White Mom to Rachel Dolezal: 'Having Black Children Has Not Changed My Identity'

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Deb Kennedy and her three kids. (Photos: Deb Kennedy/Facebook)

The story of former NAACP-chapter president Rachel Dolezal has been far reaching since breaking just four days ago, sparking shock, outrage, confusion, and sympathy in many corners with its seemingly endless layers. On Tuesday morning, Dolezal’s comments to Matt Lauer about parenting two boys succeeded in riling up a very particular group of people: white moms and dads of black children. “I’ve had to really go there with the [black] experience,” she told Lauer on Today. “And the point at which that really solidified was when I got full custody of [my black adopted brother] Izaiah, and he said, ‘You’re my real mom.’ …And for that to be something that is plausible, I certainly can’t be seen as white and be Izaiah’s mom.” Below, Deb Kennedy, 53, a lawyer living outside of Boston who is a white mom of three kids — two black and one biracial — shares her reaction with Yahoo Parenting.

I thought are you crazy? Really? I was astonished. I can’t even get to the anger. My jaw dropped open because I thought, I’m seen in the world as my kids’ parent all the time.

STORY: Dad to Rachel Dolezal: Raising Black Kids Doesn’t Make You Black

I felt like [Dolezal] negated my experience. Having black children has not changed my identity. Raising kids of color, I’m still a white woman and I know that. My kids’ identity does not change my reality. I think it actually denies who they are for me as a parent to not be who I am. Kids need to know what the truth is, and I think telling kids that their experience is not real is one of the worst things you can do to kids, because once they get out in the world and they’re adults, they’re not going to be able to trust themselves. So when [Dolezal] said that, I thought: Don’t deny my experience.

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With daughter Jianna.

My kids are: Kordell, 17; Ishi, 14; and Jianna, 12. When they were younger, people didn’t automatically put two and two together. And now we live in a small community, so everyone knows us. But even when we travel it’s clear, because when you’re with kids and you’re doing things with kids, who you are to them is clear — especially when they’re teenagers, because the way they speak and the looks they give? They only speak to their parents like that.

STORY: Should Rachel Dolezal’s Family Have Outed Her for Pretending to Be Black?

My partner [at the time] and I went through DCF [Department of Children and Families] here in Massachusetts, where you become a foster home that’s strictly for foster parenting or fostering with the intention to adopt. At that point we were looking to adopt. We adopted Ishi first, when he was four months old. He’s biracial. The social workers told me it was very hard to place biracial kids. Then, when he was 2, we were contacted and asked if we would take a sibling group — Jiji, who was eight months old, and Kordell, who was 5 years old. So they came home as a unit.

I wanted to be a parent but I never wanted to actually give birth. I also felt like there are enough people in the world and that we’re overpopulated, and that there are so many kids in need — there are 500,000 kids in foster care in this country, and that, to me, is just astonishing. My partner was on the same page. We knew that the likelihood that we’d get a kid of color was very high. And because we lived in Boston in a mixed-race neighborhood, it felt like, okay, we can do this — because I couldn’t raise kids of color not in a racially diverse community. I’d done a lot of research, and felt like you have to raise kids around people who mirror themselves back to them.

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It’s interesting, because in some ways I feel like I walk this line: When I’m out in the world by myself it’s a very different experience than when I’m out in the world with my children, especially as they’ve gotten older. When they were little, a lot of well-meaning white people were much nicer and more open to my children; now that they’re grown and my 17-year-old looks like a black man, we walk into a grocery store and I just know that we’re being watched in a different way. I feel a different vibe from people. It’s hard to put into words, but I know it’s different because I know how people relate to me when I’m by myself. I get very protective, like, “Don’t look at my kid that way.” But because a lot of it is so subtle there’s nothing you can really say, yet you know exactly why you feel it and see it.

And it goes both ways. For a long time my daughter had dreadlocks, and I would take her to this salon and spend hours there with her. Now they’ve known me for years and everybody’s much looser, but in the beginning they didn’t know who I was. They didn’t know if I was doing the right thing with these kids. Now they talk to us as if we’re family.

I talk about [race] more than my kids do, and my older son gets annoyed with me. I do a lot of safety talking with him about what it’s like to be a black man — which I do not know. But what I do know is I pay attention to what’s going on in the world, and I’m scared for him a lot of the time. It’s a terrifying thing to be the parent of a young African-American man and be afraid every time he goes out with his buddies or without you because you never know what is going to happen. Trayvon Martin could totally be my kid, and that is terrifying. I try to have that talk with my son and he doesn’t want to hear it from me. Is that because I’m white, or because I’m his mother? I’m not entirely sure.

Ishi’s parents are both dead. His bio mom died when he was 6 months old. We have an open adoption with Kordell and Jiji’s mother, and last year Jiji expressed a strong desire to meet her, so I reached out (Kordell was not interested). We went out and had lunch with her, but we have very limited contact. It’s complicated, because she didn’t relinquish the kids — they were taken from her. She was only 14 when she had Kordell. But I want them to know her, and am of the mindset that love grows love. So the more love in my kids’ life, the better for them. But I also need them to know that I’m the parent, so it’s a very tricky line.

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With Ishi.

White people raising kids of color is a complicated issue. When my son was little we got him a big brother through Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, and I’ve had friends from law school that I’ve kept in touch with so he can know black men who are successful, who are raising families. It’s so hard to fight the cultural stereotypes in the news and movies and in the world, but I try with real life people. Same with my daughter.

So I’m trying to provide role models. But you have to work at it as a white person — you can’t just act like it’s nonexistent or it doesn’t matter, because it does matter. I’d be remiss if I wasn’t having these kinds of conversations with my kids about who they are and what it means to be young African-American men and women in our society. When Kordell was about 12 he said to me about racism, “Mom, I thought that was something that was way in the past.” He thought it was all over. I said, “I really wish that were the case, Kordell, but unfortunately it’s not.”

I think what makes a parent is being the person who is there. They know I’m the person who comes through. I’m the one they call, and I’m the person who’s been there every day of their lives. That’s what they know.

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