Tuesday, April 9, 2013

White adoptive parents of transracial adoptees: Being non-racist does not mean being color-blind

White people must feel like they just can't do anything right these days.

And White adoptive parents, well, they must really feel like every effort they make is scrutinized and picked apart until every flaw and shortcoming is found.

And when it comes to issues of race, White people are really struggling to figure out what they're supposed to do these days. And even more so, White adoptive parents of transracial adoptees,* with culture camps and language classes, and trying to figure out how to cook the food of their adopted children's original country, or how to do their hair or where to live or shop, how to include the birth parents in their lives (if they in fact even do this), and the list goes on.

It's a lot to try to figure out.

Surprisingly, I'm not being sarcastic.

And although I feel for them at times, I'm not making excuses for White adoptive parents. And I certainly don't feel sorry for them or pity them. I actually believe it is their responsibility to do everything they can to help a transracial adoptee connect with and cultivate his or her origins inasmuch as the transracial adoptee desires to do so. And if a White adoptive parent is not open to actively (not just perfunctorily) doing so, then I believe they are failing their child.

One of the most damaging experiences for me personally as a transracial, intercountry adoptee was growing up completely isolated within a predominantly White community. All my parents' friends were White. All my White siblings' friends were White. The neighborhoods we lived in were White. The schools we attended were majority White (with a few token minorities here and there).

And the ironic thing is that my adoptive family lived in Asian countries for a good part of my childhood. So, it wasn't that I never saw other Asian people. It was that my parents never made an effort to make Asian people and culture a part of our family and lives.

Rather full assimilation within the Whiteness was what was thought to be best. In some ways, I grant them grace because that was back in the 70's. But today, White adoptive parents have no excuse. You don't even have to leave your house to educate yourself. Just get on the internet. There's a plethora of resources.

(Now I will say that I don't think it's actually possible for White parents of a transracial adoptee to ever be able to fully maintain the adoptee's ethnic heritage, no matter what they do, simply because, well, they're White. But that doesn't mean the parents shouldn't do everything they can to create an environment that is conducive to the adoptee being able to seek out and cultivate his or her origins.)

Even so, I know it must be confusing and overwhelming at times as White adoptive parents try to navigate what probably feels and looks like a field of racial landmines to them. (I mean, I'm still trying to work through racial identity issues.) But I still think they have no excuse for being ignorant about race and identity, especially as adoptive parents of transracial adoptees.

Seriously, there are so many resources available to you to be able to educate yourselves about the way "non-White" people experience race and identity, including the words I am sharing with you.

Here's what I've noticed over the years:  A lot of White people, and hence some White adoptive parents think they're supposed to be "color-blind." And they think that being "enlightened" means that they view every racial minority as "just like them"--what that practically translates to and means is "just like White people."

This thinking is embraced by some White adoptive parents, because that is what is taught in White culture as the socially and politically correct way to deal with race. And if a White person doesn't have any non-White friends (I mean real friends, not just acquaintances and co-workers) or never tries to educate him- or herself outside of their White culture (and yes, White people, you have a culture), then they never learn how to undo this type of thinking.

Okay, White people, here's a helpful insight--"non-White" people, we don't want you to be color-blind, i.e., we don't want you to view us as "just like White people," because, well, we ain't just like White people. And it's actually pretty ignorant to think that the standard for "normal" is White people. (Of course, I can't speak for every living non-White person, but I can speak for some.)

I know you mean well when you say to me, "I don't see you as Asian. I just see you as you." I know, my White friend, that you thought this was an enlightened statement, and you're perplexed as to why this bothers me.

But, let's be real, of course, you see that I'm Asian. It's the first thing you notice, whether you're aware of it or not (read Malcolm Gladwell's book, "Blink"). I mean, look at my hair and eyes and skin--of course, you and every other White person see that I'm Asian. Other Asian people see that I'm Asian.

And if you really want to mean it when you say to me, "I just see you as you," then you would recognize that being Asian is an inextricable, undeniable part of who I am. I ain't ashamed of it (well, on good days--but that's a whole other post), and neither should you be. But just don't use the recognition of my race to treat me with disrespect--that's where you start to go wrong.

My White friend, you actually can acknowledge a person's race in a positive way. Race is not a negative thing unless you view it that way. (White is a race, too. It just happens to be that the White race has for so long thought that it was better than every other race.)

Being non-racist does not mean ignoring someone's race, i.e. being color-blind. I'll say it again, being non-racist does not mean pretending that you do not see the color of someone's skin or hear the way that they speak or smell the food that they eat. Being non-racist means you see all these things without devaluing them or thinking they're somehow less than your Whiteness. 

Being non-racist means that you embrace and acknowledge someone's race and ethnicity and the culture that comes with it as just as meaningful, valid, and equal. It means that you don't see being White as the Absolute Standard for physical, social, and cultural norms.

Yes, of course, we're all human beings and on that level we're all the same. But c'mon, Pollyanna, that isn't really the practical experience of racial minorities in America. And it's definitely NOT the practical experience of this adult transracial, intercountry adoptee. (For more on what your transracial, intercountry adoptee might experience as they enter adulthood, and hence, why it's crucial for you to recognize your child's race, read this post, Hey mom, they don't see your little girl, they see an Asian woman.)

We want to be validated for our physical qualities, for our different tastes, for our distinct cultural traditions--not taught that if we try hard enough we can be just like White people or dismissed as though we're doing something wrong for wanting others to acknowledge our ethnicity.**

In short, I'm just trying to make the point that being White is not the standard for humanity. And yet, that's how racial minorities are made to feel every day of our lives. I'm not saying progress hasn't been made. But we still live in a world where race matters.

And as a transracial adoptee, I can say without hesitation, that growing up in a White family that was oblivious and ignorant to racial issues and identity was damaging to the core of who I am. I'm approaching my 40's, and I still struggle with feeling like my race is a defect or is somehow less desirable, less beautiful, less meaningful than being White.

Yes, yes, I know it does no good to be bitter toward society or my parents about it. And I'm not. But I can at least share my experiences, insights, and thoughts with the hope that White adoptive parents today won't follow along in the same White parade. But rather, that they will truly try to understand that being non-racist does not mean being color-blind.  

Your thinking, whether on race or adoption, has real, practical effects on your adopted children. Ignoring the realities of your child's race might appear to make life easier and more pleasant for you and your children upfront, but in the long run it can be damaging and stifling to your children's true identity and sense of self.

Respect and love your children enough to respect and love their origins.

[Just a note: I would like to thank my awesome White husband for the many conversations we have had regarding this subject.]


* I realize there are other types of transracial adoptions that take place, but I am choosing to address those that involve White adoptive parents and non-white children simply because that is my area of experience and what is most common in America.

** I've so often heard White people express confusion, frustration or even anger over the fact that racial minorities in America have "their own" organizations, media, stores, even towns, businesses, etc. White people complain, "Minorities get all upset because they say that White people discriminate against them for being different, but then they go and do all this stuff that emphasizes their differences and separates them from White people."

Again, this just shows how ignorant and out of touch White people are from the everyday experiences of racial minorities. These organizations, media, stores, businesses, etc. are created not to separate us from White people, but to help racial minorities survive and thrive in a society and culture that favors White people in every way. It has gotten a little better. But next time you're in a grocery store or just out and about, pay attention to the covers of magazines, commercials, bill boards, etc.--the majority of it is ALL WHITE.

Please, White people, try to imagine living in a society in which you never see yourself validated and included in organizations, media, stores, businesses, towns, etc. in ways that are truly representative. (Sure, I see Asian women here and there, but almost always portrayed as exotic, sexual objects that lack depth or personality.)