As The White Mother Of Bi-Racial Kids, These Are The Things I Know To Be True

by Joanna Owusu
Originally Published: 
mother embracing sons at home

These are heart-wrenching, terrifying times for mothers of Black kids across America. Maybe because I’m a white mother raising half-Black kids, I’m more surprised by the subtle and not-so-subtle ways my kids’ daily lives are different than mine. There’s a heaviness you carry with you every day as you see how the world treats your Black children. It swells to an unbearable weight in moments like this. I will be haunted for the rest of my life by the image of George Floyd calling for his mother while a police officer kneeled on his neck.

My sons are 13 and 11 and my daughter is 5. We’ve already had many conversations with our sons about what it means to be Black in America. But I’m struck by something this time: our friends with white children often go further in their discussions about racial strife. I first noticed it when my oldest son was in kindergarten learning about Martin Luther King, Jr. In discussing MLK, a set of parents also spoke to their white son about the Ku Klux Klan. I was speechless when my kindergartener came home confused, asking what the KKK was and why his friend was saying he was going to protect him. What was he protecting him from?

I know these parents had the best of intentions. I know they believed they were preparing their white son to stand up for injustice by having a fulsome conversation about race in America. I’m sure they didn’t expect their son would come to school and proclaim with passion that he would protect my son.

In the wake of the deaths of Ahmaud Aubrey and George Floyd, I’ve noticed a similar phenomenon. Some of my sons’ white friends have seen and heard far more details than my kids about these gruesome murders. I imagine some have seen the video footage—footage I can’t bear to watch, let alone have my kids watch. These moments are an abstract thing, for a white child. Despicable acts of injustice that happen to OTHER people.

Every one of these conversations chips away a bit more at my sons’ innocence, and hastens the end of their childhood. I’ll never forget the day I saw the flicker of realization in my sons’ eyes: that these awful things could happen to them. Or their father. We approach these discussions about violence inflicted on Black people—discussions that have to happen with a frequency that makes my blood boil—frankly but delicately. We’re met with terrified faces: furrowed brows and wide eyes, darting away in discomfort.


And so, on the topic of fear and discomfort, I’ve been thinking through some things I know to be true as a white mother of half-Black kids:

I know many white friends and family members are silent about racial injustice because it feels “uncomfortable” or “political” to speak up. I know the Black community feels like white people aren’t always great allies. The people speaking up in these moments are disproportionately people of color. Some of my best friends and closest family members are silent. I don’t know that the world needs your (or my) deepest thoughts on all facets of racial injustice, but a show of support is meaningful—and action is even more meaningful. As many have said in recent days: Silence is deafening.

I know that even if your child has a brown-skinned doll, and really loves that doll, that doesn’t mean your child “doesn’t see color.” Kids are constantly trying to organize and categorize their world. They absolutely discern all kinds of differences, and they absolutely draw conclusions about these differences. Studies have clearly documented this. I’m not an expert, but many experts have written many books about talking to kids about race. Strive to educate your kids about racial injustice in an age-appropriate way.

I know I’ve experienced the tiniest fraction of what people of color experience on this point: It’s not my job to educate you about race. Just like it’s not my husband’s job to debate whether poverty or race is a bigger factor in life outcomes. Please do the work yourself. It’s exhausting to be put in this position.

I know that people engage in light racism all the time in my relatively diverse, progressive community—but they edit themselves in front of me. Sometimes I hear about it. Like the parent at my sons’ preschool who called a Black teacher “ghetto.” Or the neighbor whose son has been in school with mine since our kids were toddlers who made a drunken scene at a neighborhood party. Talking about our middle schoolers’ very diverse school, this parent tried to dissuade other parents from sending their kids there by saying, “Do you really want your (white) daughters to get knocked up by some big Black dude?” I know many were bothered by the comment. I don’t know if anyone called this person out on their bigotry.

This one may be especially uncomfortable. I know that if your white kids interact almost exclusively with other white kids, you’re part of the problem. Neighborhoods and schools are increasingly segregated, a trend that’s continued for decades since efforts to integrate following the civil rights movement. You may view yourself as open-minded and progressive. You may talk about hard issues with your kids and support racial justice causes. But if your child’s world is mostly white, this reality (and the conclusions they will subconsciously or consciously draw from it) will override any other message you’re trying to convey.

I know close friends and family members who view themselves as open-minded have said or implied that a person of color gained admission to a school or got a job or a promotion or an accolade because of their race. These comments have been made about and to my husband. My kids are bright and will get into good schools, and these comments will undoubtedly be made about them, too. Know that on the rare occasion being Black might confer some small advantage, every day in a body with Black skin is more fraught.

I know free range parenting is all the rage. I also know a free-range childhood is a privileged luxury Black kids don’t get. My pre-teen son won’t be permitted to ride his bike through the neighborhood with your white son. It’s necessary, but it’s painfully difficult to let go and allow my sons a bit more freedom with each passing year.


In the same vein, I know that my kids will have to decline many playdates and sleepovers at other people’s houses. I’ll never forget the time a friend left my child and hers alone at a shopping center splashpad while she ran into a store. Or the parent who prodded tween-aged boys to engage in some mischief and toilet paper a friend’s house at night. My kids don’t get to be left alone at playgrounds or sneak out of the house at night. If I’m not completely confident another parent understands all the ways the world will treat my child differently than their white child, I’ll never leave my child in their care.

Lastly, I know that if you voted for Trump in 2016, you enabled and emboldened some of the most racist, most extreme, most hate-filled elements in our society. Maybe you voted “the economy.” Maybe you voted “your tax rate.” Maybe your vote was intended as a protest against Hillary, always a polarizing figure. I believe many who voted for Trump were almost willfully blind to all the ways he stokes the fires of racism. Systemic racism was here long before Trump and it will be here long after. But Trump put a spark to the tinderbox. If you’re appalled or saddened by recent events, acknowledge this administration’s part in it. If you vote for Trump, you forfeit the right to shed crocodile tears now or the next time this happens.

Home has always been a refuge for my family. We’re homebodies by nature, under normal circumstances. Except even home isn’t always safe, as Botham Jean’s murder just a few miles from our home made clear. Sometimes I think the world is equal parts confusing, isolating, and terrifying for mixed kids. They’re both white and Black, and I imagine that divide can feel like a gaping chasm, especially in times like these.

We tell our kids all the time that we believe the world is more good than bad. We believe people are more good than bad. I know we’re all doing our best to educate our children. I’m deeply moved by the efforts of friends and strangers near and far to push beyond their comfort zone and educate themselves and their children about privilege and systemic bias and discrimination. If you’ve tossed out some light racism, or borne witness to others doing so and said nothing, own it. And atone for it, if needed. This seems to be a moment for all of us to reflect, acknowledge uncomfortable truths, and commit to being a stronger force for good in this world.

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