Saturday, September 26, 2009

Racism is Weird

I didn't really fully perceive myself as white, and all of the consequences and privileges that pertain to my "whiteness" until we started this adoption process with T.

I was brought up with the strong influence of my Irish American grandmother, who always reminded us of how the Irish were racialized when we came to this country. (When I was teaching, I used to use cartoons like these to make that point). She would talk about graduating college only to find every job listing specified "Irish Need Not Apply" and how, as a result, she had to go all the way to Puerto Rico to find work to get through the Depression.

She lovingly called me "The Moor" because of my woolly dark hair - it took me until I reached college to understand that she meant that I looked like the so-called " Black" Irish, descended from north African settlers according to early Celtic history. I don't mean that I grew up with a Black identity in any way - I definitely did not, and I enjoyed all the privileges of "whiteness" growing up. But my point is that my grandmother was so intent on conveying the history of Irish liberation and British oppression that I grew up thinking of myself as ethnically very specifically Irish. It made me uncomfortable to indicate "white" when asked to name my race, because I did not think of myself as white - I thought of myself as Irish-not-British.

College opened my eyes, and made me more sophisticated and aware of racism and oppression, and more attuned to matters of identity and social perception. I studied and later taught American political history. I took classes in African American history, read writing by African American authors, and when I grew older, sought out integrated, diverse neighborhoods, which wasn't hard to do because I've always lived in big cities.

But of course I didn't really experience racism on a visceral or personal level until now. Until our landlord insisted that we need to reassure them before they'll drop their opposition to T. moving in. Until I visited stores with my about-to-be-adopted child where he is followed like a shoplifter. Until a close friend suddenly wouldn't allow her child to hang out with us anymore.

To be clear: I don't feel sorry for myself or for us in all this. It's fascinating, horrifying, confusing, and eye-opening, and I wouldn't turn back for a minute. I know Tim and I are changing, in ways beyond our control, in ways that will make us better parents to T. We are no longer a white couple. We are an emerging biracial family now. Tim is down at the Fair Housing office this morning seeking legal counsel about our right to adopt T. without losing our lease. That's not a problem we ever considered before.

We feel a new bond with African American parents. In our DCFS mandated pre-adoption parenting classes, we talk with African American parents about how to teach your children to deal with racial profiling by the police; how to help them with racial harassment at school, and how to combat the culture of low expectations so we can make sure our kids get proper academic and college counseling.

We didn't set out to adopt an African American child. We set out to adopt an older child out of foster care, and we connected with T. (and he with us) in a very natural way. We knew the race issue would introduce a host of new considerations, and that it would be incumbent on us to support and promote his connections to African American community and his African American identity, and we felt comfortable doing that.

But there were things I didn't understand then that I do now. This will sound hopelessly naive, but in the interest of being candid, I'll share it anyway: one of the greatest revelations for me is that the worst most virulent racism often isn't overt. Sometimes you just get a really strange feeling - an old friend isn't acting the same, you're not invited to visit anymore, or an extended relative keeps telling you that they "hope everything turns out okay" with an unusual implication of danger. And then, after struggling to figure out what's going on (beyond the usual skepticism about adopting older foster kids, which is already intense!), it hits you. Your kid is Black, and they don't like that. It's. So. Weird. I'm coming to recognize that racism is a very loud, unspoken subtext in an awful lot of conversations.

I wouldn't change a thing about the process we're going through with T. But if another parent were adopting an older African American child, I'd tell them to get ready for the utter weirdness of other people's racism. And I'd say you need to really know yourself and feel prepared to become a biracial family with all of the attending complexities.


Liz said...

I really like this post and can relate to it on so many different levels...thanks for writing it!

MM said...

I am so glad I found this blog - through Liz - right up top :-)

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