Beyond the Whiteness of Whiteness
I just re-read Beyond the Whiteness of Whiteness: Memoir of a White Mother of Black Sons (1996) by Jane Lazarre.
Jane Lazarre is a white, Jewish woman married to a Black man. She writes of coming into a new identity and awareness as wife, mother, daughter-in-law, and sister-in-law in a welcoming African American family. She describes the terror a mother feels as her Black teenage sons walk out into city streets where she knows they are scrutinized and assumed dangerous. One son has the experience of sitting next to a woman with a concentration camp identification tattoo on her arm. The woman appears to move away from him as soon as she can. He wants to say to her as she goes, “I’m Jewish too!” but the moment is lost. His identity is foremost decided by the color of his skin.
Lazarre writes, “The whiteness of whiteness is the blindness of willful innocence” (p.49). When Trayvon Martin was murdered (February 26, 2012) I responded on the Change.org petition with a comment asking how is it possible that Emmitt Till’s death was in 1955, and here it is 2012? Till and Martin had each gone to a local store and died unarmed thereafter. Lazarre writes about her son’s response to learning about Till with a litany of contemporary young men (as of 1996): Yusef Hawkins, Michael Griffith, Philip Pennel, Michael Stewart (p. 78). I had not remembered all these young men of the Eighties and Nineties and I know there are many, many more. I am humbled by my persistent innocence.
Lazarre describes the patience and loving of her mother-in-law, the family gathered around her gay brother-in-law dying of AIDS, the joy both sets of grandparents express in loving their grandchildren. Children bring worlds kept apart by the long-held political and social systems together and Lazarre’s stories prove divisive walls can be breached. Lazarre writes of the challenges and the wonders of living life with her heightened vision and awareness as a Jewish woman with Black sons.
My own two children, a daughter and a son, are teenagers, adopted African American siblings. I first read Lazarre when I had a toddler and an infant, hoping for a road map, a guiding mentor. I wondered then at her relentless focus on raced experience. I was busy then with diapers, naps and the cuteness of teeny kids. I re-read her last month for a brush-up on negotiating the teen years and had a better appreciation for that very relentlessness! White parents of children of color cannot afford the luxury of “willful innocence.” We must teach our family, friends, and our children’s teachers the languages of identity, including their whiteness (try it: my White friend, my Black kids, my adopted White niece, ….). Our children are complex individuals in very complicated times.
We have come so far in the fifty-seven years since Emmitt Till’s death (for instance, White Lazarre is legally married to her Black husband). Yet the horror remains that mothers (and fathers) can’t trust their boys will get home safe with Skittles and tea in hand. How far have we come then?