else. Lately I have been reading about how people who vote conservative really do think differently than people who vote liberal/progressive. These women both come from traditional patriarchal cultures. (As it has been pointed out over and over, DJT is patriarchy on steroids.) They may be more able to tolerate a blow-hard misogynist like DJT as a result.

I could resent the way DJT has inserted himself into every aspect of my life. Even my friendships are tainted by him. Or I could be the better woman and value these women even as I disagree with them. After all, we are going to have to keep living with each other. It is better to share falafel and coffee, to shovel snow and follow children and share rides, than to argue. I will not be able to change their minds with anything I say. But maybe I can be a powerful example of a life lived as feminist. Maybe they will eventually see the error of their votes through no action of mine. Maybe it is the friendships of women that will heal the country when this nightmare ends–and it will, as all nightmares do.

 

Writing the Resistance

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This weekend I had a chance to take a break from politics and attend the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators 18th Annual International Conference in New York. It was my first time, and everyone was so warm and welcoming.

On the first day,  Fish in a Tree author Linda Mullaly Hunt spoke with me at the Friday Professional Author’s forum, and  Jodi Kendall (whose book The Unlikely Story of a Pig in the City is out October 2017) and Marcie Colleen  (who writes the Super Happy Party Bears chapter books, among others) took me to Grand Central Station’s food court for lunch.

Mathew Winner (of All the Wonders podcast and blog), was so knowledgeable about social media, and so open to meeting new, awkward people like me.  Erica S. Perl (Ferocious Fluffety and many more), said hello on that first day and kept letting me hang around whenever I felt awkward. Ellen Hopkins, of Crank and Traffick fame, chatted with me at the Saturday night get together when it was clear I had no idea who she was, and when I finally realized it and fell all over myself apologizing (I knew her books, but not her face, and she had no name tag), she  graciously let it slide.

But it was’t just about schmoozing and self-promotion. And it wasn’t just about writing craft. As the weekend went on, it was clear that the unstated themes of the conference were Bravery, Diversity, and Empathy. Over and over, the keynote illustrators and writers  were moved to talk about their response to the current political and emotional climate in this country. Bryan Colliers moved us to tears as he talked about the illustrations in Knock Knock, a picture book about a boy separated from his father. He spoke of how each of us saw that child every day, separated from a parent by death, deportation, incarceration, or simply “gone”, and how our empathy for that child’s story changes lives. Cynthia Leitich Smith had us examine how we depicted diversity in our books, and she gave me a lot to think about with regards to identity and the Own Voices movement.

The editors and agents and authors repeatedly revisited the idea that when we bravely and empathetically tell stories about diverse children, we make space for them in a troubling and sometimes hostile world, and that in times like these, that is more important than ever. Diversity means all kinds of things–nearly every one in this country has some hyphen, whether it’s based on religion, ethnicity, gender identity, sexuality, regional or socio-economic factors. Sara Pennypacker summed it up in the closing keynote, when she spoke of each of our efforts as “positive acts of creation” that remove one drop of evil from the world.

In times of crisis, writing and reading children’s books can seem frivolous,  chatting about our art can seem self-indulgent. But we need to dream better versions of the world before we can realize better versions of the world,  and art for children is the first step. Children grown on diverse voices get used to diversity, and are far less likely to vote for hate in the future. By bravely writing about diverse people with empathy, we write the resistance.

 

 

 

 

Twelve-Stepping the Election

 

 

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It’s been a few days since the election, and I’ve had a little time to crawl into my cave and lick my wounds. I’ve read a few blogs about how we will survive, and a few about how bad it really is.

Personally, it is likely that my family and I will be largely okay. We are protected by the facts that we live in one of the bluest states (though not the bluest area), surrounded by diversity (so we have protective camouflage). My husband and I are both employed in jobs that will not disappear no matter what trade deals do or do not happen, and my children will get a decent education no matter what happens because our state has its own very stringent standards.

We have the privileges of money in the bank, home ownership, education, employment, good health, and geography. Many others don’t. The mother of one of my clients (for those of you who don’t know–I am a private nurse for medically fragile children) was gutted. Devastated. I worked that case the morning after and the first thing she said was, “I don’t know what will happen with our insurance.”

Because for all the people who thought the Affordable Care Act was bad, there are many who thought it was pretty good. Not perfect, but workable, fixable. See, if you don’t have a chronic illness, or loved one with an expensive medical situation, you might not realize how important it was that lifetime caps were lifted under the ACA. In the past, before “Obamacare”, an insurance company could cancel your policy after you’d spent a million dollars. Well, it’s pretty easy to reach a million in the first few years of life if you’re one of the children I take care of. So to all you people who want to repeal and replace, what’s your plan for these kids?

I also worry deeply about the environment. We were making such strides with the Paris Accord, stopping Keystone XL, and preserving wild spaces. Now, we have a climate change denier coming in who is likely appointing a climate change denier to the EPA. So we don’t despair, our family spent yesterday donating money to causes we care about. Another privilege of ours is that we can do this. We can decide to charge a donation to our not-maxed-out credit card. It’s a little balm to the burn. Unfortunately, it will likely be the most vulnerable of us that are affected by environmental insults. Many of those red staters  who voted the man in will be flooded, drought stricken, or sickened by weakening of EPA air quality standards.

It’s hard to watch people make choices that are not in their own self-interest. But I see that all the time as a nurse. When I worked in the hospitals, I constantly detoxed addicts and alcoholics. They could be yellow and swollen with failing livers, and we’d work to bring them back from death, send them off to rehab, only to get them back a month or two later and detox them again.

But as they say, you can’t deny someone “the dignity of their own bottom”. You have to let them hit it hard enough that the lesson is learned. Hopefully you can keep them alive long enough that they get to learn the lesson. Sometimes they don’t.

It feels like America is hitting some kind of ugly, hate-filled, fear-inspired bottom. If you ever have had a loved one  destroy their life with addiction, you might recognize this awful feeling. It’s sickening to stand by and let it happen, but some Americans may have to bottom out before they realize it’s time change. Meanwhile, I have to accept where I’m powerless.

I am powerless to change the choices of others. Whatever their reasons. Regardless of how I feel about it.

And even though I can clearly see the train wreck that’s about to happen, I can’t step in front of the train and stop it. I have to stand to the side, gathering supplies, readying myself to pick up the broken pieces. Save who and what I can, starting with myself, and then spreading outward to those who want my help.

Helping and changing what I can is the way I will recover from this sickening situation.

So I’ve had to twelve-step the election. I’m using the wisdom of the recovery movement to get through. Keep it in the day, one day at a time. Don’t quit before the miracle. Have the courage to change the things I can, while letting go of the things I cannot change. All the while praying for the wisdom to know the difference.

 

 

Some thoughts on Columbus Day

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This morning we got up early because my son was marching in the Columbus Day parade in NYC with his high school band. The band is a source of great pride in our community, and it has won prizes in years past for performances in the parade.

My son, however, had mixed feelings. He loves playing in the band and a trip into the city with his friends is always exciting, but he doesn’t value the holiday. He identifies not only as Latino and Guatemalan, but also as an Indigenous person. His story is his to tell, so I won’t tell it all here, but I will say that the one picture we have of his birth mother shows her wearing the traditional traje of an indigenous group.

Yesterday he asked me what I thought the world would be like if Native People had colonized Europe instead of the other way around. We talked about the possibilities, alternate realities, and the “guns, germs, and steel” reasons for Europe overwhelming the indigenous Americans.

This morning he put on a tee-shirt with Mayan iconography under his band jacket, a necklace with his name in Mayan, and a bracelet he’d gotten at a powwow hosted by the Wampanoag People on Martha’s Vineyard. He loaded his phone with Native American music and dug through the laundry to find his earbuds (he always forgets them in some pants pocket). He chose to wear his nearly waist length hair down. Some of this may have been adolescent posing, but some of it may be personal armor. I handed him a Cliff Bar and made sure he’d brushed his teeth and hair and dropped him off at the high school where the parking lot was rapidly filling up with other teens who look a lot like him.

We ran into a neighbor on the train, and a few other parents from our town on the parade route and settled in to watch. Finally our kids came through, and they were awesome, and we were proud, and then after a quick trip to the Museum of Natural History we sat on the train forever, stalled because of track work after a derailment.

Back home I checked in with my son (who’d traveled back separately with the band on the bus). He was impressed by the protesters—we’d seem them too: Pro-Trump and Anti-Trump outside of Trump tower, a group dogging Governor Cuomo about Indian Point nuclear power plant, and a batch of college students chanting and holding signs that said, “Stop Celebrating Genocide.” My daughter asked what genocide was, and I said something like killing a whole group of people, ethnic, racial, or religious, or killing enough of them to damage their culture, and she said, “Yeah, I see their point.” My son said he thought all the protesters were interesting, but he noticed that most of the parade watchers weren’t really celebrating Columbus, or his “discovery” at all—it was more of a celebration of being Italian.

It was a tiring day, but all in all I felt lucky. Lucky we lived near enough to NYC that my son could participate in a parade that provided so much thought provoking conversation, and lucky that my kids were so perceptive, so smart, and so interested in the world around them.

Daily Prompt: Careful (talking to my kids about racism)

snowboard-663304_1280via Daily Prompt: Careful

I don’t usually use the daily prompts, in part because I don’t get the chance to visit my blog daily. When I have a few moments to write, I’m often working on my next book. But this prompt jibes with what’s on my mind right now.

Lately I’ve found myself advising my children to be careful when they make an assumption about someone else’s racism.

My son, who loves snowboarding, has been looking forward to joining the high school ski club since 6th grade. Finally, he’s old enough. At the first meeting, he noticed that most of the kids were white. He has radar for this: he’s always noticing the ratio of white to brown and whether it reflects the general population of the town, or school, or whatever. He came home pretty keyed up. According to him, a white girl had looked at him and said, “What are you doing here?”

I’ve gotten careful to not jump in with my take. Instead I said, “How did that make you feel?”

“Angry! I was so angry!” He talked about how he was gonna school her–she was gonna feel like a fool when she saw how awesome he was in the terrain park. (He’s been snowboarding since he was 5, and he is awesome.)

“That was so racist!” my son said.

I admitted it was pretty ignorant, and that it might have been racist. Or it might have been classist. Or maybe she assumed he wasn’t into snowboard or skiing because he wasn’t one of the preppy, jock kids. Maybe she just didn’t like him. We talked about how it is true that we don’t see a lot of Latinos on the mountains we go to, in part because there just isn’t a tradition of snow sports in Central and South America, so when people move north, skiing and snowboarding just isn’t on their radar. Maybe that was the reason that girl had made that ignorant comment.

I said I hoped comments like that didn’t keep kids out of the club who could otherwise enjoy doing something their family didn’t traditionally do.

I do wish people were more careful with their casual comments.

Yesterday, I took my daughter shopping for a new mattress at BJs. As we were leaving the store with it, a child asked her mom, “Where did she get the money for a new mattress?”

“That’s so racist!” my daughter said.

“Maybe not. Maybe that kid wants a mattress herself, and her mom just finished saying they couldn’t afford one. So maybe it was more about jealousy, or curiosity.”

I don’t want my kids to always be on the lookout for the racist comment. There are plenty, and they come all the time, in the weirdest places, in the weirdest ways. But I’ve learned it’s nicer to get through your day mostly ignoring the non-threatening ignorance. I could be cut by every stupid comment, or I can let it roll off, and think that it has more to do with that other person’s shortcomings than anything about me, and just get on with my day.

We were watching Zootopia on Netflix, and my kids were pointing out every moment that was about racism, or profiling, or awkward inter-racial relations. A sweet, fat, and probably gay tiger called a bunny “cute”, and she, rather uncomfortably, explained only a bunny can call another bunny “cute”, but other species should avoid that word.

The tiger was mortified and apologetic.

Maybe I am too much of an apologist for the people who say such stupid things, but really, I bet a lot of people, especially kids who haven’t learned any better yet, are like that tiger.

 

 

 

 

A Few Weird Things

green-pink-2toneIt’s hard to get to the computer these days, and when I do, I want to write my next book. So I don’t blog as much as I’d like, and stuff happens, and I don’t comment on it, and it piles up. So here’s three things I felt like addressing, but didn’t get around to:

  1.  I got that alert on my phone for Ahmad Khan Rahami (the terrorist who planted bombs in NY and NJ) while I was at work. (For those who don’t know, I am a pediatric nurse who accompanies medicalized children to school). None of the other adults around me got it. That night at dinner, I asked my husband if he’d gotten the alert. Nope. Neither had my son. He says to me, “Of course you got it, mom. You’re the Arab in the family. They probably sent it to all the Arabs, because you all know each other.” He meant it as a joke. (He’s 100% Latino). It’s kind of a running gag about the Arabs in our family. There’s a funny story about a friend who I hadn’t seen in decades, walking into a Lebanese restaurant in another state and saying to the owner, “Hey, my best friend’s father was Lebanese.” “Oh really,” says the owner, “What was his name?”  “Salim Chalfoun.” The owner says, “That’s my uncle.” And here’s the kicker–my dad was his uncle.  So that’s the joke–all Arabs are cousins or uncles or whatever, as far as non-Arabs are concerned. But of course we aren’t. And I know the alert got sent to lots of non-Arabs. So why do I always have that weird, sinking feeling every time a terrorist has an Arabic name, as if it has something to do with me? Why do I take that on? I bet white people don’t cringe when a white guy makes the news.
  2. We were eating our typical weekend pancake breakfast, listening to NPR,  when the recording of the wife of Keith Scott pleading with the police to not shoot him came on. I turned the radio off. My son asked why, and I explained that I had heard it yesterday, and it was very upsetting. My son said, “I know what to do if I get stopped by the police.” He stood and showed me how he would place his hands behind his back. I said, “Don’t do that–they might think you’re pulling a gun from your waistband.” He said, “I could do this.” And he demonstrated putting his hands on top of his head. He explained that’s what the kids in school say to do.  I said, “No, also problematic. Put your hands like this.” And I showed him how to hold his hands in the air, fingers spread, so anyone could see he didn’t have a gun.
  3. A few days later I worked a dance with my client who goes to their district school.  The district is 93% white, and one of the wealthiest in our county. The boys wore button down shirts, and Vineyard Vine web belts,  chino shorts, and boat shoes, the girls wore pink and green Lily Pulitzer dresses. They looked like they were ready to go out to dinner in Edgartown. So preppy and clean cut. And they were so well behaved, I thought. Yet they got yelled at by the chaperones, and the lights were turned on so they couldn’t get into any more trouble. My son was fascinated by this. He wanted to know what those preppy kids had done that was so bad. “They were using their phones,” I told him. “They aren’t allowed to have phones at school or at any school functions.” He was incredulous.”Wow. A phone is bad?” “In their school it is,” I said. I didn’t have to point out the difference between their world and ours. My son totally got it.

 

 

When You Send Your Children To The Moon

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Dar Williams’s song “End of the Summer” has been running through my head this last week. My son is off to high school, and my daughter has entered middle school. And it does feel like I’ve sent my children to the moon.

As some of you know, I work with children whose medical needs require a nurse at all times. One of my clients is doing so well, they now attend their district school instead of a “special” school.  (I use “they” as the pronoun, even though it is not grammatically correct, so as to not give away my client’s gender–I don’t want any identifying characteristics in this essay to violate their privacy.)

So this past week I took my client to their district school, and I got to experience all the anxiety and fear of entering an alien world when my client entered the middle school cafeteria.

My client sat at empty table. All the other kids filed in and filled all the other tables, and the child I was with continued to sit alone. I stood a little way off–I didn’t want an adult presence to be the reason they were being ignored. Eventually an aide to one of the other special needs kids came over and invited my client to that child’s table. That child was sitting near another special needs kid, and a cluster of physically and neurologically typical kids also sat at that table, albeit crowded down at the opposite end. So at one end: my client, an autistic child, and a child with Down’s Syndrome. At the other end, everyone else. But at least our little group of three wasn’t isolated completely, right?

Well, the following day we headed straight over to our new table. I stood with the two aides and we watched the social scene unfold. No one sat with our kids. Eventually, a lunchroom aid  approached some typical kids and guilted them into joining our gang of three. The same thing again the next day–our three started alone, then a few typicals got guilted into joining the “special” table.

Unfortunately, on that third day, a teacher announced that by the end of the week the tables would be “set”. Where you were sitting Friday determined where you would sit the rest of the year. We’d had a week to do our social maneuvering and the window of opportunity was closing.

So of course, Friday found our group of three sitting alone at a table for sixteen. No one was going to sit at that table and be told they must sit there all year. A day or two, sure fine, they can be nice to the special kids–but all year? Social suicide.

I get it; I really do. When I was in middle school, I would have  behaved the same way. I had so little social capital, I couldn’t spend it on compassion for someone lower on the social ladder. And I was freaked out by kids who were different from me. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I began to be okay with all kinds of people. Now I have no problem with someone who looks, thinks, or speaks differently. But it took exposure to get there. Most people have to get used to differences before they can embrace them. So young people, with their limited experiences, are really bad at being inclusive. That’s one of the reasons that integration and mainstreaming are valuable. People need to be near each other to get used to each other and eventually accept each other.

But it is hard on these intrepid kids who journey to the moon. All you moon dwellers look at them, see their differences, and shy away. Our little gang of three will most likely sit alone for the rest of the year. They will survive. They’ve survived worse. Still, I want everyone to take a moment to understand just how much courage it takes to boldly go where no one like you has gone before. How amazing you would be if you could look past their differences and your own fears, and really welcome these astronauts.

 

 

 

 

 

Why Lebanese?

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I just finished up a couple of author appearances for my new kids’ book, The Treasure of Maria Mamoun, and a question that came up at both readings was, “Why did you chose to make your main character Lebanese-American?”

The glib answer would be because I am Lebanese-American, and in all writing workshops you’re taught to “write what you know”. But honestly, in earlier drafts of the book, Maria wasn’t obviously Lebanese-American, and her mother Celeste wasn’t obviously a Lebanese immigrant. I was advised, after the first go-round with my agent, to go ahead and make it obvious.

This advice surprised me, and it went against the grain of my upbringing. As I have shared in another blog Coming out as an Arab American, I was raised to hide my identity. In fact, I had mistakenly thought that it was “better” if my main character wasn’t identifiably anything—so she could be read however the reader wanted to read her.

But at some point between the many drafts, something happened in the writing world, and there began to be an outcry against all-white, all-male author panels. Publishers Weekly has written a number of articles about the monoculture of the publishing world, all across the industry. In their article, Why is Publishing So White (http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/publisher-news/article/69653-why-publishing-is-so-white.html), a pie chart shows that only 1% of the overall industry identifies as Middle Eastern.

Luckily, it seems the industry wants to change this situation.

Suddenly it was not such a bad thing to be me, or to let my main character be like me.

So now Maria, like me, was born in the Bronx, baptized at Our Lady of Lebanon in Brooklyn Heights, and then never set foot in another Maronite church again. Her mother makes the same English mistakes my dad made. She eats hummus, and loves pistachio nougat candies, and has a Tante Farida. She speaks more French than Arabic, and more English than both. Like me, she knows how to ululate, but rarely does it, because of its association with terrorism. And she has all the “first generation in the US” values: education is important, you must always work hard, and it is better to own your home than to rent.

Recently my daughter asked me why in so many of the books she loves, the main characters are always white? She specifically mentioned the Harry Potter and Hunger Game series. I said that white people wrote those books, and people tend to write characters like themselves.

So then she asked why, if the main character is a POC (person of color), is that often made into the whole point of the book? As if a POC can only have adventures related to their status—such as a story with a Mexican protagonist is all about crossing the border or all about fitting in with mainstream white America. Why can’t a POC character just be whoever they are and have “regular” adventures, like magic or treasure hunts or solving mysteries?

That was a good question. I struggled to explain without excusing, and then I realized I needed to get more involved in that question myself. Because here I am, a writer, a daughter of a Lebanese immigrant, with Latinx children. There are some really good conversations going on all over the web, social media, and within the industry. I’ve been struggling to catch up, but as a mother and writer, I realize I need to.

 

 

White Mom, Brown Kids

White Mom, Brown Kids

The other day I was at our local library with my daughter. While checking out our books, I got into a conversation with the librarian: How old is your daughter, what does she like to read, etc.?

The woman in line behind me couldn’t help but overhear. She asked where my daughter went to school. When I named our local school for the 3rd-5th grade, she looked pained. Turns out, her son attends the local K-2nd grade school. The mother explained they were thinking of moving because, “No one looks like my blonde hair, blue-eyed son.”

Yes, she really said that. Because when she looked at me, she saw a white lady. (In my previous blog I explained how I frequently “pass”, because most people can’t see the Lebanese part of me.)

But did she really not see my brown-skinned, black-haired daughter?

I found myself embroiled in a conversation about the minutiae of recent Board of Education decisions. I explained just how good our schools were, while she complained that they couldn’t possibly be good because of this, that, and the other typical “white flight” argument. I countered with my kids’ stellar scores on state exams, the level of work I saw them doing, the quality of the teachers and administration, and the fact that my son had just made Junior National Honor Society.

She summed up her arguments with the classic, “But our property values are going to drop. I mean, who would want to move here?”

I have no idea what I said to that, because at that moment I noticed my beautiful, brown-skinned, black-haired daughter had wandered far away from her embarrassing mother who argues with strangers about sensitive racial issues in public places. Some how I ended the debate and got us out of there.

But all the way home I fumed. Who would want to move here? I would want to move here! I moved us here on purpose! When I heard work was taking us to the New York area, I saw it as an opportunity to find a town and school district that matched our diverse family. I did my research and found a place with a true racial, ethnic, religious, and socio-economic mix.

And I mean a real mix. In our little city, people don’t just move into the neighborhood that looks like them. People meet each other and marry each other. Our white-Arab-Latino family doesn’t look strange when we show up at school functions. My kids have plenty of friends who also don’t “match” their parents. Chinese/white, black/white, black/Latino, Latino/Arab: these are just some of the combos in my children’s social set.

So there, racist white-flight mommy! That’s what I so judgmentally and self-righteously thought. Until I realized that I was not so different. She wanted to move to a place that reflected her family because she believed it would make her son more comfortable. I had moved us to a little city that reflected our family for that same reason. Just because my family is mixed and I moved us to a mixed place, am I any less racist?

Not that I’m going to deny white privilege and the whole history of our nation. But I have to admit you’re kind of judged if you do, judged if you don’t when you’re white. Move into a racially or ethnically different area, you’re guilty of gentrification. Move to an all-white area, you’re guilty of “white flight”.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about this lately, and I’ve come to the conclusion that we all walk around with these big racial/ethnic/religious/socio-economic chips on our shoulders unless we actively work to remove them. And it’s not just white people who need to do this work.

I was at a school function where our wonderfully educated kids were presenting research projects on deep, difficult topics. A mom I know asked me, “What did your son do?”

“Rural Guatemalan Poverty,” I proudly answered.

“Rural Watermelon Poverty?” The mom had misheard. She’s also black, and she believed I had allowed my son to use a Southern black stereotype to discuss rural poverty. *

“No! Guatemalan Poverty,” I explained. She was embarrassed, I was embarrassed, we both laughed, and then we were okay with each other. But there it is: a highly educated, racially and socially aware mom who knows me and my politics well can suddenly think a very strange thing about me or my son based on a misunderstood word.

So how many times do I misunderstand what someone is saying to me? Maybe I hear the words, but I bring a whole lot of my history into the mix, and I miss their history as a result. I don’t hear their context, or I misread their emotions. I don’t know why they think the way they do, and before I give them a real chance to explain, and before they give me a chance, we’re squaring off in our typical, polarized corners. To mangle Mathew 7:3, maybe I need to remove the log from my own shoulder, before I point out the chip on my neighbor’s.

 

 

*If this confuses you, please see “How Watermelons Became a Racist Trope” at http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2014/12/how-watermelons-became-a-racist-trope/383529/