- Kimberly Witt and her husband adopted their two sons from Ethiopia when the boys were eight and nine.
- After enduring instances of racism, the Witts moved from their small Iowa town to St. Paul, Minnesota, but they were still targeted.
- The recent racist incident in Central Park in New York City and the death of a black man in Minneapolis, reminded Witt that her children won’t be safe anywhere they move.
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It happened again. This time in Central Park in New York City. Amy Cooper, a white woman, called the police after a black man who was bird-watching asked her to leash her dog, which is the rule in that part of the park. In the now-famous video, Cooper called 911 and said an African American man was “threatening” her and her pet.
That call could’ve taken a fatal turn, the way it did on Monday in Minneapolis, Minnesota – 11 miles from where we live. A white officer knelt on the neck of a black man, killing him at the scene.
Cooper has since apologised. She surrendered her dog to a shelter and was let gofrom her job at an investment management firm.
Like Christian Cooper, the black birder in Central Park (no relation to Amy Cooper), my older son eagerly spots orioles, finches, and warblers in our backyard trees. He developed his love for birds when he was in elementary school.
For me, this all just means I have to add another fear to my growing list for my two sons: birding while black.
For my young black sons, nearly every activity comes with an added level of danger.
When my husband and I, who are white, became first-time parents to then eight- and nine-year-old brothers from Ethiopia, we were living in a predominantly white town in Iowa. Naively, we thought we were living in a post-racial society, that love was enough, and that our sons would thrive in our community. As our boys grew older, we learned they weren’t safe from racism.
Our agency did a fairly good job preparing us for many of the complications that come with adoption, like facing the challenges that could result from early childhood trauma and maintaining connections with a birth family.
But race issues were a different story.
Before the adoption, we had a conversation with a white social worker about race
We had one conversation about it with a white social worker and a quick training about tending to black hair and black skin. We weren’t required or encouraged to talk with black adult adoptees or to connect with people of colour in our own area.
At the time, one black friend pointedly asked, “Are you going to raise them white?” But neither my husband nor I knew what that meant then.
It became clear one summer afternoon, when a cop showed up at our door when my kids were 10 and 11.
A city worker had called the police when he noticed a group of kids trying to see what was inside a storage shed in the park right near our home. The worker noted that a “couple of black kids” were involved. Because my children were among only a handful of children of colour in the area, the person knew that our sons were a part of it.
Our boys listened attentively, apologised for their actions, and promised to never do it again.
Before the officer left, my husband pointed down the street to the house where the other boy who was involved lived. As we watched the officer pull out of the driveway, though, he turned the corner and headed in the opposite direction.
My sons got a terrifying stern talking-to, and their friend didn’t even get a knock on the door. I couldn’t help but play out future worst-case scenarios in my mind.
I started to fear for my kids when black children were mocked for not being ‘white enough’ to fit in
My career as a high school English teacher gave me a grim fast-forward view of life for my sons if we stayed in our town. I saw non-white students get racially-charged nicknames, and get pigeon-holed for all of the ways they weren’t “white enough” to be accepted.
Catapulted by the 2016 election, we decided to move. My husband and I visited schools and interviewed for jobs in St. Paul, Minnesota, home to a vibrant Ethiopian community. We knew we had made the right decision, when – that spring, before our move- members of my school’s track team in Iowa told a teammate to “go to the back of the bus” while also using the n-word.
The move to St. Paul brought us more diversity in schools, neighbourhood, church, and social groups. It also gave us better restaurant options, constant fresh injera – the delectable spongy bread we eat with Ethiopian dishes. We also got a vibrant arts and music scene.
That didn’t mean, however, that racism and ignorance disappeared.
Several months after we settled in, our then-sixth grader went on a weeklong overnight trip with his class to an outdoor learning centre in rural Minnesota.
While on a school trip, another child told one of my sons to ‘go back to Africa’
Due to a scheduling issue, his class shared the facility with another school group from a rural district. Towards the middle of the week, our principal called to tell us about an incident.
While eating lunch with his friends, a kid from the other school told my son to “go back to Africa.”
My sons’ friends stood up for him and reported the incident immediately to the adults. The school and the facility handled the situation in the best possible way, providing steady, informed leadership that we didn’t always receive in our small town.
When my son called us that night, we were able to hear his voice and know that he felt safe and cared for. He was mostly uncomfortable with the unwanted attention. He came home with a bag full of stinky laundry and stories about adventures with friends, including a tipped canoe and glasses lost – and then later found – in the lake.
It was a sad and powerful reminder that even a drastic change in geography couldn’t do away with white supremacy. These sad and powerful reminders happen all too frequently for people of colour in this country.
Relocating helped, but we’ve realised our kids won’t be totally safe anywhere
Our move has made us all more comfortable, less conspicuous. While I know there is nowhere my sons can walk around completely safe in the US, I know that they have been empowered to own their racial identity in a way that never would have been possible where we lived in Iowa.
Along with their friend groups, their music taste has diversified as well. My sons now have non-white coaches, youth group leaders, barbers, and doctors. They can walk with ease within their own culture.
Their beautiful Ethiopian names no longer elicit snickers and questions in every new setting. They are never the only black kid in any situation, and in many cases, those roles have been reversed. My husband and I are sometimes the only white fans cheering for our sons’ sports teams.
But when I hear of yet another innocent black person killed, or reported to the police, my heart stops again.
I lie awake at night questioning over and over again if we made the right choice bringing children from Ethiopia, a country where the colour of their skin doesn’t feel like a death sentence.
My fear is palpable, but I know it’s a shadow of the fear my sons – and every other black person in this country – must carry around every day. I may be the mother of black sons, but I am still steeped in my own privilege. I still have work to do as we try to dismantle a world of white supremacy, and I dig in to learn what it means to be an anti-racist.
- Read more:
- The white woman who called 911 after a black bird-watcher asked her to leash her dog has ‘voluntarily surrendered’ her pet to an animal rescue
- ‘I can’t breathe’: 4 Minneapolis police officers were fired following their involvement in a black man’s death after a cop knelt on his neck for 8 minutes
- I’m black and genderfluid, and I had to break up with my white therapist because she didn’t understand race