Let Me Tell You A Story

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The following was submitted by Mary Ellen Nelson.

As  adoptive parents we tried to educate ourselves about all the unknowns. We read books about raising multicultural children, and articles on the psychological effects and behaviors of orphaned children etc. I read most of the articles and books I found. I did my best to learn what I could about Ethiopia. I learned about the Doctor and his wife who established the orphanage in Addis, and I learned how many of the children were orphaned due to poverty and the AIDS epidemic. The one and most important thing I did not learn was how racism would affect our black child and how subtle and prevalent it was in our society and even within myself.

We loved our little Bereket Keba, but the first thing we did was give him a white name. We thought Bereket would be “too difficult for people to say!” Today when I am honest with myself, I believe it was a very “African” name, and I didn’t think it would be easily accepted. We decided on Sawyer Bereket Nelson. I’m ashamed I didn’t realize this until he decided in the 6th grade that he did not like his name Sawyer, and dropped it to embrace his birth name.

I’m sure there were many times when I unknowingly did things to try to “whiten” him up to be better accepted by society, his peers, and their families. His clothing, his hair, and even his sports. He played baseball and hockey! I mean, really? We thought we were doing the right thing by not feeding into the stereotype, but it was really our biased stereotype. Ultimately it was his choice, and he chose hockey over basketball, but I was acutely aware that he was the only black child on the ice and usually one of just a few on the baseball field.

As a mother, I felt his isolation and wanted him to be around the sports that attracted more kids “like him.” However, one thing I was ignorant of was because his mom and dad were white, and his whole extended family was white; he probably wanted nothing more than to fit in. Not knowing what was best, we let him choose. I still to this day don’t know what was best. I relied on God to show us the direction. I trusted that God would guide him because I knew adopting him was the best thing I had ever done, and he was going to be alright no matter what. I believe that more than I believe the sun will rise again because it’s all I have.

These times are scary. When I watched the video of George Floyd and saw the blatant disregard that a police officer had for his life, I cried. I can imagine the fear all mothers of black children live with on a daily basis, but because of my white privilege, I don’t share the same demographics, prejudices, inequality, racial profiling, etc. We white people can no longer say, “I’m going to mind my own business when we witness racism. We can no longer say, “If it doesn’t affect me, it doesn’t bother me.” Especially if you call yourself a believer, a Christian, you don’t get to do that.”

In light of this, I have contemplated on the moments that I have witnessed racist remarks and attitudes bestowed on my son. I feel it’s time to share these experiences, not for pity, but to raise awareness. I have heard one too many times that people are amazed to hear “these things are still happening in this day and age?”, and “I must be naive because I had no idea people acted like this,” or “I’ve never heard or have seen anyone I know treat anyone like that.”

If you’re white, you’ve had the privilege of not experiencing these things, especially if you live in a non-diverse community. How would you know?

One day when Bereket was ten, he was playing with the boys in our neighborhood. They had all played hockey together though two of them were one year older. The kids were having a barbeque at one of the boys’ houses. My son came home, upset. He said they were mean. After some prompting, I learned the boys were teasing him and told him that there were no more hamburgers for him, but he should be used to that coming from Ethiopia. They were laughing, and Bereket left feeling hurt and sad.

When I spoke to the parents, they were “appalled” that one of their kids would ever say this. This could have been a teachable moment. I remember telling Bereket this was not OK, and that he never should be treated this way. Though they remained friendly, they grew apart. Because I addressed the parents right away and my son was embarrassed, I think he decided never to tell me when these things happened again.

He seemed to have anger issues in school, and though he never let on, I wonder to this day if it was just more racist taunting that stirred him. He was once told by a teacher that he would be “shipped back to Africa” if he didn’t behave in class. And it was only when his classmates told their parents that we found out, and the teacher was eventually dismissed because of multiple reports of other racist remarks he made to other nonwhite children.

Another incident was when he shared his excitement about being at the site of the Martin Luther King speech at the National Mall when one boy remarked, “you mean the iniggeration?”

Most recently, even with all the protest for Black Lives Matter, a truck full of boys drove past him while he was riding his bike in Sandwich yelling racial slurs and gesturing with their middle finger! This time he was so upset that he pulled over and called me. He said, “I’m OK, mom. I’m just sad. I was horrified! I thought, “what if they stopped!’ As I share this with you, my heart is pounding, and my eyes are tearing up. This happened just over one week ago. These times are scary.

With all the racial injustice we have witnessed, when will we change? We need to search deep in ourselves, and it will be painful, and shameful, and it’s not pretty. It’s better to know what we need to change than to deny it and avoid the beauty that can come from becoming who we are meant to be. So I am reaching out to all of you. Please reflect and reach deep inside to ask yourself if there is more for you to do.

With Love, and Peace, 

Mary Ellen Nelson

Do you have a story you would like to share on our church blog? Please send it to Pastor Heather for consideration.

9 Thoughts to “Let Me Tell You A Story”

  1. Amy

    Dear Mary Ellen,
    I cried when I read this. We all love Bereket and think the world of him!!! It makes me so sad to hear this has happened. Thank you for opening our eyes to the truth.

  2. Sally Marney

    Dear Mary Ellen and family: About 34 years ago my only niece came home to tell us that she had a boy friend and that he was black. Needless to say there was all kinds of talk going around. They live in CA and I went to meet him and the baby later that year. He was kind and thoughtful towards me and was happy that I wanted to meet him. Since then we have discussed the issue of black and white. He took me and his daughter to a movie rental store in a white neighborhood and we gave it a try to see what they would do. Of course, I was treated well, my niece was watched and Maurice was more or less followed around. Going out the door I stopped and said to the one I think was in charged and said “there was no need of being nice to me and not my family” I felt better for saying that. Since all of the mess that we are living in now him and I are close and discuss it. He was telling me that he constantly tells his 20 year old son, “if a cop stop you and tell you get out of the car do it if puts handcuffs on you get in the patrol car and them call home or get a lawyer as soon as possible. This broke my heart. I think I feel some of your pain but do educate him on the bad “people” I had them here last Fall and we had a great time 2 white gal and 1 black guy. No one gave us any problems in our travel and he is coming back soon. May you and your family feel the Peace of God.

  3. Wendy Treash

    Human beings can cause such pain. The reasons are so many but so many fear the unknown, that difference somehow means bad or worse. While we were both naive in our decisions to create a family of diverse skin colors, we have done nothing but grow. We just have to keep doing it. Bereket is part of this church’s family and growing is what the whole family needs to keep aiming for. We owe it to our family members. Once we realize that we are all family, we will treat each other like family. We keep learning. We keep raising our voices to say, “This is unacceptable!” And we love each other with abandon.

  4. Steve and Terry Lynn Bailes

    Dear Mary Ellen, I cried while I read your story. Thank you for sharing it. I am impressed by your courage and love. Please accept my apology for what the teacher said. I was embarrassed by what she said and did. She gives teachers everywhere a bad name. I am proud of your son and his dignified reaction to everything. He is more grown-up at ten than many adults ever are. You have done a magnificent job of raising your son. You and your son will be in my prayers. Love, Blessings, and Prayers, Terry Lynn Bailes (Heather’s Mom)

  5. Patty Kilmain

    Mary Ellen..I’m reading this with tears in my eyes. Bereket is one of the kindest, most respected young men I know. I told you,a few years ago,that he is going to change the world. We are not born racist; it is a learned behavior.. As parents we need to be aware of our own prejudices, whether blatant or passive, because children are like sponges and we don’t want them to soak up the worse of what our world has to offer. Thank you for sharing such a difficult story.

  6. Heather Wolfe

    I am so sorry that this is happening. Many of us have thought it could not happen on Cape Cod but I remember in the 60s when they were moving people from the south here to integrate our beloved Cape and all I heard was, “They won’t like it here, it is too cold”. When we first moved into our new house on Buckskin Path in 1973, a neighbor came to me to tell me that there was another house for sale nearby and that we had to be careful that it was not sold to a family of color”. My mouth hung open and I had no reply. She was a neighbor much older than me and a town employee. I didn’t want to be a negative new neighbor. Today I know better. No matter her age or position I would speak my mind about what she had said to me. We are all learning every day. Thanks for sharing the real stories about what is happening right here in our communities.

  7. Carole

    Thank you for sharing this brutal truth, MaryEllen. I have so much to learn. When such instances are so close and real, it is that much more powerful for me and many. You have once again stirred a need to pay much more attention to my own implicit biases-ones I don’t even realize I have. I want to be part of the solution. It starts with understanding. Your post is important. Thank you.

  8. Sonja Sheasley

    A beautifully moving and honest piece. Thank you for sharing this!

  9. Heather Bailes Baker

    Thank you, Mary Ellen, for your courage in sharing this and the call to action! Peace, Heather

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