I was once the grandmother of a girl as black as I am white. She was also quite beautiful – a Serena Williams lookalike and about as tall and curvy. Wherever we went – to restaurants, to parks, to the mall – we got stares that made her uncomfortable.
“They’re staring because you’re so beautiful,” I tried to assure her but she didn’t believe me. I didn’t believe me. It didn’t help that she was accustomed to getting food and clothes from soup kitchens, food banks, and other giveaways and thus had no idea how to act in restaurants or clothing stores. For example, she wanted to go to a Chinese restaurant and once there she ordered fried chicken. She’d gotten the idea somewhere that if you went to sit down restaurants you could order whatever you wanted and when she realized that was not the case, her embarrassment turned to shame which turned to agitation. It didn’t help that she was with foster parents who basically ignored the fact that the four teens in their charge were dodging school, smoking pot, staying up all night and quite possibility prostituting themselves. I tried not to make assumptions as I had no proof and they were not abusing the children. They were getting fed, clothed, etc., which hadn’t been their situation when they entered “the system.” When dealing with these kids the first thing you’re taught is not to judge the lifestyles of other people by your standards.
At my first meeting with the “social” he warned: “She’ll play you.” To which I wanted to say: I don’t care. I’d rather be played by a fourteen year old whose father was in jail and whose mother’s whereabouts were unknown than by the traitors in the Congress claiming to be patriots or by the dancing jackals of corporate America cutting their own taxes while freezing out the poor. But instead I kept my mouth shut. I’d been so excited to meet my first “child” that I’d driven thirty miles sans wallet or cell phone sweaty and flushed after a tennis match.
My black grandchild answered the door in an oversized sweatshirt with a half dozen kittens up her sleeve and her hair knotted on the top of her head in a scarf. Instead of fourteen, she looked eleven. I was immediately enchanted. Then we sat at a table in the fosters’ dining room for a half hour as her social lectured her. After he left I was exhausted. She said she was too and so we made plans to get to know each other the next week.
A week later, I could have sworn a hooker from downtown Oakland answered the foster’s door. The darling girl I’d met the week before had on a long curly wig, a low-cut skintight mini-dress, full make-up, and five inch gladiator heels. I thought for sure I had the wrong house but before I could beat a hasty retreat, she recognized me and off we went in search of Cheetos. The stares that time were brutal. We decided if we ran into anyone she knew, she would tell them I was her grandmother.
It takes a long time to get to know a child who’s been in the system for awhile. To them, you are just another stranger in a long line of strangers who make decisions about their lives which sometime put them in tenuous and frightening places, one of them being Dependency Court. I don’t know many times I explained to her that she was not in trouble and that the judge was on her side, the undeniable fact is, it’s a court with bailiffs and lawyers and tons of paperwork. Despite the smiles and toys, it is intimidating.
Because of confidentially rules I cannot go into the particulars of my black granddaughter’s case but, suffice it to say, I was a failure. Mine was not the heartwarming, inspirational story told on posters and in the brochures. I wish I could say I was the only one but sadly there are more failures than successes. However, regarding all the debate over whether or not racism is still alive and kicking, if you’re white and you want to know what it’s like to be black in America, became the grandparent of a black child.