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.”
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
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