I'm watching Star Trek Deep Space Nine this summer (geek factor 10/10) and I keep running into storylines that are relevant to this blog, and transracial adoption. Star Trek at its best is all about about inter-cultural relationships and sci-fi as vehicle for social commentary, and of course since I'm a pretty hopeless Trekkie I find it to be a brilliant and insightful medium. (Disclaimer - I don't expect anyone else to experience it this way) Last week I watched an episode where trans-racial adoption was the central storyline - between two species that actively disliked each other. One had oppressed the other, and the adoption was of an abandoned child of the oppressor by parents from the oppressed culture/species. It was as interesting twist. The adoptive parents raised their adopted child with their own views on his native race, so at the point in which the storyline picks up the child also actively dislikes his native people. The dilemma, then, becomes whether or not he should stay with the adoptive family who claim to love him - but hate his race and culture.
Every child is entitled to have his culture embraced and valued.
The episode threw into relief for me something fairly subtle about the nuances of trans-racial adoption. The adoptive parents in this scenario wanted their adopted child to be separate from his native race and culture. They wanted to believe that he was an "individual" and that they could love him and still hate his origins and race. But culture and race are not so easily divorced from identity. What they were really teaching their adopted son was to hate himself.
No adoptive parent I know would teach their adopted child to actively hate their own race or culture, even if it isn't the same race or culture as their own. However, I'm afraid that truly valuing and embracing other cultures is a lot more complicated than just not being hateful. Here's some of the main challenges as I see for myself as a white person adopting a child of color, things that already exist as obstacles between me and my adopted child's culture and race.
1. My culture doesn't value other cultures. As a white person in the USA, all the messages that my own racial culture and heritage give me are that my culture is the gold standard. The way that white people live and think is "normal" and other cultural values, thought processes, and experiences are to be judged against the "normal" that is dominant white culture. When a model who isn't white is on the cover of a fashion magazine that's not "normal." When a black man is elected president that's not "normal". There are thousands of messages conveyed by my culture about it's supremacy via media and other mediums every day. Think of how often you read or hear about "white culture." Not very often, right? Because it is the assumed perspective, the invisible, powerful norm. This means white adoptive parents have to work extra hard not just to show care, respect and value for their child's racial heritage and native culture but to be actively counter-cultural in their own racial spaces, working against this prevailing message that white-ness is the gold standard and all other cultural expressions are deviations from what is reasonable and normal. Those messages are subtle, and they are all over. Some of them are coming from inside my own self - I'm not immune to my culture, after all. If I don't work to counteract them, my child will identify me with them. Make no mistake, regardless of what we do, negative messages about non-whiteness are communicated to children of all races, loud and clear.
2. My participation will not always be appropriate or welcome in my child's cultural spaces. The thought of being left out is painful for me. However there is a fine line, especially for us white folk, between valuing another culture and appropriating it. Part of embracing my child's culture is making sure there are adults available to and invested in my child's life who can help her understand and participate in the parts of her heritage and culture where I do not belong, where my presence would be harmful or inappropriate.
3. I will need to make personal and cultural sacrifices to make room for my child's culture. For some adoptive families this means finding an African-American or other culturally appropriate church to attend. For others it might mean taking time and resources away from one family tradition to make room for a new one that honors a special day or tradition from the child's culture. For us this definitely involves a commitment to living in diverse places, so our child will not always and only be surrounded by white faces.
The point is that if parents of a transracially adopted child do not intentionally embrace their child's culture, do not intentionally change their own patterns of culture and tradition to make the child's heritage a privileged part of their family life then the family won't be a safe space for the child's whole identity and self. The default message will be not unlike the fictional star trek storyline, where internal conflict and self-hatred was the legacy of the adoption experience.
In the end, in the story, the child was sent back to his homeland to live with his biological family and learn how to be a member of his own species. I felt conflicted about this, naturally. But on some level this is the goal for all transracially adopted children, at least metaphorically. This whole item on the TAC bill of rights can be boiled down to planning, hoping, and preparing for the day when our child is able to identify fully and comfortably with both his identity as a person of color, separate and different from me, and as a member of our family. Part of achieving this is designing a family culture - starting now, before this child is even a part of us - that is aware and critical of white-ness and open to embracing, valuing and respecting something different.
I've found some wonderful resources on the web for delving deeper into this. I highly recommend Macon D's blog, Stuff White People Do for a great example of a white person honestly seeking to understand what "white" means and how he is affected by his own racial designation every day. See the links in the sidebar for other blogs that I've found helpful as I attempt to do the same.