White Mothers, Black Sons

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Kelley Ellsworth's family photo.

Kelley Ellsworth is pictured with her husband and four children. Courtesy of Kelley Ellsworth hide caption

toggle caption Courtesy of Kelley Ellsworth

In this week's Mocha Moms, three white women discuss their experiences mothering sons of color. They talk candidly about the joys and the challenges.


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Just ahead, "American Idol" - sort of - at the D.C. metro. But first, we're going to talk more about unlikely connections or unexpected connections. We've received many emails and letters from people in multicultural families, especially mothers who wanted to talk about their particular concerns. So today, a special Mocha Moms.

The Mochas are a nationwide group of moms that we talk with about parenting issues. And today, we focus on the joys and challenges of white mothers who are raising African-American or biracial children.

We're joined in the studio by Maureen Evans, who adopted her biracial sons when they were babies. She has also adopted two girls from Ethiopia. Kelly Thompson's husband is from Panama. She has three boys and a girl. And we welcome back Jolene Ivy, a mother of five, and one of the cofounders of Mocha Moms. Finally, joining us from our studio in Boston is Becky Thompson. Becky became the guardian of an African-American boy when he was nine. She is also the author of "Mothering Without a Compass: White Mother's love, Black Son's Courage". Welcome to you all.

Ms. BECKY THOMPSON (Author, "Mothering Without a Compass: White Mother's love, Black Son's Courage"): Thank you.

Ms. KELLY THOMPSON: Thank you.

Ms. MAUREEN EVANS: Thank you.

MARTIN: Kelly and Maureen, both of you have - I'm going to go to you first, because you have both sons and daughters.

Ms. EVANS: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: Did you notice differences in the ways you reacted to your sons, or the way your sons reacted to you around the issue of race? Maureen, why don't you start?

Ms. EVANS: My older son is very light-skinned, and most of time, many times, people would assume he was my biological son, which was not the case for my younger son who is darker complected. So people's perceptions would be different of them and of me, I think, along the way. The other reality is that parenting through transracial adoption does make your decisions very public, which can be real hard on kids sometimes to have to explain why mom is white and why they don't look like their mom or their dad and where are their real parents - all those sort of issues, and then add on the layer of race.

MARTIN: Kelly, you and you husband chose each other.

Ms. K. THOMPSON: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: Did the question of how the kids would look come up?

Ms. K. THOMPSON: The issue is, you know, you're throwing around genes and you don't know how are you going to come out. Are you going to end up with a child that looks more one race than the other? Our oldest three children all look very similar. The younger one is quite - he's got very white hair, and he's a little bit lighter than they are. And a lot of people perceived him as white, and his siblings as not white.

MARTIN: But - and so talk to me about each race the issue of complexion and how that kind of affects the way people react to them, and the kinds of conversations you need to have. But what about gender? Does the boy versus girl - do you notice having different conversations with the boys versus the girls?

Ms. K. THOMPSON: I think that my husband and I have probably spent a lot more time talking to the boys about race than we have talking to my daughter, and partly that's because we have two older boys. But my oldest boy is -he's 15 now. He is now the size of a man, and the way he's treated and the way he's perceive by the world is completely different than it was two years ago. And he feels very powerful as a result of that, that he gets a very strong reaction from people now. But we have to warn him that there's a bad side to that tower.

And we, you know, we have to warn them again and again. You have to be extra careful because, you know, people are going to accuse you of things. People are going to be after you. People are going to be watching you in a way that they're not going to be watching white boys.

MARTIN: Maureen, what about you? And then I want to bring Becky in.

Ms. EVANS: Certainly, we've had a lot of general issues around some of the issues that Kelly just raised in racism and perceptions in stores and being followed because you're going to shoplift, or whatever sort of things like that. But the other issues that have come up a lot - particularly with my daughters, I would say, beyond perception of beauty - whether it's skin-tone, whether its hair, whether it's height, whether it's physical attributes, whatever it is, a lot of really interesting conversations around that. And it's because of racial differences.

MARTIN: Becky, the circumstances by which your son came to you are a little too complicated to recount here. But suffice it to say, I just want people to understand that your son came to you - his mother asked you to assist her in raising him. So there was not the sort of tension around, you know, I'm going to take him from anything. I think…

Ms. B. THOMPSON: Right. Right.

MARTIN: …that's just important for people to understand, that you got to cooperative, understanding - a cooperative relationship with the boy and his family. And you'd known the family that he came from, at least one other member of the family for sometime. So you had some basis of knowledge. But I wanted to ask, bringing a child into your family when he was nine, were there things that you anticipated as being difficult or challenging because of the racial difference, and was there something that just threw you completely for a loop?

Ms. B. THOMPSON: Well, I felt like I was a deer caught in the headlights at first. I remember running around from bookstore to bookstore, wondering if there was some book I could read that would help give me some kind of guideline. And I think some of that came from becoming a sudden mother. I didn't have that nine-month period to kind of prepare. Some of what worked for me from the beginning was how I knew this, but then to experience it is a whole other thing - to be living in Boston, and 10 days before school trying to get Lamar into a school that was going to be able to see him, and to realize that I needed to use every single activist and collegial relationship I had to try to get interviews to get him a way into school fast, and to see the apartheid in education play itself out in our lives, that was just - that was just the first piece.

And then, you know, he came with a small suitcase full of his things. And so it was, how do you set up a room quickly that would feel grounded to him and get him involved and connected with people in the community without overwhelming him too much? And give him space to feel the huge cultural changes that he was going through. All of that came very quickly.

MARTIN: Jolene, I want to bring you into the conversation. You certainly know the ropes as far raising sons as much as anybody…

Ms. JOLENE IVEY (Co-founder, Mocha Moms): I have a bunch of them.

MARTIN: …possibly could. But you've also been African-American your whole life. But I'm curious about - of the things they're talking about, how much of that is familiar, and how much of that sounds different?

Ms. IVEY: Well, I have always been very conscious that I'm raising black boys, and that they're going to be black men, God-willing. And you really - I think that all of us are conscious of the need to make sure that they stay safe. And the thing is, when I think about their safety, I don't think about bad people in the world, quote/unquote, "bad people." I think about police officers. And that doesn't sound nice, but that's how it is.

I have trained my boys how to behave around police officers because I don't want them to be shot by them. And so when they're approached, if the child looks afraid or runs or reaches for something in their pocket, even if that's just their cell phone to call me, that that could lead to something that will leave my child dead.

So, you know, I do know that police mean well. I don't think police are bad people. But I do know that mistakes happen, and that there's assumption made, unfortunately, that teenage black boys are up to no good. And no matter how good my children are, the first impression they might give to a police officer is that they're doing something illegal or doing something dangerous.

MARTIN: Let's talk about the - sometimes, people are confused about what your relationship is. And some of the moms we've talked about, you know, being in public places and having people not understand that they are the mom. Jolene, I would start with you again because - I think it's okay to say this - you're very light.

Ms. IVEY: I am.

MARTIN: And some people might not know that you're African-American.

Ms. IVEY: And they don't always know that I'm the mother.

MARTIN: That you're the mother. And I wanted to ask, does that ever happen to you, that people are sometimes confused about the fact that you're the mother of African-American sons…

Ms. IVEY: Sure. Sure.

MARTIN: …and how do you handle that?

Ms. IVEY: Well, I just laugh at it. I don't really pay that much attention, to tell you the truth.

MARTIN: Kelly, Maureen, what about you? Have you ever had experiences where people don't understand that you're the mother? How do you handle it?

Ms. EVANS: I get the most reactions from young children - young, mostly African-American children. And they'll look at my children, and then they'll look at me and they'll say, why are you white? And I don't really know the answer to that one.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. K. THOMPSON: Oh, my own kids had said that to me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. K. THOMPSON: But recently…

MARTIN: And just a point, Kelly is blonde.

Ms. K. THOMPSON: Right.

MARTIN: And she's very blonde.

Ms. K THOMPSON: And my children really don't look anything like me. There's a tiny resemblance from a couple of them, but a couple of my children, you just couldn't find a single feature that comes from me other than the fact that their skin is right in between mine and my husband. But - I was actually at a family reunion over Thanksgiving weekend in Chicago, and I was hanging out in the pool with my kids, and my kids were swimming, and they were interacting with a new cousin that they didn't know.

And then finally, he said to me, you're working an awful lot. And that what he meant was he thought I was a babysitter. He thought I've been babysitting the kids all weekend long. And every time he saw my kids, here's this, you know, this white woman. And I said I'm their mother. They actually came out of my body.

MARTIN: So he was feeling sorry for you. You think he's going to try to give you a raise and (unintelligible) you away?

Ms. K. THOMPSON: I think he was going to call the union or something.

MARTIN: How did that make you feel?

Ms. K. THOMPSON: I find it amusing, to tell you the truth.

MARTIN: You know, I wanted to ask you - we're down in the last couple of minutes. I wanted to ask about the way African-Americans treat you, or, Kelly, in your case, that you're (unintelligible) side. Do you ever get any backwash from African-Americans who question your right to raise these children, or whether you're doing right by them? How do you deal with that?

Ms. K. THOMPSON: I think, over the years, things do get easier as kids get older and people do become more understanding. Certainly, I'd be concerned about whether as a white mother I could take care with my children's hair correctly and that kind of idea of that qualities of parenting would equate to the of the hair care.

MARTIN: How did you figure that out?

Ms. EVANS: Well, I…

MARTIN: Who taught - do you know this? How did you clue in to that?

Ms. EVANS: I think Jolene told me one time. But…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. IVEY: Tell her about how you did the class.

Ms. EVANS: I did. I took a class on the art of braiding at Prince George's Community College, probably about 10 years ago now. Marcie Walker is a teacher and she offers it, I think, every - twice year or so, at least.

MARTIN: Can I just tell you, I need to take that class?

Ms. EVANS: It's a fabulous class. I highly recommend it. It has…

MARTIN: I can't do my own hair.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. EVANS: When I went there, I was the only white woman, and there were probably 25, 30 black women - maybe one or two men, black men there at the time. And I know - I'm sure there was that sense when I walked in the door, like, oh, she must think this is rug braiding or something else, that she must be in the wrong room at the wrong time. But my reason - as we all went around the room and introduced ourselves - and my reasons for wanting to take this class is the same as the other women, just to take care of my children's hair. It's not something that's genetically given that you know how to take care of.

MARTIN: Kelly?

Ms. K. THOMPSON: My reception by the black community is different whether I'm alone with my husband or whether I'm alone with my children or whether we're together as a family. And if I walk down the street holding arms with my husband, I will get dirty looks from African-American women, mostly. And partly, my husband's a very nice-looking man.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. K. THOMPSON: But it's very different when people see me with my children. And I have been treated so well by women of color since I have been a parent of my children, and they just see my children and see me, and I'm a member of the club.

MARTIN: If you were able to offer words of advice, comfort, inspiration to someone who may be starting on the journey raising biracial children, what would those words of advice be? And Becky, why don't you start us off?

Ms. B. THOMPSON: There's a phrase that Audrey Lord has written: It's difference is the dialectic that sparks the imagination. And I think that's a lot of where life is going to live for us in this new millennium.

MARTIN: Maureen, what about you? Any words of advice, inspiration? Comfort?

Ms. EVANS: I would say, absolutely, to go into this with the eyes wide open. Understand that you may have a lot to learn as you go along the journey. Be very open to all kinds of new ideas and understanding that it is a journey, and it's a wonderful one.

MARTIN: Kelly?

Ms. K. THOMPSON: I would say go into it prepared to do the work - not only to make sure that your children understand their heritage and are exposed by people from all different communities, but also be prepared to stand up and fight racism, because that - once you're the mother of children of color - that is your job.

Ms. B. THOMPSON: You bet.

MARTIN: Jolene Ivey, are there words of wisdom, comfort, warning that you have for…

Ms. IVEY: Well, I agree with…

MARTIN: …other moms raising black kids?

Ms. IVEY: I agree with all the other women here, what they've said. The only thing I would add - and I know they would agree with me - is the important thing is to love them.

MARTIN: Absolutely.

Ms. IVEY: Just love your kids, and that's the important thing. We're not here to have lessons on race every day. You just want to love your kids and let them know you love them, and they'll love you and they'll turn out fine.

MARTIN: Wonderful. Okay. Maureen Evans, Kelly Ellsworth, Jolene Ivey - co-founder of Mocha Mom - and Becky Thompson, who joined us from our studio in Boston. Becky is also the author of "Mothering Without a Compass: White Mother's Love, Black Son's Courage". Thank you all so much for joining us today.

Ms. IVY: Thank you.

Ms. EVANS: Thank you.

Ms. THOMPSON: Thank you so much.

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