The other day, as my wife and I drove north on Interstate 25 in our Mazda CX5 with our eleven-year-old daughter, Mitike, and our dog, Fable, in the backseat, I thought, “Why not get rid of all these safety features in our car?”
I mean, really, our car would have been so much cheaper without all these gratuitous extras—without the blindspot monitoring, without the brake assist or the traction control, without the air bags or the rearview mirrors or the windshield wipers or the daytime running lights. And if Mazda hadn’t been mandated to install seatbelts or spend its resources on IIHS or NHTSA safety tests, this car would be far more fun to drive.
I glanced in the unnecessary rearview mirror at Mitike, who bent over a book. What kind of world are we promising future drivers like her? All these regulations! These superfluous rules, like properly registering a vehicle, or paying for insurance on it, or passing vision and knowledge tests to get a license to drive. Fettered by decades of rules, we cannot enjoy driving. Someday, the government will probably just take away this right all together, and we will all be forced to take the public bus system.
“What are you writing?”
“I’m tired. Another school shooting, and no one’s going to do anything. I’m resorting to sarcasm.”
“But you’re not writing about guns.”
“Yes, I am. If guns could be regulated like cars are, we’d have far fewer deaths. Did you know that when states started requiring people to get driver’s licenses in the 1930s, they dramatically reduced accidents on the roads? And that after most states started requiring seatbelts in the 1990s, people’s injuries in car accidents decreased by half? And that when car companies started putting in air bags in the late 1990s, they reduced the mortality rate by 63 percent? A few rules, and we’re safer. I’m trying to argue that—”
“Mom, let me try.”
“Let me write your column this month.”
“Would you mind?”
Stop This NOW! A Guest Column by Mitike Iris Campbell, Age Eleven
Why do you keep letting this happen? You grown-ups are exasperating sometimes. You would not hesitate to protect your children and your family, but you hesitate at this, at choosing the safety of your family over your precious guns? The Second Amendment reads, “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” This does not mean that everyone just has the right to bear arms. It means we have the right to bear them in a well-regulated way. Technology like guns is always advancing, so laws must always be made and changed to protect us. Children are losing lives they have only just begun. Our future is being destroyed by your inaction here and now. Decide. Unregulated guns or continued tragedy? Danger or safety? Violence or peace? Injustice or justice? Death or life? Hatred or love? Please remember that the choices you make will affect the future as well as the present.
A question-and-answer session with the guest columnist, Mitike, who is in fifth grade and loves reading fantasy novels, considering fashion styles, playing volleyball, and relaxing with her family.
SHC: So, Mitike, why do you think school shootings are happening?
MIC: Because of guns.
SHC: Does hearing about a tragedy like the one in Florida make you feel afraid?
MIC: Yes, it does when I think about it, but most of the time I’m so focused on my work, I don’t think about it.
SHC: What does your school do to prepare for emergencies?
MIC: We do lock-downs, lock-outs. In art class, we do a lock-down drill in the kiln room. And we do have talks about this kind of thing a lot. They talk about what is appropriate and what is inappropriate to bring to school, and how you should report it if you see anyone with anything unsafe.
SHC: What’s an example of something that is inappropriate to bring to school?
MIC: Guns, knives, swords. I don’t know if swords really exist, but, you know. Daggers, bombs, but they don’t really talk about those. That’s mostly it.
SHC: What would you say to someone who says that if we allow the government to regulate guns more, the government will take them all away?
MIC: Well, it’s not necessarily a bad thing if they do. If that’s the only way they see fit to keep us safe, then it’s probably a good choice.
SHC: Like what Australia did?
MIC: Yes, I think that’s great. They’re having a fine time down there—except they do have lots of poisonous animals threatening their population, instead.
SHC: What do you think of the idea of requiring licenses for everyone who owns a gun, as a place to start?
MIC: I think that is a good idea because if we had that, then we’d be able to trust that we lived in a little bit safer country, and a little bit safer schools. Kids should not have to worry that we’re going to die.
SHC: What are some other things you worry about?
MIC: Well … I hate snakes, komodo dragons, snakes in a pit, snakes chasing me on top of a cart that wants to run me over, finding out my house is on fire in the middle of the night and not being able to run away, losing my dog. I’m worried my cousins will get me in trouble. I worry that my cousin Ryland will break his head open because he’s not being careful. I worry about doing terribly on tests. I worry that I’m not getting enough information from the books my teacher wants me to read. I worry about forgetting my homework.
SHC: Wow, that’s a lot of worries. What would a peaceful life look like for you, then?
MIC: It would be a life where I would only worry about little things I have no control over, not about my life being threatened. Not in school, anyway, where I’m trying to learn.
NOTE: Call your senators now. Tell them to support the assault weapon ban and to push legislation that requires strict licensing and regulation of guns. Donate to and join Moms Demand Action. Please. Let’s allow our kids to worry about poisonous snakes, instead.
The day after my wife, our daughter, and I returned from Scandinavia, we squeezed through the entrance gate to the Denver Pride Festival.
Repeat: the day after my family and I returned from taking a trip only a small percentage of Americans are privileged enough to afford, we sat on a hillside and waved a rainbow flag because my wife and I are still not privileged enough to trust our marriage will always be legal.
The Scandinavian countries we visited — Finland, Sweden, and Norway — approved same-sex partnerships in the mid-1990s and legalized gay marriage in 2009, six years before the U.S.; that knowledge faded the colors in the rainbow flags all around us at Denver’s Pride Festival. But in Scandinavia, Meredith and I never knew where it was safe to hold hands or kiss in public; at the Denver Pride Festival, we kissed long in the midst of hundreds of people, our arms wrapped around each other, our daughter exclaiming, “EWWW!”
A black man working at a gas station in Sweden in 1927 was such an anomaly of difference in that country at that time that people drove for miles just to glimpse him. In 2017, we walked through a more diverse Scandinavia, but most of the people of color we saw were in service positions, and everyone of every color turned their heads, curious, to see Mitike between me and Meredith. It was a relief to walk unremarked through the Denver Pride Festival.
In Americanah, which I started reading on IcelandAir on our flight home, Chimamanda Adichie asks me again and again to hold my privilege up to the light and examine it carefully like an Icelandic sunstone. Her sharp voice is tinged with humor, but it cuts. Who are you, American white woman, to travel so freely through this world? No one looks askance at you. In the Copenhagen airport, a man conducting a survey on an iPad speaks to you in Danish because your height, your skin color, your hair and eye color (every gene that you inherited from ancestors who farmed only two hundred miles southwest of there in Schleswig-Holstein) tell him you are Danish. Do you imagine it will ever be this easy for your Ethiopian daughter? You make her a world traveler, teaching her how to easily flash her blue U.S. passport; you teach her to try cold-smoked salmon, to whisper inside the medieval stave church, to revel in the sea spray in the Norwegian fjords, but you cannot teach her to glide through the world the way you do, because her skin color, hair, and eye color (the genes she inherited from her ancestors seven thousand miles southeast of Copenhagen) will be barriers. Customs officials will often ask how long she has been a U.S. citizen; they will speak slowly in clearly enunciated English, though English has been her primary language since she was eighteen months old. They will carefully scrutinize her visa. And you will be staying in our country for how long? And you plan to do what? Back home, at the Denver Pride Festival, people grin at our family of three because we are diverse; we are the dream so many LGBTQ people dream. Their eyes linger on Mitike’s face. She is the daughter they want. She is so beautiful, so exotic. They say to us, You must be very proud of her. She has such lovely features, not African at all.
In Stockholm and Oslo, but also in the Norwegian port city of Bergen, we walked past immigrants who have resettled in Scandinavia. I guessed at their stories, based on what I have heard from my refugee students. I imagined the Somali woman and her children who strode past us in Oslo had first spent years in a refugee camp in Uganda. I imagined the Syrian men who stood talking at a bus stop in Stockholm had paid a boatman to take them on the risky crossing of the Mediterranean. I imagined the Afghani man and woman talking in the Bergen fish market had escaped their village and the Taliban, as one of my students did, on horseback. The world knows that the Scandinavian countries are welcoming to immigrants, and that my country — historically the most welcoming of all — is abruptly not, as Trump works to halve the number of refugees we accept. And how odd, that Trump’s supporters are mostly descendants of immigrants who came from Norway, Sweden, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Italy. How quickly we forget. At the Denver Pride Fest, I waved my flag in gratitude, as usual, that my country’s highest court has insisted that my marriage to my wife is legal, but I also thought of the times in these past few months that I have stood in this same spot in front of the Colorado Capitol Building, holding up signs that plead for openness to immigrants. What kind of nation do we want to be in the world, anyway?
We went to Scandinavia because I wanted to travel somewhere where we would be safe, and all the guidebooks promised that nowhere is more open and more tolerant. In city after city, we stayed in hotels that cheerfully gave me and Meredith a double bed, glanced at our common last name, welcomed us with a bright nod and (always) breakfast the next morning. I imagined living in one of those cities, never returning to the U.S., happily enrolling Mitike in one of those reputable Finnish schools or dropping her at camp in the Norwegian mountains as Meredith and I prepared for a holiday in some quaint village. To be born American and to be liberal is to be always embarrassed abroad, ashamed of the president (in 2003, Bush invaded Iraq just as I rode a bus into Nicaragua — now, in 2017, there is Trump), ashamed of fellow Americans who are too loud and too certain they deserve preferential treatment, ashamed of a history that has included slavery and Native American massacres and now continues into modern times with acquitting Philando Castille’s killer and withdrawing from the Paris deal on the climate and refusing to provide health care to all its citizens. Traveling, Meredith and I taught Mitike to speak quietly, attempt words in other languages, show extra gratitude. Maybe they’ll assume we’re Canadian. It jolted us to walk into the cheerful fray of the Pride Fest in Denver, where scantily clad people shouted and waved rainbow fans, flags, underwear, boas, posters, pinwheels. We were quiet, too European. We sat on a grassy hill and observed, and fit in nowhere.
We walked into Oslo’s Vikingskipshuset, the Viking Museum, and gazed in awe at the grandly renovated Oseberg, a Viking ship from 834 CE that was discovered and dug up on a farm in 1903. Two women had been buried in the ship, in state, along with horses and dogs and cows, armor, kitchenware, clothes, tents, a wagon and a sled. The Vikings honored their chiefs in this way, since they believed that they would be able to use all of these objects in the afterlife, in Valhalla. I loved the mystery of who these honored women had been. Days later, at the Denver Pride Fest, I wondered what might remain of us one thousand years from now. Mitike’s plastic beads, maybe, some of our metal tooth fillings, the matching rings Meredith and I wear — the hard diamonds still sparkling. In this era that overdocuments everything, will any document remain? Something will have replaced the Internet, rendering it as inaccessible as floppy disks and VHS tapes are now, or all of humanity will have been catapulted backward by climate change trauma to survival — campfires, carved wooden tools, pictures painted on stone walls again. And someone will find some fragment of evidence from 2017, one thousand years before, and wonder about our lives, how we lived them, who we were.
An older acquaintance hears we traveled to Scandinavia and exclaims, “You took Mitike there? To the most racist countries in the world?” I was speechless for a moment. Racist? The 2017 UN report includes all of the Scandinavian countries through which we passed in the top ten happiest countries in the world. Norway is first. Maybe Sweden is only tenth because it has struggled with race relations as Sweden invites more and more immigrants across its borders, but our family’s experience in all of Scandinavia was positive, or at least no different from our experience in the U.S. Women of color did a double-take to see Mitike with us; they often studied her hair (perfectly done in neat microbraids and beads, scalp oiled, thank you). Small children stared. But the mostly blonde and blue-eyed residents of Scandinavia were unfailingly friendly to all three of us. What I wish I’d said to my acquaintance: Being white doesn’t mean you’re racist. What I did say: Have you been to Oslo? It’s quite diverse. A true but weak answer. The Denver Pride Fest was whiter than Karl Johans Street in Oslo. The summer camp in Keystone where I just dropped off Mitike is the whitest place I’ve seen in a long time. It’s all more complex than what we see.
My wife and I stood in a green mossy forest of tall spruce trees (are they called Norway Spruce in Norway?) and watched our daughter search in half-serious earnest for fairies in the shadows of the clover leaves. And then, one day later, we stood in Denver’s blue-sky sunshine with our arms around each other’s waists, our daughter close. Oh, yes. I know to be grateful for this life.
For my fortieth birthday, I wanted to travel somewhere I had never been before. On the way home, on IcelandAir, Mitike leaned her head against my shoulder and murmured, “We’re lucky to be able to travel to places like Scandinavia, aren’t we?” I nodded. Unbelievably lucky. Guilt nagged at me. Look at us with our blue passports and our resources, hopping on planes and trains and boats, wandering cobblestone streets, posing for pictures in front of medieval towers. Look at us and our comfort, our ability to leave our secure little house in south Denver and peer into others’ windows. Even at Pride back in Denver, I continued to feel this mix of luck and guilt. Yes, we are a minority, and yes, maybe my wife is right to be cautious in certain neighborhoods and certain situations about how out we are, but after this parade ends, we’ll walk back to our car and drive home to our dog, who will greet us with his curly wagging tail, and we’ll make dinner in our kitchen together and hold hands before we eat, the little circle we make a protective shield for our family. We’re lucky to be together in this complicated world, right now, no matter where we are wandering.
In 2010, my father and his siblings discovered Ancestry.com, that website that allows a person to search birth, marriage, military, census, and death records to construct a family tree.
And because an Ancestry.com tree becomes more accurate as users add more relationships to it, my father and my uncle and my aunts sent me, my sister, and my cousins email invitations to add our own families to the growing tree.
I opened the tree and studied it with growing resentment. According to Ancestry.com, I was a divorced single mother of one daughter, but that did not describe my actual life at all. My daughter was adopted from Ethiopia, with a family tree all her own, difficult (or impossible) to trace because her biological parents’ births had not been recorded in any official way. And I was not technically a single mother, since I lived with Ali, my partner of three years, and her two children.
With a few swift clicks, I added Ali to the tree as my spouse, though same-sex marriage was not legal in Alaska at the time, and Ali had never been interested in marriage, anyway. Another click: I added Ali’s two biological children. With my divorce branching off in one direction and Ali branching off in another, I tangled the neat lines of the Hahn family tree.
When Ali died a year later, I did not have the heart to update the Ancestry.com tree. I barely had the heart to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
Then, this past June, the Vikings led me back to Ancestry.com. In June, I learned at the Oslo Viking Ship Museum that one of the Vikings’ major trading settlements, Hedeby, was located in today’s Schleswig-Holstein, a state in northern Germany from which half of my ancestors (all of my father’s side) emigrated in the mid-1800s. I wanted to know more. I wanted to know why the sight of the Oseberg ship jolted some familiarity in me (is that why I’m so drawn to spirals?). When I started asking these questions, my uncle Jim, our family archivist, sent me a DNA kit from Ancestry.com, and, out of curiosity, I logged in to the website again.
A family tree hides as much as it reveals. I “cleaned up” my part of the Hahn family tree by deleting the fake marriage to Ali and adding the real, legal marriage to Meredith. I added Mitike’s legal adoption by me in 2008 and her adoption by Meredith last December, and I added the names of Mitike’s birth parents. I traced Meredith’s family awhile, out of curiosity, discovering that one ancestral line zigzags all the way back to the 1500s in Alsace, France. Then I studied our section of the tree, noticing how our marriage is an end to our two lines in our families, how the appearance of Mitike as the daughter of two mothers could confuse someone who failed to notice the adoption records. How disconcerting, the reduction of entire human lives to small rectangles that contain only a first, middle, and last name, a birthdate, and a death date.
What does that branching tree explain about me, about Meredith, about Mitike? What does it reveal about Rachel Banta, my grandmother’s great-great grandmother, who was born in 1780 in Pennsylvania? What does it hide about my wife’s grandmother’s great-great grandmother Charity Brewer, who was born in 1805 in North Carolina? How much does it refuse to explain about Mitike’s ancestors, who weathered a struggle between Muslim settlers and Ethiopian Christians in the early 1800s, and who witnessed battles between feudal kings?I am still dissatisfied with the story Ancestry.com tells, but I appreciate now that it is one place to begin.
Lesbian historians like Lillian Faderman (especially in Surpassing the Love of Men, 1981; and To Believe in Women, 1999) have argued that lesbians must discover and build their own sense of heritage. That means that Patience and Sarah, that wonderful straightforward 1969 book by Alma Routsong about a lesbian pioneer couple, is as much a description of my ancestry as my genetic map is. That means that discerning the truth of historical relationships — Susan B. and Anna D., Virginia and Vita, Eleanor and Lorena — is as crucial to understanding who I am as the 1847 passenger list of the ship that carried my ancestors Wulff and Gretje from Hamburg to New Orleans.
On Ancestry.com, the self is the first rectangle. Click the green plus sign, add a relationship. Connect. Add another relationship. Intertwine. The lines seem to tangle, but they barely whisper the outlines of deeply complex stories.
This summer, I began creating a new book — part trail guide, part history — on the 60+ Colorado peaks and lakes named after women. I’m calling it “Remember More Than Their Names,” and I’m blogging about my hiking and research discoveries at http://remembermorethantheirnames.blogspot.com/. I think of these historical women as my ancestors, too, though we only have our gender and Colorado in common. Determining the identity of each woman has been surprisingly difficult, since maps have traditionally used only the first name of a woman honored. Again and again, it has been Ancestry.com that has given me the outline of the story. Then it is up to me, the storyteller, to fill in the rest. For example, Ancestry.com told me that Helen Rich of Breckenridge, the namesake for Mount Helen, died a single woman with no children, but local records and her own papers reveal that she lived for decades with the poet Belle Turnbull. In Turnbull’s poetry, I found reference to forbidden passion, to domestic bliss. And the two women are buried together. Another piece of the heritage told.
I know the danger of looking backwards too long. I know that it is as important that I live my life now, in 2017 Colorado, as it is for me to discover and tell the stories of these women who lived in the past. But I believe I can learn to make of my life something deeper if I can pull these stories from the shadows. This other way of tracing and building heritage matters as much as the genetic map of my bloodline.
When I stood gazing at the Oseberg ship in Oslo’s Viking Ship Museum in June, my blood thrummed with the familiarity of the curves of the ship, the intricate carvings, the spiral on the prow. I touched the silver spiral I wear at the base of my neck, and I leaned closer to my wife and my daughter. What did I recognize? Maybe Ancestry.com would deny a genetic connection between me and the two women — one 25–30, one 50–55 — who were buried together, in state, in the Oseberg ship in 834 CE, but I am certain they are part of my heritage, too, if only because they were women. Maybe the elder was a queen (some have suggested she was Queen Åsa of the sagas) and the younger was a sacrifice. Maybe the elder was a völva, a seer, a holy woman, and the younger was her lover or her apprentice or both.
We will never know. But with each fragment we find, we discover ourselves more deeply. The mystery is my heritage. The seeking is what I want to trace.
Every November, I plant tulip and daffodil and crocus bulbs in the cold, hard dirt of my garden. The bulbs are papery brown, with elfin points. I bought sixty this year, and for an entire morning, while my daughter and her friend tumbled nearby in the yard, I labored to dig six-inch holes in the Colorado clay, to drop in three or four bulbs, and then to cover them with rich potting soil and fertilizer.
Mitike and her friend crowded close: “But when will they come up?” they wanted to know, scrunching their faces at the ugly work of dirt and brown bulb and dead leaves. I shrugged. “They need months of cold. In the spring, they’ll surprise us. Don’t worry.”
In the early morning of November 9, when the news that Donald J. Trump had won the American presidential election was still a fresh wound, I stood at my kitchen window and stared in the gray light at the empty dirt strip along our garage, where I had planted three dozen of the daffodil and tulip bulbs. I hated the obvious metaphor. I wanted the munificence of yellow and red now; I wanted lush green, fertile bloom, the explosion of hope—not more crumbled dirt layered with dog shit and impermeable clay.
An hour before, I had held my wife close as she cried and murmured her fear for the legality of our marriage, for her second-parent adoption of our daughter, for the safety of the immigrants in our community, for all women. Our daughter bounded into our room at 5 a.m.: “Did she win? Did she win?” We pulled her into bed with us, inhaled her coconut oil scent. “No,” I said gently, and Mitike’s eyes widened. “But what will happen now?”
Now, for a while, we will grieve. The world I entered on November 9 was as funereal as it was surreal. At the sprawling Denver high school where I teach English, students and teachers spoke in hushed voices or hugged each other, their faces tear-streaked. Our student population is comprised mostly of Hispanics, African Americans, and immigrants from over one hundred and twenty countries. Many of them are Muslim, some are GLBTQ+, half are girls. A Trump victory shouted in their faces that they are not welcome here, that America is not safe for them. They had hoped America would dream of them as much as they have dreamed of America, but this morning, that hope lay trampled beneath red “Make America Great!” signs. A death.
In every class, I gave the students—all seniors—space to talk. The air felt more like grief group than English class. A___ expressed her rage, claiming she would unfriend any Trump supporter on social media, that anyone who had voted for him had voted for white supremacy and misogyny and against her, an African American girl. M___ told us her family had discussed late last night whether they should risk the return to Ethiopia. W___ wondered why so many Americans do not vote; in his native Ghana, he said, people have died for that right. Many students with illegal parents shared their fears of deportation. S___, who is Muslim, asked how he could feel safe now, when the new president gave permission to his supporters to use violence against people like him. F___ entreated everyone to work harder, and R___ insisted that our fear will accomplish nothing, that we need to be like her parents, who risked the long journey through the desert from Mexico for a better life. The better life is still here, she said. D___, who ships out with the Marines this summer, reminded us all that one man doesn’t have ultimate power in America, that the country we make is still up to us. In every class, the square space of our classroom became again the America I believe in, countering the terrible truth that a misogynist, racist, impulsive, xenophobic wheeler and dealer has just become president.
But there is still that truth.
I reassured my students about the short term, about American processes, about the protections of the Constitution. And I reminded them about the long view; I reminded that them their voices, written and spoken, matter now more than ever; I insisted that those of us who can afford to speak boldly WILL.
But here, approaching, is President Trump.
The media is already trying to soften the blow, positing that he will be unable to accomplish everything he has proposed, that our system will check and balance him, that it’s only four years, after all. But it’s not just Trump that makes us grieve today. It’s the realization that the America that chose Trump hates those of us who are women, immigrants, Muslims, people of color, GLBTQ+ that much.
I try to understand the thinking of the Trump voters—not the raging white supremacists or the gun-toting border-patrolling xenophobes, but the average rural American. I grew up in eastern Iowa on a farm; I attended high school twenty-one years ago in Davenport, Iowa, where John Deere and ALCOA and the IBP Slaughterhouse are still the largest employers. I am certain that many of my former classmates voted for Trump. If I met them for a beer at a bar on Brady Street, would they tell me they voted for Trump because they hate me and my wife and my African daughter, my immigrant students, all women in general?
I don’t think so. I think they’d tell me about how they never get ahead, no matter how many hours they work. I think they’d tell me about how college—even community college—is prohibitively expensive. I think they’d tell me about how those jobs at the slaughterhouse don’t pay what they paid their fathers, and that many companies prefer cheap unskilled labor these days, anyway. I think they’d say, Wasn’t there a day when America was better than this? And we would sip our beer and gaze out at the new suburbs, built on rich farmland that no one can afford to cultivate any longer. Not in this economy.
Someone posted on Twitter that the white working class chose Trump for the same reasons a cancer patient chooses chemotherapy: injecting poison into your body might be worth it if it kills the cancer. Again, I imagine sharing that beer with my former Davenport West classmates who voted for Trump. You chose the wrong guy, I would say. He won’t stand up for you. It was all bluster. He said what he needed to say to get elected. He won’t change your lives. And: Don’t you want a leader who displays basic kindness and respect? Iowa taught us to be better than this.So says the lesbian woman with two master’s degrees, the teacher of immigrants.
The conversation in the Davenport bar won’t happen. My former classmates and I live in two different countries.
And that’s America’s most serious problem right now. The red country and the blue country speak different languages, have radically different cultural values and taboos. Who will unite us, and how? As my daughter and I made dinner the night after the Trump victory, the radio buzzing as the NPR commentators struggled to analyze the brave new Trump world, she asked, “But Mom, what will happen now?”
I studied my beautiful, smart, inquisitive daughter a moment, and then I gazed out the kitchen window. Again, I stared at the barren strip of dirt where I had planted those dozens of tulips and daffodils. My chest ached.
Soon, my wife would come home from seeing her patients, and we would all sit down at our table, link hands, murmur thanks, and then eat together. In eastern Iowa, a Trump-supporting classmate of mine will also sit down with his wife and his child, and they will also link hands and murmur thanks and then eat together. In Aurora and Denver, my students from Burma, Ghana, Liberia, Eritrea, Cambodia, Mexico, Honduras, and Iraq also sit sharing meals with their families. We are all linked like this. We are not so different. We could resist the temptation to let hate divide us and defeat us.
“Mom?” Mitike persisted. “I said, what will happen now?”
I could talk about tulips and daffodils, the way we wait through the cold dark months until finally—suddenly!—the bright green shoots rise from the snow and the mud, and then brilliant red and yellow and orange blooms burst open. I could talk about why the wait and the cold and the dark are worth it, or about the promise we nurture with our hope. I could talk about how we will refuse to move backward, that we will keep demanding progress. And I will, later.
Right now, I just gather my sweet little daughter into my arms, and I say, “We love each other, and we finish making dinner.”
In the winter of 2015, Starbucks tried to get its patrons to talk about race.
Across the country, baristas in the iconic coffee shop slapped a black-and-white sticker onto cups: “Race Together.” They initiated dialogues; they committed publicly to hiring ten thousand disadvantaged youth and to open more stores in low-income neighborhoods. Their stock rose. Critics claimed the coffee franchise giant just wanted free publicity. Others said it was a trite way to talk about race. Still others mocked Starbucks’ efforts and suggested they should tackle income equality instead — including the fact that a twenty-ounce latte at Starbucks costs nearly one hour’s pay for a minimum-wage worker.
Starbucks says it ended its “Race Together” campaign in March 2015 exactly as planned, not in response to the criticism. And a year later, as cars continue to line up in Starbucks drive-thrus and people continue to sit hunched over laptops in Starbucks cafes, the weeks when the franchise tried to get its patrons talking about race seem quietly forgotten.
It’s easier that way. We don’t like the discomfort of that conversation over our steaming mochas and cappuccinos. But of course, for some of us — white, Protestant, salaried — it’s a privilege to say “no thank you” to the race conversation. We take another sip of our coffee, sit back in the black leather chair, listen to the music playing from the speakers overhead. We talk about a story we heard on NPR on our way over.
This is not everyone’s privilege in this country. My daughter, who is adopted from Ethiopia, thinks about race constantly. She is only nine, but every moment of the day, her difference confronts her. In school, her white and Hispanic friends ask to play with her beaded braids. They are curious. They love the bright colors of the beads but also the way the complicated parts pattern Mitike’s scalp. When she wears her hair free, her friends ask, How did you get it so curly? No girl with straight blond hair attracts as much attention.
When Mitike joined a city volleyball league for nine-to-ten-year-old girls in August, she noticed immediately that she was the only girl with brown skin, black curly hair, dark brown eyes. All the other girls, mostly residents of the affluent Denver neighborhood surrounding the recreation center, have blue or green eyes, blond hair, names like Payton and Ashley and Piper. Meredith and I picked up Mitike at the end of the first practice, expecting to hear about games and drills. Instead, Mitike frowned at the ground and asked, “Is there any place in Denver where a blond girl would stand out?”
Of course. In the east Denver hair salon where I take Mitike to get her hair braided every six weeks, I am the only white person I see all afternoon. I sit in one of the black plastic chairs in the waiting room and endure the double-takes of the patrons who push open the door (it sticks) and nod and smile at the Ethiopian owner as the little bells on the door handle tinkle. They catch sight of me, then look again. A white girl? In this salon? The men shake their heads and proceed to the back, where they get their beards oiled and their heads shaved. The women stare a little longer, then survey the salon suspiciously until they find Mitike wincing in her chair, the stylist parting another section to braid. Ah. A white woman with a black child. Well, at least she knows where to bring her to get her hair done.
The first time we visited one of these salons in Denver, Mitike couldn’t stop talking about it. “Everyone looked like me!” she said. “Now you know what it feels like to be so different!” Embarrassed of my embarrassment, I tried to hide my red face, my quivering lip. For four hours, I’d endured the stares and the muttered asides, and one woman’s glare. But I understood: Mitike feels this level of scrutiny every day. It was my turn.
My Ethiopian daughter has pulled me bodily into the dialogue about race. I didn’t think it applied to me before. That had been my privilege.
And that’s part of the problem.
When Mitike was in preschool, a fifth grader chasing her on the playground yelled at her, “You’re such a dirty, oily-haired n*&@#*!” The principal, sober-faced, and a teacher who had been supervising recess told me this when I arrived that afternoon. They said the fifth grader’s parents claimed they never used such language at home and couldn’t imagine where he’d learned it. The principal expelled the child. She wanted to make it clear that her school tolerated no bigotry, ever.
Shaken and exhausted by the fact that Mitike had been the victim of such abuse, I sat my little curly-haired four-year-old on my lap on the front steps of our house and carefully asked her what she remembered the fifth grader saying. “He called me dirty, Mommy!” she said indignantly. “That’s why he got ’spelled, ’cause he lied! I take a bath every other day!” She didn’t remember the “n” word, because she didn’t understand it. As for the “oily-haired” part of the epithet: that was just true. Every day, we massage Mitike’s scalp with coconut oil. It’s the secret to an itch-free head.
I shared this experience on a blog I was keeping at the time, and one of my aunts wrote, “My love is color-blind! When I see Mitike, I just see a little person I love and adore!”
My aunt’s intention was good. Before I knew Mitike, I might have said something similar. But now I understand that I want people to notice Mitike’s beauty, her colorfully beaded braids, her coffee-brown skin, her slim Ethiopian figure. Her heritage — and those turquoise and purple beads — are part of who she is. Color-blindness is its own brand of ignorant racism. We are different. If we pretend otherwise, we’re faking our interactions with each other. The key is to notice more than just skin color and hair type. I also want people to notice Mitike’s quick smile, her genuine laugh, her gift as a storyteller, her confidence as a leader. I want the world to see her. That fifth grade boy with his ugly words didn’t see her at all; his blindness allowed him to speak violently.
Recently, I read the incredible and important essay “What a Black Woman Wishes Her White Parents Knew” by Mariama Lockington, a black woman adopted by white parents and raised in Denver in the 1980s. She’s angry, now: her parents pretended race didn’t matter, and so they didn’t acknowledge her ongoing reality, which was that race mattered quite a bit, in every moment of her life. She felt crazy, as if her perception of the world was false. Addressing her parents, Lockington writes, “Maybe you think your silence is better than fumbling awkwardly through uncomfortable realities. It’s not. I am a black, queer woman in America, I am your daughter, and I am always in danger.” She insists that by refusing to openly discuss oppression, her parents “erase” her. Lockington’s essay broke my heart. I want Mitike to feel she can talk to us about anything she experiences in her difference; I want her to feel visible – never erased.
Many of the comments on Lockington’s essay are defensive and angry. People are uncomfortable. Privileged, they want to choose not to talk about race. They want Lockington – and Mitike – to just express gratitude to their white families for raising them, as if raising them in white America eliminated all difficulty for them. They don’t want to see that my daughter – beautiful, black – hears about race differently than they do: in every news story about another police shooting of a brown-skinned person, in every racial slur directed toward one of Obama’s daughters, in every bigoted comment Trump’s supporters make, in every statistic about people of color in poverty.
I often remember a day in one of my high school English classes, when we had just begun reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I asked the students to freewrite about the “n” word and how they felt about its presence in the novel. In the ensuing discussion, a white student argued, with annoyance, that the word didn’t matter and it was a waste of time to discuss it. Many other students chimed in to agree, until an African American boy raised his hand. “Look,” he told the class. “The word hurts. It matters to me in a way you can’t get. Until it stops mattering that much to me, it’s got to keep mattering to you.”
What I know: Starbucks was right. We need to hold more dialogue about race. All of us. It’s not comfortable, which is exactly why we need to sit ourselves down in those black leather chairs. Some of us, like Mitike and Mariama Lockington, need to do more talking. Others of us need to start listening.