Monday, August 3, 2009

Every child is entitled to parents who know that this is a race conscious society.

Race is a big deal right now. Not just for me in my own life, but in our country. We have a black president, we are about to elect a latina woman to the Supreme Court, and a black woman doctor is going to be our surgeon general. It seems like real progress is in the works.

On the other hand, this summer a white country club canceled a contract with an inner city daycare for the kids to use the pool when their patrons complained about the "complexion" of the pool changing. Not long ago, when Twitter's trending topics had a large percentage of black stars and issues featured, the site was flooded with racist comments about it.

Our neighborhood is a historically African-American urban neighborhood that is partially gentrified and has also gained a significant Ethiopian and Hispanic immigrant population in the past few decades. We've got our share of issues, and race is definitely part of the picture. I had a look at the violence we've experienced since January. There have been four shootings near the high school that is a couple blocks away from our building. Three of them happened during the school year, and one happened the first weekend in July. We were outside, eating dinner with friends and neighbors, and heard the shots when that one happened. When I got to work the next day, I poked my head in to a co-workers office, whose sons go to the high school. "Glad school's out for the summer?" I asked her, knowing that she would have heard about the shooting.

"Oh, yeah," She smiled wryly. "And did you notice? This shooting didn't even make the front page, like the others. I guess if the white kids aren't around, it's not really news."

I hadn't noticed - we get our news online and our neighborhood news blog had been all over the story, naturally. But I checked back. Yes, the shootings that have happened in our neighborhood have all been gang related. They have all involved young black men, with the exception of the July incident, when a young black woman was shot. And every single one that happened while school was in session - a school where a lot of white kids attend from all over the city - was front page news. This most recent event? Despite the fact that it happened in broad daylight on a Sunday afternoon to victims that were sitting on the steps of a community center where many, many (mostly black) children gather and play every day? It barely made a ripple in the major news outlets of our city.

Every child is entitled to parents who know that this is a race conscious society.

On the second day of our weekend adoption training session last winter we were divided into groups and given some scenarios to work with, scenarios that all of us might run into as our transracially adopted children grow up. Ours was something like this:

Your 16 year old black son comes home from hanging out with friends and tells you that he was followed by a security guard while he was shopping at the mall. What is your response?

The other couple we were grouped with and I fell right to discussing this. We considered going to the store and demanding a policy change. We considered having a sit-down talk with our fictional son about racism and how to rise above these behaviors. Andrew was quiet. When it came our turn to report back to the class, however, he spoke up.

"Security guards followed me around when I was a teenager, and I'm not black." He said. "I just looked like a punk. Actually, it was probably a good idea for security guards to follow me around. I think I'd ask my kid what he was up to in the store, before jumping to conclusions." The rest of us looked sheepishly at each other. Oh.

Every child is entitled to parents who know that this is a race conscious society.

This item from the Transracially Adopted Child's Bill of Rights is tricky. I think primarily it speaks to those who would claim that race isn't a factor, that it doesn't matter, those who would really claim what Stephen Colbert makes fun of that they "don't see color." Our society is designed to see color. We don't have to like it, but this is one of the ways in which our culture constructs identity. And that experience of identity through race is not the same for white people as it is for black people, or for black people as it is for Asian, etc.

This means acknowledging that race plays a role in almost every interaction we have with each other, and with the world we live in. One of the goals of parenting is raising an independant adult who is able to reflect on and analyze her experiences and make good judgements about where her own responsibility lies and where she is battling something bigger than herself - societal projections about her racial identity or sex, for example.

The shadow side of focusing too much on being "race-conscious" is the risk of raising a victim-oriented person, someone who blames everything on one facet of his identity that is out of his control. The risk of ignoring it is raising someone who isn't able to actually deal with the realities of our race-conscious world.


As I work on this, tease it out for myself there's a couple related thoughts that keep floating to the surface for me.

1. Race does define my/your/our/my child's identity. This means that neither my child or I can have a robust and positive sense of identity without a robust, positive, and realistic grounding in our racial identity. To deny this, to leave it out while I parent or pretend it isn't vitally important, or even to fail to attend to my own racial identity will do a dis-service to my son or daughter. The fact that our racial identities are different from each other, and their histories - white and black - have a complicated past and present, needs to be acknowledged and worked with from day one. Personally I think this diversity can be a strength, but not if it is ignored.

2. Race is not the only thing that defines my/your/our/my child's identity. There is a lot more to a person, to a family, to a society, than race. Talking about it, acknowledging the role it plays in our society and therefore all of our psyches puts race in better perspective. Sometimes in a transracial family, adoptive or not, race will seem like the biggest game in town. But there is also love, security, shared experience, faith, and commitment to each other despite differences. There is self-awareness and differentiation, gender, sex, orientation, and geographic location. There are parts of identity building that my child will teach me - related to race and unrelated to it. Being aware that our society is race-conscious, being critical and knowledgeable of this fact, actually reduces the chances that my family will become enslaved by the shadow side of that race consciousness.


  1. This is a great post. It sounds like your adoption education weekend was excellent -- ours not so much. We must aknowledge the role race plays in our lives. The concept of "color blindness" is an ideal.

  2. You know, I'm not even sure that "color blindness" is the ideal. There are so many positive things about having a racial identity and culture - I wouldn't want to become blind to those positives, or to erase them in order to all be the same.

    I know what you mean, don't worry. ♥ But it's the whole melting pot problem...if we all melt together a lot would be lost...

  3. This is something I think a lot about, even though my children are my biological offspring, they are mixed race and my daughter does not resemble me in the least. I had someone come up and ask me last week where I adopted her from. I find myself, a middle-class white woman who has never had to face issues of discrimination, suddenly realizing that I am raising kids who are minorities and who will face entirely different issues than I did. And, like you mentioned, their ethnic history on their dad's side is vastly different from mine, and it's important that they are part of that history as well.
    I really like this post and your comments on the issues. Thanks so much for sharing it with us.

  4. That adoption education weekend sounds really good. I can't wait to go!

    This has been on my mind so much lately, I'm having trouble sorting out my thoughts! But I absolutely agree with both of your points. Race IS a part of our identity, but not ALL of it. Thanks for posting this.

  5. You are right in your comment above. If everyone was the same color... well where would the beauty of this world be.

    Breaks my heart and infuriates me about this 4th shooting not making the news. If the people that are supposed to be sharing the news of the world to us, the things that are important can't even get it right how do we expect the general public. But I suppose it's the same with adoption too. You always hear the horror stories in the news and rarely the good ones.

    Your education group sounds great. I really wish our agency would offer more for the transracial families. That's what most of us are right now.

  6. I appreciate your blog looking at the issue from both sides. Sadly it seems that this topic garners a lot of extremist ideas. Thanks for "thinking out loud" in an honest and poignant way.

  7. I think that our society might be, in some ways, less race-conscious than it should be. I've found that especially true in Seattle. People who are well aware of the evils of racism are not aware at all of the unconsious judgments that they (we) make based on race.

    I used to run a business that employed a lot of black people and was astounded at the racism that I encountered. I got frequent calls from our bank to verify the identity of black employees cashing their paychecks, especially if they were high-paid employees - this never once happened with a white employee. Or stores refusing to accept checks from the business for purchases when the checks were presented by black employees - again, this never once happened with a white employee, but happened nearly every time with black employees. Or a black employee defending himself while being attacked by a mentally ill (white) client. I watched as he stood still with his arms up in front of him to avoid being hit - he never once attempted to even touch the client. Still, several people called the police and said that the black man was attacking the white man.

    I truly don't believe these people were conscious of their racism.

  8. anonymous - I completely agree. People tend to associate "racism" with a conscious decision to be hateful towards another race, but it's a lot more complex than that.

    I think Seattle is especially guilty of this sub-conscious racism, in part because people aren't on the lookout for it, we think we've got it covered already. That just is not true, not for any white person in this country.

  9. ""Security guards followed me around when I was a teenager, and I'm not black." He said. "I just looked like a punk. Actually, it was probably a good idea for security guards to follow me around. I think I'd ask my kid what he was up to in the store, before jumping to conclusions." The rest of us looked sheepishly at each other. Oh."

    this totally happened to me too, i was a little punk.. shaved head and all. this example reminded me of a part i just read in "i'm chocolate, you're vanilla".. exactly this.. when a situation comes up, discuss it as it is first before jumping to race. very interesting..

    and once again you have written a wonderful post that teaches :)