Every now and again we come across a book that literally changes how we see the world. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me” was one of those books for me. I suspect it had such an impact on me in part because it was released at a time in my life when I desperately needed it, but in many ways I think Coates’ words would have impacted me deeply no matter when they came to me because they are such a thoughtful and raw account of what it means to be black in America.
In August of 2010, I entered a doctoral program in sociology at Louisiana State University. We spent that first year of graduate school laying the groundwork for what would be come our life’s work should we finish the program successfully and enter the world of academia. We were learning sociological theory, stats, and unpacking the social constructs that shaped our culture. I took whole classes dedicated to understanding race. I thought I had a decent handle on how race worked in our culture, but what I failed to see was that my understanding was limited to a solely intellectual understanding. Without the emotional understanding, the empathy of what it might feel like to be black in our culture, my understanding was dangerously incomplete. If I am being totally honest, my whiteness and privilege had allowed me to exempt myself from that work. Why should I try to understand the pain/fears/traumas/etc black people experience when instead I could stay safe and comfortable in my white bubble? Hadn’t I “done enough” by learning and acknowledging the reality of racism? It hurts me to write that now, but owning the ways in which I have used my privilege to exempt me from this deeply emotional work is a critical step in my never allowing it to happen again.
In early 2011, my husband and I started the process of becoming certified foster parents. During the application and interview process we were asked several times what sort of children we would be open to- age, race, gender, disability status, etc. It never crossed my mind to say that I was ill-equipped to raise a child of a different race because I very naively thought that I was in a much better position than most people given my academic experience. I thought I knew all that I needed to know about race. How deeply and dangerously naive of me. We were officially certified as foster parents in early August of 2011 and ready to start taking placements. Just two weeks later, we got a call about a baby being discharged from the hospital. I loaded myself into my car and in a quiet corner of the PICU, I met the tiny black baby that would one day become our son.
We brought him home and reveled in him, but it became apparent to me very quickly that I was not as prepared as I thought I was. I’ve written elsewhere about the racism I started to see when our son was a newborn, but I was thrown into the deep-end after having only stood in a kiddie pool. I know now how much work I had not done. I know now how little my academic experience and book smarts had prepared me for the lived experience of racism. I still know that I will only ever understand a tiny fraction of my son’s experience of the world. I am sorry it took me so long to realize those things, I am so sorry that it took me having something significant to lose to open my eyes, but I am committed to spending the rest of my life continuing to learn and listen.
Our son was in our care for two and a half years before we adopted him. In that time we had five different case workers, a common experience in the foster care system where turn over is high. I will never forget a worker we had for several months about a year and a half into the case. She was a middle aged black woman, kind but assertive (at least that’s how I perceived her at the time). She came to check in on our son once a month and every time she would spend a significant amount of time asking us how we were going to raise him in his culture, how we were going to help him navigate his blackness. And when she left, I was always angry. I felt like she didn’t trust us. I felt like she was questioning our intentions. I felt like she was calling us racist, that we were going to attempt to erase our son’s blackness. I was making a home in my white fragility. What I know now is that she knew what it meant to be black in America and she knew that there was no way I was going to ever be able to understand that experience. I know now that she knew it was inevitable that on some level our son would lose some of his blackness if he was raised in a white family, steeped in white culture. I know now that she was trying to be a really great advocate for our son, to protect him, to push us to think about these issues. I am grateful to her now. I wish I could tell her sorry for pushing back, for getting defensive, for just not getting it at the time.
We finalized his adoption in 2014 and the full weight of what it meant to raise a black boy in America came crashing down on me. Up until the adoption was finalized, it had not solely been my responsibility to keep him safe, and now it absolutely and undeniably was. I was terrified. About seven months after our son’s adoption, Laquan McDonald was killed by a Chicago Police Officer. In the midst of my undoing, Laquan’s murder broke me open. I suddenly realized that it didn’t matter how much I thought I knew if it wouldn’t keep my son alive. I suddenly realized that one day it could be my own son’s name in the headlines, his life literally taken because of racism. I suddenly had something of significant value to lose. I had to set my ego aside and open myself up to continuing to learn and grow, to recognizing how little work I had done up until then- owning the fact that hundreds of hours of reading and research and a degree would never help me to understand what it felt like to navigate our culture as a black person. And then, in July of 2015, “Between the World and Me” was released.
Coates writes this book as an open letter to his son, who was about to turn 15, detailing his experiences as a black person in America while tying those deeply personal experiences back to broader social issues. He reflects on coming to terms with his own blackness and outlines the hopes and fears he has for his son despite the many cultural changes that have happened since his own upbringing. I think it would be impossible not to be moved by Coates’ account. It is poetic and raw in a way that I haven’t seen before. Too often when we talk about racism in America, we fail to adequately account for the lived experience of black people. We spend a lot of time talking about broad structural issues and too little time making space for the emotion of what it feels like to be black in America, the experience of those structures. While Coates’ story is just one of many, it is a great place to start. In my opinion, we cannot forge a path forward until we acknowledge the pain and complexity of those who live this reality, until we engage emotionally as well as intellectually, until we (white people) stop hiding behind our privilege and do the work.