Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Race and Consequences

Odessa is now quiet after about thirty minutes of very loud cursing and then a phone call with one of the many adults in her life who care about her. She had the phone on speaker for the phone call so with some effort I eavesdropped. The best line from the woman she was talking to was "cable is not a life or death thing. When you're paying your own bills, you can have cable."

[That I don't have cable is a huge thing in our house. Apparently, there is nothing in life if one doesn't have cable. I hear quite frequently when Odessa is on the phone with friends that there is nothing to do here because we don't have cable.]

Okay, so here's what happened.

Odessa had a great day at school today and I ruined it. She did not get suspended for fighting (a relief) but in my adult, parental-role opinion, I thought we needed to talk about problem solving and not punching people. I brought it up over dinner, where I learned some new vocabulary ("popping off" is swinging at someone, "I stole her" is "I punched her") and explained that I understood why she felt that she needed to preserve her dignity after her (now former) friend swung at her, but that punching someone isn't the answer. I addressed her safety and the consequences that she could potentially face if she punched someone out of a school context.

And she said "look, we're not like you. White people are calm and s***. I ain't racist but we ain't like that."

To which I responded, "It sounds to me like you're saying that black people solve their problems by hitting each other."

Yep, that's what she thinks. So from you, my loyal readers/friends: how do I respond? How do I recognize and acknowledge and celebrate differences in our backgrounds while not allowing her to think that violence is acceptable?

I know that one thing I should do is to make sure that I socialize with Odessa in situations where there are African Americans who are as calm as I am. This is a problem as we don't go anywhere together and I don't have friends over ever.

Other advice, please?

Anyway, after the part of the conversation above, I told Odessa that there were going to be consequences for fighting. I said that I was proud of her for telling me what happened and for telling me the truth, and because of that the consequences are going to be less than what they might have been. Before I was able to tell her the consequence, however, she started yelling about how "I didn't even get f***ing suspended" and "I'm done talking about this" and she stormed off to her room where she did just what I do when I'm really upset, which is to curse. Very loud.

Lots of f*** this and bit** that.

Then she called a friend and kept up the cursing. It was a lot less stressful for me with her in her room cursing. My favorite line of that first phone call was "
What the fuck you gonna consequence ME for? I didn't even get fucking suspended, bitch!" Still not sure why she raised her voice and directed to me "You can call the police if you f***ing want, I ain't do nothin' man!"

So this was our evening.

(The consequence, by the way, is an evening without getting to use my/the computer. ONE evening. But not until she lets me tell her what the consequence is, so she extended it a day by not letting me tell her what it is.)


  1. You have a teen who definitely speaks her mind when she's mad...the teen I have here usually withdraws and I have no clue if she's mad/upset/stressed or what. Props to you for handling the cursing and yelling so well...I have no clue what I'd do with that! Of course, I don't exactly know what to do with the withdrawing either, but it's closer to what I'm used to personally than the cursing, so it sounds like we have the right teens for us ;) Not sure about the race thing, but from the rest of what you wrote, you did a great job with this! An evening of her without the computer will be tough for both of you, but needs to happen...good luck, stay strong!

  2. To me she sounds terrified...the conversation at the end leads me to believe you're going to call the cops on her.
    "You can call the police if you f***ing want, I ain't do nothin' man!"
    I don't know her back story but I have a little girl in my life whose Dad is in and out of jail and she's scared of the police men because the only interaction she has with them is when they come to get her Dad. (sorry for the novel)

  3. Lyn, that's a good thing for me to think about. I never said anything about calling the police on her and just don't know where the idea would come from. Odessa does have four brothers who have involvement in the criminal justice system, she talks casually about friends who are locked up...I think (sadly) that she views this a normal part of life.

  4. Hmm, is her GAL a better racial match than you are? Do you have a relationship with any of her black mentors? I think this would be a very difficult conversation, and probably one you don't want to have any time close to when she was actually blowing up. I suspect it was as much a "grownups just don't understand!" thing as an actual racialized belief, but she's obviously having a hard time navigating the bond you two have.

    I think she's embarrassed and ashamed and trying to save face by hitting her friend, by making wild claims to you, and so forth. I don't know what her history is, but I suspect she's feeling both comfortable living with you and deeply uncomfortable with the fact that she enjoys and appreciates it. There's a lot more going on than just what she says, and I'll go with the fostering cliche that you're going to have to parent the underlying situation rather than the behavior. Why is she afraid? How can you reward her for going to her room (flight, admittedly) rather than fighting? Stuff like that.

    Parenting teens is HARD and I haven't even done as much of it as you have.

  5. Thorn, thanks so much for your thoughtful response. I look to you for your advice a lot--can we figure out a way to teleport you to my living room to help out next time this happens? You can bring Mara with you. And Lee. Lee might be helpful :-)

    While I was insomnia-riddled last night and thinking about fight-or-flight, I did think about how she was able to channel her response so that she took herself out of the situation, and already wanted to praise her for that (before you suggested it!) so this afternoon I invited her to keep me company in the kitchen while I made dinner and I told her I was proud of her for making that decision and for using words to express her anger instead of doing something destructive.

  6. I would ditto the need for her to have a black mentor/Big Sister type person. She has done an impressive job articulating to you what she's feeling, but it seems it would help a whole lot more for her to have a grown-up with more understanding of her culture to talk to/with.

    And BTW, I'm also impressed with all you've been doing for her and the way you've been handling it all.

  7. You're pretty amazing for staying so calm about behavior like that- that takes a lot- good for you. Regarding Odessa's comment, my first thought was that many of the most important teachers of non-violence have been African-American, of course with MLK being at the forefront there. And there have been plenty of famously violent white people. I don't know how I would talk about that with her from your perspective, but that's what it made me think of in any case. She probably doesn't really believe that, but it sounds like a way to distance herself from you- makes it easier to stay safely unattached. Hopefully you can talk through that when she's calm and able to hear you. Keep up the good work!