"Virtue signalling" versus "This is my life"

I go pick up my six-year-old son from kindergarten and he says a big kid from another class chased him and hit him repeatedly on the playground. Then he says another kid is calling him a racial slur.

I delicately ask the teacher if there have been any issues, and she explodes at me. "I don't want to hear it! I know for a fact that if there is any conflict, then your son started it. I don't care what anyone saw or what he says. He did something first. I know that. It's the way he is. It's in his background." 

Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

I should have known not to bring anything up with this teacher. The other teacher swears my son is no more rambunctious than any of the other boys. She says they're all difficult. But mine is the only one not considered "white" by the standards of the country where we live.

He hides behind the shelves in the kindergarten boot room, eyes wide and mouth trembling. That night we have the discussion I've been dreading. Sex? Are you kidding? Imagine being afraid of discussing the birds and the bees!

Parents of black boys in America know this discussion though and I wonder if they dread it as much as I have. It goes like this: "I know it isn't fair, but for your own protection, you must never ever hit back. They will judge you more harshly because of the color of your skin and eyes." 

Again. this is kindergarten.

After the kids are in bed, I get online. It's work but it also involves blogging and discussing issues with people around the world. One of those issues is the ban on people from seven majority Muslim countries entering the US. And someone throws the accusation of "virtue signalling" at me because I express support for refugees who are affected by the ban. 

Initially I didn't even know what the epithet meant, I've been out of the country so long. But I looked it up and the gist of it is that I'm white so there is no way I could really be against racism and Islamophobia. I just say I am in order to "signal" how "virtuous" I am in an attempt to avoid anti-white backlash. So goes the logic of smug white commentators.

The absurdity of the past two weeks is staggering. I pride myself on being able to engage "the other side" with compassion but, dear goddess, how do you communicate across this canyon? 

If I tried to explain my day to the "virtue signalling" slinger, I might as well be speaking Urdu. 

I don't claim to know what it is like to be Black or Muslim in America. But I do have this little window into the issue of race because of the fluke of weird Czech attitudes toward ethnicity. I get enough of a window to know that I'm not experiencing the full extent of it by far.

And here's what my week is like:  

Refugees - Creative Commons image by Steve Thompson 

Refugees - Creative Commons image by Steve Thompson 

A gay lawyer friend and I helped a disabled immigrant with housing and paperwork the other night. After all, he was one of only a handful of people who stayed on a tough job with us one time. Then I go downhill skiing and I steer primarily by the sound of skis scraping on either side of me. I miss the days when I had a guide for blind skiers.

Then I come home and my good friend born in Syria who I've known for fifteen years and who ten years ago married an American and moved there is worried about whether or not she'll ever see the rest of her family again. (Oh, and her family is Christian, as are more than 20 percent of Syrians). I wish I could hug her long distance. I wish I could do anything but feel helpless.

I plan to go for a weekend to the home of the transgender friend with kids who I didn't used to know is trans. I have a short and pleasant Facebook conversation with a colleague I once went through a war zone with, who is also a Muslim and a former refugee. I'm glad to know he and his family are safe and well. Then I go out in subzero temperatures to feed animals and water overwintering plants in the urban homesteading that keeps our carbon footprint low.

When I say I am against racism, homophobia, ableism and other forms of bigotry and when I say I care about humanitarian and environmental issues, I'm only standing up for myself, my friends and my family just as you would if the storm troopers were at your door. 

Now I hear that there are protests in airports against the immigration ban for people from those seven countries which have lots of Muslims but oddly not nearly as many terrorists as the countries not banned. There are crowds of people standing on guard while Muslims pray in US airports.

I'm glad there is this outpouring of support for people who have had it rough for many years and who have generally suffered through it in silence and alone, trying to be nicer and less physical than everyone else, even while they were attacked, so that they wouldn't be labeled as "aggressive Muslims."  

I can't help but remember a trip back to the US five years ago. I was standing in an interminable security line with my kids--then no more than toddlers. I finally reached the point at which we were to enter the machines and checks and I noticed a family standing near by outside the line.

"We'll miss the flight," the woman said quietly but I heard. I am legally blind but I also made out the scarf around her head, wrapped in that way that I know usually means a Muslim. Her husband and two small children stood pressed near her, but he said nothing. All of their faces were a deep golden brown, likely with Middle Eastern or South Asian background.

I thought I understood. They had been held up and knew they didn't have time to stand in the line. Many other people would have begged to be allowed to cut in line, and with small children most would have been allowed. But they were too terrified to draw attention to themselves. 

I made a quick decision and stopped inching forward. Then I beckoned to them to join the line. The man's head jerked up and I thought he must be amazed, even though I couldn't see his expression well. The woman pushed him forward a little and the slid into the line in front of my kids. I heard a rumble behind me, coughs and someone pushed me roughly from behind. There were some coughs but nothing overt, yet.

My heart hammered in my throat. I am not a coward about most things but I have had plenty of reason to be afraid of public judgment and crowd disapproval. I whipped around, ready to defend myself and thrust my white cane, which I carry in confusing environments like airports, even though I can walk without it out to the side and demanded of the people behind me in line, "Have you got something to say?" 

The crowd stilled and I turned back around, the back of my neck and head burning as if their gaze could light me on fire. Still I felt a thrill inside. I had managed it. The Muslim family moved off quickly with only mumbled thanks. I gained no public approval or virtuous status that day. I did gain a bit more courage to act on my conscience, even when I may be publicly judged however.

This isn't "virtue signalling." This is my life. These are my people. You slander and malign them or you threaten to take away our basic rights, you ban people of another minority faith even if it isn't the exact same one as mine or you mock someone who shares a profession AND disability status with me, and you are much more likely to see my not-so-virtuous side. 

You belong on the earth

I doubt there has ever been a time in history when more people in more varied walks of life have been labeled and told they are unwanted or don't belong. 

I know many people are hurting deeply right now for reasons of life and death, separation from family and elimination of basic freedom. It can feel like other groups who have merely been mocked, degraded or threatened are not in the same boat and that they do not understand the gravity of the situation. 

Creative Commons image by Matt Drobnik

Creative Commons image by Matt Drobnik

We don't all understand every part. We don't all know what it is to stand in one another's shoes. But we do have more in common than we have misunderstandings. 

Your experiences are real and you are not alone. 

And yet it has become unfashionable to have a group identity. We love individuals and we don't like being pigeon-holed. We may be part of one culture, ethnicity, faith, group or class but we are rarely "typical"  of that label and we simultaneously belong to others.

Our media culture idolizes the person who refuses to associate with a group. We have also become educated enough to know that each identity is unique.

I love non-conformity as much as the next person, but too much exceptionalism has its costs. Now when so many of us are truly threatened, we spend precious energy arguing among ourselves and debating who has a greater right to outrage.  We disagree about trivial things or the specific solutions to our problems and thus we don't address immediate threats together. 

At least that's how it has gone down in the past.

Right now there are many groups forming and fluctuating. Membership in both the KKK and the ACLU have skyrocketed. Lines are being drawn and often they are based on an ideology or a particular identity. I personally support the ACLU and other organizations like Greenpeace, the NAACP and Doctors Without Borders. But the point isn't exactly which groups I want to support (as long as it isn't a racist, terrorist or otherwise harmful group)..

We also need broader places where all those who have common interests can belong. 

It isn't so much the strength in numbers that I want. We need a sense of common cause and solidarity. True belonging comes not from the accident of your birth, culture or label, but rather from your choices, values and convictions.

It is time to set down the most basic tenants of what we belong to, the lines which we won't cross and which enclose all of us. This must be at once broad enough for all and clear enough to mean something.

Here are some ideas of where we belong:: 

  • We are open to all races, religions, ability types, sexual orientations, nationalities, ages and appearances.
  • We recognize the right of people to express their identity and culture, to have a voice in public and a connection to their land and people.
  • We know that power entails responsibility.
  • We speak up when we or others are prejudicially attacked or stereotyped.
  • We are concerned about ecological issues and we respect the earth which we depend on for our lives.
  • We take whatever action is feasible and effective in our personal situations to protect the earth, water, air, other species and one another.
  • We recognize that facts exist and can be documented, while context can consist of many facts.
  • We believe that people have a right to true information and that money and incorporation should not accord greater rights to any individual or group. 
  • We insist that the resources of the earth are held in common and must not be exploited for the profit of a few.
  • We believe each person has the right to freedom that does not harm or restrict others.
  • We strive to be kind and welcoming toward newcomers and to work out differences respectfully.
creative Commons image by Matt Drobnik

creative Commons image by Matt Drobnik

There will necessarily be some who haven't explored all of these issues in-depth. But we should be able to agree on the basic values of inclusion and protection of that which sustains our lives.

Still there will be some who choose to reject these values. I have been part of many ecological or earth-based groups and some of them do not hold the same values of openness toward people of different paths and backgrounds that I demand. On the other hand, there are also many groups that are concerned with social justice but don't take the immediate crisis of climate change seriously.

:Environmental concern and the love of diversity are deal breakers for me--two things I simply cannot do without.

Don't get me wrong. Groups can specialize. Not every parenting group must be focused on environmental issues as well as parenting. But I can't feel truly loyal to a group that openly expresses their disregard for environmental concerns, anymore than I can feel welcome in a group with borderline racist statements, no matter how good they are on something else. These are life and death issues that can't be compromised. 

I have no problem with the fact that Facebook groups connected to Black Lives Matter are unlikely to be regularly posting about climate change. Many groups accept these values but focus on one particular need.

I don't demand that environmental groups spend time and attention on anti-racism stuff. However, I could not very well put my loyalty in a multicultural group that irrelevantly professed disdain for tree-huggers and climate scientists, anymore than I can feel comfortable in an earth-centered group that occasionally throws up closet racist posts.

This isn't to say that I will only join groups that agree with all of my opinions. Far from it.

I have an abundance of opinions. I still love Star Trek after all these years, my favorite pizza involves lots of really hot peppers and seared garlic, I think J. K. Rowling is a damned good writer but the seventh book had some issues, And I think dish rags should be changed about every three days.

Those are opinions. And I don't expect members of a group I'm in to agree with them. And that extends to more relevant opinions too. I have my views on economic systems, health care and electoral processes. But these are things we can work out. What level of gun regulation we should have is debatable. I can and have had informative discussions with people who disagree on things like that. 

Therein lies the distinction perhaps. I don't think there is room to casually debate whether or not we'll believe in science and facts or whether we will accept all people of every religion and color. Those who agree on these things need a place to belong where we can learn from the rest of our differences without being constantly bogged down by an inability to agree on ground rules.

That is why I have founded a group called Belonging on the Earth. It is small and not diverse enough as of yet. I hope you will join and find it a welcoming community. Currently the group is starting on Facebook. You can join it here. I am the administrator for now and I can ensure that it is a safe and respectful place. This is a group for those who agree on fundamental values but may not agree on many other things. As the group grows other administrators will be added who can help to foster the openness of the group.

Not everyone is into Facebook and eventually there will be other ways to belong to this community. If you can't join the Facebook group, I encourage yo to join my hearth-side email circles below and keep in touch through the comments on this webpage.

You belong on the earth. Your experiences are real and you are not alone.

"I don't have to be friends with everybody!"

It's so common that many people might consider it normal. A group of kids are playing with a soccer ball and one boy--a bit taller than most and with a forceful personality--gives orders. The others follow the orders gladly and one of the orders is that they don't play with "that kid." 

But common isn't necessarily okay.

I was always afraid my kids would be "that kid" because they're different from the other kids in our town, visibly and controversially. But when it happened, it was at a support group for kids like them, kids of a minority background who were supposed to be their best allies. And my kids weren't the one left out. 

Instead it was one of my people. The kid with a significant physical disability. It wasn't due to his behavior or personality. He's a fun kid. Because he was booted out of the boys' fun and he loved card games, I played Uno with him. I could wish my kids were as quick with Uno. 

And no, there is no excuse. This was not one of those situations where the child left out was too timid or too aggressive, didn't ask to be included or just felt offended and left. He was told to leave.

The others chased him with sticks because they wanted to play cops and robbers and he was handy as a robber. If he was near them the game was always everyone against that boy. It was all in fun. They never hurt him physically, but they absolutely would not play WITH him. 

Creative Commons image by Guilherme Jofili

Creative Commons image by Guilherme Jofili

I sat my kids down privately to understand the issue. 

"The leader doesn't want him to play," my daughter said

Why does he get to decide?

"We want him to be the leader. He knows how to make fun," she explains.

My son, younger and less verbal, just shrugs. He admits he doesn't feel great about leaving that one boy out, but he wants to play with the boys. He'll go along with whatever, even if it makes him feel a bad sometimes.

Finally, I directly witnessed the ringleader directing kids to gang up on the boy with a disability. So, I told the ringleader he was in time-out. He went to time-out but told me, "You can't make us play with him." 

The mother of the ringleader arrived shortly and took over. She told him, "That's not nice," and let him go. 

I gritted my teeth and started another Uno game. 

It wasn't really a new issue in this group, except before the issue had been me among the grown-ups. We have come to this group for four years now. During the third year, I was extremely frustrated. The same group of people met each time, and I still did not know who was who because people were never introduced again and I couldn't see their faces. When I asked, I was given awkward answers and then avoided.

Other parents formed little groups of friends within the support group and I was left on the outside. Once I was even explicitly told to give up my seat at a lunchroom table because a large group wanted to sit together and I wasn't invited. I was directed to sit outside the lunchroom in an area where there were large tables but also wasps that made the area less desirable. 

It was far from a "support group" for me. I only went for the kids to be with peers like them. But then one of the organizers decided to make the theme of this year's meeting be "the inclusion of people with disabilities," because her friend with the disabled child would be attending for the first time. 

I was asked for ideas for a disability awareness program. They wanted me to develop a blindness simulation, so people could see how rough it is to be blind. But the only ideas I am particularly interested in have to do with the social aspects of disability.

It isn't that rough to be blind. It's occasionally inconvenient. But it is rough to have people react to you being blind. 

The organizers weren't happy. My suggestions were ignored and the theme went ahead with little physical demonstrations of blindness and deafness. Gritting my teeth, I focused on the one thing I could explain in this context--that is the difficulty of recognizing faces when you are visually impaired. And somehow I managed to get through to the adults for the first time. By the end of the week, I knew everyone's name and could identify most by voice, stature or idiosyncrasies. It was a vast relief and I was even included in some conversations after that. 

Still, the child with a disability in our midst was left out and forced to play card games with the grown-ups. 

Toward the end of the week-long workshop, a guest came to give a presentation to our group. He was a man of the same minority background as the children in the group. Most of the guests to such a group are women, people in "caring" professions. So, having a male guest was a big deal.

The little boys were agog at this role model. He was buff, brash and a man. He had grown up in the ghetto and become the first minority city counsel member in his good-sized town.

He quickly noticed the disharmony among the children. As it turned out, once the disabled boy had been fully rejected from the pack of kids, the leader needed another target. And this time it was my son--quiet, not too well coordinated and younger than most. 

He joined me at the Uno table and pretended he didn't care much.

Our male guest gathered all the kids who had been involved in the shunning of the boy with a disability--and most of them were boys in this case--out on the soccer field and talked to them. The dynamics quickly became apparent. 

"I don't have to be friends with everyone," the ringleader said. "My father says I've got to be assertive. It's his problem if he's too weak to be in our club."

The man tried to reason with them and talked about compassion. He asked how they would feel if they were left out.

"I won't be left out," the ringleader said. "I'll make sure of that."

The other kids watched their leader and he did not back down. They learned. The adults were unwilling to lay down a law on this. Shunning may not be nice, but it isn't explicitly against the rules.

Creative Commons image by Duane Storey

Creative Commons image by Duane Storey

The session on the soccer field broke up without any resolution. But I held back from leaving because I wanted to get an email address from the guest, who I greatly admired, although he seemed a bit lost being called in to help mediate this conflict among the children.

As the others trailed away, the ringleader among the kids and one of his closest friends stood with the man from the ghetto, their admired role model. I waited patiently for him to finish with them, so I could ask for his contact information.

"My father says there are people called Neo-nazis who might hurt me because I'm not white," the leader of the kids' pack admitted to the man, his voice still strong but his stance clearly seeking some reassurance or support from this strong mirror of himself.

The man told him, "That's true. Some people are like that, but here is the thing you need to remember. Not many people are like that. Only a few. Most people are good."

I have a hard time with my big mouth. The man hesitated. He rocked from foot to foot, obviously struggling for words.

And the words popped out before I could stop them, "And that is a good reason, why you should be friends with as many people as you can. You never know when you'll need them at your back." 

The man jabbed his finger at me. "Yes! That is the thing! That is it!" 

He was clearly grateful to be rescued from an awkward issue of teaching morals to children--particularly a moral concept that adults don't actually observe all that well. We grinned at one another. A pact of the grown-ups with a quick comeback.

I do mean it though. Sure, no one can force you to be friends with the less cool, the ones who take a bit of extra effort--whether it's a kid on the playground who you have to work to communicate with or a grown-up who can't recognize faces. But hard times are coming and you may need just such friends. There is no friend more steadfast than those who have been on the outside.

Still. I acknowledge that mine was an easy answer, given to kids. I think back to my own childhood, when I struggled with social ostracism on a daily basis. There is a part of that memory I don't like to think on. There was a kid in my school for a time who was very strange in appearance due to a physical deformity.

He was smart and nice, but he looked strange even to my weak eyes. He was also not cool. He didn't have the kind of forceful personality that can negate physical difference. And so, even though I said "Hi" to him on the street and in the halls, I was never really friends with him. I yearned always toward the kids who were moving and doing things. Even I, who should have known better. did it. 

Now I swear I'll do better. Instead of looking around for who I want to be with, I'll look around for who is there and ready. 

The door to the school

There is a single photograph of me from my first day of school back in 1982. In it my best friend and I embrace eagerly on the front steps of the red-brick school building. Our dresses are simple but bright. It looks like something out of Little House on the Prairie

But a glimpse of that photo brings a stab of agony. I can't remember the day itself, but I remember the sunshine of the summer before, the bike rides and the tree forts. Then I remember nothing

Creative Commons image by Diego Sevilla Ruiz 

Creative Commons image by Diego Sevilla Ruiz 

As if I had fallen and been knocked unconscious for several years.I remember only dizzy snatches, fleeting images, fear, confusion and terrible loneliness. I've written elsewhere about the extreme ostracism and bullying I experienced at school--due to a disability, unconventional family background and a stubborn personality. What I know of those experiences comes mostly from the testimony of witnesses rather than from my own memories, which are muddled but still not without their toll. 

Now I can't help thinking on that photo and the aftermath as I prepare to send my first child to her own first day of school in a few days time. I try to hold back my anxiety. It's natural that I should have my doubts, given what I experienced. Yet, my child does not have a significant physical disability. She is well accepted by other children and generally liked by teachers. She is suspected of having a learning disability, but that will have to come clear in time and most importantly we do not live in an isolated rural backwater where difference is a brand and a reason to be culled from the herd. 

Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

No, we live in the middle of progressive Europe, where the school's motto is "a place for all." Sure, the school has some problems--very large, overcrowded classrooms, new and inexperienced teachers and a population steeped in racism and anti-foreigner politics. But my fear is surely larger than the hazards.

When I took my child for an evaluation to a specialist in learning disabilities, I was told that she is quite bright and probably only has a minor issue with attention that should pass within a few years. But then the specialist turned to me and suggested in completely innocent tones that I consider enrolling my child in the "Special School"  in a larger town, rather than in our local school.

Little did the specialist know how well I know the Special Schools. When I first came to the Czech Republic as a rookie journalist twenty years ago, a harried editor slapped a thick folder of documents down on my desk and grumbled that someone would have to deal with it and it might as well be me. I picked up the packet that night--it turned out to be a government report on Special Schools--and read it.

All the way through. In one night.

That was because of what I found within the first few pages: a staggering admission by the government itself claiming that it was channeling almost all children of Romani (ethnic Gypsy) background into substandard schools designed for children with developmental disabilities. My article on the report was in the forefront of a flood of condemnation and criticism of the Czech government by the foreign press. I later produced a documentary about Romani children fighting for a rare chance to leave the segregated, substandard schools and gain a place at regular elementary schools. 

Documentary film 2000 - Czech Republic The stories of nine-year-old Karel and fifteen-year-olds Anezka and Pepino as they fight to escape from the segregated special schools

I spent years going into these Special Schools, watching with rage stifled into a hard lump in my throat as bright children were forced to study table manners and preschool motor skills in sixth through eighth grades--merely based on the color of their skin. I interviewed officials with a straight face and printed their self-damning words in foreign newspapers, quoted by Amnesty International and the European Commission in their judgments against the Czech state. I was a foot soldier in the wave of largely foreign pressure that finally broke the wall and forced through anti-discrimination legislation.

And eight years after the European Court of Human Rights ordered the Czech state to end such discrimination, a specialist suggested my adopted, Romani, slightly brown-skinned child be placed in a school for those with developmental delays, just after she assured me the child had no such delay. 

And now, I try to tell myself my fear is only paranoia based on my own hard childhood on the front-lines of another battle for integration on the other side of the world. I was a foot soldier of another kind then and I took many wounds--wounds I'd rather my child could escape. 

Just as I experienced as a child, legally mandated integration does not necessarily mean willing and welcoming integration. The first to integrate public schools in the United States--whether they were African Americans in the 1950s or disabled Americans in the 1980s--often paid a heavy price. Today the Czech Special Schools continue under slightly different names and most Romani children are still segregated in them. But the law says I--as the parent of a Romani child--can defy the social norms and send my child to a regular elementary school.

Image from the film Walls by Arie Farnam

Image from the film Walls by Arie Farnam

If I dare.

We attended a Romani culture camp and support group for a week this summer. During the adults-only part of the program in the evenings, we were told in no uncertain terms that we must admit the harsh realities to our children. Both psychologists and a very credible Romani man who rose from a ghetto kid to be the first Romani city council representative in his heavily divided city told us we must tell our children.

They are proud to be Romani. They sing Romani songs and know the Romani flag. Last spring my daughter proudly told her kindergarten class that she is Romani. They smiled. They don't know the word "Romani."  They only know the insult " Gypsy" and my daughter doesn't know it because we don't speak such words in our home any more than I'd use the N-word. 

Once my children came home talking about how some people called Gyps steal and saying they heard it at preschool. I gently explained to them about prejudice and poverty and social exclusion. But they clearly did not understand. I stopped short of saying, "They mean you. Don't you get it? They mean you."

I wanted to spare them the trauma. I wanted them to be proud of their roots... for just a little bit longer. The harsh words and judgments will come soon enough. I tried to get my kids to homeschool but my daughter refused. She thinks only about being with her friends all day.

And now the door is before us. Looming in my mind, hard red brick.  I know that behind that door bad things will happen. Maybe some good things too. But there will be pain.

Creative Commons image by Michael Davis-Burchat 

Creative Commons image by Michael Davis-Burchat 

So, I sit down with my little girl and tell her. I tell her that Gypsy means Romani. I tell her some people have a sickness in their minds that makes them believe lies about people who are a different color. I tell her about the school segregation. We've read about the segregation of schools in America. She has two great story books about Ruby Bridges and can quote the tale. I explain that when I first came to this country, that was the way it was here, that Romani people--like Black people in America--went through slavery and prejudice and school segregation in substandard schools. 

She turns to me, her face still unconcerned, and reaches a hand up to my hair, turning gray. "But, Mama,,that was a long, long time ago," she says.

Oh, my child. No, it was not.

The primary anti-discrimination law has just passed and it goes into effect September 1, 2016. That law mandates integration for children of all backgrounds and abilities. Because of that law, my daughter can have an Individual Educational Plan (IEP) if she does turn out to have a learning disability. And she cannot be barred from our local primary school based on ethnic background. But even five years ago, segregation was almost universal and today it is still widespread, due to the lack of legal knowledge and advocacy skills among Romani parents. 

My child, you will be the first Romani child to attend your school, much as I was the first child with a significant physical disability to attend mine. 

But I smile and give her a hug. "You will do fine," I say. "You are smart and you have many friends. Only remember that if someone says otherwise, it is against the law. The law is about them and the problems in their heads, not about you. You will do fine." 

We must both believe it.

Being too different: Do some people just ask for it?

“You had to know it would be this way,” my friend says on the sunny veranda over glasses of refreshing elder flower lemonade. “You chose this.” 

Our two boys leap and roll on the trampoline. “Mama, watch me! Watch me!” They’re both five. 

Creative Commons image by Mizrak of Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by Mizrak of Flickr.com

I am silent. I don’t want to argue with her. She means well and she is one of the few people in this small town who will do playdates with me and my kids. I can’t afford to say what I’m thinking. 

She means that when we adopted two Romani (Gypsy) kids and settled down in a small town in an Eastern European country, we must have known what we were getting into—that we must have chosen to do so because we were kind of picking a fight with society or... something.

The Roma are extremely unpopular here and the wildcat is out of the bag. A few mothers at my kids’ preschool are making a stink, saying my son should be committed for psychological treatment because he pushed another boy. 

But the thing is that it was an absolutely normal preschool altercation. No one can point out a pattern of problematic behavior--not the teachers, not the other parents and not my family. No, of course, he shouldn’t push and all little boys get in trouble for it sometimes. But my son can’t afford to make a normal childhood mistake. 

“You can’t expect people to change. It was your choice,” my friend says into the silence. 

“I didn’t set out to do it,” I finally answer. But the kids come running for pie and juice and I never get to explain. 

How can I explain anyway? What kind of choice? 

There were six years of infertility treatments. Four rounds of IVF. At least a dozen IUIs. A traumatic miscarriage. There was the reality of adoption in Europe today. The mothers who sobbed beside me in support group because they were thirty-five and had almost no chance of getting to the top of the waiting list for a baby before the age of forty, when the state system cuts women off from infant adoption. 

Uncomfortable fact 1: There is a shortage of healthy white babies needing adoption.

Uncomfortable fact 2: Systemic racism and discrimination makes families in marginalized groups more likely to crumble. 

Uncomfortable fact 3: There are a lot more Romani babies needing adoption than white babies. Widespread racism has it’s consequences. 

Creative Commons image by Monica Semergiu

Creative Commons image by Monica Semergiu

Yes, I stood in the social work office and checked the box that says, “We’ll accept all ethnicities,” despite dire warnings by our case work That is the choice my friend means. 

I chose this.

My friend doesn’t even know about the African American friend who recently unfriended me when she found out my kids are trans-racially adopted. In America, it is often considered immoral—a stealing of a child’s culture because of an adult's selfish desire for a family. They call it “cultural genocide.” 

Yes, I ticked the box. I chose. 

But what was the alternative? 

I think back to the little boy in the sterile orphanage with toys displayed on high shelves on the walls. When they handed him to me the white nurse said with bit of a smirk, “Everyone here has a favorite kid, but he was no one’s favorite. Good luck.”

I noticed immediately that he had a strange low-pitched cry. He was lethargic. They had diagnosed him with “mild neurological delays.” He was ten months old.

It turned out he had been on a high dose of prescription sedatives since he was two months old. Nobody’s favorite and they didn’t want to hear him cry from the desperate loneliness of a baby never held. They didn’t give us any sedatives to wean him off the drugs, so he went off of them cold turkey. We didn’t know until the pediatrician explained it a few weeks later. 

But we knew that baby suddenly learned how to scream. He would scream the sharpest, loudest scream I’ve ever heard a child make every time I got more than ten feet away from him. He now had someone to hold and comfort him and he wasn’t about to let me get out of his sight. I had to stay with him every moment for a year and a half. I couldn’t carry him much. He was too big, even at ten months. It was like having a ball and chain. 

Yes, I chose that. I didn’t have to. I could have resigned myself to my own depression and left him there. It was a choice. 

Now at five years old, the teachers say the only difficulty they have with him is that when they speak sharply to him for some small infraction, he sometimes starts screaming in terror as if his whole world falling apart.

Otherwise he’s on track in all respects. He has good friends who he only fights with moderately--like all the other little boys. He has no neurological delays or other problems. Just about a textbook case for healthy child development. 

But I can’t tell the other mothers that history. I once made the mistake of telling one of the mothers about my daughter’s intense temperament. Now she uses that little tidbit to slander my children, telling other mothers that my kids are psychologically unhinged and genetically degenerate “Gypos.” If they knew about how hard my son’s start was, what more would they say?

My husband mildly chastises me for being open about our differences, for not trying harder to hide the children’s Romani background. I never actually told anyone, but the whole town knows. I didn’t go to great lengths to hide it and I do multicultural education classes as a volunteer at the preschool. My friend says that’s a dead giveaway. 

Supposedly I also chose to be open about difference. For thirty years, I hid the fact that I'm legally blind and didn’t carry a white cane. But the dangers of traffic and the misunderstandings grew unbearable, so now I carry the cane and don’t hide it. But technically it’s still a choice. 

Me and my borthers in the 1980s

Me and my borthers in the 1980s

My friend adds in a whisper before she leaves, “It doesn’t exactly help that you don’t wear makeup or dye your hair.”

Yet another choice. They reject me for the very things I am proud of--my children, the cultural background I embrace, our bilingualism. my environmentally friendly lifestyle, the disability I don't hide...

I chose to be an immigrant, I choose to raise my kids without a lot of junk food, I choose not to have a TV… I’ve chosen a lot of difference. And I like my choices. 

You could make a case that any resulting difficulties are really my fault. That is essentially what my friend is saying--you chose, so you shouldn't complain when people judge you.

But I know something that is strangely hard for most people to admit. For those of us with some unavoidable difference--a disability, a different language, race or culture or some odd life situation--the choice is an illusion. You can try to hide it but when you are different, you are different. You can obtain a rickety and temporary measure of social acceptance by covering up your differences. But you will never be treated entirely well socially and if you slip, you will pay a heavy price. 

I tried to fit in and be the same for thirty years. I tried desperately to learn how to make eye contact and smile as if I could recognize the blurry shapes of people. I tried to dress the way I thought I was supposed to and always failed miserably at the fashions. I detested fashion trends anyway.

I was really very bad at hiding my differences. And I was deeply depressed, almost suicidal at times. 

It was not until I was holding my infant daughter and looking down into her face that it finally clicked. I knew she could never hide her olive skin and non-European-looking blue eyes framed by dark lashes. I had never been able to hide my differences and neither would she. 

Something broke inside me. I don’t remember the exact moment, but I remember the year--that year with my first baby. I swore I would not put that burden on her. I would not doom her to a lifetime of trying and failing to be “normal” at all cost.

My children know their own roots. They know and love the Romani culture and people. They practice Romani dance and Romani vocabulary words. We go to every Romani cultural event we can find. They need close Romani friends, and that is a bit of a challenge, given the vast segregation of society here. But still they are proud of their heritage at this point. 

My seven-year-old daughter told her class she is Romani. I was nervous but the kids don’t know the word “Romani.” They’ve only ever heard the insulting word “Gypo,” so they don’t even know what she’s talking about… yet. 

The thing that I wish I could tell my quiet friend who always stays within the lines is this: I didn’t choose to be different. Neither did my children. But I do choose not to be ashamed. There are many things we don’t get to choose in life, but there is one thing we can always choose. 

I choose to be true.

Why are white people so often unaware of racism and white privilege?

Tackling an issue like this is like kicking a nest of rattlesnakes. I was recently asked this question in an on-line forum and Í am very unlikely to please everyone with my answer no matter what I say. However, I think it is an honest question that deserves a real answer. 

I can easily see how it seems preposterous to people of color that most white people in highly developed, multicultural societies in the twenty-first century remain almost entirely ignorant of and oblivious to racism and white privilege. I mean haven’t we just spent the better part of a century learning the hard way about these issues? The civil rights movement came and went and we learn about it in school. We work, study and live with people of color—well, many of us do—so why does it seem that we are no wiser than we were seventy years ago? 

Original creative commons image by jamesapfairlie of flickr.com

Original creative commons image by jamesapfairlie of flickr.com

Are white people just self-centered and willfully ignorant? That’s the question I hear behind the confusion of people of color when they ask how it is possible that white people still don’t get it. 

So, here goes. I’m a white person. And I honestly agree that most white people—including myself for an embarrassing number of years—are unaware of both white privilege and most of what constitutes racism. That’s the sad truth. But the other side of it that I have to say is that it isn’t because we are self-centered or willfully ignorant. It has to do with lack of experience and perspective. It is an honest lack of understanding. 

Let me start by illustrating the problem on my own sorry self. When I was a college student in the 1990s I thought that African Americans were constantly going on and on about racism even though the worst of it had been left in the past. I had nothing against black people. I grew up in a very rural place and the only African American I saw growing up was my mother's friend from college who came to visit. 

And I was brought up in a very anti-racist family. My mother was the only white student made an honorary member of the Black Students Association at her college in Michigan. This was not because my mother was a great activist for civil rights or something of the sort. It was simply because as a young girl thrown out of her home at the age of seventeen (in 1968), she crossed a bridge between St. Joseph to Benton Harbor and got herself a room to rent. I have a hard time seeing my mother, who has never been a big risk taker, in this role, but that’s what happened. 

So, this was my claim to lack of racism when I was a young white liberal. My mother was open-minded at a time when very few white people were. I, on the other hand, grew up in a rural, even isolated, place in the mountains of Eastern Oregon. I was told that people of color are just as good as anyone and that racism is bad. And I learned the history of civil rights and all that came before. It was history. I thought it was quite interesting, but I also thought it was over.

Thus—as I said—in college myself in the 1990s, I silently thought my African American classmates were a bit obsessed with the issue. I never said anything. I tried to be supportive, but I didn't really understand. I thought it was because of past trauma, because so many white people wanted to whitewash the past. I had no idea how much of it was still happening. I had no idea of the white privilege all around me.

I could very well say that this is because I am actually physically blind. I am. I could not see people's facial expressions and so there are certain social things that go over my head at the best of times. And perhaps a white person with as much desire to understand as I had could have understood sooner, had they been visually observant. but I couldn't be visually observant and the fact is that most white people are not even if they can see well. It is not willful lack of seeing, however. It is truly lack of understanding. It took me many years and some hard knocks to get it--at least to the degree that I have "gotten it.”

One such hard knock was spending several months studying in Zimbabwe at a time when race was a very hot subject. I walked down the street and felt like I wasn't white but rather neon-colored. I was harassed doing nothing—going to a store, hanging out with my Zimbabwean journalist friends. I applied for an internship and was yelled at and demeaned by an editor over a tiny mistake in my application. I was not angry. It was a few months, not a lifetime. It was a small country, not a bastion of wealth and power like my homeland in America. I could walk away any time I wanted to and I came to understand the first bit about privilege. Privilege is not being harassed just for being, not being yelled at over a triviality. Privilege is being able to walk away from such a situation and go back to a life where that won’t happen.

Then I spent a year following children in a racially segregated school in Central Europe to make a documentary. I spent another few years writing about ethnic conflict in the Balkans. And then the one thing that I think can really change a person's understanding happened. My family became racially mixed. 

Now when I walk into a school with my children or just down the street, I am no longer a "normal" white person. It comes up in a myriad of ways—constantly. And it's exhausting. I know the difference because when I walk down the street alone, it is different. And I know that it isn't long dead history.

But it took all that. It took coming from a family that was open with parents who vehemently wanted me to understand, it took trying out being the only person of my color at a night club in a country with racial tension, it took studying racial and ethnic conflict intensively and in the end it took being part of a family that isn't all white in a country that thinks it isn't racist but is.

One little example. My son is five and in preschool. He has a best friend named Johnny and they are inseparable. But they also fight. And my son is slightly bigger, so when they push Johnny falls down. It has happened twice now in two years that Johnny has been physically hurt in one of these incidents. Once he had a goose egg on his forehead. This time, he had a raw pink scrape on his back from falling onto the Lego pile at preschool. Another boy who is quite trustworthy saw the incident. He said both boys were pulling at a toy and then my son pushed Johnny and Johnny fell on the Legos. There is no real controversy over what happened. I expressed sympathy and my son had no evening video for two days and lost his allowance for a week. And Johnny’s mother is up in arms. She sends me hate mail and detailed photos of her son’s scrape. She has been telling other parents that my son is evil and violent. She tells me that she teaches her son to hit back, so that he won’t become a victim. She is angry and I can’t possibly belittle it. I was bullied terribly as a child. I won’t ever turn my back on a situation that could possibly be bullying. 

But here’s the thing. My son is the only non-white kid in his class. The teachers say he is no more violent than any of the other kids. One boy is known for staying out of the scrapping. But both my son and Johnny are fighters and they tussle and push and sometimes someone gets hurt. The teachers insist that my son isn’t a problem and the boys still want to play together, even though Johnny’s mother has made the school separate them. 

She teaches her son to hit back, but I can’t afford to do that. I must teach my son to be careful and meek. I don’t even teach him to stand up for himself with loud words and a strong stance. I tell him strenuously that he must not push and shove at school. There are serious consequences both at home and at school. First off, he has lost the ability to play with his best friend. He’s five, so I don’t tell him what the consequences may be when he’s older. But I know. 

I know how many young men and boys of color are shot, arrested and jailed for the tiniest infractions. I know that society will not give him the same leeway it will give Johnny. I know that Johnny’s mother can scream and yell at me in the schoolyard and Johnny can watch and learn that this is how to solve conflicts. And when he grows up if he yells at another parent, nothing much will happen. But I cannot yell back even though it is well within my feisty temperament and it costs me a great deal to remain calm. Because my son cannot yell at another parent when he is older. CANNOT. Ever. 

I owe him this. I owe him a good role model because for a man of color to become loud in this society is hugely dangerous and would result in much greater response from authorities.

This is what I now know about white privilege. By becoming the parent of a non-white child, I lost a bit of that privilege. I lost the ability to respond in an argument with an aggressive parent without incurring significant consequences for my child. This is what parents of color know from the get-go that I had to learn. They must raise their children to be more careful, more courteous. It isn’t just a matter of manners. In many places it can significantly affect the chances of survival as a teenager. To be allowed to sometimes be vehement in a discussion with a rude person in public--that is white privilege. A little piece of it at least.

So, I am not as unaware as I once was. But I still have empathy for white people who don't understand this. That may piss you off, but I don't know how to explain it to other white people with words, not words I would have understood and taken under my skin twenty years ago. Many white people will read my description of the problem at my son’s preschool above and still be confused about why that was about white privilege. They’ll scratch their heads, even though I just put it as clearly as it can possibly be put. 

I cannot tell my former self these things in simple terms and if I couldn't hear it then, there are few people who can. I wanted to learn and to understand. I wanted to "see" in that way and I might as well have been physically blind twice over. I could not "see" without experience.

This is why white people are unaware. Because they lack experience. They lack understanding. They don't see the social cues going on around them because they are not exposed to the consequences of them. They take much of what is going on for granted. It is not their fault individually that they don't see these things. We are fallible and human and it would help move toward a less racist society if people of color could come to understand that these concepts are not simple for us—that many white people do try.

I try to educate people, to change things for the better. I now live in the Czech Republic. Here the group of color which is most feared and hated is the Roma. They have skin only a shade darker than most Central Europeans. Many Americans can’t tell any difference. But people here can. And that is the identity of my children.  In a few years, my children will be looked at with suspicion when they enter stores. They will be the first Romani students at their primary school because school desegregation is just beginning here. So, I do what I can to educate. 

I volunteered at my children's preschool the other day. Race and ethnicity is so controversial here that the preschool teachers would not let me do a craft and story session on Romani culture. Their faces go blank when I mention it. So, instead I did it on Zimbabwe. I read story books showing black children in nice city houses, playing with toys and making messes just as children do here. I gave them plastic containers and led them in a snappy African drumming session. And at the end I pulled out my red, yellow, white and black paints and mixed them up several batches of gradated brown paint to demonstrate that we are all brown, just different shades of brown. 

The teachers were stunned and excited with new understanding. They had never seen anything like this before. And yet I have no illusions that I have made a dent in racism with these volunteer classes. They are a tiny breath of fresh air against a tide of smog. I do it not because I think I can change other white people or turn around a racist society. I do it because my children are sitting in the class too and any bit of the endless explanation to white people that I can bear is a bit they won't have to. And they are my children and when you're a parent, you bear whatever you can to make the burden of your children lighter. I know about the huge burden of endless explaining to clueless white people that people of color bear. That's one of the things I know about now.

If you explain and try to help white people understand this, you give a gift to the children of your community. It is very hard to know where to begin and it is a very long road to mutual understanding. I hope it may be worth it to some to try.

Walls: A documentary of segregated schools

In 1999 and 2000, I worked with two film students Matthew McLean and Dantia MacDonald to make an independent documentary about the struggle of Romani children for equal education in the Czech Republic. It was one of those hidden stories journalists search for--a significant but largely unknown injustice. At the time, 70 percent of Romani (sometimes called Gypsy) children in the Czech Republic were channeled into special schools for the mentally disabled. Before our documentary only a handful of articles had been written about the problem in the English press. 

I was a young reporter working part time for The Prague Post and I was handed the thick government report on the special schools because no one else wanted to tackle it. But instead of feeling put upon, I saw in it one of the biggest stories of the decade. I spent the next several years writing about the Roma, often about the special schools. And I finished the documentary Walls.

The film was the kind of documentary I'd always dreamed about--raw, a real-life story with "plot" and fiercely rebelious. Public trains provided our film crew transportation and the kitchen floors of ghetto homes gave us our base camps. The result is an incredible story following nine-year-old Karel and fifteen-year-olds Anezka and Pepino as they grapple with the segregated schools and their own growing understanding of their desperate chances in a deeply racist society.

It's been sixteen years now, enough time for another generation to grow up and pass through the schools. Today desegregation is still the hot issue it was then. The names of institutions have been changed to muddy the picture, but much of the problem remains the same as it was then. 

The film remains relevant for all of those reasons, but the way I view it now is quite different. I am no longer a young, idealistic, foreign reporter. I have made this country my home. And I'm a parent of adopted Romani children. I too have been told to put my child in a special school. Now the line between journalist and everyday life has been blurred.

A "strange mama" and the freight train of racism

A few years ago, I was interviewed by a parenting magazine in the Czech Republic where we live most of the time. You might think that this would be an honor, and it was… sort of.

The topic of the article was “unusual parents.”

That’s me. The strange mama. I merited an interview because my children are trans-racially adopted… and bilingual… and I’m an American living in the Czech Republic… and I’m legally blind.

That was quite enough to be going on with. I didn’t actually even mention that we partially homeschool, I make our own medicines out of herbs and we’re wild, tree-hugging Pagans.

That was the year we started what has become an annual celebration of our oddballness as a family. We went on a litter collecting expedition.

Okay, a bit of background is necessary here. The Czech Republic is a nice, quiet little country with a good standard of living, great universal health care, free university education and lots of other reasons to rejoice and relax. It does have a few knotholes, however.

One is litter. Czechs hate litter and they are extraordinarily judgmental about other nations who litter, which is ironic because they are champion litterers themselves. There is also a little, low-level ethnic conflict in this country between the Czechs and the tiny (three percent) Romani minority, sometimes called Gypsies.

For one thing the Roma get blamed for lots of things, including the country’s litter problem. In reality, there are no Roma in our town, and its a litter disaster. Roma have also been, until very recently, systematically channeled into sub-standard, segregated schools. The school segregation issue is slowly and painfully improving by inches. Romani people in the Czech Republic remain among the most marginalized groups in a developed country with unemployment as high as 90 percent and racist remarks against them common in the media and among the country’s leading politicians.

That was one reason the magazine considered me to be a unique parent. My husband and I adopted children and refused the prolific advice of social workers who advocate that adoptive families restrict their adoption applications to non-Romani children only. The choices on the official, state adoption application form are “Majority ethnicity only” “Non-Romani only” and “No restriction of ethnicity.” It’s that overt.

My husband and I didn’t necessarily want to be activist about it but we had no reason to limit which children we might adopt by ethnicity, despite the pleas of our case workers on both the local and regional levels. Fate being what it is our kids are of Romani background but they don’t look stereotypically Roma, so we’re still “flying under the radar” in terms of small town racist politics. A few people in town know the “dreadful secret” that there actually are Roma in our quiet bedroom community but most don’t make the connection.

So, the ironies are multiple when my kids bug me to pack rubber gloves and garbage sacks on the way to preschool. I promised them that we could pick up trash on the way back. Yup, my kids want to pick up trash so bad that they pester me about it.

They aren’t really perfect angels. Far from it. They can be brats to each other and their friends, and they throw tantrums with the best of ‘em.

But they do have this one angelic trait. They seriously don’t like to see litter and when the snow melts and the ground is bare and muddy in the early spring the litter is extra visible. So this is the time of year that it comes up and ever since I taught them about picking up litter, we have our early spring pick-up sessions.

This is the kind of town where you will be stared at for being the slightest bit out of the ordinary. So, when my two preschoolers and I pick up trash, people a block away tap each other on the shoulder and walk backwards they stare so hard. What they see is the woman with the long white cane holding the garbage sack while the tiny children with rubber gloves pick up trash. I have no idea what they think but I know they’re perplexed.

My daughter once asked, “Mama, why are those people looking at us so much?”

I told her, “They’re probably surprised that someone is picking up the trash.”

“But why are their mouths open like that?” she continued.

“Possibly because of Mama’s stick, honey.”

People are weird. My kids have proof.

My daughter’s six now and she knows she’s Romani. She loves Romani music and dance. She says Romani girls are the classic princesses. The teacher at our Romani culture camp is her real live hero, second only her choir teacher.

The day is coming when she will learn that Romani people aren’t treated as equals in this society. I can feel it coming like a freight train bearing down on us. I can’t stop it.

Up until now, my daughter has always thought we were “just like everyone.” She loves it when she discovers that she has the same color jacket as another kid or the same cartoon character on her toothbrush. She isn’t going to like our oddball status all that much, when she finally learns what all those open mouths and staring eyes really mean.

For now, I don’t tell her every gruesome detail.

“Mama, are you laughing or crying?” she asked as we walked away from the Pedagogical Psychological Advisory Office after she was tested for “attention problems” and “motor immaturity.”

“Mostly laughing,” I said.

“Why?” she asked.

“That I’ll have to tell you later, honey, when you’re bigger.”

The official at the meeting had tried to have my daughter sent to a segregated, inferior “special school.” She hadn’t even been mean about it. The special schools aren’t officially only for the racial segregation of Romani children. They are supposed to be for kids with developmental delays and disorders.

My daughter’s in kindergarten. She does appear to have some difficulty with attention and anxiety, and like many left-handed kids, she struggles with clutching her crayons too tightly. She’s also the only kid in her class who can read, and yet they tried to send her to “special school.”

Why was I laughing then?

Because I’m not a Romani mother living in poverty who can barely read, facing a phalanx of overconfident bureaucrats steeped in prejudice. I know my rights and, given the civil rights struggle that is going on here, this isn’t even a hard fight to win. There will be no segregated schools for my kids. The law has taken the teeth away from the officials at the pedagogical psychological office.

But I was also crying a little.

Because this is still happening. Because my daughter doesn’t want to homeschool and I can hear that freight train coming. I’ve seen the crushing force of racism break many a kid’s spirit, especially those who are sensitive to issues of “being just like everyone else.”

I don’t want that freight train to flatten my brave, bright daughter. I want to show her that different isn’t bad and when society calls something “strange,” it’s their problem not ours. I hope I can… but it feels an awful lot like standing up to a freight train.