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Posts Tagged ‘transcultural adoption’

It’s been quite a while since I regularly wrote here and there is a reason for that. For many months, I have been challenged in my real life to actually live out (!) some of the things I’ve written about in my blogging life, and as usual, I’ve come up short of my own talk.

Let me begin by saying that I love my church. I believe my family is meant to be a part of this particular local body of Christians. Like any church, we have our issues. One of those issues is that while we have a diverse congregation, our church is seated in an area that is predominantly composed of people of color (African-Americans and Latinos, to be specific). I was a part of the church launch and proud to be part of a community aiming to connect with people of all backgrounds. When we launched, our core leadership consisted of several Asian-Americans, a black music director fluent in Spanish, and several white people.

Over the last few years, for reason one or another, we lost several of that initial group. Almost every person of color was [albeit unintentionally] replaced by a white person. When we lost our music director last year, I worried we were losing ground and may be putting our multi-ethnic, fledgling congregation at risk of looking like other churches that had been planted by our home church: white from the top down. Just as I thought we’d hit real trouble, God brought along a young man who was black and Puerto Rican. He was fluent in Spanish and a gifted leader. Our congregation actually got even more diverse, as members of the community saw someone they could connect with at the helm every Sunday morning.

We had some rough business happen last fall where for financial reasons, that young man was asked to leave. He was replaced by a white woman; and, while I was pleased about that to some degree (yay! a woman again!), I struggled with that age-old dichotomy of whose rights/acceptance/ascension come first: [likely white] women or people of color. These two groups are historically pitted against one another and as they say, history often repeats itself. In the days that followed that church decision, I wrote to our pastoral staff, our church elders, and maybe even to Santa Claus, to express my concern that we were backing away from an important tenet of our faith and a vital characteristic of our church in surrendering to homogeneity.

While many in leadership, especially my local pastor, took my concerns to heart, it remained an insignificant factor in finalizing their decision. At an open forum on the topic of our music minister’s dismissal, I voiced my concerns to the highest authorities in person, citing Scripture and asking them to consider the ramifications of such a decision. Several black women shared about the importance of having a role model and leader who “looks like them,” but their gentle attempts at explaining racial identity to our white pastors consistently fell on deaf ears. An Asian woman spoke up in support of our music minister, reflecting on a similar theme, but putting it in entirely different terms and drawing attention to the fact that our church leadership had, by default, whitened over the last two years. Again, a “we understand and that IS important, but…” was handed to us.

I was like a dog with a bone in that meeting. At one point, I asserted to the pastor leading the thing, “I’m just going to have to be the thorn in your side here because I find your answers unsatisfying. This is important to me, as a white person. It should be important to you, too.” Many times I was worried that I was coming off like a nut job. Even the people that wanted our music minister to stay were looking at like I was a bossy lunatic. After I spoke, one of the white pastors told us, in his defense, that he was married to an Asian woman, so he got it. They get funny looks sometimes, so he knew what I was talking about. He said, “I’m not colorblind, I know how important this is, but I won’t be color-bound in my decision.” What he didn’t realize is that he was. He is. We all are.

As the meeting ended, other issues were raised and the pastors demonstrated a stauncher commitment to the decision to let our music minister go. Several of the women of color who spoke during the proceedings came up to me afterward and thanked me for being so aggressive. One woman openly praised God while talking to me about it, thanking Him that a person like me would even know this stuff. I suppose compared to what she had just seen of white people (and perhaps what she knows of us generally), I did come off a little better. I was intensely discouraged by that meeting and despite the warm words of a few women, I felt unheard and more than a little homeless. My husband and I had many conversations about whether to stay or go in light of those events.

Following those days, in the early winter, I had lunch with another white woman in a position of leadership. She asked me about my opinion of those events and I told her what transpired in the public forum. I was careful to guard myself against gossip because she wasn’t there herself, but since it was an open meeting, I relayed some of the back and forth as close to the facts as I could recall. She was comfortable with the pastors’ decision, but what I’d said sparked a conversation on race and soon, we were in it even deeper than I had gone in that meeting.

I tried to talk to her about some of the things I’ve learned and show her my own shortcomings in this area. I told her of incidents where my privilege had blinded me to what others were going through and how reconciliation required both repentance and humility. I got a lot of “well, I don’t see them reaching out to us. Their congregations aren’t integrated. It won’t be like that in Heaven, but maybe that’s just how it is here.” It was acceptance bordering on endorsement. As we talked, she kept eying a black couple to my left to see if they were listening. They were, at times, but that didn’t seem to inhibit her commentary. She went on to say that thankfully, racism seemed to be dying out and that our children probably wouldn’t have these problems. She told me that she often teases her daughter, who is so open-minded in her social circles, “Don’t you have any friends with normal names?”

Normal names. I couldn’t even speak. How do you even respond to that?! I had an answer for everything she had said, but this seemed to cross some invisible gall line that I couldn’t follow her over. Did anyone other than the people of color in my church, I mean any one white person, even care? Did any one of them even know they should care? At what point do you hang on and hope people will understand and at what point do you let go of the rope? I had reached that point. My hands were off. I could do no more. Me, a white person, needed some white allies if I was going to have the confidence to remain in this community.

Then I began thinking about why I felt I needed allies. Why was I looking to other white people for courage? Shouldn’t God be giving me that? Shouldn’t the rightness of my cause be giving me that? The three women of color at that meeting endured flagrant dismissal in their attempt to be a legitimate part of our church community. I thought about how many times they must have wondered, “Should we just go to an all-black church?” I considered that the homelessness and the alienation I felt as a white weirdo had to be just a drop in the bucket of what those women had borne. Sure, I was formidable at that meeting, but much of my indignation was fueled by the fact that I wasn’t getting my way. I wasn’t being heard. I was pissed that the system that always works for me wasn’t working for me. And in my pride and privilege, I was surprised by my ineffectiveness. Here I was doing that white person, “But, I’m a good white person! Where’s my cookie!?!” thing.

It was during this short season of contemplation that one of those women (the Praise lady) and I had a talk that empowered me to stay. She and I were talking about how my husband and I are preparing to become foster parents and the subject of race, etc. came up again. She told me that she and her husband came from an all-black church and intentionally left to pursue an integrated community. She said that they weren’t turning back, even in the face of the great disappointments our leadership was handing down. She reminded me that change is slow and it takes people of goodwill staying and insisting (or in my case, agitating and irritating) for things to get better.

I was, what we evangelical-types call “convicted.” I was told to be patient and endure by a woman who exuded patience and graciousness. I have such a low tolerance for personal injustice. Thanks, again white privilege. And who was I kidding, it wasn’t even fully personal for me. I wasn’t being dismissed and ignored. The people of color involved were being dismissed and ignored. Sure, I got a taste of it for standing in solidarity with them, and I’m proud of that. But that was little league stuff, and in light of the greater struggle against prejudice, racism, and privilege, any injury I sustained was even smaller. I was in a huff and ready to leave before the thing even really got started.

About a month ago, a white woman I’m just getting to know had a conversation with me about fostering. She’d been raised by white parents (her birth parents) and was part of a large family of fostered and adopted children. Her parents had moved into a low-income, predominantly black community when she was a child. Everyone at their church balked at the move (and initially, their ever-growing family), cautioning her parents that their children would be imperiled by that decision. They didn’t care. They trusted God. Over time, the church folks came around. The church became multicultural, with interracial couples and various blends of families from different backgrounds. Families of color joining and becoming leaders in the church. One family’s decision to be different and pursue God’s direction made a difference in their intimidated, ignorant, white church community. But the change was slow. She told me that “these things have a tendency to catch on.” I’m still skeptical that any of this can happen for my church, but still there’s a glint of hope.

Yet, even last week, I got another glimpse at the possibilities. We go to dinner with an assigned group of people once a month over a three-month stint. It’s an activity designed to acquaint every family in our particular church group. Saturday, we had dinner with a young white couple and an Ethiopian family. As it seems to do these days, the topic of race, missions, and ministry, came up. The white couple were educated at a Christian college in Ohio where they learned about white privilege and how Christians can be involved in racial justice. I was kind of shocked, to be honest, at what they had learned at their relatively conservative evangelical school. The couple is planning to lead a team of missionaries to Haiti where they will be establishing a relationship between our church and a local church there. They wanted counsel on how to do missions in light of all they understood about colonialism, imperialism, white savior-ism and the lot. The Ethiopian couple talked at length about what their perceptions were of missionaries back home: how it had been done badly, how it had been done well. They spoke of how trust is cultivated, how one can learn from the other, and how open, strong, healthy partnerships and peer relationships can develop.

The husband talked a bit about his experience with racial profiling, being light-skinned and mistaken for an Arabic person and searched at security stations in airports. He said he always made sure to go to the bathroom before the flight because he knew just standing up during the flight might frighten the passengers. I was appalled and said he shouldn’t do that, nor should he feel he has to do that. He agreed that it was a sacrifice, but said in those situations he still aims to make [white] people comfortable. I knew that many people in our church would not be bothered by such a situation. They may be uncomfortable knowing someone it had actually happened to, but in theory, they have no qualms with profiling, etc. Again, I was reminded that any loneliness I feel in my church because of my convictions is a small offering compared to what is happening right now to my Christian brothers and sisters of color.

When we left dinner, I had a renewed sense of passion for racial justice and reconciliation. The injustices against my new Ethiopian friends, the righteous indignation and humility of my new white friends. It was a lot to take in over one meal. I’m not sure where all of this is leading, but I know there is a great and difficult conversation emerging in our church about race. More than anything else, I am thankful that God is faithful to keep putting me in it. Even when I look crazy or devolve into a total whiner over it.

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The following is a re-blog from Claudia over at My fascinating life.  Claudia is an Aussie mom living in the UK who adopted Ethopian children.   She’s testament to the fact that if you provide us with insightful commentary on our posts, we might go over to your blog and find things we’d like to bring home with us.

I’ve made a decision – the next person to ask me whether I need to put suncream on the babies is getting a punch in the mouth. I’m not quite sure why this is every white person’s ‘go-to’ question about raising black children, but that seems to be the case. Like if they suddenly found themselves in my shoes, it wouldn’t matter if the child grew up totally unsure about their identity, where to fit in, lacking any positive black role models and looking down the barrel of casual racism every day; that would be fine, but heaven forfend the baby should get sunburned.

I know I’m overreacting about that particular question, and if anybody I know in real life is reading this then they are definitely going to be offended, because I’m pretty sure that every single white person I know has asked me this question since the sun came out here, about two weeks ago. And I do take sun safety very seriously. And on one level, it’s fine that people ask me this. It’s sunny, we’re at the park, they’re slapping the suncream on their kids, it’s a reasonable question. And I prefer curiosity to someone saying ‘oh, seriously, your child isn’t white? I didn’t notice! Because we’re all the same on the inside!’ But sometimes, this question, and others like it, (‘what do you do with their hair?‘) can make me feel really uncomfortable, and I don’t quite know what to do.

I think I’ve almost figured out how to deal with conversations that are openly racist, or, more commonly, just plain ignorant. No matter who, no matter where, don’t let it slide, ever. Challenge. Disagree. Not just when it’s a conversation about people who share the same colour skin as my children, but anything racist, all the time. Zero tolerance. There’s a lot of stuff that I used to let slip by me, but now – no way. I’m acutely aware that many adult adoptees say their parents weren’t active enough as their anti-racist advocates, particularly with extended family, and those of us who have had the opportunity to learn from their experience have NO excuse if the same is said about us.

But I find this kind of thing much harder. It’s not a racist question. It’s not even a particularly stupid question. But it makes me prickle. I think that what upsets me is this. I get the distinct impression that some of my white friends ask me questions about my black babies that they would never ask if I was a black mother. Or at least, ask them in a way that they wouldn’t ask a black mother. This is difficult to articulate, but I feel like there is an unspoken assumption that we belong to the same club, they and I, a club to which my children do not belong. And that our sameness means that it’s okay – indeed, expected – for us to share information and experiences about our encounters with those who are not the same. Even, in my case, if those who aren’t the same are also my children. We all know that the first rule of White Club is YOU DO NOT TALK ABOUT WHITE CLUB, so none of this would ever be said out loud. But honestly, in some conversations it is palpable.

It feels similar to what I experienced when I moved to the UK from Australia. When I came across other Australians, we would always form a huddle and complain about the same things – usually the price of food, how cold it was, how long it was since we’d seen the sun and the impossibility of really getting to know anyone properly. Then we would tell stories about Rude English People I Have Met, and What They Said To Me. It was comforting. But time went on, and something changed. I began to feel at home here. I worked out how to navigate the supermarket, bought a decent coat, resigned myself to a lifetime of Seasonal Affective Disorder and made some friends. My accent was Australian (and it still is) but I didn’t feel quite so partisan anymore. I began to feel that at least part of me was becoming British. And then the moaning sessions weren’t quite so welcome. When people would hear my voice, and then want to talk about what was wrong with the UK, I kept finding myself thinking ‘what makes you think I’m on YOUR side in this conversation?’

And that’s how I keep feeling now. White people see my skin, and I think it makes them think that I’m on their side. I’m not going to go down the ‘now that I have Ethiopian children, I consider myself to be Ethiopian too’, road, because I think that’s a pile of horse manure. I’m still white, I’ll always be white, and there’s nothing I can do about that. But that doesn’t mean I’m on their side.

It does feel, sometimes, like people view my children as educational toys. They’re a safe, easy way to learn about black people. You know, without actually having to talk to a black person. And I get frustrated, because my children are not a bridge. They do not have a responsibility to my friends to link all the colours of the world into a complacent little circle. And they are not objects; curiosities to be examined. They are their own selves, with their own complicated histories, and neither they nor I owe my friends any information about their skincare regime. I think that sometimes people are wanting some kind of inside scoop – for me to go into detail about how hard it is to care for such ‘difficult’ hair or skin, but it’s just not going to happen. They aren’t entitled to that information, even if it was the case. I am not on their side.

But sometimes it’s a hard balance. Because sometimes I ask myself – are these the opportunities I’ve been waiting for? Is the problem not too many questions about their skin, but too few? I think most of us can agree that a fake-o ‘colourblind’ approach to life doesn’t do our children any favours. And I wish that I could have more frank discussions with my white friends about race, not fewer. But I want them to be real. Surely the really important issues around skin are privilege and prejudice, not, well, skin. I want to talk about how we approach our own whiteness, before talking about anybody else’s blackness. I don’t really know how those conversations would sound, but I’m sure they wouldn’t just be about sun safety or hair products. I hate that I am still so bad at making those conversations happen.

So, back to the sun cream. Mostly, when sun cream comes up, I say ‘Well! The babies take longer to burn than a very pale baby, but they will still burn. I do put sun cream on them, but we don’t need it if they’re only going to be outside for a little while. We have suncream that smells like coconut. Doesn’t their skin smell delicious? What type of suncream do YOU use?’ And questions about hair get ‘isn’t their hair BEAUTIFUL? I just can’t wait until her hair is long enough to braid. Do you think your little Susie’s hair is going to stay blonde?’ And none of this is going to set the world on fire, and sometimes I wish I could have the courage to be a lot ruder, but for now, for questions that aren’t outright impolite, I’ve decided to stick with simple answers that affirm my children and then move swiftly on.

All of this feels almost impossible to write about, because I’m so painfully aware of how little I know. And maybe my approach is wrong – maybe I’m reading too much into comments that are totally innocent, or maybe the reverse is happening and I’m ignoring something really big, and I should be… well, I don’t know. And of course some of my friends don’t do anything like this, and I need to remember that I never used to care about race until I realised that it was going to affect my family. So I’d better not climb too high onto my high horse, or I’m liable to fall off. This is all really hard. I know I’m making mistakes. I hope I’ll be willing to learn from them. But whatever happens, I hope the babies always know that I am on their side.

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I posted most of this as a response to Nikki’s recent post on transracial adoption; it was suggested that it would make a good followup post, so, here it is.

I think it can be tempting for potential adoptive parents to personalize critiques of transracial adoption, and this can make it difficult to hear what people who have concerns about transracial adoption are actually saying. This isn’t about questioning specific potential parents’ committment to equally love an adopted child of whatever race, or about weighing their parental skills. It’s about calling people to be the best parents they can possibly be to their children – something that doesn’t come easily to biological parents, or parents who adopt children within their race or ethnicity, either. People don’t always realize that parents of color aren’t automatically great at teaching their children an age-appropriate awareness of racism or teaching them to be proud of their identity.

As an example – I was raised by my biological parents, who emigrated from Nigeria to the U.S. when my siblings and I ranged in age from 3 to 8 years old. My parents had very little notion of the history of racism and race relations in the U.S.; now I realize that their understanding of race in America was only slightly more sophisticated than mine, if at all (i.e., that there used to be issues with racism, but that was all a long time ago, and now everything was more or less fine, with the exception of your occasional KKK member).

I don’t remember my parents ever initiating conversations about race with us, and whenever I did ask questions about race the answers I got were that 1) if we worked hard and kept out of trouble, no one would have a problem with us, and 2) people who complained about racism were either bitter and unforgiving, or they were using it as an excuse for their laziness. I don’t know that these things were said in so many words, but that was the definite impression I got from my parents. On top of all that, my parents had attitudes towards African Americans (as opposed to Africans) that were frankly pretty racist, and I grew up in predominantly white conservative churches that had serious issues with white privilege, classism, and racism. I internalized a lot of those attitudes.

All that to say, I have black parents, and I was completely unprepared for what it means to be black and a woman in this country.  I internalized harmful stereotypes and beliefs about what it meant to have black skin in America, and I struggled with self-hatred and prejudice against African Americans because of this.

Part of that is because my parents are immigrants, and they were getting an education on race in America along with their children.  They couldn’t teach me what it meant to be black in America because they themselves didn’t know.  If you talk to them today, their views on race and racism are very different than what they communicated to us even just a few years ago.

In any event, I’ve had to grapple with race and racism largely on my own, and carve out my own identity as a black American woman and as a member of the African diaspora, and all that is still a work in progress.  And I have to figure out how to help my biracial, black, American daughter make sense of these questions for herself, and sort through her own experiences of race and racism, which will be similar but also quite different from mine – all while I’m still working on understanding them myself. That’s not easy. But it would be a mistake to just not try because it would be difficult.

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