NO OFFENSE, MOM, BUT WHY ARE YOU CHUBBY?

"No offense, Mom...." she began.

For weeks, she had been begging me to take her running with me. But, with a 4:30am wake up time during the weekdays in order to get a workout in before our morning commute, I simply could not invite her along in good conscience.

But, today was Sunday. And, the wake up call was 6:30am. 

The night before, she laid out her running clothes -- a pair of athletic pants, a short sleeve shirt, and a warm sweatshirt. Her matching headband was dangling off the round knob of her dresser. 

She grabbed her music player and put on her big, pink headphones. She listened to "Hamilton" on repeat. We walked and ran together, alone in our own world of musicals and podcasts. 

We were about two laps into our workout when she peeled back one side of her headphones. 

"No offense, Mom. I mean, really, I'm not trying to be offensive. But, how come you work out so much and are... still... you know... I guess you'd maybe call it .... chubby?"

I assured her I wasn't offended.

Twenty-five years ago, I would have broken down into tears. Twenty-five years ago, this was all I ever thought about. 

Most of my life, starting at an age younger than my daughter, who, not offensively, asked me the question, I have been obsessed with my body. I remember, at the age of 6, being on my first "diet." By 10, I had already convinced my mom to buy me Jane Fonda and Gilad aerobics tapes. By 11, I was running up the street to the local track where I would repeat lap after lap after lap. By 13, I was consciously restricting my eating. By 16, I had developed problematic behaviors that I had learned from a friend. By college, I made up for nights of drinking, french fries and pizza by smoking to suppress my appetite during the day. By graduate school, I had experimented with weight loss drugs that made my heart race out of my chest and made my hands twitch uncontrollably in class.

But, by my mid-twenties, I was pregnant with my first child.

I was terrified about getting pregnant while, all the while, doing whatever I could to figure out why my body was having so much trouble getting pregnant. 

I worried about how my body would change. I worried about losing my tight abdomen, a result of running 3-5 miles a day. I worried that I would never be the same. 

And, I wasn't. 

My body held on to the weight after I delivered the baby. 

But, my body wasn't the only thing that had changed.

Frankly, I stopped obsessing about my body. I, for the first, time, realized that my body was actually a miraculous thing -- something that didn't just burn calories and build muscle; my body could make something. My body could grow, nurture, and later feed an infant. 

Thirteen years ago, I let go of "my body as thing" and turned to "my body as beautiful." 

I have never been the same weight as I was pre-baby. And, that's been okay for me. 

My daughter and I spent the next lap talking about body image. I told her that, for years, I didn't like my body. I didn't like how it looked. I didn't like how it felt. I didn't like how it fit. But, I realized that so many of those messages were fed to me from media, from magazines, and yes, even from family. I told her that relatives used to say, "Oh, Liza, you've gotten so fat!" instead of "Oh, Liza, how are you? Nice to see you!" I told her that people in my extended family were always talking about dieting, while they crunched on white rice and lechon and chicharon. I told her that my life was filled with mixed messages about who I was and what I was worth.

"Yes, I am chubby," I told her. "And, no, that's not offensive to me, anymore." I explained that there were other indicators, beyond the size of my body, that signaled I am healthy: my blood pressure is just right; I don't have any problems with blood sugar levels; my cholesterol is perfect. I get enough sleep. I eat healthy foods. 

I shared that I had spent lots of years restricting what I ate, thinking that being thin would make me happy. But, instead, it only made me grumpy and even more obsessed with what I looked like.  I told her that I used to wear baggy clothing and hide my body, even though I was trying to make it perfect. That's why, now, I wear beautiful dresses and bright colors -- I want to draw attention to my body size and shape and be proud of it instead of hide it. I wear bold stripes and patterns. Dresses that hit just above my knees. And, I'm not ashamed of my wiggly arms or my pouchy tummy. 

And, I'm happy. 

I shared that bodies come in all sorts of sizes and shapes. Some of it we can control; some of it we can't. Sometimes, we just need to know that lots of types exist (check out this amazing woman named Jessamyn Stanley). 

It was almost our last lap. She asked me, "Mom, what do you think my body looks like? Do you think I'm thin? Do you think I'm athletic? " I simply responded, "What do you like that your body does?"

A smile crossed her face. 

We have the same smile.

"I like that it's going to..... beat you to the next light post!"

And, she ran. 

She turned back around, surprised that I was just two steps behind her. She began to raise her hands up in a sign of victory. 

Instead, she reached out and grabbed my own.

"Thanks, Mom." 

Peace and love, 

Liza

Talking about Class and Culture

In the landscape of identity issues such as race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender and gender identity, family structure, religion, and ability/disAbility, I often hear from colleagues, teachers, students and school leaders that there is one topic that seems almost too difficult and taboo to address: socioeconomic status.

The other day, a teacher emailed me to ask how to be proactive in setting up a classroom environment that honors and respects the diverse socioeconomic spectrum. Her concern, much like of other teachers, is that we are about to go on Spring Break. For some of our families, Spring Break is a time of travel and leisure. Some of our families will travel internationally to see family, friends, or to return to a favorite vacation spot or home. Some of our families will stay home, be cared for by family or extended family, or be engaged in a camp or day-care learning environment. And, some of our families will find creative ways to get through two full weeks of vacation by taking turns off from work, bringing children to their work place, finding sitters here and there, or setting up play dates during the work hours so their children will not be home alone. This range of experiences exists at Park School, and this also exists at many other schools in our country. 

This teacher was wondering: "How do I engage the students, in an age appropriate way, to be excited about the break from school while also acknowledging that this is a conversation about privilege and access?" 

Truth is, I stared at her email from about five minutes. I began to draft an email. Then I deleted it. I tried again. Then I highlighted whole sections and cut them out. Before I knew it, twenty minutes had passed and I was still down to "Dear ____, what a great question."

To buy myself some time allow myself the space to respond thoughtfully, I promised this teacher a blog post. 

Truth is, I have stared at this blank screen for about fifteen minutes. I began to draft a post. Then I deleted it. I tried again. Then I highlighted whole sections and ... well... 

You get the picture.

To me, just like race, ethnicity, religion, faith, sexual orientation -- class is an identity. Class isn't just about how much or how little we have; class is also about how we understand money, how we learn about money and wealth, what our relationship is to money and wealth, and what those factors mean to us. Class is about how we behave, how we relate to, and how we manage conversations about ourselves and our earliest messages about class and identity. Like other cultural identifiers, these conversations can be difficult for some, easy for others. But, once I began to understand class as a cultural experience, talking about it made much more sense to me. I became more open to learning about the experiences of people from socioeconomic backgrounds both of my own and outside of my own. I became more open to asking questions about what they learned, what they saw, what they shared and what they felt. And, I became more open about sharing my own, too. 

I can tell you how I deal with conversations about class in my own family. Not long after school started, my children began to tell me about the new friends they had met. They told me about how nice their peers were. They told me how a friend showed them around when they got lost. They told me how they learned the culture of the school -- where to put your backpacks, what to wear to a school dance, and what kind of activities people sign up for after school. They also told me about the ways in which their new friends spent their summer vacations: traveling around Europe; spending the summer in Hawai'i; upgrading to the new iPhone. 

I knew what I had walked into. My children were sharing aspects of class. Of culture. Of socioeconomics in a way they have not experienced themselves. I admit, the reaction in my heart was of sadness. Between the lines, I could hear the question, "Why don't we do those types of things?" in their voices. I could hear them teetering on adolescent jealousy. I wanted to say something that would help them feel better. I wanted to give them something that they could share when the topic of summer vacations or long weekends came up.

Instead, I did the opposite.

I told them that those experiences sounded really interesting. I asked them if they had good questions for their new friends -- what could they learn from their adventures. I asked them, "So, did they tell you what they saw in Europe or what they learned?" or "Did they feel any different being outside of the United States?" or "How did they describe the food in Hawai'i? Was it good? Ask them what they thought tasted the best!" or "Ask them what they enjoy most about the apps on their new iPhone or what kind of music they like to listen to in their playlists. Which songs on their playlist make them dance? Make them laugh? Make them cry? Make them sing out loud like no one is listening?"

I want to teach my children to develop a sense of wonder and of curiosity about other people. I want them to see that it wasn't about what their friends did or what we did, or what they had and what we had; rather, it was about what we could all learn from each other's experiences. How could we open our own hearts and minds to the experiences of others? How do we develop humility? How can we model asking about experiences and developing a real sense of curiosity for each other's lives?

When I travel to different schools and this topic of socioeconomics comes up, I often find that teachers turn to the "just don't talk about it" approach. They tell me that they never ask the students, "How was your weekend?" or "What did you do this weekend?" But, they then get caught in this bind of, "But am I teaching children to be ashamed of their experiences? How can I nurture this sharing without making people feel badly about themselves for having too much or not having as much as others?"

For our younger students (and, of course, all our students!), there are ways in which we can frame questions or prompts to guide their learning and sharing. Below are some prompts you might put up during your morning circle time or in your warm-up for the day. Do these questions and prompts solve our tension and apprehension about socioeconomic status? No. Of course not. Do they help us get closer to teaching and modeling curiosity, wonder and respect for each other's experiences? Possibly. Maybe. Do they help us start our journey towards finding what works for our classrooms, our age groups and our Selves? I hope so -- would love to hear how these worked out, if you try some of them!

"During this vacation/long weekend, ..."

  • I felt happy when __________.
  • I felt proud when ____________.
  • I noticed that ____________.
  • I learned that _______________.
  • I was interested in _____________.
  • I was curious about ____________.
  • I wondered why ______________.
  • I read ____________.
  • I heard __________.
  • I listened to _____________.
  • I shared _____________.

In our lower division, I have often snuck into morning circle and closing circle (it's my favorite time of day!). Brilliantly, teachers have set up structures for all students to feel heard and affirmed. I can imagine, after this activity, each student simply saying 'Thank you, Carly" or 'Thank you, Alan" after each statement. This acknowledges that the contribution of each student is important in our classrooms. 

Will this work on the playground or the lunch room or the free-period in between classes? Likely not. But, it does help equip our students will the skills to talk about their vacations or long weekends in a way that shifts from "what I have and where I went" to "what I experienced and what I can share."

I'd love to hear about the strategies and ideas you have used at home or at school, too! Feel free to send me an email and let me know!

Also, while this post was about personal and relational engagement about class, our friends over at Shady Hill School spent a whole year talking about institutional approaches to discussing socioeconomic issues. Check out this great article by Head of School, Mark Stanek about this issue. 

Water Justice

My family and I have a 75-minute ride into work each day. While it is certainly not ideal in terms of waking up early each day, it does mean that we get quality time.

And, in this quality time, there is quite a bit of negotiating: negotiating which radio station we listen to; negotiating who gets the warm pink blanket and who gets the equally warm (and equally functioning) maroon blanket; who gets the blueberry cereal bar and who gets the strawberry cereal bar. Basically, there is a whole lot of talk.

Sometimes that "talk" comes in the form of our morning NPR news. Sometimes that "talk" comes from the children arguing. Sometimes that "talk" comes from me.

When that "talk" becomes my turn, I always bring up current events.

Lately, on my mind and in my heart are the tragic and absolutely horrifying events coming out of Flint, Michigan.

"Son," I begin, "Tell me what you did this morning."

"I woke up, ate breakfast, washed my face, brushed my teeth and washed my hands."

"Good. So, did you think that your water was clean (it was, son, by the way)?"

"Yes."

"Girls," my girls are older than my son, "Do you pretty much trust that the water we use to brush our teeth, to drink, to wash our dishes, to make our coffee, and to make your hot chocolate is safe? Like, our city has done things to make sure that the water is safe?"

"Uh, yea," they respond as if that was the weirdest question I could have ever asked.

perfect.

I then told them about what was happening in Flint, Michigan. I told them about the population of Flint, the demographics of people who live there, and what we reasonably expect from our government. I told them about the water crisis, the outpour of support from people providing bottled water shelters, and then the requirement for people to show ID.

My oldest child said, "Wait, I get that you have to show ID because, well, they want to know you are actually from Flint. But, what if you don't have an ID? Like, if you don't have the money to get an ID or if you aren't able to get an ID."

"Yup," I respond.

I told them about the people who had come together to provide water for those who did not have identification, for fundraisers that are raising money to buy water, and...

"and..." said my 9-year old, "That's great, but don't bottled water companies already make lots of money? Can't those companies help out and donate the water?"

She beat me to it.

"Yup," I respond.

For the next half-hour, my children began to identify ways in which the system/System was not working. They talked about the structural problems and the human problems that this caused. We talked about race, class, and how years of lead poisoning can impact lives of children.

As we pulled into our school parking lot, I realized that my children learned more about race, class, education, structural inequality, and structural racism in those 30 minutes than they might in a full day of formal schooling.

How can we, as teachers, educators and parents engage more deeply in these dialogues? What can you do to help young people learn about the world around them? How might we work in solidarity with those in Flint, Michigan?

These views that follow are my own and do not represent any organization to which I am affiliated:

  • If you are looking to financially participate, a scholar who I admire greatly, has begun a GoFundMe initiative. I firmly trust her.
  • On the flip-side, filmmaker and activist, Michael Moore, has asked for, not money but a revolt. Check out his piece here.

Whichever path you take, just do something.

Peace and love,

Liza

WHAT ARE YOU?

Though I'm full-blooded Filipino (which, only means that both of my parents claim Filipino birthplace and identity), I often get the "What are you?" question. My heritage roots come from a series of islands that have indigenous villages of people who would mistakenly be identified as African. Through colonization, immigration, and cross-pollination, I have roots of Chinese, Spanish, and local Pinoy. My skin is light, my hair is light, my eyes are colored light brown while their shape are distinctly round-and-almond. My brothers have coarse hair, dark brown skin, dark brown hair, and wider noses than my own. Yet, we come from the same two parents.

In this latest NY Times article "Black? White? Asian? More Americans Choose All of the Above", I am reminded of both my own What are you? questions but also that of my children, who in my opinion, truly identify with two distinct heritage backgrounds: Filipino and Puerto Rican. Like with any marginalized group that experiences isolation, young people of mixed heritage backgrounds are finding solidarity and a shared experience with one another. Where the what are you? question is usually served with a heaping dose of eye-rolling, individuals from blended heritage backgrounds are sharing stories -- some painful, some hilarious -- of "that totally happened to me, too!" and "I know what you mean!"

Many young adults of mixed backgrounds are rejecting the color lines that have defined Americans for generations in favor of a much more fluid sense of identity.

Does the increase in multiracial families mean, as so many like to leap, that "racism, prejudice and discrimination are slowly losing their power"? I always say, there's personal racism/prejudice/discrimination which, I guess, you might be able to say blended families are beginning to deconstruct. We are starting to embrace the fluidity of identity, a concept that human development practitioners have always believed. That, with each life stage and each new experience, we have opportunities to grow and incorporate new ideas into our lives.

No one knows quite how the growth of the multiracial population will change the country. Optimists say the blending of the races is a step toward transcending race, to a place where America is free of bigotry, prejudice and programs like affirmative action.

Pessimists say that a more powerful multiracial movement will lead to more stratification and come at the expense of the number and influence of other minority groups, particularly African-Americans.

 

I have noticed an interesting occurrence as I work with college students around issues of identity. For the population I serve, there isn't a formula for how students identify: I have some students of mixed heritage of White and Black or Asian who strongly identify with one or the other. As the aunt of a few biracial children where 1 parent is White, I want them to know that the "White" part is just as relevant -- just as important -- as the Asian or Puerto Rican side. They need to know that being 1/2 White holds significance, that it holds information about what they will know about and experience about the world and our society.

 

While I don't believe that multiracial identity signals the destruction of racism (if it was only that easy!), what this does signal to me is movement in the direction of not just having to choose ONE thing. I believe this signals a move away from everything being so black and white (no pun intended!). That we can, indeed, be both black and white. We can, indeed, be both White and Asian; Puerto Rican and Filipino; or all four and more. In recent months, passport applications have changed to include "parent name" from "father and mother." More and more places are adopting gender neutral bathroom signs; more and more people are referring to "parents or guardians" rather than just "parents." And, more progressive environments are moving away from the assumption that everyone has a father, mother, one of each, or both.

None of us want for our children to be excluded. Whether it's a spot on the soccer team, a seat at the cafeteria table, or a chance to be in the school play, we seek to include our own children. That seems a natural role for us as parents.

How are we including the stories, lives, and experiences of all children -- of all adults -- in our world?

Make it a daily practice to ask yourself, how am I including all voices and all people in that which I do.

The Strength to Carry: One Mother's Journey with Genetics

These past few days, I've been experiencing breast pain. While it may be just the normal ebb-and-flow of breastfeeding, any pain in my breasts makes me scared, anxious, and nervous. I was going to hold on to this essay for a while - not sure when I was going to release it. But, today, I've decided that 2010 will be the Year of My Mastectomy. So, during this season of giving thanks, demonstrating love, and seeking peace, here is my latest essay into my personal journey as a cancer mom, cancer sister, and a cancer pre-vivor. Thanks for reading! -Liza "I don't know how to tell you this, so I'm just going to say it." Those words hung in the air like smoke in fog. Time sped up and stood still all at once. Slow motion met the click-click-click- quadruple fast-forward of my DVR menu. "Your daughter has cancer."

I clutched the waist of my 2-year old daughter sitting still on my lap. I could feel my own heart racing through her tiny body, and I could feel her breath on my arm take the place of my own breathing. I wanted to scream and crawl in the fetal position, recalling just two short years ago when she was safe and protected in my round belly.

"Please do not give her anything to eat or drink," stated the pediatric opthalmologist. "We may have to operate today. If her cancer is advanced, we'll be removing her eye tonight."

Within 24 hours, my daughter went from a carefree 2-year old in an Elmo shirt to a child with cancer. The 6-hour surgery to remove her eye freed her from the tumors that had destroyed her vision. Enduring six months of chemotherapy meant we could kill any stray cells that passed into her optic nerve, reducing her risk of cancer cells spreading to her brain. Once our lives settled into the routine of chemotherapy, hospitalizations, exams under anesthesia, and bi-weekly flushes of her port-a-cath, I obsessively combed through photos to find signs of leukoria - the tell tale white reflection in my child's eye that would have alerted us to retinoblastoma. In the hundreds of photos taken between birth and her 2nd birthday, I only found a handful. But, those handful have tattooed themselves into my palm. The guilt stamped it's place in my heart. The image of her a prisoner to IV lines burned in my brain.

"What did I do to make this happen?" I tortured myself with this thought every day. Once a skeptic of prayer, I found myself on my knees every night asking, begging, pleading with God to let me switch places with her. "Please, God, let me have cancer instead. Please, God, give me her tumors. Make me feel her pain of chemotherapy. Make me a prisoner of the pain. Just let her be a kid. I'll do anything."

While my daughter was going through treatment and recovery from enucleation, I became pregnant with our second child. My already lengthy prayer requests had included a new request: "Please, God, seriously this time! Please let this baby be healthy. Please don't let this baby have cancer." I was asking God this even though we had no confirmation that my first child's retinoblastoma was related to genetics. Given that her retinoblastoma was unilateral -- only in her right eye -- her cells likely mutated with no specific direction from her DNA. But, we had not undergone genetic testing for her cancer, so we were unsure about the cause at that time.

My pregnancy was both a blessing and an emotional curse. While my growing belly was a welcome distraction to our hospital and doctor's visits, I was consumed with the fear that my body had created the retinoblastoma in Joli. When pregnant with Joli, I was a healthy weight, ate all organic food, avoided caffeine, and got lots of sleep. My body was my temple. Now, with my second pregnancy and a sick child, most of my dinners consisted of leftover hospital food. Anxiety kept me awake at night and exhausted during the day. Caffeine was the only way I could make it through my 40-hour work week in a relatively stressful job. And, the first pregnancy and stress made every bit of food stick to my hips, thighs, and butt. My body was less like a temple and more like an empty cardboard container where "two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles and onions on a sesame seed bun" once lived. Drive thru.

Shortly after I gave birth to a healthy 8lb 9oz baby, doctors checked my new infant's eyes for any signs of tumors. Thankfully, she did not show any signs of retinal tumors at 3 weeks old. This baby child continued to have eye exams every 3-6 months for the first 2 years of her life since we did not have any confirmation of whether the original cancer was genetic in my family. Each time she went for an eye exam under anesthesia (done this way so that the retina specialist can examine a young child without having to struggle), we held our breath and prepared ourselves for the worst. I did this each time out of sheer protection against a surprise diagnosis. Now, at age 3, my younger daughter has been cleared of any risk of retinoblastoma and has graduated to once-a-year exams in the office.

Just after my older daughter had finished chemotherapy, and just when our lives were beginning to return to normal, my oldest sister, Mary, was diagnosed with a very aggressive breast cancer at age 36. Given our family history with breast cancer, her doctors asked if they could test her for the genetic marker -- known as BRCA -- for breast and ovarian cancer. Mary tested positive for the genetic deletion. However, regardless of the genetic outcome, Mary had already developed advanced stage cancer -- the kind where you begin to plan for a life without her -- and had aggressive chemotherapy, radiation, and then a bilateral mastectomy. My sister was already so immuno-compromised when she went through the very risky surgery of of a bilateral mastectomy. She needed to follow this protocol because the tumor in her breast was so large that they had to shrink the tumor before even trying to remove her breasts. It was at that point when my sister, Grace, decided to get tested for BRCA. At age 34, Grace had not been diagnosed with cancer, but she wanted to assess her risk of developing cancer. After all, having the BRCA gene meant that there would be a 80% chance of developing breast cancer and a 60% chance of developing ovarian cancer.

After working closely with a genetic counselor, Grace tested positive for BRCA gene. She decided that a prophylatic bilateral mastectomy -- a procedure done to reduce the risk of cancer preventatively -- was the route she wanted to take.

Having just put my daughter's cancer battle behind us, I was reluctant to get tested. And, I was hoping to play my schoolyard odds with "Well, best 2 out of 3, right? I mean, 2 people already have it, so there's no reason for me, the 3rd, to have it." That was the fun side of me talking. The more angry side of me sounded like this, "No way, there is no way that I would test positive for BRCA. We've been through too much already. I'm pretty sure shit doesn't hit the fan twice!"

Through peer pressure, or "sister pressure", I went and met with a genetics counselor in Boston to gather some information about the process, about BRCA, and about my odds of having the gene. In October 2007, I walked down the very familiar hallways of the cancer treatment center that had become home to my family from August 2005-April 2006. I knew that the benefit of doing all of our testing in one place would be the ability to share information. We could share not only the information of the sisters, but we could also include my daughter's cancer information if it ever became relevant to our own BRCA experience. And, so, I began my testing.

I sat across from a kind, caring, and friendly genetics counselor who reminded me of a childhood friend that I dearly loved. Arrogantly, I told her that she did not really need to go into all the details about cancer, BRCA, and genetics given my experience and my sisters' obsession with all things BRCA. "Go ahead. I know all the statistics. I know that I have a chance of being BRCA+. I know that, if I do test positive, that a mastectomy would reduce my risk by about 80% and an oopherectomy -- removal of my ovaries -- would reduce my risk of ovarian cancer by around 60%. But, I'll cross that bridge if I have to. For now, let's just get some results." With all that we went through with my daughter having cancer, I was confident that I would come up negative for BRCA. I figured God, destiny, faith, or the good natured order of the world would make it so.

Apparently, I was wrong. Yet, my prayers had been answered. Not my prayers to avoid being BRCA positive, but my prayers back in 2005 by my daughter's bedside. Just a few weeks after I gave blood to my genetic counselor, my test came back. I, too, was BRCA positive. While I knew what the results meant for me, I felt a sickening pain for what the results meant for my kids. What is the likelihood that I have passed on the BRCA gene to my two girls.

What have I done? What did I just do to them? What kind of mother am I? I really didn't care what I'd have to go through. After all, I just saw my oldest sister go through chemotherapy, radiation and a mastectomy. I watched as my other sister went through a preventative surgery to have her breasts removed. I wasn't sure what I was going to do, though. All I could think about was my daughters. Particularly, my daughter who had just finished cancer treatments. Did I give her the genetic predisposition for both breast and ovarian cancer? Does the baby, too, carry this ticking time bomb of DNA?

I found ways to distract myself from obsessing about my genetic responsibility and my own physical responsibility. I began doing what any psychology major would have done -- I intellectualized the process. Freud would be so proud. I began speaking more about retinoblastoma, participating in fundraising events, creating college workshops and presentations on the experiences of cancer and pre-cancer, and joining online groups for pre-vivors and even for young pre-vivors. I've dedicated blog entries about being BRCA, spoken publicly at work, followed up on all of my medical tests and baseline diagnostics, and have even talked at length with my sisters about their surgeries.

But, I have never seen my sisters and their mastectomy sites. I never touched their drainage tubes. And, the very thought of what their saline-and-sewn breasts must look like makes me queasy. I'm immensely proud of them for what they have endured, and yet I can't bring myself to look at them.

In December 2009, my sister Grace called to tell me that she was celebrating her Mastectomy Anniversary. "That's great, Grace! Happy One Year Anniversary!" I said with such pride. "It's been two years, Liza. Two years," she replied.

Shit. Two years? It's been two years? That means that it's actually been two years (and 2 months) since I first met with the genetics counselor and discovered I was BRCA positive. It's been three years since the breast specialist and the gynecological oncologist both said to me, "We can schedule your surgery anytime. Any time soon." The folks in those clinics don't mess around. When they get confirmation that you are BRCA positive, they expect you to be in a paper thin johnny in the Recovery Room shortly thereafter.

***

In July 2008, after a year of baseline tests that determined I had not developed any cancer cells, I found out that we were going to be expecting our third child. I was filled with joy and excitement. And, I was even more excited when my cancer team called to set up my next appointment because I said, "Yeah, about that appointment. I can't do any tests for a while because I'm pregnant." Needless to say, they were less than thrilled. "You know that this means we won't be able to monitor you closely for any cells, right, Liza?" Did I have to say, yea, kind of the point? Freud would not be so proud.

***

In October 2008, at a routine obestrics exam, my OB/GYN felt a solid lump at the 7 o'clock location of my right breast. "When you check your breasts, have you noticed this lump?" he asked. I heard myself say, "No, why? Do you feel something?" What I was thinking, though, was "You mean IF I check my breasts, right?"

"Feel here. Deep. Right here," he said as he positioned three of my fingers in the 7 o'clock position near my right nipple. I pushed down where he had placed my hands and felt a pea sized lump deep within the tissue of my right breast. I felt my fingers leap off of my breast, and felt a grapefruit sized lump begin to form in my throat. Don't cry. Don't cry. Don't cry, I kept telling myself. Breathe now.

"You should call your cancer team right away," said my OB/GYN in a panic. "Can they see you right away?"

"Oh, yes. Yes, they can."

***

I called my cancer team from the parking lot. And, sure enough, my appointment for a Fine Needle Aspiration was scheduled in 2 days.

***

Those two days were awful. I fought the urge to let my imagination run wild. I lost that battle. I also did something a person should never, ever do when in a stage of crisis: I Used Google. I searched for all types of outcomes regarding cancer and pregnancy, chemotherapy and first trimester, radiation and fetal development, mastectomies while expecting. Naturally, nothing positive came out of those late night searches. I'm pretty sure it would have been a good time to buy stock in Kleenex tissues, because I can only imagine how much of their product I used in 48 hours.

***

The day came for my Fine Needle Aspiration. I was scheduled for an FNA as well as a breast ultrasound. Whenever I speak to students studying Health Care Administration, I usually bring up this doctor's appointment because it was one of the most nightmarish moments of my whole BRCA experience. Exposed, topless, and already emotionally unstable, I was subjected to a "well-meaning" doctor who decided to tell me that I was already delaying any survey of my condition because I got pregnant, that I really shouldn't breastfeed after my baby is born so that I can start up my survey tests immediately after I gave birth. "After all," she says,"I have seen too many women with advanced stage cancer because they decided to breastfeed and forgo their examinations. Breastfeeding doesn't promote bonding. Breastfeeding isn't any better than formula. And, I have 2 kids, never breastfed either of them, and we love each other so much." Oh, lady. Please stop talking....

If my boobs weren't flapping in the wind and my growing belly in the way of getting up quickly, I would have walked out of that room and demanded her supervisor. But, already emotionally wrecked, all I could do was roll my eyes and "uh-huh" her.

Thankfully, my cancer team (aside from random Breast Ultrasound Doctor) is amazing and called me with my results as I was walking to the parking garage. "It's fine. The lump, which we all agree is there, does not have any cells of concern after doing 2 Fine Needle Aspirations. Come back after you deliver so that we can begin our survey of you quickly. Have a beautiful pregnancy."

I got into my car and cried tears of relief. Then, I cried tears of pain. I'm not sure how many of my readers are familiar with Fine Needle Aspirations, but that procedure hurts! I think I had numbed myself to the physical pain in anticipation of bad news. Once the good news came, so did the burning pain in my entire breast area. And, just when I thought it couldn't get any worse, I realized that I was leaving Boston at 4:00pm, with no additional passenger to ride the HOV lane with me. And, I really had to pee.

***

I managed to put the breast lump experience behind me and focus on having a healthy pregnancy. I convinced myself that this was my last baby, my last shot at feeling a growing being inside of my belly. This would be the last time I would feel the kicking, the hiccups, and the heartburn. This would be the last time I would place my hands on my stomach at the end of a long day and feel comforted by a stray heel, an intentional turn around, or a tightening Braxton Hicks contraction. This would be the last time I would provide nourishment for my biological child through breastfeeding. The last time I would lie down next to my infant and comfort him or her to sleep. With the removal of my breasts and ovaries, this would be my last time.

*** On March 24, 2009, I delivered my son. He was a healthy baby, 7.5 pounds, 20 inches long, dark brown eyes. Soon after I delivered, our pediatrician looked at his eyes to make sure there were no tumors. At 3 weeks old, we brought our son to our retina specialist for an exam. And, at 3 months, 6 months, and 9 months, our son returned for exams under anesthesia in case our genetic test stating the retinoblastoma of my daughter was an isolated mutation --which is only 80% accurate -- missed something. As of his 9 month visit, we are still clear of any tumors.

*** At my visit to my OB/GYN for a routine exam, the doctor said, "I see in your chart that the OB who delivered your baby in March recommended that you consider the permanent birth control. You turned it down. Why?" she asked. "Well, while I've talked seriously and publicly about how this is my last child, it's much harder to actually make that happen when the decision is possible. So, I'm not going to really consider a permanent solution yet," I replied with much more confidence than I had in the past. "Well, given all of your genetic testing and information, are you sure you want to keep passing these mutations on?"

"Well," I said calmly. "Given that my children only receive 50% of my DNA and 50% of my husband's DNA, that's still a pretty good chance that they do not have all BRCA or any other genetic mutation. So, yes, I think I do want to take my chances. But, my concern isn't with what I'm passing on. My concern is more focused on how much time I can buy and gamble with knowing that I am BRCA positive."

I'd like to think I created a teachable moment for the young doctor who had just joined the practice a few weeks prior to my appointment.

***

I'm not sure where the story ends, quite frankly. There are days when I feel I have no strength to carry, and there are days when I'm not exactly sure what load I am carrying. Just the other day, my daughter, the cancer survivor, asked me about how she got her cancer (a cellular mutation) and how her aunts got their cancer (a genetic mutation). When my daughter was going through her treatment, I made a single promise to her. I promised I would never lie about cancer. I explained about "good copies of DNA" and "sick copies of DNA" and how those combinations sometimes result in cancer. As I spoke of her aunts -- my sisters -- she then asked if I would get cancer. I told her that I wasn't sure, but that I probably was going to have surgery on my breasts no matter whether I got cancer or not. My daughter began to cry. "Mommy, I really hope you don't get cancer. Cancer really hurts, and I don't want anyone to be hurt." I explained that sometimes we have to experience hurt in order to see the beautiful things. That it hurt when I was in the hospital to have my babies, but that they were all the most beautiful things in my life. We talked about how it must have hurt to have her eye removed -- though, she doesn't remember it -- but that now she is a healthy and beautiful 6-year old girl.

*** I always promised my daughter that I would never lie to her about cancer. There are just some days when I wish I didn't have to tell her the truth. The truth is a burden to carry. The inabilty to predict the future is the uncertainty to carry. But, my children, my health, and the will to be around for many more years to come gives me the strength to carry.

Ask To Loosen the Mind

A mother turns to her 9-year old daughter and says, "It's an incredible moment in history, dear. This is the first time, the FIRST time, that we have come so close to having a woman help run this country! Do you know what this means? It's such a proud moment in our lives. I don't agree with everything she stands for, but the fact that a woman is even on the ticket is monumental. Do you know this? Do you get it?" While that conversation could have been any mother-to-daughter discussion in the 2008 election cycle, it actually took place 14 years earlier. Geraldine Ferraro. At that time, Ferraro was the first woman nominated by a major political power as its candidate for VP of the United States. I remember my mom talking to her friends, cheering, hoping, wishing that this would be the historic moment. They didn't necessarily agree with the political agenda, but they definitely understood the significance.  And, they made sure we - my sisters and I - knew that it was significant.

But, did we? Nearly 15 years later, I can't really say that I held on to the lesson of Geraldine Ferraro. I mean, I get it now. In fact, I'm even more amazed that it happened back in the mid-1980s because I don't recall that decade being a particularly progressive one. Then again, I was 9-years old. The only "superwoman" in my life (aside from my mom, of course), was Barbie. She had a Corvette, a cute boyfriend, an amazing swimming pool, and cute clothes. Because, after all, that was the measure of success to a 9-year old. I also loved Care Bears, and felt it was my moral and humane duty to adopt a Cabbage Patch Kid.

Politics, not so much. I didn't really care. I was nine. But, my mom wanted me to make sure that I knew that it was a significant moment. While I didn't quite understand it back then, I certainly gained an appreciation for the context of her candidacy 15-years later. There were many events that helped to shape my early interest in feminism and gender equality, and I wonder "Was the Geraldine Ferraro event something that shaped it with latent effects?" I can't say that I looked at her and thought, "If she can do it, I can do it too!" related to a career in politics. But, did something stick with me about power and gender?

So, this leads me to a question I've been asked a number of times in the past few weeks: "How much do I make out of Princess Tiana's racial identity to my children?" Do our kids even get it? Do they care? Do we want them to care?

Ask To Loosen the Mind: In anticipation of the new Disney release "The Frog and the Princess", a number of readers have written questions about whether or not they should draw attention to the fact that Princess Tiana is the first Black princess in a major Disney film. Here is a question from Emily H. that sums up many of the questions.

How would you suggest that I bring up the race of (Princess Tiana) in the new movie? I'd like to talk about it with (my) girls, but I don't know how. On the one hand, I don't - at all - want to "pretend" that she's not African American, nor is her race any kind of taboo topic. On the other hand, since my girls seem totally comfortable with people of all races and race doesn't faze them... How do I discuss it with them without ME making it an issue for them? -- Emily H.

 

If I wasn't too cheap (Wordpress charges me to put video on my blog), I would be able to upload a video I took of me bringing home Princess Tiana dolls to my girls. In the video, my girls open up their Princess Tiana action figures and are thrilled by having a new toy. "Ooohh!! It's Princess Tianaaaahhh!! Thanks, Mom!" they squeal and run off to play. Off camera, you hear my voice: "Girls, come back here! I want to talk to you. Do you know she is the first Black princess in Disney? It's that so great! It's so nice to have a doll that looks like you! See feel her hair, she even has hair like yours!" The girls continue, "Oooh!! Let's play! Let's play!", virtually ignoring my historic lesson in racial identity and politics. I can't b-e-l-i-e-v-e they want to go and just play!

The video goes on for about a minute. The girls talk about wanting to play. I lecture about how great it is that there is a princess that looks like them. They ignore me. I get upset they are ignoring me and my anti-racist lessons. They leave. I shut off the camera. But, before I hit the red button to turn it off, my off camera voice says, "You'll understand it later."

I didn't quite think anything of it while filming. When I watched the video again later that night, though, I felt differently about what I had just done. As Emily asks, was I making more of an issue for them?  Certainly race is not a taboo topic in our house, either, but how much was I pushing this? If you ask my girls to tell you something important about President Obama, one of their first responses (after, "He's the President" or "He's smart" or "He's a good dad") would be "He's our first President with brown skin." That lesson certainly was not lost on them. President Obama has the same skin color as their dad, as their grandfather, as the leaders in their school, and as many of their friends. During the election, we showed the girls pictures of our past presidents and did a lesson on "differences and similarities." They quickly picked up the difference in skin color. They also quickly picked up the similarity that the Presidents were all "boys". My husband and I felt it was very important that we highlight President Obama's heritage. Also important to us was that he was the father of 2 young girls, and my daughters shared that in common with their dad. They liked that the President had 2 little girls.

I don't think my girls completely understand the "FINALLY, a Black Disney Princess!!" response that I feel when I see Princess Tiana. I grew up on Cinderella, Snow White, and Belle. I grew up on Barbies, white Cabbage Patch kids, and white characters in my books. I rarely owned anything that wasn't white. I certainly didn't own anything or read anything that had an Asian character. Now, as an adult with some purchasing power, I seek out dolls that look like my children. These days, I have more options. I recently bought a few dolls that have textured hair, like my children's. And, I think that's what I appreciate the most about Princess Tiana dolls. I like that my kids can play in this fantasy-like world and imagine themselves in it, included in it. I like that they feel her hair, and her hair feels like their hair.

We haven't seen the movie yet, and I hope to write more of their reactions after seeing the movie (where, ahem, Princess Tiana spends most of her time as a FROG. Uh, huh.). But, much of what I have been reinforcing with my children in many examples (when we read multicutural books, play with multicultural dolls) is to point out differences AND mention that differences are a good thing. One of the biggest stumbling blocks that my college students seem to run into is the notion that differences=bad. They have been socialized to not recognize difference; that if you are different, you must be strange. So, if I think of you as the same as me, you must be okay. I find that, on a basic "treat me like a human" level, to be fine. However, pointing out any difference beyond basic humanity makes them socially uncomfortable. This discomfort around talking about differences is why I make a point to discuss it in a very casual way with my children. It's been important for me to point out to my children that differences=good.

With my older daughter's disability, it would be silly to pretend like she doesn't have a prosthetic eye. It has become a part of her. That experience of going through chemotherapy, prosthetic fittings, dozens and dozens of doctor's appointments has shaped who she is. So, to not treat her as such would dishonor her very difficult journey. It would be silly to ignore that she is different; different is what makes her so interesting.

I suggest finding a casual and informal way of pointing out that Princess Tiana is the first Black Disney princess. Perhaps gather their other dolls and do a simple lesson in "Similarities and Differences." They will likely come up with things like, "They all have long hair; they all have 2 eyes, 2 arms and 2 legs; they all are Princesses." They will also likely come up with "This Princess has brown skin; this Princess has white/peach skin." Your reaction, and your leading, is what's important here. It's a good chance to talk about where Mulan comes from. In Emily's case (she has biracial children with an Asian man), they might draw similarities between the way Mulan looks and Asian family members/friends. It might be a neat lesson to introduce them to the heritage of Pocohontas and Jasmine. If you react positively, and casually, to the different characters, your children will pick up that these differences and similarities are just a part of who we are.

I would also add that simply being comfortable with race is very different from talking about race.  Talking about race is something that takes practice and effort. It's not enough to simply be comfortable with "being nice", we need to practice "being nice", right? Same with the race/diversity/etc. My colleague, Donna, the budding athlete, said to me, "It's not enough to just like basketball and to be comfortable watching basketball. If you want to be good at it, you've got to pick up the ball and shoot some hoops." (thanks, Donna).

My kids may not quite understand what that means for them or for me right now, but my hope is that they can look back and connect the significance later in their lives. The more exposure they get to different skin colors, hair colors, and stories, the less narrow their world becomes. So, thanks Princess Tiana!

Now, let's just see if the "live action" Tiana (at Disney or on Ice) is actually played by a woman of African heritage. That'll be the real test, right?

Gifts

Yes, yes, I've been blog-slacking. Truth is, I have about a dozen "drafts" in the box that just haven't seen completion in the past few weeks. It's a combination of recovering from a nasty battle with bronchitis, some very charged race stuff going on at work, and the overall insanity of the holiday start up. So, here is a quick one from me -- timely, no less, given that it's the start of the traditions I abhor the most... GIFTS.

I've written about the following ad nauseum: I am a terrible gift giver. There is just something about the materialistic nature of "gift giving" that makes me crazy. I absolutely believe that Joli's illness was one of the best things that could have happened to our family. Prior to her illness, I was a shop-a-holic. I loved giving gifts, receiving gifts, buying things for absolutely no reason at all, and loved collecting items. Once Joli got sick, I felt such an aversion to "things." We didn't buy much of anything when she was in treatment (mostly because all of our money was going to medical related expenses). That Christmas, we were the recipients of one of those "giving trees" that people do at work. You know, the one where you get an anonymous tag that says "2-year old girl" and bring the gift into work? We had no idea, but our visiting nurse had put Joli's name on a number of different trees. Two days before Christmas, our tree had just a few presents underneath. On Christmas Eve, an ambulance pulled into our driveway, and a few EMTs came to our door and delivered about two dozen gift boxes for Joli!! I began sobbing at the sight of all the presents.

While we were so thankful for all the gifts we received from anonymous donors, I still felt an aversion to spending money on anything superficial. Despite our forced frugal living, I still chose to live with very little luxury during Joli's treatment. And, truth is, we have still kept it up. I rarely shop for anything that we don't need, and have only recently begun to allow myself a rare treat (hello, new iPhone -- though, I was using a phone with no "7" button!)

What I find most difficult, though, is buying "stuff". Birthdays, Christmas, Easter, Valentines Day, Weddings.... people rarely get gifts from me. (feel free to gasp here) Now, my siblings give me plenty of crap for it, don't worry. They shake their heads, call me "cheap", and are embarrassed by my non-gift-giving policy. But, I just can't bring myself to buy things for people who already have basements, attics and bedrooms full of "stuff." I think of all the people who have nothing -- whether by choice or by circumstance -- and it pains me to buy yet another toy for a kid who already has bins of toys.

My exception to the rule? Buying a thank you gift. If someone has done something so amazing that words cannot even express my gratitude, I truly enjoy surprising them with a little thank you gift. Honestly, that's quite possibly my only exception. I find such joy in buying a thank you gift for someone!

My gift aversion has also helped me to discover more environmentally friendly ways to give. I love using Freecycle. If you haven't gotten into Freecycle yet, I encourage you to find the one in your local town/city. Unlike Craigslist, people who join Freecycle agree that they will not charge (nor re-sell) for any items. It's a way to keep waste out of our landfills and to be a resource for your local community. I've Freecycled clothes, books, baby gear, etc., and it has felt so good knowing that I'm a) not contributing to landfill waste, b) helping out someone directly in my town, and c) giving of what I already have as opposed to spending money on more junk.

So, how does this all fit in with this upcoming season of gift gluttony? Find ways to give to a friend/kid that limit the amount of waste in our landfills and in people's homes. For kids, help teach them that time and love are much more valuable than plastic and wrapping. Here are some ideas of things to give:

1. A "day out" with you where you treat for lunch and a movie

2. A membership to a local museum

3. A book that you've found on Freecycle or at a book exchange

4. something homemade that uses existing materials in your house (a friend had her 6-year old son make me an awesome sea shell magnet for my birthday! it's one of my favorite gifts so far!)

On the receiving end? See beyond a "new" gift. Help kids to redefine what it means to feel loved and to be shown love. More presents does not equal more love.

My family is far from perfect. We, too, have a basement full of toys  -- many of which have not been played with since they were opened. We have toy boxes overflowing with dolls, stuffed animals, and books. We have a doll house (the combined gift for my 2 girls last year) which was played with for about a month and then retired to the cold basement. Every time I go downstairs to do laundry, I feel embarrassed by how much my children have, and am reminded of how little others have. I mentally add up all the money (spent on toys) that is sitting in that basement and can't help but think of how many trips to the hospital that could pay for, how many nights in the parking garage, how many bottles of Pediasure, and how many co-payments that could have covered for any of our cancer families. I think of all the fundraisers we have done this past year to help ease the financial burden of some of our cancer friends, and think that there is at least that amount of money in just ONE of the toy boxes.

My kids like toys. I like a nice treat. We all deserve something that makes us feel good. And, in this spirit of the season, I encourage you to find ways to share love, time, interest, and hope in ways that transcend plastic, wrapping, and those damn twistie ties that hold the toys to the cardboard.

If we can teach our children that what's on the inside is more valuable than what's on the outside, we give them some of the greatest gifts: the gift of believing they are worth our time and our love.

What gifts will you give your children? Your friends? Your family this year?

On Growing Up

Who the heck is that girl? Who IS that?? photo(4)

First off, I can't tell you how many imaginary vodka tonics I had to down before building up the courage to post my high school senior picture. Yeah, I thought I was the shit back then. And, oddly enough, my hair actually does still look kind of the same (sans the spiral perm, of course). Major differences? Well, gee, let's see. I suppose we can start with the couple of tens of pounds I've gained since I was 17 years old. (side note freak out: I am just realizing that was 17 years ago!!) Someone, pass another bottle of Sky, please?

Why imaginary vodka tonics? Well, as such things have evolved, and thanks to a pretty immature and early tango with alcohol, I no longer choose to drink much anymore. Could be all the alcohol I dumped into my body in a brief amount of years -- back when I definitely wasn't mature enough to handle it -- and a few too many alcohol related regrets. Drinks, now, pretty much consist of a sip from Jorge's glass of wine a few times a month or an occasional drink at a reception.

But, I digress....

Coming up soon, I'm going to be reliving a major part of my high school experience. Think, "Glee" but with sparkly magenta dresses, Aqua Net hair styles, blue eyeshadow, and more jazz hands. Where the brown kids (the 3 of us in the entire choir) had to endure wearing "nude colored uniform nylons" which made the white girls look cute but made dark girls look like chocolate lollipops on little white sticks. Yes, fans, I was in Show Choir. And, I loved it. Like crack, if we had crack in the suburbs. I loved performing, dancing, singing, and warming up as if we were running the NYC marathon. I recall hitting the track - on my own time - so that I could build my stamina for a brief 15 minutes of singing and dancing. Uh-huh.

While there are key things I loved about high school -- orchestra, show choir, some of my classes, music competitions -- I don't often look back fondly on those years. Now, as a 34 year old, mother of 3, survivor of a billion medical obstacles, and educator, I sometimes feel embarrassed for my 17 year old self. I was immature, annoying, and insecure. And, like any kid struggling with those issues, I was often mean, petty, catty, gossipy, controlling, and obnoxious. I didn't know how to be comfortable in my own skin, and so I didn't know how to connect with people who did. In an effort not to show anyone that I felt like I was worthless, I tried to over compensate by putting other people down and not giving room for other kids to thrive. In the kindest terms, I was 'not nice.'

College didn't get much better for me. On one hand, I knew I wasn't mature enough to be on my own and ended up commuting to a local college my first year. That was definitely a good idea as it forced me to be somewhat a college student, but still enabled allowed me to live in this high school/dependent world. But, seeing all of my friends leave our hometown and have amazing stories to tell about their college experiences only made me feel more insecure. I turned to alcohol. I was desperate to find ways to connect to people. I took a lot of the anxiety out on myself and made far too many unhealthy choices. When sophomore year rolled around, I did feel ready to leave the nest (from a safe distance of only 1 hour and 15 minutes away). I felt myself growing up a little bit more, but still made lots of bad choices.

As a college administrator now, I am always so in awe of my students who really put themselves out there and who demonstrate such maturity. I look at some of them and can't see myself in them at all. I have students who have studied abroad, who spend more time volunteering in the community than sitting in classes each week, and who know exactly what they want to do with their lives. I work with students who are in college for the sole purpose of creating a better life for their families. I meet with students who possess such a deep level of maturity, of sense-of-self, and of purpose.

Yet, it's the student who isn't quite sure what to do, or who is struggling, or who is socially awkward that I'm drawn to the most. I see myself in them. I see the same panic in their eyes that I had. I see the same tenseness in their bodies, the same timidness about their futures. But, this time, I hear the comments that others make about them. I hear the subtle groans that others make when these kids talk or act. And, I can't help but accept that others had noticed my own awkwardness when I was in college.

Honestly, I can point to the exact time in my life when I finally let go of my insecurities, my awkwardness, and my self-doubt. I was 29. I had just been told that my daughter had cancer. People sometimes look at me funny when I say that "I'm thankful for Joli's illness" but, it's so true. It forced me to be genuine. I grew up. From that point on, I never tried to be anything other than what I could be. I gave up my obsession with being the most "perfect" person -- popular, thin, brilliant, a size 6, wildly charismatic, effortlessly funny, etc. I finally accepted being just me. And, Me was the only thing I could offer my child. ME was the only thing I could offer myself. I gave up wanting to try so hard to be the best mother, sister, daughter, wife, worker, and just allowed myself to accept the kind of ME that I am. Heh, the funny thing is, that once I gave up trying to be all those things, I started on the path towards being all of those things.

Sound like complacency? I guess it is, sort of. But, I have found great peace in not wanting to "keep up with the Joneses" anymore. I have no desire to out-do anyone, to belittle anyone to lift myself up, nor to be anything but the authentic me. I stopped trying to have the best clothes, the best car, and all that goes with upward status mobility. Yes, that authentic me is way fatter than my 17-year old self. But, the authentic me is also a hell of a lot happier.

I've been through hell and back. And, I'm pretty sure I'm gonna get sent back-and-forth a few more times. That's okay with me.

So, why the anxiety about going back to high school this weekend? First, I don't think I've ever made peace with my 17-year old self. I think I'm still angry at her. Angry that, when I was 17, I didn't think enough of myself to just love who I was. Angry that I relied on other people and other means to define who I was. Angry that I likely made some people feel horrible so that I could feel better about myself.

I think I need to take some cues from my high school, though. I'm going back to that school for the first time in 17 years. And, I hear it's gone under lots of renovation and rebuilding. In a notice I received about the weekend, one of the organizers wrote, "Wait until you see the new auditorium!" Healthy dose of symbolism, anyone?

I'm a different person from the girl I was 17 years ago. Half my lifetime ago. Here's hoping that I can come to peace with who I was, where I have traveled, and who I am today. I'm sure I'll have to take a deep breath, sit in my car a minute, and brace myself for the insecurity that's gonna overtake me when I walk into that gym. And, in those moments, I hope to put my arms around those 17-year old thoughts and say, "You did your best. It's who you were. It's who you had to be." Then, I plan on walking into that gym, dancing my much softer/wider/jiggly body that was home to 3 absolutely beautiful babies, singing with happiness, and give thanks for all that my 17-year old self had to overcome in order for me to be who I am today.

To loosen that...

What's So Hard About Teaching Truth?

Wow, sometimes post topics just fall into my lap -- or, fall into my Facebook, to be more accurate. Seriously, what did we all socially write about before people's Facebook comments, status updates, and links? Picture 2This one comes courtesy of a simple comment about "Columbus" (this being, ya know, Columbus's big DAY and all....)

A friend status-ed about loving Columbus. So, I bit, and commented that I hope my friend loves the day off and not actually what Columbus did.  That led to the response that the teacher does teach a socially responsible unit on Columbus (yay!! Give it up for one more teacher who teaches the truth!). Another person then asked what Columbus did. I, unable to resist, simply stated that "Columbus gets credit for discovering a place that already had people, language, culture, traditions, etc. That would be like me walking into your apartment, saying that I founded it, and then making you go get me a drink."

A response came along -- the kind you hope for when you're in a blogging rut -- with something like this: "Yeah, but how much violent-invading history are we really gonna teach 3rd graders, or their parents, who want everything to be sugary and nice?" I actually agreed here because I thought the commenter was heading in the "yes, and therefore we shouldn't teach Columbus=Discoverer". But, alas, the commenter wasn't making that point. The commenter then proceeded to say that the "(n)ative (p)eople in Plimouth were rude and off-putting with their political agendas worn like a giant chip on their shoulders." I swear, I can't make this stuff up....

Giant.Chip. On.Their.Shoulders? Yeah, there sure is a chip; and that chip is called "we were having a grand old time, then random people came, stole our land, killed our people, and then told stories about how we shared some turkey, jokes, and smiles." I'd be rude, too, if kids dressed up like my people, athletic teams mock my elders, and people took tours of my land every November to see a rock.

But, really, my question goes back to this statement: "How much violent-invading history are we going to teach 3rd graders?" Right, exactly. So, let's not teach it. If you don't want to teach the true history of the First People, then at least let's not teach Columbus=Savior. Okay, if you don't want to teach the atrocities of the Pilgrim/Native times, at least let's stop teaching that the Pilgrims saved the Native people.

You can teach the truth in age appropriate ways. After all, those populations and peoples are/were MORE than the events that happened to them. Picture 3Teach the cultures as they existed before colonization. Do work beyond what is given in just the most basic (and empty) of textbooks. If you teach 3rd grade, then make sure you do your own age appropriate (adult) homework. Pick up Howard Zinn's book. Read Ronald Takaki's work. If you teach, read James Loewen. Challenge the education that we received growing up. Teach that Columbus didn't end up where he thought he was, and that's why he landed where he did, calling Native people "Indians." (Heck, I'm pissed that the nickname my sister gave me when I was 7 years old has still stuck with me; Imagine being stuck with the same nickname for, oh, 500+years!) Teach that Europeans did not discover the world; that people existed long before colonization; that colonization, itself, relates to a lot of the playground antics that exist outside during elementary school recess.

So, what's so hard about teaching the truth? These days, teaching the truth takes some effort. While many textbooks are finally telling stories other than just European history, many still do not. And, for most teachers in my generation and older, we grew up on a very different telling of history. We were educated during  a time when social perspective was rarely challenged. But, today, now, there is an emphasis on teaching the truth. And, indeed, as most historical truths are a result of "violent-invading-forces", we need to teach that there exists different truths. Don't we always tell our kids there are "always two sides to every story?" Playground rules, right?

Teaching the truth also teaches our children to think critically. They learn that there is a perspective other than their own. They learn to think bigger than a situation. They learn to seek the truth rather than just accept the truth. By learning both/all sides, they learn to engage in conflict resolution and mediation.

My kids are little. At least few times a day, they grab from one another, they tease one another, they take credit (or blame) from one another. They trick one another into doing their chores. If someone gets a treat, a sibling will almost predictably try to distract then steal a piece of that treat. And, at least once a week, one of my girls will kick the other girl out of their shared room. Sound historically familiar?

We end up having talks about these actions. And, I know they won't end anytime soon (after all, puberty and teenage years are still a bit away...). The lessons learned don't involve violence. Rather, we talk about respect. We talk about fairness. Justice. Equality. Kindness. Why can't these truths be taught in terms of history?

They can.

They should.

They must.

So, let's realize that teaching the truth is possible. Let's realize that we can teach a sugary version of the truth that is also historically responsible. Let's realize that the "chip-on-the-shoulder" is usually a result of the truth being withheld. If people were spreading lies about you, about your friends, about your family, you would be pretty pissed off, too. When you hear that a people/person is pissed off about something that historically has been misrepresented about them, ask why. Listen to the answer, and you likely will be listening to their truth.

(hat tip to my friend Jenn who teaches with this book to help her students understand the different stories surrounding Columbus)

What are some age appropriate specific resources that other anti-racist parents and/or responsible educators are using in their homes or classrooms? Please share! Make teaching the truth a whole lot easier!

What Makes them Whole

(Note: I wrote this back in the Summer of 2008, swore I had published it somewhere, but can't seem to find it. So, my apologies if you've read this already, but I figured it was worth re-posting anyways! Enjoy - Liza)

There are so many times when I've wanted to give up the fight against racism. There are many of my friends and a few of my favorite bloggers who have. There are days when I sit at work thinking, "Is this worth it? Can we really heal? Can we really learn? Move forward?" There are days when I want to scream, "I quit!"

Thankfully, I know that there is at least one week during my race-filled year when I do recharge and when I am humbled. This past week, I spent our 2nd visit to Camp Sunshine, a retreat camp for families with children with life threatening illnesses. My daughter was diagnosed with cancer just a few weeks after her 2nd birthday. It rocked our world. It changed our lives. She was diagnosed with retinoblastoma - a rare eye cancer that resulted in the removal of her right eye, 6 months of chemotherapy, and dozens upon dozens of doctor's appointments, hospitalizations, and tests.

I tend to link disability activism with racism activism because I believe that, at it's core, our goal is to raise children who treat others like human beings in this world.

Coming to camp has been a fantastic experience because "camp" is the place where we all feel normal for a week. Retinoblastoma children get to be in the majority. They get to experience privilege. They get to experience power. Confidence. Support. Every family that attends that week has been affected by retinoblastoma. Some children have both their eyes, having sucessfully treated their cancer with laser, radiation, or chemotherapy. Some children have lost one of their eyes. Some children have lost both of their eyes and navigate our sighted world completely blind. Each family has a slightly different story, but at the heart of our experiences is cancer in our children. Families from all over the country fly in to be together, to heal, to relax, and to be in the majority for a week.

One of the many things that I find interesting about coming to camp is that race, ethnicity, geography, socioeconomic status, and gender all seem to fade away. It's a place where people find that they are bonded by their experiences with cancer, rather than the identity labels we are faced with outside of this little heaven. For most of my year, I talk about race, diversity, sexism, etc., and for this one week, none of that even enters into my mind. We are all united by cancer. Our conversations are guided around the "cancer lens" through which we all see the world. And, for many of us, that cancer lens has given us a strong faith in the human spirit.

For 51 weeks out of the year, my daughter lives in the numeric minority. She is different than any other child she plays with at school and at home. She doesn't interact with any other children with a prosthetic eye; and, outside of the hospital, we never meet any other children her age with cancer. Camp is where she feels normal, where she is in the numeric majority. Camp is where she doesn't have to worry about dumb things people say when they notice she only has one eye. She doesn't have to worry about what people will say if there is goop on her eye or if her prosthesis happens to pop out while she is rubbing it. Camp is where kids talk freely about chemotherapy, about their "special eyes", and about their radiation. And, camp is where, if they choose, they don't ever have to talk about it at all.

Camp is also where my daughter learns how to interact with children who are Picture 1differently abled. She has made fast friends with two girls , Tacey and Mayci, who both lost their sight at around age 7 from reoccurances with retinoblastoma. Through their stubborness and their insistence that they not be perjoratively treated as "blind kids", Tacey and Mayci defy stereotypes. They defy preconceived notions about blind children. They set a new standard, a new "normal", and a new understanding of how high our children can soar if we give them wings rather than weights. Tacey barrel races horses in her homestate of Texas. Mayci plays softball on a sighted team (and, when given the option of having a "beeping sound" signal an approaching softball, she made the officials turn off the beeping because it was annoying her!). Parents and kids watch in awe as these two little blind girls actually lead each other around hand-in-hand through the camp grounds (which, yes, gives new meaning to "the blind leading the blind.").

At first, my daughter was afraid of Tacey and Mayci with their white canes and the blank, unresponsive look in their eyes (they both wear prosthetic eyes). But, Joli really wanted to make friends with these two girls. When the girls would walked by, Joli would wave at them and, in her smallest voice, say "hi." This happened a number of times, but I just watched to see how she would respond, react, and adapt to her method of "waving hello" to a couple of blind girls. Eventually, Joli grew discouraged and their un-reciprocated "hello" and said to me, "Mommy, I don't think I like Tacey and Mayci - they never say hello to me. I don't want to be friends with them." We had to explain to her that "they can't see you waving to them, Joli. You have to actually say 'Hello, Tacey and Mayci! This is Joli and I am in front of you waving.'"

Simple, right? Right.

We practiced saying, "Hello, Tacey and Mayci! This is Joli saying HI to you!" Joli tried that method the next time she saw Tacey and Mayci. They, of course, said "Hello, Joli!" and were so excited to make a new friend. Tacey and Mayci began to feel Joli's hands, her face, her coarse curly hair, and her glases. They also felt Joli's smile that was stretched from ear-to-ear in pure happiness! Since that day, the girls have been inseparable and even keep in touch during the school year. It was that easy....

This year, our second daughter was now old enough to experience camp with her sister. Of course, the first kids we saw when we pulled up to camp were Tacey and Mayci. Joli hopped out of the car, announced she was there and invited the girls to touch her -- feeling the change in her height, the shape of her new Hannah Montana glasses, and her tight braids that stretched from the front of her head to the back. Once the girls reacquainted themselves, Joli brought her 2-year old sister, Jada, over to meet the girls. When Jada first saw Tacey and Mayci, she kind of freaked out. They were touching her face, touching her hair, and "seeing" Jada with their hands. I watched Jada's body tense up and tears well in her eyes. Joli felt it, too. Joli, the now experienced 4-year-old-big sister, held Jada's hand and, in her most delicate way, explained what Tacey and Mayci were doing. Jada stopped crying. Jada stood still. Jada touched back.

Camp is special for me for so many reasons. This time around, though, it helped renew my faith in our children - for whom many of us parents/teachers/counselors/friends want to raise in an anti-racist world. As I re-read my post, I mentally substituted words related to blindness and disabilities with words that are related to race and anti-racism. It's amazing to me the connection between what we experience as a family with a differently abled child and as a family with race and ethnicity at our core. Through both lenses, we constantly learn and reinforce valuable lessons about treating people as humans.

We learned valuable lessons about making mistakes and finding ways to move beyond them. We teach and learn that sometimes we can control how we interact with others (saying "HELLO" to a blind person) and how sometimes we have no control over a situation (a healthy toddler being diagnosed with cancer). We learn that kids sometimes do know better than we do. We learn that kids make the same pre-judgements that we do, and that kids can also quickly learn how to challenge those pre-judgements. We witness that our children are more adaptable than we are. And, they are often more resilient than we are, too.

My daughters and their friends many not necessarily think about living in an anti-racist way. They just want to make a new friend. They just want to be treated kindly. They want to have the same opportunities as others have, and they truly want to share their happiness. Learning from my children gives me hope. On those days when I get so discouraged having encountered a racist person, a racist practice, and an unjust system, I think back to those first moments when my kids met Tacey and Mayci - how hard it was to feel left out and how easy it was to make a friend. They don't see one another despite their disabilities, they see one another in light of their disabilities. They have seen beauty in being different.

And they know that different is what makes them whole.

Changing the Complexion

A little too mad to even respond to this one, so I'll just do blips. I think it's one thing to do racist stuff to adults, it's another thing to make kids the subject of one's racism and stupidity. This story is going viral, so if you haven't checked it out, here it is.

More than 60 campers from Northeast Philadelphia were turned away from a private swim club and left to wonder if their race was the reason.

See, white kids never have to wonder if a negative behavior is attached to their race. It's called white privilege....

"When the minority children got in the pool all of the Caucasian children immediately exited the pool," Horace Gibson, parent of a day camp child, wrote in an email. "The pool attendants came and told the black children that they did not allow minorities in the club and needed the children to leave immediately."

Except for the fact that the day camp PAID to use the facility for the summer, was accepted to do so, and entered into a contract with the Valley Club. So, yes, they were allowed to use the pool. And, if the white kids didn't want to swim with them, that was THEIR CHOICE. But, instead of stating it was a choice, the white parents/children instead decided to remove themselves from an uncomfortable situation and just deprive another EQUAL paying customer the right to a service.

After being told the Club would refund their money...

"I said, 'The parents don't want the refund. They want a place for their children to swim,'" camp director Aetha Wright said.

They just want a place to swim. Jeez, really, people? Are the club members working on old school racism that the black kids might a) pass on cooties, or b) steal something from kids in the pool (perhaps their shorts? I dunno?), c) act like... kids?

While the parents await an apology, the camp is scrambling to find a new place for the kids to beat the summer heat.

And, that's what white privilege does. It puts white people ahead and POC behind. So, while the white kids get to just sit back, relax, and enjoy their summer, the black kids have to scramble and find something to do. Next thing you know, you'll hear from white people saying "I can't believe all these Black kids are out on the streets. Don't they have anything better to do?"

YES. THEY COULD BE SWIMMING.

Taking Charge

Okay, I admit it. As a mom of a cancer survivor, the sister of a cancer survivor, and the niece and grandaughter to cancer victims, it's hard for me to admit this. But, here it is... I don't wear sunscreen.

Predictably, some of you just gasped. Others of you just said, "WTF? That's it? That's the suspense? Psshawww." But, given that cancer seems to be my best friend, one would think that I would be more careful with one of the most preventable babyoilcancers out there - melanoma. I hit my teens mostly in the late 80s/early 90s and spent many 10am-2pm hours sitting in the sun with, yes, baby oil. I even remember taking tin foil and placing it strategically near my face in order to reflect the maximum amount of rays possible. Hawaiian vacations - no sunscreen. Trip to Jamaica - no sunscreen. I never really burned, mind you, and always got a deeper shade of brown than I already was.

When my oldest child was born, I did put sunscreen on her - mostly because other moms (white moms who I hung out with in our old neighborhood) liberally applied sunscreen to the glowing white skins of their children; so, naturally, I did the same to my brown skinned baby. After she was diagnosed with cancer, we really didn't go out at all, so no sunscreen issue.

Yet, today, I applied sunscreen. Liberally. SPF 50+ waterproof. I could hear my 14-year old-tin-foiled-self laughing hysterically on my shoulder. After I applied it to my children, I covered myself in it. Twice.

What I'm leaving out here is that I'm waiting for the results back from my skin cancer tests. This past week, I had a mole removed, and the stitches that continue to itch me is a physical reminder that I need to be more careful with both the health of my children and myself. I'm waiting in anxious anticipation for the results - cancer? No cancer? Given my odds and the way that the cards seem to be stacked against my cancer family, I'm holding my breath....

But, this all did get me thinking about race (what doesn't, right?). Before writing this article, I got on the internet and started learning more about the OTHER genetic disease with which I have been recently diagnosed. Cards. Stacked. See what I mean?

I'm trying to find out the answer about connections with melanoma, this other genetic condition, etc., and I'm hitting dead ends. With other things that peak my interest -- recipies, good places to take my kids, good movies -- I only read the first few Google entries. Now, with my health, I find myself digging for answers. I want to learn more. I want to understand more. I want to be so well versed in my disease that I can answer any question that comes at me. Frankly, most of what I read scares the shit out of me is difficult. Some of the posts I read from others living with this disease are vibrant and full of inspiration. Others are full of dispair and isolation. Some say that they just do whatever their doctors tell them. Others say they have learned how to take charge - to be active patients.

In the end, who benefits the most? The passive participants or the active patients?

It got me thinking about conversations in race. There are some who come to the realization that RACE and RACISM exist -- a diagnosis, if you will -- and who take charge of their learning process. There are others who come to the realization and wait for others to educate them.  For me, it took stitches and anxiety to come to the table and take charge. I needed physical scarring to wake me up. What does it take for people to engage in the conversation about race? What kind of emotional scars to people need to heal and to create in order to move forward?

Are there benefits to both? Is one "better" than another?

The Diverse Friends

And so it begins -- the marathon stretch of birthday parties, graduation parties, long weekend parties, and just-because-its-summer parties. This weekend was no exception. Except, this time, my husband, who usually doesn't engage me in diversity conversations (knowing that we'll talk about it for the next few hours) actually turned to me during a birthday party and said, "Why are we the only brown people here?"

"Because. We are," was my witty response. "What do we want them to do about it?"

"I mean WHY are we the only brown people here? It's not like there is a shortage of people of color in this area or anything. So, why, in a room full of about 50 people, are we - and our children - the only brown people here?" He began to go on about how the children at the birthday party were all of school age, ranging from 4 year olds to 6 year olds, and that if this was an actual "school" party (the kind where you have to invite everyone in your class), then why were we the only brown people in the room (note: our children don't go to school with the children at the party - we know the parents from college).

"I don't know, honey. Believe it or not, there are people who don't know any people of color - at least not well enough to invite them to their kid's birthday party."

Husband wasn't impressed. "I just don't understand. I don't understand how kids can be in school and not know any children of color."

Needless to say, the party ended but the conversation didn't.

I reminded Husband of all the posts I have written over the past few years, all of the questions very well-meaning white parents write about how to engage in diversity, and all the frustrations people have about truly not having a diverse circle. Husband wasn't implying that the people at the party were racists nor that they were ignorant. Not at all.

Rather, the point he was making was this: How can we truly teach our children to accept others if the "others" are never in the room. How can we teach children to see the beauty in our diverse skin colors if there is only one color in the room? Religion? Regional accents? Hair texture? Language?

And, while this question often gets posed, it's worth bringing it back again -- can we truly learn to accept all people if we only meet one type of person?

Why Can't Tween Shows Get it Right?

I have a like/hate relationship with the tween shows. It's no surprise to anyone that Disney has made some pretty bad choices when it comes to representing diversity, using appropriate language and avoiding stereotypes. When my kids were much younger, my husband and I feverishly bought into all the hype about "Disney Movies coming out of the vault!" and such, so we purchased all the ones we grew up watching as kids.  

As we watched the movies - now as adults - we found ourselves appalled at the messages, songs, characters, and out-and-out racism that was in the movies and their themes. So, we stopped buying them and no longer fall into the "Disney Vault" trap.

 

When our older child became interested in the Disney Channel, we proceeded with caution. We don't believe in banning certain shows altogether, rather we like to use television -- with all of its negative/positive messaging -- to start conversations with our kids. Of course, there is always a  line. Our daughter was pretty into Hannah Montana, and even though the only 2 people of color are the "mean girls", we still watched with our daughter. Yet, Miley Cyrus's recent poor choice of using "chinky face" crossed the line. So, no more Hannah Montana purchases from our house. Though, even with this one, we didn't really bring it up with our daughter because she's just too young to understand this part.

 

We do like Wizards of Waverly Place for their biracial family. And, they sometimes drop in some Spanish and such; so, this one is still good on our list.

We always thought that Nickelodeon, with it's Dora the Explorer, Diego, etc., line up would be a safer bet. And, truthfully, I think the younger kid shows do get it right. So, what's up with the tween shows?

 

scene from iCarly visting Japan

This past week, we decided to try the show iCarly. We had watched School of Rock before, and we like the little girl (who is now Carly of iCarly) and decided to watch it. This was the episode where Carly and her friends are invited to Japan to attend an awards show. "Hmmm..." we though, "Interesting. This could be going somewhere good!" The group flew to Japan, there was some good humor in there, and then... of course....the tween show took a turn for the racist worse.

 

For some reason, despite the fact that 1/2 of this episode's actors were Japanese and/or of Asian heritage, racist stereotypes and ignorant American-centricity began to rear it's ugly head. Phrases like "those sneaky Japanese", and "Why can't anyone speak English in this country?!?" were abundant. Scenes of Japanese having to look up in the English/Japanese dictionary the word "Hello" and "a" were torture to watch. The obligatory karate match in which the American boy and girl break up the fight seemed to last forever. And, let's not forget the Japanese toupe-wearing security guard who could only communicate with colorful childlike signs.

 

My husband and I kept the television on for as long as we could, and finally, we turned to each other and said, "That's enough!" Our daughters asked why we turned it off, and, age appropriately, we simply said, "we don't like to watch shows where people make fun of other people." If they were older, yes, we'd go into the whole racial stereotyping, and maybe they do understand it on some level. But, for now, we have to talk about it in terms of who's "being nice" and "who is not being nice."

 

Frankly, I'm looking forward to the age when we CAN have these types of conversations -- conversations about racial stereotyping, about American-centric ignorance, about ways in which media inaccurately portray certain groups of people. But, for now, this will have to do.

 

Anyone else out there with older/younger kids who would do this differently? Do you ban certain shows all together, or do you use them as springboards for conversation?

A Letter to my Children

To my children:  

I didn't write to you on the day that Barack Obama became the Democratic candidate. I was afraid to believe there might be a chance.

 

I didn't write to you on the night he became the President-Elect.

 

Fears of what could happen between then and 1.20.09 consumed my joy as words echoed from national news; and actions by local people burning Black churches dampened my hope.

 

picture-1But, here, now, one full day after he has become our President, I feel that hope has come. Hope is no longer a feeling, it's a reality. 

 

While our ancestors -- both on my side and your dad's side -- were not brought here against their will, nor were they forced away from their families, and weren't beaten beyond recognition, we shared a similar discrimination. We shared similar treatment of being "not American" or "not normal." Your father and I, years after slavery and the civil rights movement, in our short years, have been treated like foreigners, treated as if we were lazy, assumed to not speak English nor to be educated. Because of the color of our skin, people have assumed we were day laborers, thieves, or exotic figures. Because of the color of our skin, people were surprised when we didn't speak with accents other than that of New York City and Boston. 

 

We were rarely considered American, despite our birth certificates, 14 years of U.S. education, college degrees. When we were dating and married,  people rarely assumed that we were dating or married to one another. How could it be - an Asian and a Hispanic? 

 

Times were different for our parents -- your grandparents -- and times are now different for you.

 

For, no longer is "American" only white. The leader of our country, his wife, his children, his family, his relatives, his in-laws -- they are the America that has always been there, but that has been ignored. Othered. Foreigned. 

 

The President you will come to study in your schooling will be the America that you know. The America that your classmates will know. The America that will be written into your textbooks -- information that I had to read about on my own when my teachers only taught that white folks were inventors, black folks were slaves, red folks were savages, and yellow folks were ... well.. yellow folks.

 

Because of our new President, your books will include a history of American people that is more than white. it will include stories of families who have crossed the seas -- both willingly and unwillingly -- and who are the fabric of our nation. Those stories have always been there. It isn't a new truth; it is a truth that has always been there. Now, it will be told.

 

The story of our nation is changing. The story you will come to know will be different from the one I learned. It will be different from the one I experienced. 

 

I am hopeful that your story is the American story that will now be embraced. Your multicultural, multilingual, multiracial, multireligious, and multiethnic family looks like the family of our President.

 

I see your future in his children; I see my future in you.

Is There a Right Way?

My husband and I have been trying to make more connections with families in our area - a task somewhat difficult given that so many of our family members live within a 1 hour radius from our house. Weekends are usually spent hanging out with the same brothers and/or sisters along with their kids. But, we realize that we and our children need to also get to know more people outside of that small circle -- no easy task for introverts like my husband and me. 608110045_buttermilkpancakeRecently, we met up with a friend of mine and her husband who have children in the same age bracket as our kids. They are both white, though the mom grew up and was educated outside of the U.S., and have biological white children. We joined them for brunch at their house which gave the kids time to play and the grown ups time to talk.

It was our first real get-together, so we kept the conversation pretty light. We talked about work, where we lived prior to our current location, things we did over the holiday, etc. At one point, though, the discussion touched race, diversity, and our children. Both sets of children go to racially diverse schools. The mom talked about how she doesn't encourage her children to use racial descriptors when referring to people. On the flipside, she doesn't discourage it either. She said she pretty much waits and sees how her child will talk about a particular person. My husband then said, "For us, we always bring up color and encourage our kids to do so. When our kids describe others in their classes, one of the things they talk about first is whether the child has 'brown skin' or 'peach skin'. There are two boys named Tyler in the school, and when we ask for clarification, we ask if it's the Tyler-with-the-brown-skin or Tyler-with-the-peach-skin."

For my husband, who is Puerto Rican and who, too, has worked in predominantly white environments, he has always expressed frustration in the practice of using every single other descriptor about a person other than race, especially when race is the only thing separating someone from all others.  So, it's the "see that guy over there... kind of athletic build .. with the brown hair... with the book bag... standing up straight... with the nice smile...." rather than, "The Puerto Rican guy in that group." You know what I mean....

The mom responded with, "We don't bring up race because we're afraid of doing it wrong."

It got me thinking -- I definitely didn't get the "colorblind" vibe from her. Not at all, in fact. She has lived in enough places and knows enough not to live in a whitewashed world. I got the sense that it was a true issue of  "I don't want to mess it up". But I was wondering, how many other diversity saavy parents out there have chosen not to talk obviously about race? Is there a right way? More specificially, is there a right way for white parents? Is there a right way for parents of color? And, is there a right way for parents of transracial adoptive children?

Most parents of color I know always talk about race with their children. I remember when my daughter had just turned 2 years old, and we were walking on a city street. We walked by a tall Black man, and she said, "Mommy, he has brown skin."

"Yes," I responded. "He does."

That was all. No big deal. I didn't "shush" her. I didn't falsly patronize a stranger by saying how beautiful his skin was, how smart the man must be, etc. My daughter's statement about brown skin was just an observation. She noticed his brown skin in the same way she noticed the car that we walked by was red; color was just a part of her vocabulary.

A few weeks ago, one of my colleagues came to me asking for advice. She said that she picked up her 6-year old son from school and asked about his day, his friends, etc. Her son mentioned a few of names of some kids, and then said, "There is also David. But, we don't like David because we don't like Black people." My friend said she nearly drove off the road in shock. "What do you mean we don't like Black people? Where did you hear that? Who told you that??" she screamed, later admitting that she probably shouldn't have reacted so strongly at that moment. "Oh, never mind. Sorry, Mom, I mean, yes, we like Black people. We like Black people, right, Mom??"

My colleague -- again, another person who I consider diversity saavy -- realized her reaction had just simply scared him into not talking about it anymore rather than engaging her son in the conversation. Now, when she tries to revisit the conversation -- even weeks later -- her 6-year old son clams up and says, "I don't want to talk about it, Mom. I'm so sorry. I like Black people. I really like Black people." She's struggling to re-engage him into the conversation. She says she tries to bring up race and the color of skin in very nonchalant ways, but her son immediately flies into apology mode and wants to end the discussion. I encouraged her to buy some children's books that have kids of color in it, etc. Her son likes to hear a bedtime story each night, and so I suggested this might be a good way to introduce the discussion back again without obviously talking about the comments in the car.

My colleague asked questions that many of us hear often: "Where did he learn that? Why did he say 'we' don't like Black people?  Am I doing something that is sending him messages about Black people? Is it school? Kids at school? Television that we watch?"

"Probably a little bit of all of the above," I replied.

Was this the "we-don't-want-to-do-it-wrong" example that my brunch friend was talking about? Did my colleague do something wrong by reacting as strongly as she did with her son? Or, was she just sending a clear message that the sentiment of  "we don't like Black people" is unacceptable?

wrongway1So, back to my question -- is there a right way to bring up race? Is there a wrong way?

Handpicking Religion

crossOver my lifetime, religion and faith have taken on a few different incarnations, if you will. When I was younger, like many in the suburban Boston area, I went to church with my family - every Sunday, we all piled into the family van, and depending on the time of the Mass we wore either a nice skirt/shirt (10am Mass) or a pair of jeans/sweater (Noon Mass). In the early years, Church was a great time for families to get together. Our church used to host a "coffee and donuts" gathering after Mass, and I vividly remember running around with my brothers, donating $.25 for a chocolate frosted donut with sprinkles, and hearing my parents laugh and tell stories with others from Church. They would wait down in the gathering hall while the children made their way over to Sunday School classes in the upstairs classrooms. Soon, the coffee and donuts routine ended, and I got to the age when I would drive myself to religious education classes.

When I got to college, I no longer went to Church. After Saturday nights and early mornings recovering from hangovers of the college-variety, the last thing I wanted to do was go to Church. Scrambled eggs, hash browns, orange juice, coffee and bagels with my also hungover friends soon replaced singing, Communion, and gospels.

In my senior year, I remember going to Church just prior to the Easter break. I'm not sure why I went - likely peer pressure of some sort (or Catholic guilt). I ran into a friend of mine at the back of the college chapel and said, "Hi, Lina! Gotta love church, huh?" in my sarcastic "oh-you-gotta-be-here-too?" tone of voice. Lina caught me off guard and said, "I am filled with love and joy today! I'm fantastic! Jesus Christ has Risen! It's an awesome day!" The childlike excitement in her eyes, from a woman who I considered academically brilliant, surprised me.

Huh? What the hell was that?, I thought. Seriously? Is she serious? That much joy over a story in the Bible?

pewI proceeded to an empty space in a pew, went through the Catholic Calesthenics of up-down-kneel-sit-stand-sit-kneel, and quietly listened to the readings and homily. But Lina's excitement was stuck in my brain. How could someone be this excited about religion? About the day before Easter??

Graduate school wasn't much different. I went to school in New York City where it was easy to be both surrounded by vibrant religious communities and disheartened by the poverty, cruelty, and human violence. I had gone to a religious service at a charismatic Christian church one Sunday with a friend of mine, and we spent well over 2 hours enveloped by singing, worship and praise, joyous and fervent prayer, Amens and Yes Jesus shouts. At the end of the service, we walked out the door and watched church members embracing wishing others to "Have a Blessed Day." But, not more than a few feet from the church, we then saw two individuals cursing up a storm as they fought for a parking spot. A few feet from them was a homeless woman -- who I would see there for the next 2 years. Not far from her, a group of young boys exchanged a verbal tennis match of profanity and insults about someone's Mama.

Needless to say, my Amen feeling left my body pretty quickly, and reality set in.

Throughout the next few years, as a result of living in NYC and working in a number of diverse colleges, I struggled with my Catholic upbringing of how my faith viewed gay relationships and marriages. I believe that love is love. That families are families. During this time in my life, my close circle of friends were majority gay couples, and I listened to their life pasts, presents and futures. I listened to their stories of faith, families, acceptance and denial. I struggled with understanding how my own faith discriminated against their lives, against them.

After leaving NYC, I began working at a Quaker school. And, while very few people there were actually Quakers, the philosophy drove everything we did there. Each week, I participated in Meeting for Worship and that was completely different from anything I had ever known. Silence. We entered in silence. Sat in silence. Listened in silence. And, the elders ended with a handshake. There was no priest guiding the service. No reader telling me about the Bible. No holy hands delivering Communion. It was me and God.

People often ask me what impact faith had on me when my daughter was diagnosed with cancer.

My daughter was 2-years old, and I had just started working at a Catholic college. While my practice of faith was pretty sporadic, I still believed in a Greater power (be it She or He). But, when she was diagnosed, I struggled. I was mad. Pissed! What kind of God would do this to a child? What kind of God brings an innocent child so close to death?

When others found out about my daughter, I received hugs/cards/emails all with the phrases "We're praying for you" or "Trust that God will guide you" or "God will be with you." Really?, I thought. Because this feels awfully f-in lonely. My family members wanted to pray over me for strength, invoke God during church, or offer up community prayer circles for my daughter. I found this just pissed me off. But, I never said anything because I knew the religious piece served a different purpose: it helped to comfort those people. Heck, if praying makes it easier for YOU, then go for it. If praying makes you feel like you're doing something, then go for it. But, for me - nope. Not here. Not now. Not while my child is wearing a paper thin gown with an IV hooked up to poisonous chemicals being delivered by a nurse who is in a full body armor to protect herself.

I didn't pray to God. But, I did wish for hope.

But, of course, years of Sunday school weren't lost on me. In the quietest hours of the morning, when I would sneak into my daughter's room -- just to make sure she was still alive -- I would kneel by her bedside and pray. I prayed that God wouldn't take her from me. I prayed that God wouldn't let her suffer more than she had to. I prayed that God would give me strength to both protect her and to let the baby growing inside of me be cancer free.

But, most of all, I prayed that God would let me switch places. I prayed that God would put the cancer into my body and spare hers. I prayed that God would just give her a break, let me wake up from this nightmare, and that all would be just a bad dream.

Then, morning would break and we'd be back into our routine. Daily shots for my daughter. Anti-nausea medication just after breakfast. Nurses visits to flush her port-a-cath where she received chemotherapy. And, religion and God would be forgotten until the next wee hours of the morning.

A few years have passed since our daily cancer trips, and now our lives resume normalcy for a few months at a time. And, religion has found its way back.

Every Sunday, the girls and I go to Church. Catholic Church. It gives me peace. I leave Church each Sunday and am happier. I'm renewed. I feel closer to my children when we are there, and I feel even closer after we leave. I find joy when I see them make the sign of the Cross on their chests -- sometimes they get it right, usually they get it wrong and poke themselves in the ears and belly buttons. During the car ride, they complain that Church is going to be boring and they don't like having to be so quiet. Then, we arrive and sneak into a pew behind their friends, and they are all smiles again.

This year, my husband and I decided not to buy the children more than 2 presents. He's doing it because buying so much stuff is wasteful and materialistic. I'm doing it because I want the girls to know the meaning of Christmas.

But, what is the meaning?

hpdjesusDo I believe the meaning is the Birth of Jesus Christ? Do I believe the meaning is family, friends and giving thanks? Is the meaning chocolate waffles, candy canes, and wishes? Is the meaning that we give more than we receive on this day?

When I read the story of the Nativity to my children, I tend to emphasize the "Look what nice people did to help out a family"  -- just like nice people helped our family when you were sick -- than the "Jesus Christ was born today" story. Will this change? Develop? Will the kids want more from the story? Less?

All of this has been coming to mind in the recent news about Rick Warren giving the opening prayer at Obama's Inauguration. I find so much of the commentary - from both sides of the "wings" -- fascinating. Will our view of religion and the religious change? Is the goal to change the minds of religious conservatives or just to get the conversation going?

Is there a difference between "I disagree with you" and "I disagree with your life and identity?"

Can religion be fluid? Is it wrong to handpick religion?

Happy Merry Solstice/Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanza/Dec 25th. Work is slow right now, so hopefully I can catch up on some blog posts!

Some great adoption resources

Just caught on to a brilliant blog by a white woman who has three children of color. She shares her list of adoption books on her site! Thanks "Mama D"! While the books address adoption, a number of the stories have central themes of transracial and multicultural/multinational families.

Excerpt from "Mama D's" blog:

books about adoption, parenting, family, and belonging ... and one on race (find them at, or order them from, your local bookstore) Parenting the Hurt Child : Helping Adoptive Families Heal and Grow by Gregory Keck, Regina M. Kupecky Toddler Adoption: The Weaver's Craft by Mary Hopkins-Best Let's Talk About It: Adoption by Fred Rogers I Love You Rituals by Rebecca Anne Bailey, Sarah Whalen, Jeff Jones Attaching in Adoption by Deborah D. Gray Adoption Parenting: Creating a Toolbox, Building Connections by Jean MacLeod and Sheena Macrae Setting Limits with Your Strong-Willed Child by  Robert J. MacKenzie I Don't Have Your Eyes by Carrie Kitzke Three Names of Me by Mary Cummings We See The Moon by Carrie Kitze When Sophie Get's Angry - Really, Really Angry by Ann Caron Whoever You Are by Mem Fox and Leslie Staub Yell-Oh Girls!: Emerging Voices Explore Culture, Identity, and Growing Up Asian American by Vickie Nam It's Okay to Be Different by Todd Parr (we love most books by Todd Parr) I Love You, Little One by Nancy Tafuri

Dolls - and the Office to prove it

the-officeI love the show "The Office." Love it. Live for it. It's the 30 minutes in the week when I know, for sure, that I'm gonna hurt from laughing. When I bring up that my favorite show is "The Office," I get two reactions: 1) "I LOVE THAT SHOW, TOO!" or 2) "Oh, god, that show makes me so uncomfortable. I can't watch it!" I think that the characters are so real to life that it's just hysterical. And, unfortunately, I can match up every single Office character with someone I have worked with in my professional career. Maybe that's why it's so funny -- because it wasn't funny when they were real people in my life.

The show this week was no exception to the uncomfortably hilarious diversity conversation. This week, Dwight had the brilliant forsight to purchase all of the "Unicorn Princess" dolls in the local stores and charge "those lazy parents" upwards of $200 for the dolls. As with just about every new kid craze, these dolls were ridiculous. They were pretty princesses, dressed in shimmery pink dresses, with a long white horn coming out of the forehead. I joke not.

Throughout the show, anxious white fathers come in, give the secret nod,princess-unicorn-300x192 and get their dolls after exchanging a wad of cash. Toby, the poor fool of an HR guy, goes to buy the last doll from Dwight. He ends up paying $400 for the doll, the camera pans to his delighted face as he holds the precious box in his hands, and then his expression quickly turns sour as he discovers he has just bought the Black Unicorn Princess. Yes, folks, the Black Unicorn Princess.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z3GPOgJ6WtM&hl=en&fs=1]

I get asked a lot about dolls, given that I have two little girls. My husband and I have a practice of only buying dolls with brown skin (and, ideally, ones with a waist larger than my ring-size). Everywhere my kids go, they are surrounded by white dolls. They see white characters -- whom they idolize -- on television. They listen to young white girls singing on Radio Disney. And, conversely, they see far too many shows with young brown girls as the "mean kids" or the "dumb girls" or the "bratty teens."

Purchasing power is on my side. The brown dolls ... they always seem to be on clearance. That helps me out. But, in the neighborhood and city in which I live, whites are the minority. Yet, the brown dolls are always the one on clearance. White dolls dominate the shelves on the toy racks. On a recent trip to North Carolina for a speaking engagement, I nearly lost my mind when I walked into a store and found shelves and shelves of beautiful Black dolls -- angels, princesses, books with Black characters, and a Black Nativity scene. My host had accompanied me into the store and couldn't believe my shock.

"You don't understand," I said. "I never see Black dolls -- in so many numbers -- in a store. The multicultural dolls are usually hidden in a corner with red tags on their boxes."

"Honey, this is North Carolina. There are plenty of Black dolls down here. I think it's time for you to relocate!" said my host.

Thankful for the luxury of internet shopping, I avoid most of the big toy and book stores these days and give my money to smaller companies who have made multicultural options their business plan. I know this makes my white relatives uncomfortable - we've had some great discussions about how my actions aren't to exclude white merchandise. After all, my kids are surrounded by it. Their dolls at school, their books at their library, their favorite characters on television, and the stars of their favorite movies are all white. They have plenty of exposure to white culture. Believe me.

And, if you haven't seen this experiment re-done, check out the impact of racial preferencing and messaging in young kids:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ybDa0gSuAcg]

What I do is actively look to INCLUDE multicultural images in their lives. It's so easy to exclude these for many reasons; in my area, the most powerful reason is that multicultural resources are not readily accessible.

What am I looking for next? Waiting for the Ken, Ben and Baby doll sets to hit the shelves, though sadly even in Massachusetts, I'm sure this will be a while before this happens.

The Importance of Reference

I know... I should be doing other work, especially given that my last two posts were about how insanely busy it is in my life right now. But, with only 26 minutes before the debate, I felt compelled to write about a conversation I had with my older daughter on the way home from school. This post is about "references". No, not job references or character references -- rather, the ability to be able to refer to some thing, some one, or some concept that, essentially, will make sense to a 5-year old. Not too long ago, I wrote about how I was watching the Republican National Convention with my daughter. While watching it, we saw the McCain photo slides of men in turbans and dark skin with machine guns, and then images of the American flag. I watched it horrifed. My husband nearly threw the remote control at the television in utter disgust of the connection the video was making. My 5-year old said, "Do those people want to kill America? Does the "N" family want to kill America?"

NOTE: The "N" Family is a close family friend of ours who are Muslim. They practice full covering, are very religious in thought and practice, and one of the most loving wonderful families we know.

I nearly wanted to cry. I couldn't believe that, even without any hateful words coming from the television, my 5-year old was getting the message that people who looked like the "N" family wanted to "kill America". I was thankful that, at that important learning moment, I could help her work through what that meant. I asked her questions about her favorite memories of the N family. She quickly and easily retold her favorite memories with a smile on her face. I asked her what she misses about the N family (we only see them 2x a year). Again, with great honesty, she talked about their fun adventures at the park, the way their Mama hugged her tight, and the funny stories they told each other each summer.

"Do you think the N family wants to kill America?"

"No, Mommy. Then why do those people want to kill America?"

"I am not sure. But, I know that just because some one looks like those people doesn't mean they want to kill America."

Again, she's 5 years old. I wasn't going to push much further than that. If she was older, we may have gone a bit deeper into the topic. But, for her kindergarten mind, I felt that we, together, had laid the groundwork for at least challenging the photos she saw and the feelings she connected with it.

Today, on the way home from school, a similar situation came up again where I was thankful we had a reference, and then found myself yearning for another.

In the car on the way to see her 4 year old cousin, 5 year old asked if we could stop by our house (out of the way) to pick up a "boy Pretty Pony."

"Why? Why do you need to get a BOY Pretty Pony?"

"Because, mommy! We want to pretend the ponies are getting married! And, we need a boy pony and a girl pony!"

"I'm not driving all the way home just so you can pick up a BOY pony. And, also, you can always pretend that two girls are getting married." (We DO live in Massachusetts!)

"Ewww!! That's gross!!!! Two girls can't get married! That's soooo weeeeiirdddd...!!"

*** ouch, my socially just heart started to break ***

"Actually, 5-year old, two girls can get married. And, two boys can get married. Remember Ryan's moms? They are married? They are a family. They love each other."

"Oh, yeah. That's right. But, boys can't marry each other! That's gross!"

"Well, what about..... what about.... I mean.... isn't there..... wait? Do we know any families that have two dads?"

"No."

"Well, do we own any books that have two dads?"

"Nope."

"Any tv shows that you watch that have two dads?"

"Uh-uh."

Snap. Hmm... quick? Reference? Do I even have one??? I have friends from college who are in married relationships, but she doesn't know any of them. When we had just graduated from college, we had gay roommates. But, she doesn't know any of them. Urgh!

"So, uh, Mom? Prove that two dads make a family. Who is a family with two dads that we know?" says my child who's learning works best when I can reference something she has experienced or some one she knows.

"I guess we don't know any, 5-year old. We should probably figure this one out."

And, the conversation ended there. I called my husband when we got to my sister's house. He works in a school where there are at least 40% gay families. "Hi, honey, we need some play dates with families with two dads."

But, I got to thinking .... is this the same in the race conversation? Would I be appalled if someone said, "Honey, we need some play dates with Asian/Black/Latino/lower SES/disAbled/etc families?" On the flip side, is it enough just to buy books that have those identities in them? While I have the "resoures" to be able to set up a play date with single sex families, what if I didn't have that privilege?

I hear this a lot from parents who want to diversify the social circles of their own or of their children - and, often, they say, "We just don't have any diversity around us." I usually answer, "Well, if you truly don't, then find some great books that are well endorsed by that community and use them as examples." ( I emphasize "endorsed by that community" because there are some multicultural themed books that communities find offensive, so be sure to Google or check out those types of lists).

So, it's something to loosen? Have other readers been faced with a similar issue with parenting (either your children or others)?

Okay, 2 minutes until debate! Go, Obama!