I'm white. My adopted brothers are black. This is how their world differs from mine.
In 1969, my white parents adopted twin, 4-month-old African-American and Mexican-American baby boys.
I was born a year later, making us three children under 3 years old. And, boy, were we a handful.
This was just two years after the landmark United States Supreme Court decision invalidating laws prohibiting interracial marriage, and just five short years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination based on race, forbid racial discrimination in schools, and allowed people of color to drink from the same water fountains as white people.
Many people over the years have asked me what it was like growing up with my African-American brothers as my “real” brothers.
The boring truth is that this was my “normal.” My brothers and I bickered and fought like the close-in-age siblings we were.
Our circle of friends included other families who were also interracial. I didn’t even notice at the time that I was the only white kid in my first grade class until years later when I saw my class picture, and there I was — the only white kid, with a white teacher.
We lived in a pretty progressive town, Montclair, New Jersey. That year, the school system was creating “magnet schools” to help integrate the schools. So while I walked to our neighborhood school, my brothers were bused to the area of town that was primarily white to desegregate and improve integration.
I didn’t really like that my big brothers and I wouldn’t be at the same school. I think, to this day, there are acquaintances of ours that know us separately and don’t put it together that we’re brothers and sister even though we have the same last name.
Although we were being raised in the same family, their experiences were separate and different from mine.
Out in the world, they were being treated differently than I was.
When we went to the same middle school, I remember us walking home together and noticing that one of my brothers said someone was looking at us funny. Billy and Toby would always notice who was looking at us funny, and I never ever noticed.
One time, my brother Billy was chased in a store for taking a shirt off the rack and running back to us to say this was the shirt he wanted our mother to buy. The store clerk followed in hot pursuit, thinking a theft was in progress.
Later, when Billy could drive, I remember him getting stopped by police on the parkway driving home, and the police looked over to the passenger side where my white dad sat and asked if everything was all right. My dad replied: “Yes, my son is just driving us home. Was he speeding?” We knew this was an odd traffic stop because, no, he wasn’t speeding.
Last year, I asked my brother to do me a huge favor and drive my son from New Jersey where we were visiting family to our home in Dayton, Ohio, (where I live now) — a 10-hour drive.
In order to drive my son home, we agreed it would be best to write and sign a letter saying my brother had permission to drive my car and was taking my son home to Ohio and include a picture of my driver’s license in case there was any trouble.
It made all of us feel better to know he had that note. It also made us miserable to write it. And we held our breath the whole way they drove to Ohio and until Billy returned safely back to NYC.
My brothers go into the world as African-American men, and the world treats them as African-American men — with implicit bias, prejudice, and fear. I go into the world a white woman and I am afforded the benefit of the doubt and second chances.
When I went away to college in Ohio, people were surprised to learn that I grew up with African-American brothers.
“What was it like?” The question stumped me. It was just my normal. I didn’t know anything different to compare it to. Yet, I do know that it’s not everyone’s normal, and in some circumstances, people don’t interact with people of color in their daily lives.
Under different circumstances, I might have been a white person who didn’t regularly interact with people of color. I could have had an understanding of race taken from books, biased news reports, from TV or movies. Instead, I have agonized over my brothers “driving while black,” and I worry for their lives when they come to visit me.
I want to make the world safer and more fair for my family and yours.
Maybe now you’ll speak up when you witness something that seems unjust.
Maybe now you will see an uncomfortable interaction involving a person of color and you’ll think, "What if that were my brother or sister?"
What can you do? You can talk to your friends and neighbors about how you feel about injustices in the world. You can join a racial justice group in your town, your school, or your place of worship.
I am sharing this because I hope my story starts just one constructive conversation today that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.