Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Closing Social Distance

One of my classes last quarter was focused on building community in multi-cultural contexts, and this is what I wrote for a project called Closing Social Distance. The assignment was designed to help "break assumptions and move toward empathy." I thought its content was relevant to this space so I am sharing it here, a bit modified for this context. Keep in mind that this was a project done over the period of a couple weeks, not anything resembling actual comprehensive research.

For my Closing Social Distance project I decided to do work in a part of my life that has been generating a lot of internal dissonance for me – interacting with my neighbors when I am out and about in my neighborhood with my J. I live in a neighborhood which has a population that is roughly 40% black (both African and African-American). Andrew and I made an intentional choice to live in the here years ago because we wanted to live somewhere racially diverse. When we started our adoption process in a program that mostly placed African-American infants I began to do a lot more work on raising my own awareness of my racial heritage and engaging the issues around white privilege that I needed to. Among primary motivators for me in doing this was the hope of having a family where racial identities, though diverse from each other, are routinely discussed, critiqued and explored. One of the first things I realized as I engaged this work was that my economic and social position – the factors that in basic ways enabled us to adopt J – were in part results of the white privilege my husband and I enjoy. I have found that I experience some anxiety about this now when I am out encountering my neighbors, especially black folk who I do not know personally, and J is with me. I decided to examine the assumptive set I was carrying to see what might be causing this anxiety and see what I could do to test those assumptions.

The assumptive set I have when encountering black people as a white woman with a black infant in my arms starts with the assumption that they will see my whiteness and my privilege before they see my motherhood. It continues with the assumption that this will evoke resentment. These assumptions are followed by a fear that the people who share J’s race will not legitimize me as her mother, and anxiety that my race will do permanent damage to my daughter’s own development as a black woman.

In order to challenge these assumptions I decided to keep track of the interactions J and I have with people we do not know in the neighborhood and to do a little research with black people who are our friends. When I am out walking with J almost every black person we pass makes a comment about her, or about us. On an average afternoon jaunt, taken 3-4 times a week in good weather, we pass anywhere from 3-6 people who I read as racially black. I kept track of these comments for a couple weeks, and after reviewing them realized that they were overwhelmingly positive statements about J. Once or twice someone has questioned my relationship to her (“where did you get that baby?” or “is that your baby?”), but this is rare in comparison to the number of comments on how healthy or beautiful she is. White people we see in passing rarely comment.

I also queried two friends of our family who are black about they way they feel about the racial difference in our adoption. One, who was adopted by a mixed-race couple and raised in a mostly white environment herself, told me that she doesn’t always approve of white people adopting black children but she thinks that our efforts to live in a racially diverse area are important and make a difference in how she perceives our adoption. The other friend, not an adoptee, was surprised that I even asked or that I would ever assume that he would question our decision to adopt. His attitude was that I had “taken in one of our own” an action that he perceived as one of alliance with his race against white privilege.

The biggest learning for me out of this project was that once again, with the best of intentions, I had assumed that a diverse group of people would have a monolithic response to my personal choice to adopt transracially, simply because they share a racial designation with my child. My fear of being perceived race-first (white person exerting privilege to obtain a black child) resulted in an impulse to also perceive others race-first. The reality was that the anxiety and fear was coming from me, not from the individuals in my life or my neighborhood who share a race with J.


  1. I love this statement: His attitude was that I had “taken in one of our own” an action that he perceived as one of alliance with his race against white privilege.

    That's the result we almost always get. We get more "Aren't they adorable" or "they are such good boys" comments than anything else.

    It almost always feels like a feeling of alliance rather than adversity.

  2. I can understand all the feelings associated with it all. Getting ready to adopt and being open to race, we understand (and are quite thrilled with!) the fact that we'll most likely be adopting AA or biracial.

    We will, of course, try to be sensitive to everyone thoughts that we encounter, but hoping also that that they WILL see the relationship as MUCH more than just race.

  3. AK: I have 3 handsome men who look just like A's Princess J only with much less hair LOL. It is FUN FUN FUN to have AA kids. Seriously, we meet the nicest, most interesting folks everywhere we go. It opens avenues of conversation and friendship that we treasure.
    Oh, and our adoptions are OPEN and we love it.

  4. Thanks so much for sharing your "research."
    We, too, live in Seattle, are caucasian and have adopted domestically an African American daughter. We have had one negative comment in over three years -- and I am not certain the black man who commented the "white folks shouldn't adopt black kids" was mentally all there. Other than that, we've had "ignorant" comments -- like -- "What is she mixed with?" (um -- she's all human) or "What country is she from?" (once, when I answered Cleveland, the questioner said "I've never heard of that country" -- I stopped at that point) but that's just nosiness more than anything else. Like you, I had built in my mind much more stressful interactions than what has actually happened. As she gets older that may get tougher, but I have not seen anything other than support from those around us -- black or white.