Actress Sandra Bullock recently spoke out about the anxiety she feels for her adopted black son. The Our Brand Is Crisis star adopted the now-5-year-old Louis from New Orleans in 2010 when he was an infant and is reportedly in the final stages of adopting a baby girl, also from New Orleans. Back in 2010, there was speculation from some that the adoption was a PR move meant to soften the sting of her high-profile divorce from TV star Jesse James—hurtful reports that proved to be bogus, since she’d been trying to adopt for several years prior to the couple’s split. She hasn’t shared much about her life with little Louis, but that changed this week.
In the November issue of Glamour magazine, Bullock talks about her anxiety in anticipating the racism she knows her son will face. “You see how far we’ve come in civil rights—and where we’ve gotten back to now. I want my son to be safe. I want my son to be judged for the man he is,” the actress says. “We are at a point now where if we don’t do something, we will have destroyed what so many amazing people have done.”
She said that she is afraid she won’t be able to shield him.
“You look at women’s rights; it’s turning into a mad, mad world out there. But sometimes it needs to get really loud for people to say, ‘I can’t unsee this.’ If I could ride in a bubble with him for the rest of his life, I would. But I can’t.”
Bullock’s fears aren’t special or unique. Black mothers have spoken and written about the fear they have for their sons living and growing in a society that deems them a threat. And when, in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s murder, the president himself mentioned that “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,” and shared that, “There are very few African-American men in this country who haven't had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me. There are very few African-American men who haven't had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars.”
Sandra Bullock operates from a position of white privilege. Those who consider themselves aware, who have the audacity to call themselves “progressive”—they have to start with recognizing that particular truth. Recognizing her son’s blackness and what that means for him is part of understanding who he is and how his experiences will be different from hers. All too often, white folks can only value interactions with black people that don’t demand that they recognize the racism that black people face; and inversely, they never have to acknowledge the societal privilege born of white supremacy.
Bullock didn’t say anything remarkable about race. She simply stated what is and should always be fairly obvious. But the weight of her statement gets magnified in the context of the current pop culture climate. If Matt Damon and Miley Cyrus are any indication, many white superstars are clearly invested in distorting or dismissing the reality of racism.
Nicki Minaj spoke to The New York Times about her issues with Cyrus—which played out in memorable and awkward fashion during the 2015 MTV Video Music Awards. In her Times interview, Minaj amplified her criticism of Cyrus, stating that white people who “connect” with black people don’t mute those black people. “The fact that you feel upset about me speaking on something that affects black women makes me feel like you have some big balls,” Minaj said, referencing Miley’s attack on her for calling out racial bias in award nominations. “You’re in videos with black men, and you’re bringing out black women on your stages, but you don’t want to know how black women feel about something that’s so important? Come on, you can’t want the good without the bad. If you want to enjoy our culture and our lifestyle, bond with us, dance with us, have fun with us, twerk with us, rap with us, then you should also want to know what affects us, what is bothering us, what we feel is unfair to us. You shouldn’t not want to know that.’’
Famous white people opting out of the race conversation or offering foolish declarations regarding it have skewed the conversation to the point where we laud virtually any commentary that isn’t dismissive, but Bullock sharing her fears isn’t saying much in and of itself.
From Tom Cruise to Stephen Spielberg to Madonna, white celebrities adopting black children has become fairly standard in Hollywood circles. But raising those children “in a bubble” that “shields” them from the racism does them no favors and is indicative of why elite white people raising black children raises serious questions. How do white parents talk to black children about race in a way that isn’t condescending or dismissive? Because black kids will face racism or have to witness how racism affects those who look like them. There doesn’t appear to be much good in keeping your children in cultural spaces that you think are “above” racism (such spaces are typically elitist and inherently racist) and hearing a famous white mom share her concerns doesn’t mean much of anything if she isn’t also equipping herself with the tools to address the issues of her concern.
Wanting to “shield” your children from something as harmful as racism is perfectly reasonable; but the best protection white parents of black children can offer would be in educating themselves.