Raising a black activist in a mother’s white world

colorful handprints

By Jenn O’Connor

One recent evening, I invited my fourteen-year-old daughter to accompany me to the monthly meeting of my women’s advocacy group. I wasn’t sure she’d be interested, but she agreed to tag along. (I believe I sold her on the idea when I mentioned that there would be snacks.)

The group is made up of accomplished, well-educated women with a common purpose. Full disclosure—we are also primarily white, middle-aged, and in a certain income bracket. Our diversity, where it does exist, is not readily apparent. I knew that my child, who is black, might be uncomfortable. So I was thrilled when another young woman of color appeared at the meeting for the first time and quickly approached my daughter. They beamed at each other. It was like they had each found a kindred spirit, or shared a secret that none of the rest of us could understand.

This was not the first time that my child was the only black face (or one of two) in a sea of white. But it was the first time it happened in an advocacy setting, and it stopped me in my tracks. Here we were, month after month, talking about intersectionality and inclusion and we were, as a group, failing miserably at walking the walk.

I’m not sure how my parents raised an advocate. They must have been very subtle; subversive even. We never went to a rally, a protest, or a march. Maybe in the seventies and eighties, when I was growing up, there was no need. But I remember that they read the newspaper and watched the evening news every night. And they were always involved in the community. It was clear to me that they held certain views, but that they were just fairly quiet about their beliefs.

By contrast, I am a professional advocate. It’s literally in my job title. It’s something I came to over time—after years of policy and campaign positions. It’s a role that solidified itself in my very being after the 2016 presidential election.

I knew then that I had to become even more involved than I already was. I knew, too, that I wanted my daughter to be by my side—politically and socially aware. I worried, at first, about pushing my views on her. I was careful to frame them as “my views,” and to present both sides of certain arguments as best I could. I gave her choices, asked about her interests, and tried to make her as comfortable as possible.

From the beginning, I knew that I faced a unique complication—raising a black activist in my predominantly white world. While I would be equally diligent with a biological child of the same race as me, I doubt I would be as cautious. My daughter has been entrusted to me—by the courts, by the child welfare system and, most importantly, by her biological mother—to protect and to raise.

I didn’t want to mess this up. I lived in fear of being seen as a privileged person with an accessory on her arm. I wanted to make it clear to the outside world that not only did my daughter need and deserve to be in these spaces but that she wanted to be as well.

I was also—and remain—painfully aware of my own ignorance. I read, I listen, I try to push myself outside my comfort level, and still I do not fully comprehend the unique experiences of people of color in this country. Nor will I ever be able to.

I worry, too, that by removing my daughter from the impoverished and violent neighborhood where she spent her first years with her biological mother, I have also inadvertently separated her from her culture and from people with whom she shares a history and understanding. While I can provide a plethora of opportunities she would not otherwise have had, I also wonder what I have robbed her of.

I find myself focusing on the women of color I come into contact with, like the one at my advocacy meeting, searching for somebody who might mentor my girl in a way that I cannot. Part of my role is introducing her to experiences and to people who can help shape her views, acknowledging that I am limited in what I can impart to her.

Like most teenage girls, my daughter is more interested right now in Just Dance and Beyonce and the latest hairstyle than she is in what I might do with my spare time. But it is my fervent hope that by exposing her to social issues and to advocacy, I am laying the groundwork for her to engage and take action on her own terms. Not just mine.

Jenn O’Connor is a policy and advocacy expert based in Albany, NY who is raising her former foster daughter. She is navigating a racially-charged world and struggling with how to increase her daughter’s social and political awareness responsibly. 

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