Going home for Thanksgiving, I knew my home was going to be different. My parents started fostering last spring, and I now have three foster brothers living in the house. For privacy’s sake, I’ll just use their initials when talking about them here. “A” is 11 years old and has been living at my house the longest, since July or so. His older brother “N” is 16 and just joined the household a month or two ago. The youngest, “T,” is nine years old and has only been there a couple of weeks.
I don’t know much of their backstories, because my parents haven’t told me much. To be honest I don’t think they know much either, or if they do they don’t share, because they feel the focus should be on giving the kids the best possible home right now, not gossiping about their past lives. I like that philosophy, so I’m rolling with it. But just so you have some context, I’ll tell you what I know:
N and A are half brothers, both half-black and from Brooklyn originally, though they’ve been moved around a lot and have been in foster care for several years. They’ve been in trouble with the police several times, and that’s only for the things they’ve gotten caught doing. They’ve grown up in a violent world, the same violent world as the kids I’m working with in Philly, which is so different from my own. Fists and guns are just a part of life. When my dad was fixing a bike tire, they were surprised to learn that you could fix flat tires, because they always just stole a new one instead. I often forget that they are as young as they are, because they have been through so much in their lives and they know so much about things that I never even thought about before college. But then A will make some fart joke or N will remind me that he isn’t ready to have philosophical conversations about love — he’s only 16! — and I am brought back to reality. Still, N and I did stay up for an hour or two on my last night there just talking and it felt nice talking to someone my own age (refreshing after a weekend with people under 12 or over 50).
I hardly know anything about T, except little glimpses I get into his upbringing, like the night they were all play-wrestling downstairs and he said, “If I was a man I would slap the shit –,” but then saw my dad coming down the stairs and said, “Oops. Nevermind.” (They’re not supposed to swear). T is super cuddly, and hugged me within minutes of meeting me. He frequently curls up in my lap or asks to be picked up and carried, repeating phrases like “I love you” and “You’re so cute” to the point that my mom says he uses his own cuteness to his advantage and can be rather manipulative. He gives really great hugs — strong for a 9-year-old — and I will never turn down a hug. Once after hugging me he said, “I feel like kissing you. But I know I shouldn’t. Because you probably have a boyfriend or something.” I laughed and said, “Yeah, or something.” (None of the boys know I’m gay and they all probably have a fair amount of internalized homophobia — the older ones use “faggot” and “gay” as regular insults daily, and A even told N to “stop being gay” when he gave him a hug. I’ll tell them sometime over winter break, and I’ll let you know how it goes…). But all that aside, T’s favorite activities include playing on the iPad, getting in name-calling wars with A, and avoiding chores by being cute.
Oh yeah, and T is white. Funny how race is the first thing I mentioned for N and A, and I only mentioned T was white because I felt guilty. But I bet the majority of my readers didn’t notice and would have assumed they were all white unless I had said otherwise. Unless you had seen the spelling of their names, which might have tipped you off because they were so “strange.” (Or in this case, I guess the pictures gave it away. I wrote this before I added pictures.) So why did I mention it? Because for N and A, their black identity is big part of who they are, and all those arguments for color-blindness don’t make sense when you make yourself blind to a person’s identity. Unless my high school has changed a lot since I graduated, I can almost guarantee you that N has very few black classmates, if any at all. I still remember one of the (white) boys I went to high school with openly admitting that he was racist and didn’t like black people. N talked to me about how he felt like he was slowly losing parts of his identity just in the way he talked — his Brooklyn accent is almost gone, and the other day he said “awesome.” (In case you were wondering, he would probably say, “Dat shit hella tight,” where I would say “That’s super awesome”). The boys joke about race at least three times a day, usually something along the lines of “It’s cuz I’m black, right?” and sometimes I wonder if they are afraid of losing their blackness in this white suburban Missouri town.
When my mom started responding by joking back with them (“Yeah, only black people have to do chores in this house”), I felt in my gut that it was not okay. I think I finally understand why certain minority groups are allowed to joke about discrimination themselves but why the majority isn’t allowed to. While I recognize that different types of privilege and oppression are different, I am going to draw parallels to my own life to help me better understand it. I occasionally make jokes along the lines of “It’s because I’m gay,” even though I generally try not to (because I notice how uncomfortable it makes my straight friends). The thing is, humor is a coping mechanism. There is a tension that builds up over time, watching and experiencing little instances of oppression every day. Wondering whether that guy just yelled out of his car, “No bikes on the dock,” or, “No dykes on the dock,” but you walk your bike back on to the grass just in case, and then you feel so scared that you can no longer enjoy the sunset over the water so you bike home instead. When all the time he might have just said “bikes,” and you might be completely unjustified in your fear. Being able to joke about it helps relieve some of that tension. But hearing others joke about it — others who belong to the same group of people as the ones who actually cause the problems (whether or not they want to be associated with them, they are) — does not relieve that tension. I’m not sure I can explain why. It feels something akin to twisting the knife that their brother used to stab you. It’s like they’re trying to pull the knife out the same way they saw you trying to pull it out, but they can’t get it quite right no matter how hard they try. I am sorry that it makes them uncomfortable. But then again, look at it this way: it’s just one moment of one day, where we get to feel comfortable and they feel uncomfortable, when so much of the time the reverse is true. I don’t know what the answer is long-term, but I am now a little more prepared to deal with the discomfort I feel when those jokes are made and I am in the majority. (By the way, I am NOT the first person to talk about things / like / this, so if this is the first time you are hearing it, think about why that might be).
Funny how it took a 16-year-old boy living in my house for me to really figure that out, after three years of studying this stuff at Swarthmore. Almost as funny as the family portrait will be when Christmas comes: Two graying parents, raised with privilege and away from violence, still always challenging assumptions and never tiring of new adventures. Two young women who had the luckiest of childhoods, just beginning their journey into adulthood, learning that being an adult isn’t all rose petals, but that the thorns we encounter help us grow. One teenage boy from Brooklyn, the coolest out of all of them by far, making the best of things in life and holding onto his dreams. One younger brother, full of excitement and energy, still taking everything for granted, slowly learning what discipline looks like when it doesn’t involve fists, and pushing the boundaries every step of the way. And one tiny boy, definitely the cutest, but also capable of causing trouble, happy to be a part of this strange family even if he doesn’t understand everything.
It’s such a funny group, but all parties seem to be having a good time. My parents look alive again (and I swear they have the patience and understanding of gods with those boys — I aspire to be like them someday). The boys are learning new things every day and are always welcoming of and grateful for new experiences. I took them ice skating one day while I was home and though they were all sure they were going to fall on their asses (and we all did), they all got pretty good by the end and had a really great time. This Thanksgiving was the first real Thanksgiving meal they had ever had, and when N’s birthday came around, he said that was the first time he had ever had a cake with candles. Everybody was surprised and intrigued at the notion of a bedtime story, and even though my dad was officially reading Pippi Longstocking to T, it just so happened that N and A wanted to stick around and listen in (N even declined a call from his girlfriend to stay and listen).
I’m so amazed and impressed by all the changes they are taking in stride, particularly N, who has such a big heart and an open mind in the face of really radical life changes. His dream is still to become a rapper and make it big in the industry — his rap name is Token — and he’s actually pretty good. When I come back for Christmas break, I’m going to show him how to make a music video so he can put his stuff on YouTube, but for now he has it all on SoundCloud. I tried to tell him how impressive I thought he was, but he just laughed at me for using the phrase “really impressive.” “Well what would you say?” I pushed back, and he just shrugged and said “Das wassup.” (“That’s what’s up”). The two of us will never really understand each other, but I think we’re starting to be friends, and that’s exciting (because let’s be honest, he’s way too cool for me).
Photos courtesy of Abigail Henderson