What my heart struggles to know as the white mother of a black daughter

I thought my husband and I were doing everything right. But now we wonder, is love really enough?

Gabriel Bucataru | Stocksy United

In 2012, after years of miscarriages, infertility treatments, adoption home studies, foster care classes, and years of waiting, an adorable two-and-a-half year old girl with the personality of a sorority house president came to live with us. She was (and still is) spunky, funny, energetic, whip-smart. And black.

My husband and I are white.

When we first looked into adoption, we were open to a child of any race. But one adoption agency we checked into told us that they typically didn’t place black children with white parents. What?! I thought, How close-minded. Sure, racial issues are difficult to navigate in our society, but our love would be enough to help a black child overcome any discrimination he or she might face.

When we turned our efforts toward foster-to-adopt, there was no hesitation to place a black child with us. The Department of Child and Family Services was looking for qualified parents to step up to the plate to help any of the myriad of children who are in the system—black, brown, or white. Thankfully, the foster care training included discussions about race and being a transracial family.

We live in a very diverse community, have black friends, and know several families that look like ours. We send our daughter to summer day camp where many of the counselors and other campers are black. We have a great relationship with her biological grandmother and some of her cousins.

I thought we were doing everything right.

But around the time our adoption was finalized in 2014, the deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and Sandra Bland hit the news. I watched as protesters marched in Ferguson, Missouri, and across the country.

Suddenly, I wondered if our love really would be enough for our daughter.

Would we have the understanding and wisdom to help her learn how to navigate the discrimination that she might face that we, as white parents, have never had to deal with? Did we even understand all of the subtle ways she might be slighted because of the color of her skin? Would we recognize those times when she may be treated differently at school or on the playground—and how do we determine when it’s about race?

I knew it was critical that I step up my game. How could I be the best mother to our daughter during these tumultuous times? Sure, I had read books about transracial adoption and racism. But I knew there was so much I still didn’t understand. And the worst part was, I didn’t know what I didn’t know (and that’s still true).

In my quest to educate myself, I started reading books, watching documentaries, talking to black friends to learn more about their experiences, and having discussions with white friends who are on this same journey to learn more. Here are a few resources I have found helpful:

Articles:

The Case for Reparations,” by Ta-Nehisi Coates

This is the lauded long-form journalistic piece that appeared in the Atlantic magazine in June 2014 and made Coates famous. If you don’t have time to read a book, but you want a thorough overview of racial issues in the United States, including the history of unfair housing practices, this is a good place to start.

What I Said When My White Friend Asked for my Black Opinion on White Privilege,” by Lori Lakin Hutcherson

You’re probably heard of the term “white privilege.” If you’re wondering what it is, this On-Being blog post by Harvard graduate Lori Lakin Hutcherson explains it well. She gives several examples of micro-aggressions that she has to deal with every day (such as people questioning if she really was accepted into Harvard), and then points out if you don’t have to deal with these subtle slights—you have white privilege. Hutchinson helped me to understand that how my daughter experiences the world may be very different from mine.

Books:

Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates

This book is written as a letter to Coates’ son and is a first-person account of what it’s like to live as a black man in America. This beautifully written book won the National Book Award and is a New York Times best seller. It gave me an understanding about how blacks experience racism not just as isolated incidents here and there that have lessened over time, but as a systematic, constant oppressor that they can never escape.

The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison

A novel written by Toni Morrison and published in 1970, this is the story of an 11-year-old black girl, Pecola Breedlove, who believes that she is ugly, and that if she just had blue eyes she would be beautiful and loved. When I read this book it helped me to understand what it must feel like to be a black child (especially a girl) living in a culture that idealizes white beauty. I thought of Pecola Breedlove the morning after my daughter’s 5th birthday party when she walked into the kitchen and showed me the picture of a princess with long blonde hair on the front of a birthday card and said, “Mommy, I want to have yellow hair just like this princess.”

The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson

During The Great Migration—which took place between 1910 and 1970—millions of blacks (including my daughter’s 95-year-old great, great grandfather) moved from the South to the North to find “The Warmth of Other Suns.” The Great Migration had a huge impact on the urban culture across the North as blacks tried to escape the oppressive and deadly Jim Crow laws in the South. This book gave me an understanding of the history of my daughter’s ancestors, and everything they have had to endure and overcome.

Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God, by Kelly Brown Douglas

Kelly Douglas, a black Episcopal priest, professor of religion at Goucher College, and the mother of a black son, asked herself, after the killing of Trayvon Martin, “Where is the justice of God?” and “What are we to hope for?” This book is an attempt to answer those questions. Douglas also gives an interesting history lesson on how the whole idea of “race” came to be through an ancient text written by a Roman senator.

Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nahisi Coates
The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison
The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson
Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God, by Kelly Brown Douglas

View full gallery

Audibles:

This American Life podcast: The Problem We All Live With

Chicago is the home of Barack Obama, but it is still one of the most segregated cities in America—including its schools. This podcast tells the story of another school system, in Normandy, Missouri, that desegregated for a time and was successful, but how ultimately, the community wasn’t willing to bridge the gap between black and white, rich and poor. It helped me to understand how hard change can be—but when two different communities come together good things can happen.

On Being podcast: W.E.B. Du Bois & the American Soul

This On Being podcast episode discusses how W.E.B. Du Bois, author of The Souls of Black Folk, inspired many of those in the Civil rights movement and continues to influence great thinkers today. The episode features one of the last interviews with the poet Maya Angelou. The On Being podcast includes several episodes that discuss race in America—so be sure to browse the episodes to find the treasure-trove of wisdom.

Films and TV:

Scene from “Freedom Riders” Documentary

Passengers of this smoking Greyhound bus, some of the members of the “Freedom Riders,” a group sponsored by the Congress of Racial Equality sit on the ground after the bus was set afire 5/14, by a mob of Caucasians who followed the bus from the city on 14 May 1961, Anniston, Alabama. Bettmann | Corbis | PBS

PBS documentary: The Freedom Riders

In 1946 and 1960 there were two Supreme Court cases that ruled that segregated public buses were unconstitutional. But states in the South ignored these rulings. In 1961, The Freedom Riders—a group of both black and white protesters—rode buses together into the deep South to protest the lack of enforcement of these laws. They provoked violent reactions by local citizens and the police, who let angry mobs (led by the Ku Klux Klan) attack the Freedom Riders without intervention. This documentary helped me to understand the heroic efforts of blacks and their white allies to get equal and fair treatment.

O.J.: Made in America

This five-part ESPN documentary is about so much more than O.J. Simpson. It’s about the treatment of blacks by the LA police in the decades leading up to the O.J. Simpson murder case, about the Watt riots, about why, after the verdict that O.J. was innocent, the black community celebrated while whites were incredulous. After watching this documentary, I now understand why the black community reacted the way they did.

Karen Beattie
Karen Beattie
Karen Beattie is the author of Rock-Bottom Blessings: Discovering God’s Abundance When All Seems Lost. Her magazine articles and essays have appeared in America, Christianity Today and Power of Moms. She lives on the north side of Chicago with her husband, 5-year-old daughter, and geriatric cat.

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