Thursday, September 10, 2009

Talking Transracial Adoption

So tonight in our county-mandated 6 week parenting class, our teacher put us on the spot by asking us to comment on a hypothetical case situation involving a white couple who were fostering an African American boy. The case study specified that they lived in an all-white working class neighborhood, and that the boy told them he had experienced some racism at school, but that he expressed no emotion about it.

So the teacher asked us to share our "situation" with the class - by which she meant that we're adopting an African American boy - and to suggest some suggestions for what the couple should do, based on what we do with T. to help bridge the cultural divide.

Now, the thing to know is that the class is 22 people, and only four of us are not African American. In other words, we were asked to account for ourselves to a room full of African American people. Moreoever, we are the only ones adopting - everyone else is training to be a foster parent. That matters because it means we're in it for one particular boy whom we already know, while the rest are in it as a potential way of life, one they understand entirely through hypotheticals.

Race is an issue we've thought about and talked about a lot, and one we've studied through various books and blogs. The teacher was encouraging and generally excited about our "situation" - but not everyone in the class felt the same. In fact, one woman shook her head in anger while we explained ourselves. Two others whispered in disapproval. Two more looked surprised and touched. Another was moved to pipe up with her own totally unrelated story about being a recovering drug addict and I'm still not sure what the connection was.

I sort of babbled nervously for a few minutes - I explained that I feel the burden is on us to keep T. connected to the African American community, to take him places where he will be surrounded by other African American people, and to bring up race and racism as topics of conversation so he'll get comfortable talking about them openly with us. Tim explained that we deliberately live in an integrated neighborhood, and that we do small things, like take T. to the local Black barbershop and so on. I explained that I got T. enrolled in an African American teen leadership workshop and took him to an African American college prep program run by the organization 100 Black Men. I also said that I sense that T. isn't really too worried about losing his connections to the Black community, and sometimes thinks I'm trying too hard - but I'd rather err on the side of effort than fail to provide him with opportunities and assurances that his identity as an African American young man is important.

It was kind of a nightmare. There is no right thing to say in such a situation, particularly because the people in the class span generations. Some were raised before the civil rights movement. Others grew up in multiracial Los Angeles. Some are from all-black communities. Others live and work in integrated communities. So it was impossible to anticipate and address everyone's perspective. In fact, I wondered if that was why the teacher asked us to comment - because she thinks we might as well get some practice at accepting the general impossibility of ever successfully laying this issue to rest.

Transracial adoption is a topic about which it seems everyone has an opinion. I don't have any answers, most of all because I recognize the underlying concerns that lead some African American people to feel that white families shouldn't be raising their babies. It makes sense that they fear that we may not be able to help T. develop a positive cultural identity, or that we may not be attuned to the influence of racism in his life. I understand enough to feel compassionately about their mistrust of white people and our qualifications to interfere in their community.

On the other hand, I know the foster system is full of African American boys who have little hope of ever finding a permanent family, Black or white, because of negative stereotypes about young Black men. I know there aren't nearly enough Black adoptive families to provide permanent homes for these children. And I know that while the community aided by the county tries to identify and train more Black foster and adoptive families, boys like T. are growing older every day without parents. He won't stay a child while we sort this out. He needs permanent parents right now, and so far we're the only volunteers.

I also know that T. has had a say in selecting us, and that he tells his social workers in rather practical terms that our whiteness isn't a problem for him. I know that he refers to us as "my people" when he talks to his friends. And I know that there are many ways to be a family, and many ways to make sense of differences within the family - that we might not look like a traditional biological family, but we can commit to each other, perhaps even more deeply than some biological families, because we recognize that the conscious commitment to one another is all that brought us together. Everything else is something we learn for sake of one another.

I even think there are certain fringe benefits to transracial adoption. For example, Tim and I get to participate peripherally in the African American community in a new way. I truly enjoy getting to know more Black people, and seeing through T's other relationships how rich and warm and tight-knit the community can be. And in terms of potential benefits for T., he may benefit from having a positive, loving relationship with white folks, which I hope will help him be comfortable and confident in his inevitable interactions with white people later in life.

I also think transracial famlies can be good for the community. The three of us challenge racial stereotypes every time we go out together. In our first weeks with T., I was surprised by the fact that EVERY time we visit a cafe or an ice cream shop together, someone behind the counter asks in surprise "Are you together?" I can't help but think that every time I smile and say "Oh yes! The three of us are together!" and every time we look obviously loving toward T. in public, we expand someone's world view just a little bit. I get uncomfortable with the scrutiny - I'm shy and private, and I'm not comfortable with people staring at me. But after a few weeks I realized that most of the time, there isn't any malice in it - it's just curiosity, and an opportunity to educate. People see us talking and laughing and it might make them a little less likely to make assumptions based on stereotypes next time they encounter an African American teenage boy.

But sometimes, like tonight, I feel a little bruised by the constant discussion about race that infuses our adoption experience. It is hard enough to navigate people's feelings about older child adoption - which is so unusual that most people just respond with outright shock when we tell them we're adopting a 15 year old - before you even get to the transracial issue. It's impossible not to feel judged and there's absolutely no way to measure up. We're a tiny, fragile equation of three people coming together, and we can't represent all white people to the world, nor carry the burden for the entire history of racial oppression in this country.

I wanted to say tonight, if you really want to help, invite us to your family picnic. If you think we're not good enough, and that T. needs more African American role models, please light the way. Help us throw a football with T. in the park. Invite us to community events, so we can bring T. into the company of healthy Black families like yours. Raising a teenager isn't something you do alone at home in private. It happens out in the world. And we could spare the anger and use the help sometimes. I'd be quite grateful to accept it.


atlasien said...

Congratulations on your placement!

I'm a fellow foster care adoption parent... my husband and I got placement of our son last year and adopted earlier this year.

I'll go ahead and give you some "assvice" (a great term for unsolicited advice) about transracial issues.

I've got an unusual perspective in this regard because I'm Asian, my husband is white and the son we adopted is black/biracial. I also live in a majority black community. As an Asian I have an outsider's perspective on both black racial pathologies and white racial pathologies (which is not to say that we Asians don't have plenty of pathologies of our own).

My main advice is to do whatever you can to contextualize this wounded feeling you're experiencing and use it to develop empathy and enhance communication. I think what you're experiencing is the awareness of being racialized. Most white people are simply not aware of being a member of a race... they may know it on a basic level, but it's not important to their survival to think about how their race impacts their perception by other people.

The first time you're really racialized is shocking, wounding and alienating.

However, non-white people already experience this from a really early age, if they grew up in America. So when white people complain about being treated differently because of their race, it's a little like complaining to a quadruple amputee about your hangnail. We have also been dealing with internalized racism, which is an issue that is terrifying powerful, and very difficult for white people to understand or empathize with (white guilt is not a true parallel).

I think it's great that you're working out these feelings on this blog. But if you're forming greater connections to an African-American community, I would strongly advise NOT talking about these feelings in person, or showing any signs of resentment or hurt feelings whatsoever. 9 times out of 10 you are going to really alienate and insult the person you're talking to.

For example, your statement about carrying the burden is potentially very insulting, because black people already carry the burden of much of the history of racial oppression in this country... except they do it from the other side of the coin. Whether they like it or not. I'm not saying this to attack you, I'm saying this so you can avoid future, potentially very negative reactions.

I think the main thing you can do to handle these issues is to have a thick skin... and if you don't have a thick skin, "fake it till you make it". Do not admit wounded feelings. If someone is directly attacking you, then just shut it down and leave, there is no point in taking abuse. But in any ambiguous situation, admit at most a cheerful confusion and reiterate a readiness to listen. You will get a lot of respect that way.

I'd also suggest doing what you can on the internet... look for forums and email groups and so on about raising black teenagers, and eavesdrop to see what kind of issues other parents are talking about. I wouldn't rely too much on groups of white transracial adoptive parents. They might have some basic good advice but those groups tend to get wrapped up in unproductive debates too much.

Lastly, T is old enough so that you don't have to worry about a lot of issues parents raising their kids from infancy do. It sounds like your basic plan is good. If at any point you think he has, or is developing, major racial insecurities, I'd suggest taking him to a good African-American therapist who lists these issues as among their specialties. I don't know where you live but you can probably find someone like this in any large city... I know there are quite a few in Atlanta.

atlasien said...

Now I feel dumb... you live in LA obviously!

Lulu McCabe said...

Thanks! I love the term "asslice." I had no idea when we got into this how much unsolicited "advice" we'd receive on every aspect of our decision.

And I also think you're totally right about the experience of being racialized, and it is mind-expanding. I'm not great at thick skin, but I embrace faking it til you make it! In fact, that's kind of working for me on every aspect of being a new adoptive parent of a teenager.

Throughout, I've tried to make sure that we are neither seeking approval from anyone about our decision to adopt T., nor asking the African American community to "take care" of us as we find our sea legs. Neither helps us be better parents to T.

For anyone looking for a rich discussion of transracial adoption, I highly recommend the books "In Their Own Voices" and "In Their Parents' Voices" (a two volume set by Rita J. Simon), one based on interviews with parents, the other on interviews with adoptees). I thought it was very thoughtfully done, and didn't reach for any easy conclusions.

Julia said...

Hi there,
Thanks so much for this post. I am also a white mom of a black son, and although my son is much younger (2), I can identify with so much of what you've written. For the record, I think you did a terrific job at answering the question, and it sounds like you're doing a terrific job as a parent to T. There is no pleasing everyone in transracial adoption, and that's hard, as is the constant scrutiny.

Thanks again,

Lulu McCabe said...

Thanks Julia! It's amazing to connect with people like you online and see that we share such personal experiences. I so appreciate your encouragement. Some days I do a good job, other days I fall in the mud. But the mess is so worthwhile!

jaenkes said...

Another writting that touches home for us. We will be doing a trans-racial adoption ourselves, but mostly in part to my 9yr old biological son is half black, half white. Add to our family dynamic that we are a lesbian, white, couple.

It sounds like T couldn't be luckier and found a great family!

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