Friday, August 7, 2009

Every child is entitled to parents who know that she will experience life differently than they do.

There is this story my mom told me, oh, several times over the course of my childhood. Yesterday I found myself telling the same story to a friend of mine. It has become one of the seminal stories of my life, a story that shapes a lot of what I do professionally in the world, actually.

Here's the story:

My mother was in college and living with some of her girlfriends. One of them, V., was an outgoing, vivacious, opinionated, powerful young woman. My mother, on the other hand, was shy and introverted. V. worked at a department store and she got my mom a job there over the holidays when they were taking on extra staff. They had a rather inefficient boss, and V. was always contradicting him, or going about completing tasks in a different way than he requested. My mother, on the other hand, always did exactly what he said even though there were plenty of times when she could have come up with a better and more efficient way. At the end of the holiday season, he decided to ask my mom to stay on, and let V. go.

The moral of the story was, as I understand it, that even though V. was usually right - usually her way was the best way or at least a better way - her tactics were all wrong. When you're working with a boss the best way to work is to start by doing everything exactly as you're told, to show that you have the capacity to take direction, and then later perhaps you can improve things.

I have to say, this system has served me well in almost all of my paid working positions. However, this story came to mind in connection with this part of the TAC Bill of Rights in part because I don't think this advice would work well for everyone.

Our society expects a certain amount of deference from women in the workplace. What my mother described to me was basically a survival strategy, how to be innovative in a situation where innovation is perceived as a threat by those in authority. Pretty clever, but an experience that in my opinion was driven in part by gendered expectations of how a young woman in a lower paying job with an older male boss should behave. V. didn't follow those rules and she lost out. If V. had been a young white man, would she have been perceived as a threat? If my mother had been a young white man would her subservience have been seen as a positive trait?

Of course I don't know the answer to those questions. But I do wonder. And the point for this post is that one of the functions of this story in my life has been to teach me how to deal with a power differential in the workplace. My mom could tell it to me knowing it was good advice, in part because she knew that my experience in the world would be similar to hers. She knew it because I am her daughter, because we share so much experience, and because we share the experience of being white women in the same society and culture. This is part(not all!) of what makes her a voice of wisdom in my life.

Every child is entitled to parents who know that she will experience life differently than they do.

Of course this is true for all of us, right? No one experiences life in the exact same way as our parents, and none of our children will experience life the same exact way that that we do, biological connection or not. But for a transracially adopted child this difference is more pronounced, and the gaps between the survival-story realities of a white parent and the actual-reality of a child of color are going to be very, very different. The ways in which the world responds to a white man are different than the ways in which the world responds to a black man, or an Asian woman, or a native American teenager.

For example:

When I was in college I was pulled over while driving in slow traffic on the freeway. The police officer was rude and aggressive. True, for some reason I didn't have my driver's license on me and my car's registration was expired, but I didn't feel that was enough justification for him to yell at me, rifle through my purse, or force me to speak Russian to him to prove that I had been coming from the Russian embassy where I had just applied for a visa. (He was intrigued by the fact that I had several passport photos of myself on the floor of the vehicle but no passport anywhere in sight.) I told him that I didn't appreciate the treatment, and asked for his name and badge number. He declined to give them to me, but also declined to ticket me despite my complete lack of identifying information.

Now, if I were not a small blond bespectacled white woman (like my mother), I wonder if this would have played out the same way?

Every child is entitled to parents who know that she will experience life differently than they do.

I am starting to see how reflecting on the racialized and gendered aspects of my own life and my own reception by society and the world help me think through how that experience of life and reception by the world of my child might be different. My wisdom will not always be wise to my child's experience and every child deserves a parent who is actively aware of these nuances. He deserves a parent who is connected to people who can help him in the ways I cannot, who are wise in ways that I am not, wise in understanding the parts of his life that are so different from my own experience. This way my child can gain the skills to make real meaning, and find real wisdom in his own special, unique, not-like-me existance.

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