Monday, July 27, 2009

Every child is entitled to have his culture embraced and valued.

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.


  1. i understand all this, on paper. but i don't know quite how to implement some of it. i love the way you spell everything out. you're better than the books i'm reading :)

  2. I just recently found your blog and wanted to let you know what a resource it has been for me! We are considering the AAI program through WACAP, probably a year down the road, but I'm already seeking out information on transracial adoption. Thanks so much for posting this, and for the links on the side bar. :) Looking forward to following your journey and hoping you get "the call" very, very soon!

  3. This is a great post, A. There aren't easy answers to any of this, but somehow it still feels right huh? You're going to be such great parents. It's a complex journey, and I'm glad that we can be on it together!

  4. You certainly hit on some good issues. It is a full-time, life consuming pursuit. I mean that in the most affirming, life-changing way. As prepared and as researched as we are, living it and trying to guide your child with different, cultured eyes is a whole new venture. I had no idea just how thick racism was. I feel a sense of pressure every time we leave the house. I feel more worried about what black individuals think about our family, how they think we are raising the children. I understand their concerns. Completely. And the hardest, most heart breaking balance is to try and teach them pride in themselves and in race and in culture, but also prepare them that the greater society may not value it and love it as much as we do.

    Saying all that, I would not change our family journey for any thing. Not one bit. I am glad you are doing such great thinking and such great preparation.

  5. Interestingly, I have a friend who is going through something similar with her biological children. Her bio-boys are 1/2 Mexican - Indian and 1/2 White and their Mexican father HATES his race. One of his greatest 'insults' to his boys is telling them to quit acting like dirty Mexican's. These two are, obviously (because he is a big ol' jerk) divorced and she finds herself trying to fight these messages and provide a good example of Mexican heritage to her boys, while living in Medina, for the school system.

    This has become really complicated for her and the boys. While you want to immediately say, "go get yourself some proud Mexican friends," is there not something intrinsicaly wrong with choosing your friends by race? Oh, and good luck with the Big Brother program. A great concept with a huge wait list for a 'Big' even without requesting by race....

    I am glad that you are thinking about this issue but I don't think you can be too hard on yourself. Every child deserves to be safe and loved and while, yes, it is good to consider the rest, there is only so much you can do based on your race.

  6. Carla -yes, I think these issues maintain relevance for any family that is transracial, whether adoption is a part of that or not. And it's SUCH a tough call - do you go where the "good schools" are, or where you have a better chance of integrating your children with people who share their race? Medina certainly would be the good school option. I did some consulting work with a group there once and when we asked them where the people of color were in their organization their reply was "our cleaning people and adopted children from Asia."

    Dayspring - I am SO EXCITED for you. eeee!!!

    Lea - hi! welcome! I'm excited for you too!

    Em - I was thinking about your post a few days ago when I wrote this, about how to find ways to integrate ideas about race with this adoption project thingy. Meditating on this TAC bill of rights has been really helpful for me.

    Rebecca - I love what you said about it being a lifelong pursuit. That's really what the project of being family is, right? It may be that your family or mine is forced to be intentional but I agree with you. It's life affirming. ♥

  7. Wow! We just talked about this issue at my book club tonight. About how, when how often, in what way. All those things of incorporating our child's heritage into our family.
    I wish I had read this earlier. #2 is the exact answer to one of the questions posed. A mom of 4 hispanic children says that she's looked at when they go to a Cinco de Mayo celebration or something where it is prodominately hispanic. And asked if that was any better then the children being looked at when they are in an all white place. Having the adult in your life that you know and trust with your child is the perfect answer. Have that adult take your child to that event. At least that's what I thought of as I read this.

    Another lady tonight started to share how her child will relate more with other adopted children that have white parents then he will a child that shares his ethnicity. I tried to point out that when her son is 21 and at college he won't have his white mommy there holding his hand and showing the other black kids that this is why he is who he is. I didn't convey it well though. I hope to be able to teach our children about all races and cultures but I really don't think that's a realistic way to go about teaching race to our children. I'm very unsure of how to handle this in our family. I'll be checking out that blog and the links you have.

  8. Just stumbled across your blog and wanted to say...well said!