The first time we visited a black church, we stood out as a family. It was a small church and we were the only white people there that day. The woman welcoming everyone that morning said that she was glad to see the members and their families. Then she said that it seemed like there might be some brand new visitors that morning. She asked the visitors to stand up and introduce themselves. “Is she talking about us?” my son Caleb whispered to me. Yes, she clearly was.
I stood up and said, “My name is Anna McArthur and we’re visiting from Athens. I have with me today two of my four children: my son Caleb and my daughter Elizabeth. We’re honored to be here with you.” I sat down and the woman said, “Thank you. We welcome Elizabeth and her family today.”
My first thought was, “Oh, she misheard me and thought that my name was Elizabeth. She meant Anna’s family.” Elizabeth is, after all, a child. The only place I’m addressed by my child’s name is at school or some other “child centered” space. I couldn’t quite figure out what had just happened. I couldn’t figure out why I felt uncomfortable. It took a few moments for me to realize that this particular church was Elizabeth’s space. This woman knew why we were there in that black church: we were there for Elizabeth. It was like I was a blurry person in the background and Elizabeth was all that this woman could see. This was a new feeling for me.
Later, I called my brother Clay and told him about being welcomed as “Elizabeth’s family.” He loved the story. “Did you want them to thank you for being Elizabeth’s driver? How does it feel to not be the center of attention?” he asked.
I’ve had some time to think about why I was surprised by the introduction. I’ve wondered if this is about white privilege or about mom privilege. I’m pretty sure it is both. I feel pretty confident as a mom in general, but sometimes, as a white mom with black children, my role is confusing.
Over Christmas, we were visiting a friend’s church in Chicago. Katie was in a terrible mood after struggling with her sweater and socks. As we waited for our friends in the fellowship hall, Katie laid down on an upholstered bench along the side of the room. She had her feet on the floor, but she was slumped over in dramatic fashion. Since it was a downtown church, there was a security guard walking through the building, checking on things. This particular security guard was a black woman. She saw Katie lying down and stopped. She asked me if she was okay. I told her that Katie was mad at her sweater and that I was just waiting her out after a rough morning. The security guard leaned down and told Katie to sit up. Katie shot up. Then she told me that she tells her kids to not put their faces or heads in places where they don’t know what’s been there. While she indicated that this was a hygiene issue, it seemed to me that the bigger issue was that she wanted my child to sit up and act right. She wanted my black child to behave.
The customs might be different in Chicago, but my hunch is that she wouldn’t have said this to a white child. She was respectful of me as the mom by asking me first if my child was okay, but then she intervened; not interfered, but definitely intervened. She was a security officer, not the posture police. Nonetheless, Katie’s behavior was her business. She saw a black child not acting right and that was her business.
This has happened before at the beauty shop and in stores and restaurants. This kind of assistance that I get from black women is reserved only for my black children. There seems to be an undertone of my not being strict enough. My friends found it very amusing that I put one of the twins in time out at the beauty shop. No one laughed or said a word, but the women who were there that day were looking at each other like, “Who’s going to tell her that time out isn’t going to work with that child?”
I have an African-American friend who told me once that she was worried that I was “too sweet” to raise the twins. I’m actually not very sweet. I know sweet: Elizabeth is sweet. I think what she meant was ”too white.” I’m white, Presbyterian and mild-mannered. I don’t yell and I expect my kids to do things when I ask them. Standing outside a restaurant, my friend showed me how she puts her finger up in her kids’ faces and lets them know that she means business. I burst out laughing, imagining what we must look like to people inside the restaurant. They must have wondered what I’d done to this woman to draw such scolding. They didn’t know that she was giving me advice on how to raise black girls.
The truth is that I don’t know what it is like to be a black woman in America. These women do. If these black women make sure Elizabeth is welcomed at church or make sure Katie acts right at church, they are caring for my children. They are seeing my kids in razor-sharp focus. My twins aren’t blurry to them.
The decision for these women to jump in with the twins seems to only take a few seconds. I don’t think they see a white mom with black kids; I think they see black kids first. I don’t doubt that they respect me as the twins’ mom, but I know sometimes I’m a blurry image behind the clarity that is my twins’ skin color.
This parenting assistance is an act of claiming. The twins are being enfolded into a culture. What is happening is bigger than me and it’s bigger than our family. I will always be the twins’ mom, but I need to remember that they belong to a larger community. I am humbled that these women have something to teach my girls that I can’t teach them.
When we were introduced at church as “Elizabeth’s family,” I looked over at Elizabeth and she
was sitting up straighter and taller. She grew inches after hearing her name. She was beaming. Elizabeth is one of four children and she’s a twin, so it’s rare that she is ever introduced alone. She felt honored and embraced. I need to rejoice when “Elizabeth’s family” is welcomed. I’m honored to be with her