To be or not to be Biracial

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

I am white. I've never been confused by this - never doubted my ultimate whiteness. [In fact, my husband frequently points out how very white I am - in a whole host of ways] A heritage of nearly all Eastern European people, sprinkled with a Native American about three generations ago insured that I am as non-specific White American as one can get.

Terrance is Black. Like most Black American families, he can claim heritage from nearly every race. His paternal grandfather Josef was Creole/Cajun - very light skinned with a white grandfather. His paternal grandmother, Queenie, was a very dark skinned woman from Alabama. Terrance's Mom is fairly light skinned, and from the pictures I have seen of Her mother - so was she. The members of his side of the family vary from being as dark as Queenie, to as light(or lighter) than my daughter.

Terrance and I knew when I was pregnant that our baby could have skin as dark as his - or skin as light as mine. You just had to wait and see.

Emily is, undoubtedly, light skinned. She has a lovely caramel tone to her skin, which darkens to golden in the summer. Her hair is more like mine than her fathers, and it too gets golden in the summer time.

When Em was an infant when her father was not at my side, little elderly ladies might gently probe as to whether or not my child was "Italian" or "French" - which I came to understand was their way of trying to figure out why this baby was obviously duskier than her mother. I tried to be patient with them - usually finally stating that her father is black before they dug themselves deeper into any cultural stereotypical hole.

Usually that - plus the sight of my liberal white, breastfeeding nipple coming out of said babies mouth - was enough to stop the conversation.

Terrance has always been unequivocal. Emily is Black. I too have understood that in American society, Emily is and remains Black. For the purposes of teaching her how to defend herself and maneuver in our society, she must think of herself as a Black woman.

That has not stopped me from referring to her as bi-racial too. In fact, it is a term that Emily also uses when asked by her classmates what she "is". Now that we are in Montreal there are so many more variations on the racial and cultural theme that Emily is more often than not told that she ISN'T black by her peers. She assures them that she is - she has a black dad and a white mom - that she is bi-racial.

Poking around the internet, I found this article at Jack and Jill Politics. I deeply understand the point of the writer of this blog article. The idea that it makes some of the American populace/electorate more comfortable with President Obama to think of him...and his children as bi-racial is not shocking to me. The idea that the issue of skin color politics within the black and white communities are still alive and rearing it's misshapen head does not surprise me. I have been by my daughters side when an elderly friend in Detroit might comment on how "pretty" my child is...or what "good hair" she has.... Yes. These are the code words for "whiter" in these contexts and it needs to die out. The idea that a child or person is more attractive or able because of the pigmentation in their skin is something that lies in such a deep dark place in our collective American psyche that it will have to be physically exorcised out to fully uproot it.

But where does that leave my child? Where does that leave me, her white mother?

"I think “biracial” is being pushed around by white people to divorce their non-white offspring/non-white person they like from the “undesirable” minority group they came from."

Hey. I take issue with that.

My use of the word "biracial" comes from a place of trying to honor my side of the family, much like my decision to not take my husbands last name at marriage. To simply say that Emily is Black - end of story - effectively erases me - and all my heritage - from her persona. To say that her Educated Black father chose a White prize wife and therefore turned his back on his side of the family is equally inaccurate.

It is time for the discussion to move away from the Jungle Fever stereotypes of Black men and White women, just as much as it is time to move away from the Tyler Perry stereotypes of black families. Not because we don't acknowledge those pieces as authentic points of reference to " A not wholly accurate but still touching upon some pretty deeply held beliefs" - but because it is time to scrape all the pus out of this wound and let it scar over.

I call Emily bi-racial...because she IS and to deny one side of her heritage is as bad as pretending she isn't black.

How to make a toddler angry

This is the second part of that paper. I didn't connect these two articles until I was writing the part about playing the "Thats MY Mama!" game with my babies. Amazing, I know, when the connections seem ridiculously clear upon my re-thinking the two. What is here is truly my discovering the connections between the two - my thinking as writing. It is THIS that I love about writing and scholarly work. The THINKING. It does not come easily all the time, though, and I am relieved that the cogs of my brain seem to be getting enough grease right now. It feels good.

f you want to make a toddler angry fast, insist that his/her mother is not their mother but is, in fact, YOUR mother. Those are fighting words, partner. Some may say that the toddler does this due to egocentricism, but I prefer to believe that in that game you mess with the elements of that child's “Story”, which is part of their essence. If I played that game with a child, I always ended it by telling them that OF COURSE that was their Mommy – and not mine. I needed to reassure that I indeed would abide by their script in this, the most important of roles to them.

This leads to an interesting segueway – as it leads to a the second article I wandered into, “Mazes of Meaning: How a Child and Culture create each other” by Jean Briggs.

I found the title was wildly intriguing, as it forms a cornerstone of my dissertation inquiry. The idea that a child is created by a culture....and then moves into a larger social group in a classroom and recreates not only their personal culture, but must then blend that personal culture into a new group culture negotiated by all members of the classroom.

As I read the article, I was a bit troubled. The author describes her life among the Qipisa Inuit and while it started out promising with quotes such as:

The notion that meaning inheres in culture and that people receive it passively, as dough receives the cookie cutter, is rapidly being replaced by the idea that culture consists of ingredients, which people actively select, interpret, and use in various ways, as opportunities, capabilities, and experience allow. But it is not the individual that creates meanings, it is the individuals who do so.” (p 25)

YES! Now this is what I had been looking for! Briggs further sets the stage by describing the community and some of the communally held tenets regarding child rearing and education. How adults in this community use the asking of questions to their children as a means of communicating values and posing problems to be solved. “Well yes”, I thought, “who doesn't do this?”

It was the next paragraph that woke me up. For the questions posed in this community to their children were framed in dangerous and dramatic language. Briggs writes:

“In this way, adults create, or raise to conciousness, issues that the child will perceive to be of great consequence for his or her life: “Why don't you kill your baby brother?” “Why don't you die so I can have your nice new shirt?” “Your mother's going to die – look, she's cut her finger – do you want to come and live with me?”

I was a little disturbed. I mean who tells a three year old that their mother is going to die? Who suggests to a child that they kill their new brother or sister? How on earth is someone supposed to answer these questions?

However, as I continued to read, I began to understand that in this community, this is how children are prepped for life transitions. These questions which seemed unduly cruel to me were the tools by which this Inuit community helped it's individual children clarify issues of attachment, belonging and possession. The author writes that the adults in the community only enact this verbal dialogue with children until the children are old enough to know that the adults questioning are not to be taken seriously. These questions brought directly to the surface impulses and thoughts which could have long term consequences if not managed through the adult group members. Through this question and answer exchange, children can test responses, seek alliances from trusted adults and come to understand the pre-eminent role of their parent(s) as primary caregiver.

As I pondered on what a strange series of questions, and how these questions seemed a bit unreasonable and harsh...I flashed back to my own games with Toddlers.

All of the “No, thats mine” game, where I would pretend to put on someones coat or shoe – or take a bottle or binky away resulting in both hysterical delight and more than a bit of apprehension that I was going to take their belongings. The “That's my mommy, not yours” games. The “pretending to be asleep/dead and then jumping up game” or the “I'm going to eat your lunch” game.

I played the exact same games with the babies in my care as described by Briggs, albeit with different verbiage.

As I reflect, I had no concious knowledge of imparting cultural specific knowledge to those children – but I was. We played with their deepest fears – abandonment, loss of parent, loss of belongings, the role of their interdependence on adults for their sustenance and comfort. By co-creating these stories, each child and I would engage in a delicate dance among the real life monsters of a child world, the fear that lies just on the edge of security. However, while I always knew it was a game, I never gave thought to the idea that the child did not necessarily believe it was a game, but that these scenarios could be quite real. The edge of relief and panic would mix with laughter in each child as I would sit up from my feigned and exaggerated “death”. The laughter would become hysterical at times, for what I now realize may have been hysteria.

I was unknowingly scaffolding for these toddlers their entry into coping with fears that, left unaddressed, could compromise their ability to make important life transitions in not only their social capabilities but their cognitive development as well. I became another player in a social drama that seems to have it's roots in something much deeper than play between a child and adult.

A story begins

Monday, January 26, 2009

Occasionally, I publish on this blog pieces of writing I may be doing in my "professional" life. As I inch my way towards my dissertation, I do these pieces to help myself clarify the story I am telling - for this is what it is, this dissertation. My narrative. The Emily in this story is 16 years old now, Hannah is 13, Shannon and Geoffrey are 12, and while I know they have no recollection of me or these incidents - I carry them within ME as part of my reflective teaching practice. They created Dawn - the teacher. And I am grateful.

I have been reading a lot of journal articles and other scholarly works in the past week, waiting for my ideas and opinions to congeal. I find myself still occasionally tongue tied by Vygotsky, then subsequently get annoyed at myself for this strange mental block I have developed.

I returned to my base. I began to read and re-read articles on children, rather than pure theory. One article would lead me to the next. If something of interest was cited in one, I would track down the source, download it and read the source material. “Scholarly” is what Teresa has called it, but for me it is following the leech field of ideas. I need to see where things came from so I can re-construct the ideas for myself. Only at this point can I integrate the new knowledge into my wider sphere of knowing. As ridiculous as this sounds, it is then that I can feel confident of having absorbed the knowledge – soaked it up in my brain like a sea sponge. I am happy when I am at this task, for there is nothing that I am so much as tenacious in task.

This last journey started with a chapter of a book, “The Origins of Storytelling” from The Stories Children Tell by Susan Engel. As I read this authors ideas around the way children come to acquire the ability to tell stories, I was drawn back to my days working with Infants and Toddlers. Yes, it was true that I spent a good deal of my days describing to the children in my care.

I would start off the day by setting the room up in order to entice the various individuals. I knew Geoffrey loved the pig puppet, so maybe I will hide it in the tunnel in order for him to find it...or Shannon loves the pictures of faces, maybe I will line them up next to the mirror in order for her to make faces AT the faces, and catch sight of herself doing this, which will lead to howls of laughter from her...or Hannah loves to race to the top of the climber and knock over the stacking cups I will have placed on top for her to decimate. With these memories came the knowledge of WHO each of these people were ( and most likely still are) as thinking, learning individuals. As a teacher, I understood that it was not merely the taking care of physical needs such as diapering and feeding and napping, but the language I supplied that helped these children make sense of the things they already knew.

It was Magda Gerber who I sincerely credit for my understanding of the role of my talk in the worlds of these babies. Magda did not like “chattering” adults who talked in baby talk to infants. She taught that you should be purposeful in your talking. Describe what the infant is seeing. Reflect the infants experience. Validate their feelings and frustrations at occasionally being limited by their bodies lack of coordination. But above all, be authentic. Infants know who the trustworthy and respectful adults are – they sense it like a beam of light coming out of our foreheads. They may be babies, but they aren't stupid.

I recall a day during my first year of teaching when I became aware of my use of language. Emily had a temperature and was clearly uncomfortable. As I watched her from my spot on the floor, I asked her if she needed me to take her temp. She glared back at me, assessing whether the comfort she could derive from holding and maybe some tylenol would outweigh the irritation of giving up what she was doing and having me take her temperature. Another parent was in the room, as we often had visitors during break and lunch times.

Emily looked at me again. I sat up, cross legged and waited. “Do you want your temperature taken, Emily? You don't look like you are very comfortable.”

In nearly all things, Magda Gerber teaches her students to seek the childs cooperation and consent. There are times to assert your adult need to care for them, but on the whole, we asked for participation in the care rather than assertion of adult might. When an infant knows that their caregiver respects their body, they trust that the things we ask – such as diapering, or napping, or temperature taking, springs from a sincere concern rather than a need to dominate and control.

Emily looked down to the object she was exploring. I offered, “We can save that for you if you are worried about losing it while I take your temperature...”. It was indeed what she was worried about, and she look relieved as she picked up the toy and brought it with her as she walked over to the couch. I got the thermometer and met her at the couch. Snuggled on my lap, with the toy safely next to us, I said “It's going to be cold at first – the temperature...”

I paused and then said “Actually what I meant to say was that the thermometer will be cold at first – and the thermometer is what I use to take your bodies temperature. You'll know it is done when you hear the beep beep beep.”

Emily leaned back into me and said “Beep”.

We both sat there, waiting for the tell tale beep of completion.

The other visiting mother sat watching me from the rocking chair. She began to laugh. “That was a lot of explanation for taking a temperature!”, she chortled.

“Was it? I was just correcting my mistake – that I use a thermometer to take her temperature, really I was just thinking aloud...”

It was the first time I recall being consciously aware that my language was being broadcast to the children for whom I cared.

In reflecting on this long ago incidence, I also believe that I was helping Emily, and all the other children I cared for over years, create their own narratives. My language, my interpretation of their body language, my teaching sign language to younger infants to help them verbalize their needs and wants, all these things added to narratives. I was telling them stories, and they were telling me stories.

In every classroom in which I taught, we had a wall of family and friends. On this wall were photos of important people in the lives of the children, as well as the copious photos I took of them at work and play. One little boy, Geoffrey, loved to flip over a plastic bucket in front of the wall and sit for many minutes every day – naming every one he knew on the wall. At eleven months, he would stretch out his index finger and say the name of the person ( or animal) as his finger reached the picture. Inevitably, some one, adult or peer, would join him at his perch. There is nothing as delightful as being reminded of the people you know and love.

It was this activity – and many others – that helped me learn that infants and toddlers are able to project outward and understand others stories. We all knew the same of Lauren's dog in her picture – Diva – and the names of Hannah's cats too. We understood that those people and pets belonged to that one child. We all understood the idea of “Mother” too – but understood that my mother was not your mother or her mother or his mother. Mother could be a term that meant similar – but completely different things.

Half Moon on Sunday

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Emily and I were in Maine a few weeks ago for a dear friends birthday party.

We had a LOVELY time and did silly things - Like my serenade to her of the Billy Idol Classic "Eyes without a Face" - which makes even less sense NOW as I sing it to my eye rolling daughter in the passenger seat. Or my insistence that she absorb the important life lessons that Gloria Gaynor is speaking about in "I will Survive".

She served heroically as the co-pilot in our six hour journey.

However, she seriously earned her keep Sunday morning.

I was groggily waking up. Was I hung over? Bite your tongue. I had a bit of a sinus headache, thats all. And maybe some light frostbite on my feet during the running to and from the freezing cold ocean. I was also informed, in a disapproving tone eerily reminiscent to her father, that I had snored during the night.

I meandered down the stairs. Consumed Coffee and Water. Some food eventually. Wandered back up the stairs to prepare for the long journey home. Put on my blue jeans. Sat down. And heard an ungodly rip.

This rip was so loud and so long that both Emily and I stopped and stared at each other.

My hand slid down the back of my jeans. Emily craned her neck to peek at the damage.

Yep. I had one full ass check exposed. And not in that "You'll never know if you aren't looking" way - I mean One half of my bodacious booty was on full display.

Now, being Not-hung-over and feeling a bit Winter bloated is one thing. To have your Blue jeans give up the ghost in such a dramatic fashion is quite another.

"Change pants" Emily suggested.

"These were the only pair I brought", I said. At least that is what not-hung-over Dawn said. In reality, I guess I DID have some pajama bottoms in either Christmas Plaid OR Holiday Gnomes that I could have worn. But then I would have had to tell the other adults that my ass had just blown out my jeans. Which I didn't want to do - regardless of the 16 years we have collectively been friends.

"Give me your sweatshirt" were the next words I spoke to my still stunned looking child. I then proceeded to attempt to wrap the sweatshirt around my waist to hide my lone ass cheek.

We may now all pause for a hearty laugh.

What was I thinking? A ten year olds sweatshirt? Good Lord.

I sighed.

"Listen", I said. "Go down stairs and get me my cape - I'll wear the cape for the rest of the time and we'll drive to Old Navy and I will get a new pair of pants...but don't tell anyone why you are bringing me my cape upstairs...inside."

And that is how we proceeded. I wore the cape for the rest of the hour or so we were there - bringing things to and from the car. Once on the road, I had to stop and get gas, so my partially covered cheek froze as I stood at the pump - holding the cape down so as not to give the Maine gas station attendants more of a moon than needed.

We then drove to Old Navy - where I held the cape down over my backside while I bought XL yoga pants -which were ridiculously big - but having just blown out my blue jeans, I didn't think it was time to prove that my ass wasn't as big as my jeans had just led me to believe.

Once we were back on the road - and my right butt cheek no longer attempting to make new friends - Emily expressed her admiration for my ability to make plans and shop with exposed body parts.

"The trick is - Try to act normal - nobody really knows unless you tell them - and this is when it is good to be quirky - nobody questioned me wearing a cape in the house - See?"

Then she fell asleep - and I drove us home. In my definately not-hung-over state.


Thursday, January 15, 2009

I had a bit of a panic attack yesterday. It was the first authentic one in a long time, and I am still in recovery mode ( as evidenced by the 3 a.m. blog posting).

If it is not yet obvious to the four of you who still hang around to read my ramblings, I am HARD on myself. Far harder - usually - than others. I am the person who hears "I was expecting you earlier" and it becomes a referendum on my chronic tardiness. Or "Hey, let's meet and discuss the project" which becomes "Hey - Come to my office and I will list all the ways you have personally disappointed me with your lack of dedication and progress on the research project."

Yeah. I know.

I take a small statement and extrapolate it out into the most terrible thing it COULD be, for which I then plan - because when you expect the worst you can't be shocked when it happens. At the very least, you will know you deserved it.

This lingering mental conversation is one that is very tough for me from which to break away. Often, the loop closes and I become a mental hamster - spinning faster and faster in my own internal dialogue - until I either burst into tears ( rare in public) or I run, run away and hide...then burst into tears in private...and hide some more in shame for the breakdown.

This is where I was this afternoon when I started to cry. Then ran out of work to my car -for the very shame of being human and feeling overwhelmed necessitated my leave taking. Which led to a frantic email to my supervisor as to why I was in the process of having a panic attack for not being good enough.

I sometimes joke that there are two distinct Dawns. Not in a "Hello meet my other personality" way, but more so in the way that I can hear the two distinct Dawns in tandem having a running dialogue about my choices. I call them "Emotional Dawn" and "Logical Dawn". Logical Dawn thinks Emotional Dawn is a bit weak, and Emotional Dawn thinks Logical Dawn is a bit anal and cold. In Freudian terms, we are talking pure id and super ego here. I just gave them names.

Balancing myself between the two extremes is occasionally very hard work, for when the balance shifts to one inevitably swings back to the other - and rocks me both ways until I can regain control and shift it back into the middle of the fulcrum.

These are the nights I wake at 3 a.m. and write this all down.

Moody Beach

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

And this is what happens when you drink a very nice wine with a bunch of old friends:

You can't stop the music

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

One would think after hearing the soundtrack of all High School Musical - 1,2 and 3 - over and over again that I might know the words.

Alas, this is not true.

It is also not really true for my daughter who, nonetheless, belts them out at the top of her tuneless voice. Wii Sing it Mic in Hand. Screaming to cover up her lack of knowledge of the words or tune - and her impatience for reading the words on the screen. Words? Tune? The Sex Pistols didn't need these - why should she?

She often ends these song-massacre fests with,

"Thank you - I'll be here all week!"

And much like her obsession with the "Blues Big Musical" soundtrack at age 2 - I must simply wait it out.

Its the Most wonderful day of the year!

Monday, January 05, 2009

And all you parents out there know what I am talking about -

Say it with me!

School is back in session!

Lord Baby Jeebus - that was one long ass vacation.
I was worried by this morning that Terrance and Emily might actually fall to the ground and begin to wrestle in earnest - That perhaps a thunderdome had been constructed in my living room and the cast of Mad Max was coming to cheer the two of them on.

Two go in - One comes out.

And Frankly, I think there is even money on both of them. Terrance may have bulk and muscle, but Em has whining and crying and the way she says "Daaaaaaaaadddddddddyyyyyy" which seems to make him move. Oh and any mention of her labia, cramps or breasts. That stops him dead in his tracks.

The first week can almost seem jolly and festive. Christmas is coming. Errands need to be done, packages wrapped. This year my "Mommy and Em" craft was fleece scarves and hats, so we needed to finish those gifts. Movies are an easy option for an afternoon activity and we are not completely sick of each other as a threesome.

But By Monday of this week - Whoo wee.

Here are some things Emily and I have argued about:

1. The type of multigrain bread I buy. She objects as it has "seeds and nuts and stuff". The grilled cheese I make on this bread is deemed unacceptable as the added nutritive value of the aforementioned seeds and nuts has canceled out by the buttery cheese.

2. Soup. How anyone can argue about soup is beyond me, but my kid can do it. Too salty. Not salty enough. Containing barley instead of rice. Too much broth. Too many vegetables. AAAAHHH. Its SOUP. JUST EAT IT......and NO WE ARE NOT ORDERING PIZZA!!!

3. Her hair.
NEVER ENDING ARGUMENT. I plan on laughing my ass off when she says something to me in the future about her daughter and combing her hair. If Terrance's button is "girly parts talk" then mine is definitely the whimpering about the combing. The whimpering that becomes full fledged Moaning and crying. Makes my armpits tingle and the cold sweat breaks out.

4. Making her bed.
Although I can SEE her bed. Although I know how to properly make a bed. Although at no time have my instructions to my daughter included "Please throw at the blankets at the foot of your bed and pretend you have made your bed"...this is what she does. When I point this out with this :"Please go back in your room and make your bed FOR REAL" she stomps - STOMPS back with the exhortation "WHAT?!" with her hands up in the air, waving them around, because apparently this looks fine to her.

5. The book report she was supposed to turn in this week.
You know - cause her weeks were so booked with complaining about my cooking, her hair and (not) making her bed she simply couldn't squeeze out the time to do the reading and writing for this one page book report.

and finally - the crowning king argument of the pst two weeks:
Television ( including Wii Sing it).

Seriously. By Thursday, I declared our house to be a Television free zone. For which she punished me mercilessly. But listen. I could not take one more second of Zack and Cody, or Hannah Montana or Raven or Anything. I just COULDN'T. I developed an actual physical reaction when I heard the voices- Seriously. I had to take rescue remedy at one point to keep me from completely losing my mind.

So after she went to school today, Terrance asked me what I was planning to do.

And I said - Nothing.

For real. I am doing nothing today, because the rest of the week is already booked and I need to day to myself.
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