Friday, October 12, 2007

Adoption and racial subcultures

As I've mentioned before, Torsten and I plan to adopt one child at some point a few years down the road. The thing about the adopting is that even though any child we adopted would of course be as precious and loved and part of the family as any child we conceived, I wouldn't want to cut it away from the culture of wherever it was born. We would absolutely treat it as our own, and raise it speaking English and German and learning about our cultures and our backgrounds and all of that, just as we would a child that we conceived.

But I would also want the child to have full information about its history. Adopted kids have questions, not just about who their biological parents are but also about where they come from and why they aren't there anymore. I want to answer those questions, satisfy that curiosity, let the child know that yes, it came from somewhere else, its parents couldn't keep it/aren't alive anymore/whatever those circumstances may be, and that's why we were lucky enough to have the child for ourselves, but that yes, it has ancestors and roots in a place other than here.

More than likely, we will adopt a child from another country. For me, it makes sense to adopt a child from Africa, possibly from Senegal, since there are many parentless children there, and since it's a country where I've lived and that I know something about. I don't claim to be an expert on Senegalese culture at all, and I know I only got an outsider's perspective of a sliver of it all, but for us it would still be better than adopting a child from eastern Europe or South America or Asia or somewhere where we have no real concept of the culture at all.

The point is that most likely, the child that we adopt will be black. As anyone who has looked at the photos that I've posted has probably noticed, Torsten and I are not black. I know that many people who see our future little family unit will wonder about this, and many of them will probably ask interfering, nosy questions, and I think that we can deal with that.

But what I'm wondering about is the racial subcultures that most definitely exist within the United States. I've noticed it throughout my life. I've almost always been in places where racial diversity was highly valued and yet the vast majority of the people where white. From age 5 to age 17, I went to a Quaker school in North Carolina that was founded in 1963 with the primary goal of providing a racially integrated school environment in an area that was resisting mandated desegregation. I went to a college known as a bastion of liberalism that had student groups focused on recognizing and eliminating white privilege. I worked at a non-profit organization with a truly diverse staff from all over the world that worked together on international health issues. I currently work at another organization like that.

And yet, in all of those places, the people of colour stuck together--specifically black people. In high school, the black kids hung out together, ate lunch together, did everything together. There was always the one white kid who hung out with the black kids and vice versa--but everyone talked about those kids, and made fun of them. In my last job, all the black staff members were friends with each other, had lunch together, talked together--really, it was just like high school. In college, it was the same thing. The black people tended to seek each other out, to bond, to establish friendships.

And there isn't anything wrong with that. It might not be helping school administrators around the country achieve their goals of true and utter integration, but it's fine. I don't believe that the world should be "colour blind"--it's impossible not to acknowledge that people of different cultures, ethnicities, races have been through different experiences, have been separated out historically and thus have developed separate subcultures, that it's often easier for a black person to relate to another black person than for them to relate to someone of another race (and likewise for people of all different races). Racism exists and has existed for a long time, and that has led to the development of racial subcultures, and that's fine, it happened and we know about it and to aim for a world in which that no longer exists is unrealistic and, worse, unfair, because it ignores these histories and downplays the reasons behind the existence of current racial subcultures.

So that's the problem--I have spent only six months out of my life living in a place where my race was the minority, and while I stood out and often felt uncomfortable because of it, it wasn't an experience that made me suddenly understand "what it's like to be black in America," or anything else. I still don't have that racial history of oppression, and I'll never have that, and I know that I'm lucky for that reason. But it means that I don't have any real way of tapping into black subculture. Yes, I have black friends, and no, I don't consider myself racist except insofar as everyone is a little bit racist (and I believe that to be true).

But if I have a black child, I won't be able to raise them in any sort of black culture. And Torsten won't, either. And that's okay too, I think, but it also raises issues. Some of them are small issues--like, I don't have any experience with the kind of hair that most black people have. I would have to learn how to style my daughter's hair--it's not a skill that I could teach her as much as it would be one that we would learn together. And bigger issues, much bigger, like the fact that racism still exists in the US and that our child would encounter that racism. And that while I would do what I could to help our child deal with that, and get past that, I wouldn't have the personal experience to share the way black parents would.

And then, like I said, there's the middle issues, the stuff that isn't as big a deal as getting turned down for a job because of your race, or having a college classmate imply that the only reason you were accepted into college was because of race-based affirmative action. But stuff that still feels like a big deal, especially to the person who is living through it. Stuff like the fact that at school, the black kids will probably be hanging out together, and our child would quite possibly be hanging out with them as well, but it's fairly unlikely that any of the other kids in that group will have been raised in a white, German- and English-speaking bilingual household with a Jewish mother and parents who have never worn clothes by Fubu and South Pole and Timberland and other brands especially popular among black teenagers.

I don't mean to be drawing stereotypes about black people and how they stand out from white people, and I also don't mean to be cutting other races out of this discussion. I recognize that not all black people are a certain way or wear certain clothes or hang out only with other black people. I know that no people of any race fit into the generalizations that American society as a whole makes about them.

But I also know that these subcultures exist, that people in different races are considered to be part of wholly different demographics by advertising agencies who target their ads to very specific groups of people, and the reason is because as a group, they do have distinct cultures and styles. And I wonder what it will mean for our child to feel stuck between two different racial cultures, to look one way and yet not necessarily be able to relate to people who look the same way. Every child goes through identity crises, and I wonder if these factors will make our child's struggle to find its identity that much harder. And how much we, as its parents, will be able to help our child navigate through all the questions. And whether we ourselves will ever feel like we have answers.


  1. Well, hell. I think you are off to an outstanding start because you are thinking of all this complicated, difficult, uncomfortable stuff now. You are already a good parent!

    I doubt you'll ever feel like you have any real answers to this stuff. But I have a feeling you guys will always step back, examine what is presently going on in your and your child's life from a thoughtful distance, and dive back into it with the wisdom that comes from that distance and time.

    My first thought was to read some feminist writings. IMHO (look at me using acronyms!!) good feminist thinking is about completely re-evaluating any and all forms of dominations and submission and re-imagining a world outside of those systems. (I don't think good feminist thinking should just focus on "womens' issues.")

    There could be some interesting ways of re-framing these cultural systems you talk about, and thus give you new potential answers to explore.

  2. I think that you are doing the absolute best thing you can, and that is to be aware of these issues and do your best to educate yourself. Your (future) child is lucky to have such a smart and forward thinking mom.

  3. Just the fact that you are planning to adopt is great! Considering all the implications of differing cultures and wanting to address those issues is... thoughtful isn't the right word, but at the moment I can't come up with a better one. Anyway, there are other adoptive parents facing the same issues, and there are probably organizations of these parents that can provide a lot of insight.

  4. I think that just knowing, which you already do, that you'll never be fully prepared for this stuff is probably the exact right attitude to have. Also, talking to people who have done it, or are doing it . . . do you know anyone who has adopted outside the U.S.?

  5. I don't know if you read Lawerish, but she is in the process of adopting a Vietnamese child. Maybe she has something interesting on this whole issue.

    It's interesting, though, because while everyone knows that things are mostly the way you described, no one wants to think about that. Just because someone is of any certain race, that they will be drawn to others of their own race. And its not due to racism or hatred, but a mutual understanding of culture and comfort. Though I wonder if growing up in a house where a black child only knows their adopted white parents, if they are more likely to find that they have more in common with other white kids.
    This is so not a subject that i would ever be comfortable broaching on the internet or in real life. Good for you for asking questions..

  6. There is a blog called Fully Operational Battle Station whose author is in the process of adopting two children from Ethiopia. She has links to other blogs by adoptive parents in her left-hand sidebar. AND it's a fun blog to read, too.

  7. Kudos for tackling this issue in a blog. And I think you're definitely in the right mindset to be able to pull it of.

    Thanks for your encouragement on my post. :)

  8. I have only two things to add, and perhaps neither are relevant.

    1) I heard something about foreign adoptions that stuck with me: Adopt a child from a country you love.

    2) The west coast is a really good place to live for mixed families. When we lived there, I knew a white couple in their late forties who adopted a black infant, and she was trying to breastfeed him too, and no one even BLINKED.

  9. Giving children the tools they need to navigate reality is the ultimate task of all parents. If anybody can do it with grace, you can.

  10. That's a lot of thoughts for something that is still a few (several) years away. Good thoughts, though.

    As I have no experience with adoption or mixed-racial families, I can't add any helpful anecdotes. But I bet that there are books and online resources out there that would help, and also, I think the process of adoption will expose you to some new information and thoughts along the way.

  11. The fact that you are already aware fo the complications and issue is a wonderful sign that you'll be able to be supportive to any child that come, white or whatever.

  12. It would be worthwhile to consider adopting two children from the same culture - possibly even a pair of siblings. One blog I enjoy is Owlhaven - she has ten kids, six of whom are adopted: two Korean boys, two Ethiopian girls, and now most recently two sisters from Ethiopia. She seems to have put a lot of effort into ensuring that nobody is the odd man out in her family - everyone has someone with whom to share a cultural background (and I know she makes lots of efforts to incorporate Asian and Ethiopian cuisine into their life as well).