My wife and I have three adopted children, but most people looking at our family would never guess. Our oldest, Igor, adopted from Russia, is as white as we are. It’s not a stretch for people to look at him and guess which features are from me and which are from Candy. But the joke is on those who innocently pose such guesses.
Igor shares as much with us genetically as his younger siblings, his brother Henry, 6, and sister Merone, 4. Henry and Merone are adopted from Ethiopia.
The three of them act like siblings. That means Igor, 11, despises, bullies, and — in his best moments — protects the younger ones. Merone, like any youngest sister of older brothers thinks she is a princess, thinks the world revolves around her, and is pretty convinced she is really the one in charge. Igor also thinks all people exist to serve his purposes. He might have a future as a drill sergeant.
And there is golden-hearted Henry. This child is one of the happiest, most well-intentioned people I have met. I came down to the breakfast table the other day and Henry had been the first one awake. He is most days, up by 5AM, singing, clapping, happy. On this particular morning, Henry was the only one downstairs. There were five bowls of cereal, with milk already poured, around the table. Ah, my Henry. He woke up and thought it would be nice to have everyone’s breakfast ready and waiting for them. What 6-year-old does that?
The Trayvon Martin story, and others told in our local area (Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill) worry me a bit. Right now Henry is cute, but he is going to grow into a strong young man. He’s already compact and muscular. He’s probably too nice to ever play football, but he has a condition I have never had to deal with. Because he is male, if, when he’s an adult, he goes out at night, with a hoodie on, I have to fear for him. I have to worry that my own neighbors will call the police because he’s outside, at night, with a hoodie, and he is black. When the police come, I have to worry that they will assume he’s up to no good. My golden-hearted Henry.
Last year, one of our neighbors posted in the neighborhood email list serve this message. “I just saw two black young men going door to door. Should I call the police?” My wife went outside and discovered these were, in fact, players on our local high school football team selling calendars to raise money. Many times, white players did the exact same thing. There was no panicked email about calling the police. My wife, appalled, called the woman and requested that she not call the police if she ever saw Henry out playing. The woman, to her credit, immediately recognized the racism in her own actions and came to our house to apologize to Candy in person.
Being the white father of black kids has awakened many things in me. I have mentioned some of the majors, especially regarding Henry. Simpler things include lotion, shea butter for the skin. Never in my life have I used any kind of lotion on my skin, save for sunscreen. I hate having my hands sticky or greasy. Henry and Merone need their skin lotioned every day. Candy has to make the lunches for school. I who hate having stuff on my hands have the pleasure of applying shea butter to my children.
I asked my friend Emerson about this. He is black and he said it can be a peaceful time with your child. My friend lied. He raised daughters. My son Henry gets half greased up with shea butter and then, naked, runs around the house. Try grabbing someone who is strong, fast, and greased. I supposed it could be described as intimate, but there is nothing quiet or peaceful about it. The more frustrated I get, the harder Henry giggles.
But’s that’s nothing. I am a bald man. What little bit of hair I have is cropped tight. “Doing my hair,” involves zero effort. Candy has mastered Merone’s hair, which is about as curly as you can imagine. Awesome. Husbands and wives divide up labor and Candy has Merone’s hair duties. And Emerson, the father of daughters, is right. That time Candy and Merone have together is special and beautiful and intimate. And Candy is going to Ethiopia for a 9-day mission trip in October.
Who is going to do Merone’s hair? The white bald man who hates getting stuff on his fingers? One day in August, Candy intentionally left the house early, Merone’s hair undone, and stayed away all morning. She knew I would have to get Merone ready for the day. She kind of shouted some instructions as she ran out the door. It was test. She claims it wasn’t, but I know it was. I got the stuff in the purple dispenser (don’t ask me what it’s called), and started working through Merone’s curls. I know I was using the correct product. But I probably did not spend enough time working through the kinks and knots. And I definitely did not tie the band for the puff tight enough. Merone’s confidence is in tatters. The four-year-old often anxiously asks about what will happen with her hair while Mommy is in eee-pee-oh-oee. She asks the question as if I am not home, even thought I am sitting next to her while she asks. Clearly, in her mind, it is not even a remote possibility that I will be of any help. October 21, Candy’s return date, cannot get here soon enough.
I love my three children. I love that I live in a time and a town (Chapel Hill, NC) that accepts our colorful family. I love that they have friends from colorful families. I love that our church celebrates our family and that there are other interracial families in our church. I thank God for Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis and so many others who have worked for a better world. I thank God for my Dad, who as a young college student, against his father’s wishes, hopped on a bus in Detroit, rode to Washington, D.C., and heard the “I-have-a-Dream” speech. I bet he didn’t think he’d one day have black grandchildren. But he sure loves them. I thank God for my mom who taught in Mumford High School in Detroit. One day her principal asked how many of her students in a class were black. “I don’t know,” was her response. Upon reviewing her role, she realized all of them were black. She had not thought about it. Because she doesn’t form opinions about people based on their pigmentation. That’s the right kind of colorblindness.
I have told our story many times. I appreciate this context in which I can share it again.
Rob Tennant has been senior pastor of HillSong Church in Chapel Hill, NC since 2006. He married his wife Candy in 2003. They have three children, Igor, adopted from Russia in 2005, Henry adopted from Ethiopia in 2009, and Merone adopted from Russian 2011. Rob blogs at http://honesttalkwithgod.
“But wait! How does Rob know Deidra?” you ask? Well, Rob and I went to the same church when we were kids. Our parents were (and remain) good friends, and Rob’s mom was my piano teacher. I haven’t seen Rob in over twenty years, but the internet is an amazing thing! A few years ago, I (re)discovered Rob’s sister, Christy Tennant Krispin and finding one person is all you really need these days to reconnect with the good old days.
Note from Deidra: The idea for “Going There” came about as a result of the 31 Days In My Brown Skin series I wrote in October, 2012. (You can read those posts here.) The series generated a lot of valuable dialogue, and when the thirty-one days were over, it felt as if the conversation wasn’t done. Now, I invite you to share your story as it relates to issues of race, ethnicity, and culture in your every day life.
The goal of “Going There” is to encourage ongoing dialogue about topics of race, ethnicity, and culture in a way that is thoughtful and that shows respect, with the goal of advancing our understanding of the beautiful diversity in the humanity that surrounds us. Interested in sharing your story? Start here.