Nine years ago, when I joined the Linfield English department, I remember introducing myself at the new-faculty orientation by saying, “If I look like I haven’t brushed my hair for three weeks—I haven’t.”
This was not because I felt casual in the face of the Linfield adventure then beginning for me. It was because, three weeks earlier, I’d begun another adventure: binding my life with that of a baby boy whose birth mother in Guatemala had placed him for adoption. That baby, Joaquin, rode with me around Linfield on my hip in a blue and white gingham sling, sporting two gleaming teeth and displaying a great zest for drama (he once tried to eat a microphone as I spoke into it).
He was—and is—a merry and magnetic person, lodged so deep in my heart that I sometimes forget that his experience of the world is significantly different from mine. It’s not just that adoption has separated him from his birth family, country and language, and he must grieve that loss—his dad and I can help him, but we can’t do it for him—it’s also that he’s a brown kid in a white family. He’s a brown kid in a browning-but-still-white-dominated country. He’s a brown kid who, as recent events have shown, will always be more vulnerable than a white kid to prejudice and discrimination, and at worst, physical harm.
During Joaquin’s lifetime, a black man has been elected president and a Latina woman has ascended to the Supreme Court (give’em hell, Sonia). In the same period of time, thousands of black and brown men and boys and women and girls have been unfairly profiled, targeted, injured or killed by police officers. They have been attacked and murdered by vigilantes. They’ve been tried, sentenced and incarcerated in unfair ways and at unfair rates. And their school experiences have prepared them for this trail of tears: statistically, black and brown kids are much more likely to be suspended and expelled from school than white children are for identical offenses.
Some white Americans have ways of deflecting our attention from these problems, usually by blaming the victims: “Well, they must have done something wrong. They didn’t show proper respect to police. They shouldn’t have had outstanding warrants, they should have paid their child support, they shouldn’t be trying to hustle a little income selling cigarettes or CDs, they shouldn’t have fought back, they shouldn’t have mouthed off, they shouldn’t have run, they shouldn’t, they shouldn’t, they shouldn’t…”
What about what white America should and shouldn’t do?
When I began to write this piece, two black men had been killed by police officers in the span of a couple of days. By the time I got to the second paragraph, five officers were dead in Dallas, Texas, killed by a deranged mass murderer who (this time) happened to be an African-American. Ferocious verbal combat has broken out, without any effect except to further a useless sclerosis of rhetoric, pitting police against people of color. Please. The fact that a group of cherished, honorable men are killed in the line of duty by a maniac should not distract us from the long, slow bleeding of liberty, potential, and life itself from people and communities of color.
In a few years, my Guatemalan-American boy will be driving a car, hanging out with his buddies, beginning to establish his independence from the umbrella of care I placed over him when I became his mother. When I read the news, I flinch inside. It feels like anything could happen out there to my beloved, irreplaceable child. It already has happened to the beloved, irreplaceable Trayvons and Tamirs and Erics and Sandras and Philandos of many other mothers. It just takes one hinky situation, one bad night, for all of our lives to go forever sideways.
Admittedly, my son will experience a thick layer of the protections that come with being part of an educated, healthy and financially stable family. He won’t be driving a beater car he can’t afford to keep registered. If he has the misfortune to become physically sick or addicted or mentally ill, he’ll have heath care and people to nurse him and to intervene on his behalf. If he’s ever arrested, he’ll have a decent lawyer. If he’s treated unfairly, he’ll have people to advocate for him—white people– who have the time and the skills to show up in court, write an op-ed, or contact a congressman. He’ll know the ropes of white culture; he’ll speak English, understand his rights, and expect to be treated with respect and fairness.
Still. This kid’s mild layer of ADHD, his slight speech impediment, combined perhaps with adolescent impulsivity, a sneaked beer or two, and a break-up that’s left him surly or spaced out? He’s already got attitude, and like everybody, he makes some lame choices. It would be easy for him to piss somebody off, to look like some smart-mouthed Latino kid who had it coming. Would I hear then that he shouldn’t have talked back? Shouldn’t have run away? That he “charged” somebody with a knife? Whatever I’d hear, it wouldn’t matter, because life for me would be over.
And when I imagine that feeling, when I get close enough just to begin to imagine it, I am full of rage at the forces that have made those feelings an unholy reality for so many families. People say, “Well, that kid was no angel.” Nobody is an angel! These forces, of course, are not just the poor judgment or bad training of a few police officers. They include also the toxic masculinity of a handful of creeps with guns as well as weak gun laws—yes, they are weak, despite the paranoid foamings of the National Rifle Association–and judges and lawmakers who get “tough on crime” by throwing more and more disadvantaged people in jail without education inside or support when they get out. Above all, I resent the systemic racism that has kept people of color poor, segregated and powerless. I began benefiting from the disparity before I was born, and my son began suffering from it when he entered the country with a baby-faced green card. It is truly painful for me to admit that this is America, but it is.
In his monumental book Far From the Tree, the great writer and interviewer Andrew Solomon explores the ways in which children may have “horizontal identities,” aspects of their selves that they share with no one in their family of origin. My child’s horizontal identity is to be Latin American—in looks, if not culture. My inherited racial privilege can protect him somewhat, but not wholly. I can only tell him, “If a police officer tells you to do something, sweetie, do it. Keep your hands in plain sight, and don’t ask questions.”
But I can ask questions, and so can Linfield students. College is a time of questioning, as well as learning. I see Linfield graduates out there making a difference every day, helping this nation, incrementally, to become the exemplar of justice it was founded to be.
We can do it. Si, se puede. Yes, we can.
Anna Keesey teaches English and creative writing at Linfield College. Her work has appeared in a number of journals and anthologies, including Best American Short Stories.