Sunday, January 31, 2010

Yeah, About That...(My Thoughts About Race)

We now have nine months under our belts as an interracial family. Nine months doesn't sound like much in the grand scheme of things but I can tell you that I've learned a lot during those months. This seems like a good time to share some of what I've learned, and some of my thoughts about what it's like to be a white woman raising a black child. This will be long but it's important for many reasons, not just to other interracial families. I hope you'll keep reading.

The thing is, I don't really know how to write about this topic. I have a lot to say, and I talk about race frequently with friends and family but for some reason writing about it is more difficult for me. Two fellow bloggers, Debbie and Andi discuss this topic on their blogs frequently. Sometimes I wish I could be more like them because I think open discussion of our thoughts about race and racism is central to any hopes our society has of finding solutions to the race related problems and dysfunctions we have. I think it's far better to come out and say what we're thinking or ask the questions we have than to cover it all up and pretend that racial differences between people don't exist or matter. Which actually brings me to my first point:

{For lack of a better way to organize my thoughts, I'm going to make a list of topics in no particular order and share my insights about each as they occur to me.}
  1. Race shouldn't matter but it does. When you look at it rationally, why should the fact that my son has darker skin than the people who love him matter one bit? But it does. The simple fact of the countless (thankfully mostly positive) reactions we get every time we leave the house shows that it matters. In our society, race matters. I would like nothing more than to live in a happy-go-lucky bubble where I could pretend our differences don't matter, and as such shield him from that reality, but that's not possible. It matters and I think we need to acknowledge that fact so we can get past the pretenses of trying to pretend that we are "color blind" in a very colorful world.
  2. Racism is still very prevalent today, it's just much more covert than it was several decades ago. If you look closely enough, you will see it there under the surface, plain as day. This is an edgy time for our society but I think we are on the brink of good change. I see racism in a few of the glances we now get...and occasionally in the wide open looks of disdain on faces in the crowd. It's there but it's submerged, and thankfully it's not everywhere. Racism stems from ignorance and lack of knowledge, as well as lack of personal experiences with people of different races and backgrounds. In this day and age there is no longer any excuse for that. The old adage about walking a mile in another person's shoes before making a judgment certainly holds true here. This is why I'm willing to talk to friends, family and complete strangers about race and about our experiences, because knowledge and information = power.
  3. I want Charlie to understand and love his birth culture, but also feel that he's an integral and valuable part of this family and our culture. To me, the term interracial means exactly that - even though our cultural backgrounds are different, we are intertwined as one family and as such we are unique. Each of our cultures is value added to the equation and should be celebrated as such. Just like Michael and I built a new family culture based upon our unique childhoods and family backgrounds, so too will we now build a family culture that includes Charlie's background and cultural heritage.
  4. I think it's important that (especially white parents raising black children) embrace black people as a whole. This is a tricky one, but I see it time and again. People seem to make an exception for Charlie, or put him in a unique category because of our situation, rather than accepting him as the black individual he part of the whole. Does that mean that I love every black person I encounter? No...but it does mean that I respect and value black people as a whole, not that I make an exception for Charlie as the black child I've welcomed into my life. I hope that makes sense and doesn't come off wrong. Put it this way, I don't love every white person I encounter, but I do still respect and value white people as a group. The same must also be true fro black people as a group. I want my son to learn that he is a unique mix of his birth and adoptive heritage and culture, and that both groups are valued equally within our family.
  5. I don't just talk the talk, I also walk the walk. I'll risk being painfully honest here. There was a time in my life when I was wary of black men. I would drive through what I perceived to be the "bad" part of town and lock my doors if I saw a black man. Those days are gone. This turning point occurred one day while I was at the grocery store, quite a while ago. There was a group of about four or five adolescent black boys right outside the door, blocking the entrance. At one point in my life I would have gone out of my way to avoid having to ask them to move. That day it suddenly dawned on me that my son would one day be a lot like them and that I needed to get over myself. It goes back to #4 a little bit. Those boys weren't causing any harm, and they certainly weren't any risk to me. I simply said, "Excuse me I need to get through." to which one of the boys replied, "Oh I'm sorry, my bad." as he moved out of my way. From then on I have made a point of trying to become more conscious of my own inner race-related thoughts and feelings. My belief is that we all have those (often erroneous) pre-conceived notions going on in our minds, of which we are sometimes even unaware ourselves. Until we start being brutally honest about our concerns and misconceptions, we can never hope to reach common ground or teach our children that there can be a better way.
  6. A good sense of humor and thick skin are essential tools for any black child, and especially a black child being raised by white parents. The brutal truth is that Charlie is going to have to deal with comments and questions about our family his entire life. He has no option of keeping the knowledge of his adoption private. Every teacher he has and all his classmates will know that he's an adopted child. With our ever-increasing acceptance and education of unique family situations, things are getting easier. I fervently hope they continue to do so but the fact remains that as a family we are prominently displayed as "different" and that will (unfortunately) make us an easy target from time-to-time. I hope to be able to instill in Charlie a sense of pride in who he is and who we are so that when these times do come up, he will have a solid shield with which to protect himself.
  7. In much the same way racism and bigotry are taught, so too are acceptance and tolerance. We must explicitly teach our children...all children...that acceptance of others, even (and perhaps especially) when we don't agree with them is important. In a big way, this means we must talk openly and honestly to our children about real-life differences that exist in our society and how that makes us feel. We must also be armed with our own information and knowledge so we can be prepared to answer our children's inevitable questions. More than anything else, leading by example and being willing and open to acceptance of other (no less valid) ways of being is truly the bottom line.
  8. We must lead by example and model the behaviors we want our children to develop. Children need and want to see themselves reflected in pictures, books, advertisements, and in the world at large. They need strong, positive models (of both famous and everyday people) of their same race to whom they can look for examples of what they can become. Our current president is a huge step in the right direction, particularly for today's black children but there is still a long way to go. Those of us who are raising black children need to become knowledgeable and acutely aware of when and how black people are portrayed in children's books, on packaging, and in our visual/pop culture at large. Growing up as a white child, I was fortunate to see people and images who resembled me everywhere I looked and I took that for granted. Again I think we have made huge strides in this area, but stereotypes and imbalances are still entirely too common. The first step toward fixing this problem is becoming aware of its existence. Following are a few of the best books I've found featuring black children or culture. These are all unique but valuable stories that I will definitely read to Charlie in the future: "Wilma Unlimited," "Bud Not Buddy," "Anansi the Spider," and "Amazing Grace." I hope to be able to instill a sense of pride in my child by making a conscious effort to make sure he sees his culture in a positive light through books and media.
  9. White privilege is real. Until you've stepped out of that comfort zone, you can't really see it's existence, but being part of the majority class makes life easier. If you are white, ask yourself what would happen if you woke up tomorrow and were suddenly black instead. That would undoubtedly mean big changes in nearly every facet of your life. For this reason, I am happier than ever that we live in a very diverse area with lots of colleges and open-minded people. I think that our proximity to resources and other families like us will help to pave the way for Charlie so that when he does struggle he will have somewhere to turn. But even so, the simple fact that my child is black and will someday become a black man means he will struggle in ways I never could have imagined as a child. As a mother, I want nothing more than to protect my child while I nurture and guide him, but this is one area of life where I will not be able to protect my son. He will be judged (sometimes very harshly) because he is a black male. Ouch, that hurts!
  10. Physiological differences are real, but sometimes overemphasized. One of the very first questions I had was, "How do I take care of his skin and hair?" To be honest, I was a little scared of this at first and concerned that I wouldn't be able to do a good job. After all, this is one area where adoptive parents are often judged, sometimes harshly. Other black families look at our children's skin and hair to find out what we know and how much we've been willing to learn about our children's physiological makeup. There seems to be a lot of pressure and concern in this area.'s just not all it's cracked up to be. Skin and hair care is a concern, but it's by far no longer one of my greatest. I still remember when Charlie was tiny. I was sitting and chatting with one of my close friends, Nancy. She is from an interracial family where her mother is white and her father is black. I told her I was worried about Charlie's skin becoming "ashy," and she said something that has stuck with me ever since. "If you had darker skin, you would be able to see it when there were dry spots too." It was sort of like a light bulb went off for me. To overemphasize the fact that Charlie's skin shows its dryness more than mine is really silly. I put lotion on him liberally after every bath, and then I just touch up dry spots as I see them. Speaking of baths, I only give him once every few days as needed, which seems to work wonderfully. And I use a small amount of olive oil that I mix into his shampoo, which helps his hair stay moisturized. On non-bath days I usually comb a small amount of baby oil or other hair dressing into his hair in the morning and that's it. Granted he is a boy, which makes this part of my job much easier but I honestly find that it's not nearly as big a deal as I once imagined it would be. The other interesting thing about this aspect of parenting a black child is that people often want to touch Charlie's hair. Even little ones when we are out and about seem to have a natural sense of curiosity about his hair and will often reach out to touch the top of his head. I wonder how this will change as he gets older. Right now it doesn't bother me--and I think people sometimes want to touch for the simple fact that he's a baby but if this continues as he grows, I could see it becoming quite a nuisance.
  11. Overemphasis and exploitation can be harmful too. Though I firmly believe in everything I've said here and I fully intend to be open and honest with Charlie in an age-appropriate and child-centered manner, I also think the issue of race and differences can be given too much attention. My goal as Charlie's mommy is to make sure I am informed and that I have access to helpful resources, but mostly to follow Charlie's lead in terms of when and how these topics are addressed. I want him to be a happy and carefree "normal kid" and not always feel like the one who is singled out because he is different. One of my greatest hopes is that I will be able to continually strive toward maintaining an open and honest relationship with my son so that he knows he can always talk to me about issues of race and/or adoption without fear of me clamming up, being closed-minded, or downplaying his feelings (whatever they may be.) Because of the situation we're in and the fact that we have a closed adoption, there will be painful times for Charlie and painful questions to which I cannot provide an answer. My hope is that I can teach him to be strong and to have pride in who he is while at the same time being open and honest with him that there are some parts of his life and his story that are tough.
As with all things adoption related, this has been a learning curve for me. Michael and I were always waiting with open arms for any child who came into our lives. Even though we still have a lot to learn as we navigate these waters, I wouldn't change who we are as a family for anything in the world. I welcome any questions and comments you may have but please be respectful of who we are.


Laurie said...

Great post!! I have a whole series on these very things on my blog at this link:

I agree that keeping the dialogue going is the best way to educate others and prepare our own families for the journey ahead!

Tracey said...

GOOD JOB! Charlie is certainly a testament to how good a job you are doing. I was looking at the top picture and thinking back to you before Charlie and you look amazing. You have never looked happier. God Bless.

athena said...

very well said! :)

KLTTX said...

Great post.

TXMom2B said...

I hear you on #4 particularly. I never saw myself as racist until I moved into a mostly Black neighborhood. I, too, have learned about my old tendency to worry about Black teens, especially boys. My Caucasian son is going to spend at least the first couple years of school being a minority, and I'm making myself deal with the feelings now so that I'm ready. It took some time at first, but now I'm able to look all I pass in the eye and be polite instead of feeling intimidated or threatened. I can only remember one time in three years when that politeness wasn't returned. Now I hesitate less and less, and I'm able to read their body language more accurately and base my judgments more on that particular situation and less on race (I'm cautious walking near any teen if they're loitering around, regardless of race, but now I look for clear signs of trouble instead of race). I used to assume I wasn't racist, now I assume I am until I show myself otherwise. Living in their neighborhood and it being such a quiet, peaceful place has done more to break down my barriers than anything else.

stillthinkingagain said...

Wow, Melba. Just... wow. I've been waiting for you to write on this subject, because I knew that you would say it just right. And you did. I love this post... thank you so much for putting it out there and giving us all something to think about.

Rebekah said...

Wonderful post, Melba. Very real. Thank you for living in love and educating us as you go.

This is a topic that needs to be discussed MORE. Ben and I made the difficult decision to leave our church, last year because of the lack of (zero) diversity. Although Ty does not look bi-racial we still believe it's important that he grows up in a diverse environment. We don't want him to have the same white privilege mentality that we did, before getting educated on it.

Last Sunday, we sat next to an Asian couple with two black families in front of us. As I looked around the room, I found an equally diverse bunch, worshiping God together. Something in my heart shouted "YES!"

I don't know how our family will take shape in the future, but I know I want little Tyrus to be exposed to all cultures; all people.

BB said...

This is very powerful, Melba. Very well said. I wish everyone (including myself) could take all of this to heart! Bravo!

Karen said...

Very well-written post. I agree with you 100% and came to many of the same conclusions when we were matched with Lucy. And even though we aren't an interracial family, I find that I look at the world differently than I did before. You are lucky to live in an area of the country with great diversity!

Rachel said...

Melba - I would love to ask you a question, but I can't find your email address anywhere. Would you be so kind as to send me an email?

Love this post. Nathanael is 3/4 AA and 1/4 Hispanic, but no one can tell that yet - most people think he is white. That presents a whole NEW set of challenges!!!


jba said...

Hi! This is a great post and touches on many of the topics discussed in a recent workshop on trans-racial adoption in which I participated. One of the main concerns of the participants was that of being informed about the challenges a trans-racial adoption brings from people in the community, family members, and friends. Not to mention the questions from the child once he/she is old enough to articulate differences in skin color.

It seems that you have put much thought into how you will deal with Charlie's questions once he's a big boy. Based on your post, you will do a great job with your answers!

Richele said...

this is so great, melba - i had to read it in chunks to make sure i absorbed it all.

thank you for sharing your thoughts, especially the less than fun ones.

#4 is the one i think most of us will find hits home - definitely a tricky one. much education about this is needed - to make sure our kids are not accepted based on who their parents are ... but on who they are.

#5 ouch. i agree. i've definitely had to alter my views here to see people as people, no matter where i am or what i'm doing. my extended family is multiracial, so i had to work on this previously, before becoming bee and jay's mama.

#9 one of the many reasons i am happy we are military family. everywhere we go, we end up surrounded by diversity, accepted diversity. awesome.

i could keep going and cheering you on, but you get the idea.

thank you again!

Jamie said...

so much to think about when it comes to raising our children. :) we had to do so much research and reading on transracial adoption prior to being placed. i remember feeling so overwhelmed and sad that our world still deals with racism.....and i learned about white privelege. you are doing a wonderful job at being charlie's mama and helping to shape him and the people around you into seeing that we are all people...all special....regardless of race or color. the best thing we can do is become aware that this exists and that there are things we can do each day to help close that gap. thanks so much for the post melba. :)

zoomdog! said...

Thank you so much! Your advice was great, and I managed to (as you said, with A TON of cutting and pasting!) figure out how to do my own little list on the sidebar!
Also -- I really enjoyed this post, as I always do! It is so well-worded and well-thought-out. I'm Japanese-American, and Ayize's father is African-American, so the two of us leave a lot of people head-scratching as they try to figure out "what" we are. I have literally had nosy folks stop us to say, "He's so cute. What is he?" and I've always answered, "Oh, a boy," with a straight face, secretly daring them to pry more! It drives me crazy because I think it speaks to a deep desire on the part of a lot of white folks to categorize non-whites, as a perhaps not-entirely-conscious way of figuring out how to "deal" with us.
Similarly, because he is light-skinned, and I am dark-skinned (for an Asian), I am frequently taken for his nanny -- again, I think this speaks to the idea that if a woman of color is caring for a light-skinned child, she must be the nanny! Don't know if I'm making much sense here, but I figure you get what I mean; you have surely dealt with similar issues of people asking you roundabout questions to delve into your family situation to satisfy their own curiosity...
Anyway -- I'm babbling here, sorry! Just wanted to say, BRAVO! to this post! And to send you some e-hugs as you work your way through all this, which of course, takes a lifetime to work through, but man, you are way ahead of the game!!!
We have a veritable library of kid's books at our house, many that approach issues of race and acceptance in ways that really speak to young kids, and I'd be thrilled to offer suggestions if you ever want them!
Hugs to you, your hub, and charming Charlie, I cannot believe it possible, but he gets more and more freaking adorable with each passing day! What a future heartbreaker he's growing up to be! And those smiles are so precious!!!

E said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this. This was so interesting to read your perspective and very well-written!

Debbie B said...

Ack! I read your post and typed out a long comment but it dissappeared. Bottom line. Excellent post and you made me realize just how much I've grown in the past 2 years. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

I've been following your blog for awhile and love it. Your son is adorable.

This is rather random, but tonight I was browsing etsy and ran accross this shop:

A mother draws her daughter as different fairy tale characters. Her Rapupunzel, who sports a gloriously curly head of hair :) is especially adorable.

I know you're involved in the transracial adoption community and thought you might know of people who would enjoy her art.


Hilary said...

Great post, thanks for sharing.

Lane said...

Great post!

sanjeet said...

i had to read it in chunks to make sure i absorbed it all.

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