I’m not sure we’ll ever “get” race, especially as it relates to transracial families, and particularly families formed by adoption.
Two things set this off:
Reading a blog recommended by another blog that was on a carnival at a blog I read. The final blog in the rabbit trail was mostly about adoption, specifically Chinese adoption. The blogger seemed oversensitive to some issues (maybe it’s just how she comes across; I’m sure people have said the same about me), especially about people asking about adoption. Newsflash: if you’ve adopted transracially (usually meaning white parents with black, Chinese, etc. kid), people will notice. Being defensive and rude about their questions doesn’t help anything, especially if you categorize all adoption questions as prying, rude, inappropriate, etc. (“Gee, adoptive parents are so uptight and angry about questions… maybe it’s true that adoptions never work out very well?”)
(Now, I’m all for rude questioners being answered somewhat sharply and being pointedly called on their prejudice or lack of tact. The important thing is to look at their attitude and phrasing and figure out if they are being rude or just a little ignorant of the current “proper adoption language.” Hence, when a friend’s sweet, devout, elderly father congratulated us on the adoption of our oldest and then followed with, “I adopted a pagan baby from Africa when I was in grade school…” we just bit our tongues really hard and tried not to laugh. (He meant that he’d sponsored a child in a mission school.) He didn’t mean it to be rude, unlike some people we’ve met.)
The other thing was a discussion with the head of a local parent-run Chinese cultural program who, while trying to convince me to sign my youngest daughter up for their expensive program, talked for quite some time about how we must do this and that or else we aren’t good adoptive parents. Maybe she’s different in person, but I got the impression that, for her, everything had to be about China and Chinese adoption. She expected other parents of Chinese adoptees to drop everything and make small talk whenever they ran into complete strangers with Chinese daughters. She couldn’t understand why any responsible adoptive parent wouldn’t belong to the local Chinese adoptees’ group, in spite of the fact that their events, to put it politely, need help.
Amusingly enough, I mentioned that my older kids had expressed some interest in learning Mandarin. (I’ve pretty much abandonned the idea of teaching them French, since it isn’t a particularly useful language anymore.) She assured me that my kids would fit right in because there were plenty of Caucasian students at her program!
Oops. So much for cultural sensitivities. (and if you don’t understand why that’s an “oops” on her part, check the “about me” tab up top for a picture of my kids.)
I understand what can drive people to what I regard as an extreme: exposure to clueless adopters who think “banana” is funny, know absolutely nothing about China and couldn’t care less, and intend to do their best to ignore Chinese culture when they get their daughter home.
Those people scared me, too. After meeting the other couples in our adoption group and hearing the downright stupid questions they asked the guide at our first meeting at the hotel in China, my DH and I went back to the room and ranted and cursed for a good twenty minutes (the ranting was, in volume and length, well beyond the usual. The cursing was entirely unique for us; we had seriously run out of words and, I am sorry to say, resorted to several from our Navy days that we would never say in public). Some of these people didn’t know the first thing about travel, babies, China, or adoption. (If they’re talking about orphanage “donations” and it says “RMB” after it, it’s a pretty obvious guess we’re talking about the currency. If you’ve read almost anything about adopting from China, you know that congee is a rice gruel commonly eaten for breakfast, and the babies generally love it because they get a lot of it. And “banana” is a nasty racial slur along the lines of “oreo” for blacks: a “banana” is an Asian who is yellow on the outside but “acts white”, i.e. is white on the inside. Whatever that’s supposed to mean.)
We seriously could not believe that somebody (many somebodies, in fact) had signed off on the idea that it was ok for these clueless people to be sent around the world to adopt a baby. Mostly, though, we worried for their daughters.
The answer, however, is not to backlash in the opposite direction by joining a Chinese church (or becoming Buddhist), jumping on every family with an adopted Chinese child you happen to see in public, immersing yourself in Mandarin and Chinese dance classes, and uncritically adoring the Chinese adoption organizations.
World Over (EWTN’s weekly news program), had Dr. Ray Guarendi on this past Friday, talking about his new book Adoption: Choosing It, Living It, Loving It. He is a psychologist who specializes in troubled kids and teens. He and his wife have also adopted ten children; the oldest are in college, the youngest is in grade school, I think. He mentioned the difficulties in placing black children, largely due to the impression that parents will have to upend their lives completely to provide some sort of mandatory “culture” to their transracially adopted child.
My question has always been, “Which culture? Condoleeza Rice or Jesse Jackson? Jazz or gangster rap? Is there only one correct way to be black?”
During the process for our first adoption, our social worker, who was black, earnestly asked us, “So, who have you found to be a black role model for your child that you are about to adopt?”
“Oh, we named her after a black Catholic saint from Sudan,” we replied. “She has such an incredible, faith-filled story…” which we proceeded to relate to our Baptist (and somewhat anti-Catholic) social worker.
The social worker made a face that clearly said, “That isn’t what I meant, and I can’t believe you named her after a saint!” When she finally hemmed and hawed her way to, “That isn’t what I mean…” we asked her to clarify what, exactly, she meant by “black culture.” She couldn’t. “Well, you know…”
I think we do both adopting parents and adopted children a disservice if we insist they carry the baggage that “race is everything.” Yes, race is important, and it is part of my children’s heritage, but it isn’t all of their heritage.
If race is everything, then adoption is stupid, since race is primarily an appeal to bloodlines. Adoptees don’t have their parents’ bloodlines.
If race is everything, then transracial adoption is especially stupid, since the adoptee can’t be expected to ever really be comfortable in their family. After all, why would a Chinese child be comfortable with Anglos, if race is everything? No matter how hard I try, I can’t make myself Chinese. I didn’t grow up in that culture; I will never be fluent in the customs, language, and cultural expectations.
Why do adoption social workers and the adoption community inflict this wedge, this doubt, on parents who already have to work to fend off their own worries and the disdain for adoption as an inferior situation from friends, family, co-workers, and complete strangers? Why do adoptive parents verbally beat up on anybody on the adoption boards who dares suggest that maybe, just maybe, race and adoption isn’t everything? Is it the excess of “you must enthusiastically greet every other family who adopted from China, be in the parents’ group, do the events, do the culture classes, do the culture camps, etc. or else” that drives people to give up and say instead, “I can’t do all of that, so I’ll just ignore her culture completely”?
Why are we so awful at finding the middle road?
What is important is family, and family is not primarily built on blood, but on love. Because of our children, we pay special attention when anything about black history in America comes up in school or in something we’re watching. Because of our youngest, we mark the major Chinese holidays and eat more Chinese food than we probably would’ve otherwise (General Tso’s chicken would’ve found its way into my repetoire one way or the other. Mooncakes… much harder and less likely to have just cooked those on a whim). But I don’t tell our black children to stick to black history, nor are the Chinese celebrations focused on Empress alone. We would love to go back to China some day, but we will not be taking only Empress; we will go as a family.
This is our family, and this is our combined history and background. We are trying to make that a unifying thing, not something that splits us into the black part, the white part, the Chinese part of the family. The world is what it is, and each of us deals with the world and its prejudices in our own skin. But our skin, and the world, do not define us. Culture and race is part of who we are, but it is not all, or even most, of who we are. When we come home, we do not see “my Chinese sister” or “my white parents” or “my black brother.” We see brother and sisters, parents and children.
Maybe I see this as less of an issue because I already had ties to China; as a Catholic, I have brothers and sisters in faith everywhere in the world. We went to mass in Beijing and in Guangzhou, and, in a very real sense, we were family, part of the household of God. We donate to a bishop in Sudan trying to rebuild his diocese’s schools, churches, and hospitals after the civil war. Our family of five is part of the much larger family of the Church.
That family is present in every nation on earth, and it is not determined or defined by race.