On Being an Ally: Passing, Participating, and Pondering My Place

People with different color puzzle pieces


For years, I may have been complicit in the act of “passing.”  My son’s skin is a beautiful tan in the summer, but for the most part, it could be described as “olive.”   His father has been out of the picture for most of his life, and my own flesh is pasty at best.  I have never hidden his mixed heritage, but I probably should have made more of an effort to explain it to him.  Since he has an intellectual disability, and I certainly can’t understand the nuances of black culture, I guess I found it a difficult topic to address.

I remember my first attempt to bring something so abstract into concrete terms that he could understand.  When he was much younger, he made a casual comment that he couldn’t date a girl he liked in his class because “She’s brown Mom.”  After the initial sting, I tried to make two points – 1) that there was absolutely no reason that he could not date whomever he chooses (when he turns 30), and 2) that, technically, he is brown too.  I ended up asking him if he remembered how we used to get ice cream cones that had both chocolate and vanilla swirled together on the same cone. “Yes,” he said, “mixed!” That visual allowed me to explain his complex origins with a familiar, albeit simplistic, example.

In most situations, I cashed in on the privilege afforded to us because of my race.  We had enough challenges thank you very much, I’ll skip this one if I can. I justified it to myself.

Lately, however, I’ve been struggling with what this behavior says about me.  If I’ve allowed my son to “pass” all these years, how can I assert myself as an ally in issues of race? What compels me to declare that he’s biracial in some situations, but remain silent in others?

As the issue of excessive force among law enforcement in communities of color takes the national and international stage, how do I define my own place in the discussion?  The most immediate and natural reaction, the one that comes without thought, from the depths of my being, is the relationship between the cases of Michael Brown, Eric Garnder, and Tamir Rice, and the killing of Ethan Saylor.  To me, Ethan could have been my son. The feeling that my son would be misunderstood and considered different because of his Down syndrome is palpable. The thought that he would be singled out and treated differently because of his race is secondary and only accessed in certain situations.  (Hence, passing.)

Does this exclude me from the community of mothers who are marching to end racial profiling?  Does my tendency to identify with the disability community first mean I should back up and stay out of the discussion about race?  Should I not write about the similarities that seem so obvious to me because of my particular perspective? As a parent, am I too far removed from both identities to have anything relevant to add to the conversation? On the issue of race and Down syndrome, do I have to explain WHY this issue is important to me?

I don’t know the answers.   I have however recently found two voices that make me question myself even more:

A friend, mom, and writer I admire, Mardra Sikora communicated her solidarity in the Huffington Post: A Mother’s Tears: Open Letter to Mothers of Color.

“Do you know how often I have wanted to comment, to share, to speak up, and yet I feel I cannot, as my words may not be believed, will be seen hollow, will fall short? Does it matter that I am angry for Marissa Alexander and her family? For all of the Ferguson community? For you?

Do you know I don’t know what to do?”

In a blog post written on December 6th entitled “Learning Humility,” disability advocate Andrew Pulrang explains his own instinct to get involved:

“So, I’ve been fretting a bit, (boo hoo, poor me), about how to respond to social justice issues that are not mine, but to which I can tangentially relate in some way. For the most part, I’ve decided to read and absorb, and say little or nothing. When the Staten Island decision came out, I Tweeted a few thoughts about cops and disabled people, but quickly found that they seemed off topic and self-centered.”

It’s helpful to know that others struggle with these questions as well.

I don’t claim to be an expert of any kind, I’m just a mom. I’m a mom who fears for her only child, the center of her world (for better or worse).

The video included in Andrew’s post had a nugget of brilliance that I will cling to:

#4 – “You’ll make mistakes! Apologize when you do.”

On that note:

I sincerely apologize if anything I write or say appears self-serving, or lacks appropriate understanding. 

I can only hope that writing my own truth helps someone sort through theirs.

If you have questions about being an ally, watch this video.  It will help.



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