Photo Credit: Dawn Armstrong

What it’s been like to raise a black child in a white world

I’ve waited a really long time to write this. I felt like this is such an important topic that I wanted to wait until I had a broader reach, in hopes that I had the chance to open more eyes. I thought that if I could earn enough respect in the eyes of my peers that maybe my words wouldn’t be tossed aside, as they so frequently are whenever I broach this subject. I realize now that I haven’t met anyone with that kind of influence. Most of us tune out when the dialogue no longer fits our ideals, regardless of who’s doing the talking. To change the hearts of men is a task. Consider this my contribution to opening up the dialogue to a conversation that’s been often misunderstood and at the very least, unrepresented.

Let’s get the stereo types out of the way up front, shall we? Some will dismiss my comments if I lean too far one way or another politically. I’m right in the middle – a compassionate conservative that votes independent. I believe in people’s ability to overcome insurmountable obstacles, and I believe there is no better place to do that than America. I love my country.  My heroes in life –  military, police officers, teachers and nurses. Quite frankly because they get paid the least yet do the most to contribute to our society. That’s a lot of character in my book. Enough said.

When they laid Anthony in my arms almost 24 years ago, he truly was a miracle. After so much abuse and suffering in my own young life- I held someone completely untainted by the world. There was hope in that…in him. For most of my life, love had eluded me. Yet here it was laid before me – in the shape of tiny brown fingers and tiny brown toes. Anthony was truly the first love of my life. To learn to love and nurture someone along was the hardest yet, most beautiful gift in the world. Every positive change I made in my own life was because he gave me something, or rather someone, to fight for.

Photo credit: Dawn Armstrong

Throughout our country there consists a great debate on whether to kneel or whether to stand. A lot of you have come to the party late my friends, because I’ve been doing both for almost two and a half decades.

To preface, I have always viewed the world through rose colored glasses. I’m serious, they are glued to my face. While raising Anthony, I never thought his brown skin would be an issue. I was convinced that racism was a thing of the past. I mean, we had all out grown that right? Yeah, there were some older folks that had some whacked ideas – but it was easy to put those aside. My son had all doors open to him, and it was up to him to decide which ones he would walk through.

Anthony grew up being taught the following values:

  1. You are smart, important and have great worth.
  2. You have a special place in the family. You are the oldest, the leader, the example.
  3. You can do anything you set your mind to. Dream big and work hard.
  4. You aren’t a victim – you are a victor. There may be people that do not like you because of your nose, your skin color, your personality – it can be a host of different reasons. It’s not fair, I know – but learning to navigate difficult people is part of life. Although their actions may hurt, don’t be crippled by it. You get to choose your own destiny. Don’t let anyone rob you of that. Either win them over or find a way to move around them. If you let someone stand in the way of your dreams – the blame is on you. This is YOUR LIFE and no one holds more power over it than you.
  5. You have been bestowed a beautiful gift through your heritage. You are black and white. Through that you have a lens that can transcend two different languages. In all of the great debates you can show people love and a perspective they didn’t even realize. That’s one of the most precious gifts you could ever be given.

Honestly, I felt like I was rockin’ the whole mom thing. I was giving my son a strong sense of self, right? Yet as time went on…I started to notice some things. I continued to push them aside…thinking that there’s always going to be a few people in society that don’t get it, right? But then the older he got…the more it was there. The more I could no longer “rose color glasses” the situation. I was forced to see.

Now the second I say “white privilege” white people are going to wince. Some people think it means that white people have never struggled, don’t know suffering, or didn’t earn where they are in life. That everything was handed to them on a silver platter. This couldn’t be further from the truth. There is no “participation trophy” for being white. White people have it hard too. I did. I fought like hell to get where I am. I think most people do, in one way or another.

However, as the mother of two black babies and six white ones…I’m here to tell you that it’s different. There are things that my white kids will never have to know. There are things you will never have to know as a white parent to white children.

And here they are:

You’ll never know what it’s like…. to have families take their kids out of daycare when they find out their children are playing with your black baby… and then have them offer the owner more money if she’d get rid of the “problem.” Anthony was one at the time.

Photo credit: Dawn Armstrong

You’ll never know what it’s like to have your son come home crying from school because he’s been told his black skin was a curse – or when he volunteers in the lunch line, some kids refuse to accept his service because they “don’t want brown people touching their milk.”

You’ll never know what it’s like to have a nurse curtly send your five-year-old back to the waiting room because “he doesn’t look like he belongs to you.” Then go on and on about how dark he is compared to your other baby – right in front of him.

Photo credit: Dawn Armstrong

You’ll never know what it’s like to have your black son be forced to empty his pockets at church in front of all the white kids because something came up missing before he even entered the room. No one else emptied their pockets. Then when you confront the teacher he says right in front of your son, “Why do you care…does he live with you or something?

Photo credit: Dawn Armstrong

You’ll never know what it’s like to have your son participate in your church’s Pioneer Trek only to be called “Nigger*” for three days and asked to do extra chores because that’s “what he would have been doing during that era.” It was super spiritual. (*I’m not calling it the “N” word either, cause it never sounds that nice coming out of someones mouth. If it offends you by reading it, then it gives you some sense of how hard it is to be called it. I hate this word! I can’t even have my mouth form it). 

You’ll never know what it’s like to have your son be called “Nigger” every day, several times, all throughout high school.

You’ll never know what it’s like to have someone give your son a campus tour and as they survey the grounds, his “friend” tells him, “Isn’t it amazing that fifty years ago you’d be hanging from one of these trees?”

You’ll never know what it’s like to have “team” sleep overs where your son gets called “Monkey” and “Nigger” all night long. Finally after asking nicely several times, he gets so angry he pushes the ring leader up against the wall and says, “STOP IT.” To which the kid responds, “We’re only joking man…you know that we’re your friends, right?”  Yeah, cause that’s what friendship feels like.

Photo credit: Dawn Armstrong

You’ll never know what it’s like to have your son come home on the bus with all of his “teammates” and have someone behind him make a hangman’s noose out of athletic tape, dangle it in his face in front of everyone while saying the words, “I’m gonna rope ya boy,” as everyone laughs.  I do thank the one kid that stood up for him. <3

You’ll never know what it’s like to have to make a million uncomfortable phone calls to parents because their kid called my son a “Nigger” only to have them not believe that little Johnny could ever say such a thing. When little Johnny does finally apologize, it’s “Sorry, Nigger.” And you call back only to be told you are raising your son as a “victim”.

You’ll never know what it’s like to have someone say to your kid, “I’d shoot some Niggers,” or “I can take care of the racism problem at our school with five bullets,” because there were five black students.

You’ll never know what it’s like to have coaches rave over your sons athletic ability, but not want to be burdened by his problems. To have his playing time directly related to his willingness to take being called racial slurs by most of the team. To have a coach get angry and up in your face when he’s forced to punish a white kid who’s a really good player… because your son’s respect and inclusion isn’t worth losing a game. To have your teenage son lay his head on your lap night after night, sobbing because his coach told him, “As long as I’m coach, you’ll never touch the ball,” cause that’s the punishment for being a “whiner.”

Photo credit: Dawn Armstrong

You’ll never know what it’s like to have a person’s eyes go from friendly to hatred because I’m saying something that causes them to acknowledge their own bias.

You’ll never know what it’s like to be a woman who’s physically intimidated while standing up to an angry man – yet you choose to stand firm because your black son is watching you defend him – and you can’t afford to have him see you flinch.

You’ll never know what it’s like to have a police officer stop your son as he waits on the sidewalk for us to join him at his state wrestling tournament, only to be asked if he’s there to cause trouble and then be warned that they have their “eye on him.”

You’ll never know what it’s like to have to make 21 years worth of phone calls, schedule meetings with coaches, teachers, administrators throughout the entirety of your son’s life and school career. Meetings where no matter how awful things get for him,  it’s always chalked up to, “Boys will be boys” or “They didn’t mean it” or “It was just a joke.” To have every single thing he goes through constantly minimized.

You’ll never know what it’s like to sob because you realize there are some circles in your son’s life that will never be open to him. To certain people he will always be less. To realize he will always have to work twice as hard to get the same respect as a white kid. To have that so clearly evident as you raise your own white kids.

Photo credit: Dawn Armstrong

You’ll never know what it’s like to tell your white friends all of your struggles and have them be so shocked and outraged that “all of this still goes on.” Yet never once offer to come and stand with you, because it’s not really their problem.

You’ll never know what it’s like to be “one of THOSE people,” because you are only allowed to complain so many times about the treatment of your child before you’re labeled “sensitive” or a “special snow flake”.

You’ll never know what it’s like to have your child cry and wish he was white so he didn’t have to deal with this every day… and have times that you secretly and shamefully think those thoughts too, because you are just so damn tired.

Photo credit: Dawn Armstrong

You’ll never know what it’s like to have most of these people share your faith or even go to church with you. To find yourself praying every Sunday that God will help you forgive them of their offenses, or of their silence.

You’ll never know what it’s like to raise your child to not be a victim, only to eventually realize that he is – and there’s nothing you can do about it.

If that’s not a privilege, then I don’t know what is.

It has to be said that Anthony has also had amazing white coaches, teachers and mentors in his life.  My son’s life has been and continues to be filled with incredibly good white people. I thank God every day for their positive contributions in his life. They will never know how much it truly means to him, and to me. So, how many amazing people does it take to reverse the damage of the “few”?  I still can’t answer that, because it’s not like it won’t ever happen again.

What I do know is that for 24 years, I have knelt in prayer trying to find the strength to keep having the same talks over and over on endless loop. For 24 years, I have stood in rooms and fought for the voiceless and the unrepresented. We can talk all we want about whether or not it’s appropriate to stand or kneel at a football game, but does that even matter?

It does beg the question, however, when IS IT an appropriate time to have a discussion that everyone refuses to have because it’s so uncomfortable? When is it a good time to participate in dialogue that actually leads somewhere? There are problems on both sides of the aisle. Both blacks and whites need to take ownership of that.

However, so many white people are quick to say, “Well, I’m not prejudiced, I’m being judged for the actions of others,” and wash their hands of the situation because their feelings are hurt. It’s not only your feelings that are hurt..and it’s not your actions, friends. It’s your silence. Silence is the great betrayal. It feels like you don’t care, or at least you don’t care enough to say something. You quite literally don’t have skin in the game.

Part of your privilege is that there is nothing forcing you to participate. You get a choice. That’s great for you…. but where does that leave me? Where does that leave my son? More importantly, where does that leave our country? When you are in the minority, the only way change is ever going to happen is if the MAJORITY helps.

Anger, resentment and hate only come when you don’t love someone enough to be phased by their suffering. At some point they start to self-protect. I see that in the faces/attitudes of my black brothers and sisters and it’s heartbreaking. They are worn down and feel defeated. Yet, I also know that my white friends are incredibly good people. Amazing people. They just haven’t been forced to see. Neither was I for the first half of my life.

At the end of the day, we all want the same things. We have just lacked the work ethic to get there together. It’s time to rip off the bandaid and let this wound bleed until it starts to heal.

Do I still believe in all of those things that I taught my son every day as child? I do… but I also believe that he shouldn’t have to fight so hard to be an equal. That skin color shouldn’t play a role in respect, and that he shouldn’t have to take a certain amount of abuse in order to be accepted. That’s the part of the playing field that isn’t level.

So the question isn’t whether to kneel or to stand. It’s will you speak up?

If you’ve taken the time to read this article, consider yourself educated. With that knowledge comes accountability. I pray you’ll use your powers for good.

Love,

Dawn

About the author:

Dawn Armstrong came from very humble beginnings and fought her way out of abuse, extreme poverty and statistics.  She believes strongly in people’s ability to overcome. Dawn served as the Director of Bariatric and Weight Management Services at St. Mark’s Hospital for 13 years, where she specialized in addiction recovery, motivational workshops, clinical care & sensitivity training. Dawn was the first woman in the State of Utah to achieve several National Awards for Excellence and has served as a consultant for several hospitals throughout the Intermountain West. Although she very much enjoyed her career, her heart has always lied in service. She has served as a mentor for the People Helping People Foundation, who’s mission is to create opportunity and aid for young single mothers, bringing them out of statistics and back onto the road to success. She enjoys her work within homeless foundations and currently works with youth, women and men around the world. She treasures the opportunity to help other realize their potential, their power and God given divinity. Dawn’s crowing glory is her husband Craig, and 8 beautiful children Anthony, Tre, Drew, Ethan, Julian, Ava, Sophie and Payton. They are her world and the loves of her life. Dawn recently started a blog called lovedawn.com where she tackles life, one love letter at a time. Look for her autobiography, “A New Dawn” due in stores next year.

This post was originally published at LoveDawn.com and has been republished here with permission.

Cover photo credit: Dawn Armstrong

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