Symbols and Triggers
I remember driving to Rochester with my parents when I was in elementary school. Probably Grade 2 or 3. I wore my hair in a healthy-sized afro at the time. I sat in the backseat watching the scenery go by. When we had passed into the U.S., I noticed people had flags flying in front of their houses. There were beautiful big trees and a bright blue sky. Then I saw a Confederate Flag hanging on a flag pole below the American Flag. I froze. My eyes darted around to see if there were any more. There were. I vividly remember watching my parents chatting amiably in the front seat. I loved them so so much. I was terrified. I started to sink down in the seat. All I could think about was that if anyone saw my hair, they would know I was there in the car and my parents would be in danger. I had to protect them. So I sank further into the seat.
The privilege that I had based on my family’s education, religion, class, etc. and, indeed, on my own light skin was gone in that moment because all that was about me as an individual. In that moment I was not an individual, I was “one of them.” In my last blog, I talked about this tension between so desperately wanting to close any gap between what makes me of my parents and what I belong to through biology. The latter was a seductive lure! I have already mentioned the moments throughout my life when I collected signals that it was “ok” to reach out and claim as many identities as I needed and that I could exist in the tension. But it’s all nuanced. It isn’t simple. My light skin and adopted family have often separated me from Black communities. I often remain an observer. I don’t have the cultural knowledge of an insider. I don’t get the symbols.
I remember the cafeteria where I went to high school. All the “Black kids” sat at a particular table and often played Dominos. They laughed and carried on in such delight with one another and their shared experience. I never sat at that table. I looked longingly at it every day but never even tried to sit there. This is very common. A mother who has adopted a number of transracial children shared with me her observation that her children were behaving similarly when they went to university (college). She questioned the students sitting at the table where kids who have been TRA sit. They said they might come once or twice and sit but that they didn’t usually stay: they are missing the language, the shared experience, a sense of belonging.
Years ago walking into the cafeteria and hearing the smack of a domino hitting the table could throw me into a whirlwind of emotional memory. It wasn’t necessarily specific in my case, for I was adopted as an infant. My memories are preverbal. They’re just feelings. We know now that when we are triggered we do move out of the current moment and back into the time when we were hurt. When this place is prodded, even a little, I can feel myself transported back in time to a place where I am without a tether. I haven’t always put my best foot forward in those moments. I’ve acted out, reached desperately for some sense of connection and raged against those who seemed safe. Over the years, I have learned to ground myself through both understanding and processing my experiences and also by developing deeply loving relationships.
I think each human has these kinds of moments. To complicate this, many of us are not successful at sharing when we are caught up in these moments. Many of us will fight tooth and nail to deny we are so raw in those spots. The kindness we all meet in those moments is deeply constructive. Not all of us, however, have been taught how to meet someone in this raw and vulnerable state, particularly when we are vulnerable in our love for the person in the storm. Developing our own ability to be in this moment with our loved ones, or anyone else, is profoundly challenging. I would venture to say that any love relationship can grow in the context where we are sending the messages that I see you, I hear you, you belong here, I am here, I will not leave, you are important to me, you are cared for. This is quite a journey! We must look at what we have learned and experienced to be able to be intentional in how we move forward in a new pattern. The key is developing a listening for our loved one that doesn’t turn into a defense of ourselves. It is especially important that we listen to experiences involving race without defending ourselves against being racist; particularly those of us with light-skinned privilege. When our children pour out the pain they feel of not belonging and being alone or just being so angry, we must listen and not talk them out of it. I am certainly still learning this. The moment may arrive when we pour our love into them to fill them up. We may be told it is not enough and we may need to pour to overfilling. But one day, it might just be enough.
Might we each strive to live our truth in this regard and thus to live in it.