I am meant to keep secrets. This is what I’m discovering as a foster parent. I am meant to stay silent about the great big things affecting our very small foster child in order to protect his privacy and that of his biological family. I can understand this need for secrecy. But as the white foster parent of a little boy with brown skin, I am finding the silence expected of me reaches far beyond the handbook accompanying our foster license. Our silence is also enforced by our community.
The community that embraced us when this child crossed our threshold, who showed up with giant smiles and trays of lasagna and so many questions, that community expects me to keep secrets, too. Because while folks are inquisitive about this child’s wellbeing yesterday and today, for many, the interest stops there. Matters beyond that, I’m finding, should not be discussed.
This disregard has appeared in subtle ways since his arrival, but following the killing of George Floyd and mounting racial tensions, our community’s reliance on silence has become clear – and with it comes a frustration, an inherent sadness, wholly new to me. I have watched people who I truly believed wanted the best for this child turn their heads as Black voices rise to speak on the secrets our society has so cleverly, and quite literally, kept locked up. I have watched people run and hide beneath the cloak of white supremacy while actively denying it exists.
It seems that since we’ve “rescued” this multi-racial child from that troubled “other” world to which he was born, we need not dive in to how that world became so troubled in the first place. Our environment, that is to say our middle-class predominantly white environment, shows us that the solution is in the “rescue,” and few want to know how that “rescue” might have been avoided altogether. It is white saviorism at its finest.
The cycles of poverty and violence, the displaced toddlers and teens dropped at doorways that open to strangers’ faces, will all compound indefinitely if we cannot see beyond the rescue. More than 23,000 children age out of foster care each year, their rescue never coming. If we are unwilling to acknowledge that the world many of these children are born into was built to fail, how can we hope to slow the stream of kids drowning in the system?
As I lean in and learn more, I cannot shake the statistics showing the disproportionate number of Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) within the foster care system. I cannot shake the white faces that tell me, “Thank God he found a family like yours!” but have no interest in discussing how a family like mine, who now has a brown-skinned child, should navigate this white-washed world.
“You’re the one who’s talking about race! We don’t see color. He’s just like all your other boys,” I am told – but you see, he’s not like all my other boys. Claiming oneself “colorblind” does not erase this fact; it only removes the claimant from having to look at what race means to America. It lets them ignore how the color of this child’s skin has already impacted his life and how it will continue to do so long after any adoption papers are signed. Turns out, I missed the bared teeth in those giant smiles. I confused curiosity for concern.
In “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. writes, “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.” These words sit with me daily. I know these people Dr. King described. I am surrounded by them, and in many ways, I am them.
The journey from blindness to sight is lengthy, and while I’ve lived in different countries, rural areas and urban, while I have BIPOC friends and family, I have never, until now, been responsible for a child of color – and that has shifted my focus and my heart in a way that cannot be undone. With the arrival of our foster son, we invited our family to grow both in number and understanding, shaking off the “lukewarm acceptance” that had kept our eyes closed. We opened ourselves to everything that accompanies this joyous boy, everything that America has packed upon his shoulders, such weight for a little body to hold.
And I hesitate to admit that had the child who entered our lives instead been white, we might have been deaf to the fervent call for racial justice once again. We might have offered up our “thoughts and prayers” over the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, shocked by the overt racism on parade. But after a few days, maybe a week, we would have settled back into our routine, picked up summer novels and light conversation intended to maintain the status quo, keep everyone comfortable…everyone, that is, who looks like us.
This, however, was not to be our life any longer. We are not meant to stay quiet. We are built for something else. We all are, our entire community. Secrets can only ever keep us sick. Our strength, our collective healing, lies in our willingness to listen to the voices growing exponentially louder with each displaced child, each death, each passing day.