Since this blog is new, I planned to ease into the transracial adoption posts. Truth is I have no idea how to start. Instead, I’m jumping in with these words I originally typed up for a Facebook group. Topic of the day: Centering white parent perspectives on transracial adoption .
There is a celebrity Facebook talk show called Red Table Talk featuring Jada Pinkett Smith, Gammy (her mother) and sometimes her daughter, Willow. I’ve only watched two of their episodes and both times it was because of some questionable ways they were discussing race-related issues.
I was asked to watch their episode entitled, “Should White People Adopt Black Kids?” and share my thoughts on it in the Be The Bridge Facebook group from a TRAdoptee perspective. So I did. Then, a couple people asked to share my thoughts beyond that group. So I’m making it a post that can be shared more easily.
Watching this episode with white adoptive celebrity mother, Kristin Davis, was disheartening. It seems Jada and Gammy had concerns about white people adopting black children, so they found a white adoptive mom from their world to validate their concerns but also assuage their fears and put a bow on the topic. That’s it.
While there were some potentially good questions and a few basic but important points made by Davis, overall this episode is problematic. It lacks substance, perpetuates a few stereotypes (e.g. black families don’t adopt through the legal system) and generally is not a helpful watch for anyone. Unless your first and only question was to know what the adoption process was like for Davis. There are many people doing a much better job of having these discussions.
If they had titled this, “How White People Adopt Black Kids”…I might’ve given it 4 stars.
I had a lot of thoughts and questions watching this conversation unfold, but I’m going to choose just 8 points to discuss; the 7 points I originally wrote in my post in Be The Bridge’s Facebook group plus 1 bonus point for you here because you’re special. [wink] If you watched the episode and then read through all these thoughts, my hope is that you’ll see how exhausting this discussion can be for TRAdoptees.
What do I mean when I say “centering” the white/parent perspective? I mean that point of view is treated as if it is the most important perspective. I mean that the way the topic of transracial adoption is being discussed assumes that the white adoptive parent’s opinion, feelings, experiences and interpretations of things are the most interesting and sufficient for understanding transracial adoption. Spoiler alert: They are not.
So, by the title of the show, we expect a tough conversation about transracial adoption, but we enter a discussion with ZERO adoptee voices. And not even a mention that it is important to listen to adoptee voices.
No meaningful conversation about adoption, especially transracial adoption, should ever exclude the voice of adoptees.
There are lots of us transracial adoptees who are grown and out here happy to share our experience and stories. But still…when folks want to talk about adoption…very few come to us or listen to us. They still go to the [white] adoptive parents to tell them all about it.
This is a problem because:
This was mentioned in the comments of my original post and it just makes this RTT episode all the more icky for me.
Now, I have absolutely zero confirmation that what I’m about to share next is at all related in any way. However, my point is that this happens a lot (adoptee voices being ignored).
About a month ago, a well-known adoptee advocate who is herself a black transracial adoptee posted this on her Facebook page:
I cannot imagine someone more qualified that Angie to answer the question; “Should White People Adopt Black Kids?” PLUS, she is dynamic, comfy in front of the camera, and would make for a very engaging guest on RTT.
Read Angie’s Post: Do Transracial Adoptees Know Anything About Transracial Adoption?
Jada and Gammy have some good questions. Gammy even starts off with a very common but important observation on TRA: “Love is not enough”. Yet, when the discussion gets going, they seem to accept very soft and even shallow answers from Davis.
For example, when asked why she decided to adopt at all, she could not articulate why. She says some things like; her friends were doing it and she would feel incomplete if she weren’t a mom and it was a very spiritual kind of thing. These are red flag answers for me.
Later, Davis says that there is a lot of soul searching already done before filling out a pre-screening adoption questionnaire. That may be true but she did not reveal the fruits of that.
What do I expect, you ask?
If those are her truthful answers, why are they so bad?
With all the knowledge we have now, I expect APs to have more substantial reasons for stepping into difficult work of adopting a child. The “I felt unfulfilled” answers are not good enough anymore. I would expect that APs answer that question by turning the focus off of them (where it nearly always is) and bringing attention to the real issues of adoption.
Davis had a weird balance of talking about difficulties of adoption but then also giving the “…but it’s all good” vibe. For example, when asked about adopting her second child and how that came about she says...”one day there he was”. This is one example of the kind of problematic language that is so common in adoption stories that is cliche and default. This particular phrase erases the birth mom from the adoption story. It implies the child just appeared out of nowhere. This phrase disconnects adoption from the inherent trauma of a child being separated from their first family.
Now, Davis did use her privilege to speak positively about birth moms. She challenge how often they are ignored or misrepresented. I do applaud her for that! But that only makes her falling back on this weird adoption-ism seem extra out of place.
Today, we know better. We must do better. Let’s not give these glossy phrases about adoption a pass. Growing up hearing that kind of thing; “One day, there you were” inches into ‘rainbows and unicorns’ territory.
In the teasers for the episode, the term “White Savior” gets thrown out. This is a real issue and controversial topic! There is so much meaty stuff that could be discussed here but the conversation stays in the white comfort zone.
When Jada pitches it to Davis, she whiffs it with another milquetoast answer. Her response is to confirm that the White Savior is not a myth. Haha. Was there any doubt? But then she says she doesn’t come across that, though. Translation: It’s real but it’s rare.
It bothered me that Davis’s counter to the reality of White Saviorism was to argue the extreme by saying, well, we can’t say, “don’t try to do anything good because your skin is white.” This is a terribly common way to silence people bringing up real concerns by creating a false dichotomy. I don’t believe Davis intended it this way but I believe it reveals how unequipped she is to have deep conversations on this topic.
There are so many other important ways white people can help vulnerable families that do not involve adopting non-white children. Why don’t we talk about that? Why do we assume white people helping = white people (separating families and then) adopting.
In the unexpected focus on Davis’ adoption process, Jada references a sample questionnaire that is apparently indicative of what hopeful APs fill out in their screening process. There was a question that asks hopeful parents to check which races/ethnicities they would be willing to adopt. Davis mentions feeling like she should not exclude any of them.
She says that it ‘was’ her opinion at the time that the question itself was racist. Probably because she used to think that bringing up race at all was racist. However, she doesn’t go on to mention how her opinion on that question changed. Jada and Gammy do not press on that either. No one talks about the significance of that question further.
There are good reasons a racially aware AP would self-select out of raising children of certain races/ethnicities. Addressing that would have made for a much more nuanced conversation.
Instead, Davis merely focuses on how that question made her feel uncomfortable; because she would “feel racist” to exclude any racial categories. This, again, is what it looks like to center white parent feelings and miss the point entirely.
Don’t misunderstand me. It is good that the white AP is broken hearted over the racism her black children encounter. However, do Jada and Gammy (or any self-aware, non-white person) need a white mommy to tell them what every day anti-black racism looks like? No.
Yes, they did ask her how raising black children has opened her eyes. There were many other ways she could’ve answered. It was not helpful to hear her unpack the two minor situations she recounted.
I recognize that Davis is in process with unpacking her white privilege and I applaud her progress! She merely shows here that she still has a lot of work to do. Again, I question why she was chosen to speak on this topic. If we want to hear from white APs, I would personally rather hear from one who can talk about how their eyes have been opened racism without the “…and can you believe that happened?!” vibes. Yes. We believe it. We live it.
We should note this whole conversation is shaped by some economic privilege. You might’ve missed the bit where Davis talks about the difficulty finding a good school. A school where they will not be the only black kids and they will have black teachers. Jada commiserates with her about how difficult that is in Los Angeles! Wha?
My husband and I used to live and work in Los Angeles. There are lots of schools with black children and black teachers. Something tells me, though, that those schools not even on their radar. I used to do photo shoots in the gated Pacific Palisades neighborhood where Jada and Will raised their children. If that is the view of Los Angeles you have, then…okay…maybe you would find it difficult to find a certain kind of $chool with diverse demographics.
Even more subtle still is Davis’ description of her adoption process. She reveals the adoption agency she went through was above average. She does not seem aware that her experience is likely not a fair representation of the vetting and preparation process that many other white APs experience. I’m glad for her but my guess is she has more options and resources than most.
I understand that Red Table Talk and others like it will always be celebrity fluff. Not the places we should go to for complex topics and nuanced learning. I get that they script and edit to get clicks and views. At 3 million and counting, the strategy clearly works.
Even so, if I ignored all that and generously assumed the intent of this Red Table Talk episode was to dive into the complexity of transracial adoption…the impact of this episode is still a poor one.
The impact of this episode feels like another erasure of transracial adoptee perspectives. It feels like yet another “not all white people are racist” production. So much that needs to be said, heard and understood about transracial adoption and whether or not white people should adopt black kids was given a pass because a white adoptive parent’s experience is still more important than the non-white adoptee’s.
I was adopted into a wonderfully loving family. I have always felt close with my adopted mother. So it never occurred to me that I might have suffered any loss from being separated from my biological mother at birth. It never occurred to me, that is, until I was pregnant with my first child. As I learned about labor and the connection newborns have with their mothers, I cried. I became fixated on that all important moment of holding my son to my chest. Yet, as my anticipation grew, a deep sorrow set in as well. I didn’t understand it at first. Then I realized why. I was actually grieving birth. My own birth.
I’ve heard the story many times. Perhaps a few months old, I was pushing away from my adopted mother. I looked up at her with an intense defiance in my eyes. Day after day, I was resisting.
“You’re going to let me love you.” She said as she gently tucked my limbs in her arms, hugging me to her chest, rocking and singing lullabies.
I don’t know how long this went on, but the last day it happened, she prayed over me. As she prayed, the “leviathan” came into her mind, and she rebuked this spirit by name.
My infant form relaxed and I slid down into her lap and then onto the floor. I immediately fell asleep and from that moment on, I never pushed her away again.
As a child, this story confused me. I saw the loving determination in my mother’s eyes as she retold this memory. In her mind, she had overcome a great obstacle for us. The result was that her baby was able to receive her love. I believe she wanted me to hear in this story how much she loved me.
So I tried to hear that, but I also felt ashamed. I also heard that I had been a broken and possibly demon possessed baby. My own body had behaved freakishly. What did that mean? What did that say about me? I couldn’t make sense of the story, so I rejected it. I listened to it like it wasn’t really me she was talking about. Even now, writing it down here, I question myself. The details I heard are concrete in my head, but when I try to share them, to shine a spotlight on them, they ghost into an accusation of insanity.
Did she really say all those things? Am I making this up?
In sharing this openly, I am calling myself out; to stop invalidating my own experiences and emotional responses.
As a child, this story of my infant self was just further proof that I, the “oriental adoptee” in a rural white community was not normal. Loved? Yes, but not normal. A gift from God? Yes, but something was wrong with me.
I had never been interested in baby dolls. Never wanted to babysit as a teen. Even when my husband and I got married we weren’t 100% sure we wanted kids. We’d wait and see how our lives unfolded. So, when we decided we did in fact want children of our own, I had a lot of learning to do about pregnancy, birth and babies. Which I tackled in my typical, overachieving academic fashion.
I learned my little womb-dweller was already becoming familiar with me. He knew my heartbeat and the sound of my voice. It was comforting as a first-time mommy to know those same, effortless things about me would comfort my child in the first few minutes and days of life on the outside. My breast tissue would regulate his body temperature. He would learn to recognize my scent. His familiarity with me would aid his transition.
God’s design in the birth process is amazing!
These weren’t tears of joy. Pregnancy hormones? It was deeper than tearing up at a puppy adoption commercial. Prenatal depression? I didn’t feel an overwhelming sense of hopelessness. It was just thinking about this particular aspect of birth that was different. There was sorrow here. When I finally connected the dots, I was shocked.
Was I really grieving something I experienced as a newborn? Is that even possible?
The day I was born I was held by my first mother. However, that afternoon she was gone. As I thought about that, I imagined myself as a vulnerable infant suddenly losing the reassurance of that familiar heartbeat, her gait, her voice.
Just a few months ago I learned research shows infants register this separation as trauma, coded into the nervous system. At one day old, I would have sensed that disruption and loss, even though I couldn’t understand it.
I suddenly remembered that story of resisting my adopted mother. This new perspective broke my heart. A profound sadness for my infant self replaced the sense of shame I had associated with this story.
I had not been a broken or possessed baby, I was overcoming some measure of trauma in losing my familiar mother. I had to adapt to life outside her and without her. Plus, I had to adapt to a new mother I didn’t recognize. This was extra stress that an infant is not supposed to have.
Did I attach to my adopted mother? Yes. Did I adapt and adjust well? I think so. Therefore the temptation is for everyone, myself included, to dismiss and minimize the inherent trauma of adoption. As if it doesn’t matter because it all worked out in the end. The truth is, I had suffered a loss before memory that I was only now able to grieve.
I’m now weeks away from meeting my second child, face to face. Skin to skin. I’m visualizing how I will once again face the pain of labor and postpartum care. I’m fixating again on the moment I get to hold him for the first time.
And I’m grieving. I’ve only talked about this a few times since my first was born. Always with tears. I wonder if that means that I still have healing to do. Or if that means that some wounds never fully heal. Or maybe by writing this out and releasing it, I am healing right now.
Either way, giving birth is both a sorrow and a joy for me. The process involves reliving a loss somehow remembered in my being, though not in my conscious memory. I cannot face giving birth to my own child without grieving my own birth. I’m a little glad we’re not planning on having more children (she wrote with a chuckle).
However, there may be some redemption for me in this process. At least I hope there is. I am now the mother. No longer helpless. Giving my child what I didn’t have. Creating a conscious memory of bonding with my infant. Perhaps my past sorrow makes this anticipated joy that much sweeter.
I’m attempting to share a complex personal journey. Simply and accessibly.
This is a recipe for disaster. Which is probably good. Everyone loves a good train wreck. Can’t look away, right? Well, I hope that’s the case. At least, I hope sharing the train wrecks of my story hooks you and you stick with me to see what lies past them; past the uncomfortable confessions of my internalized racism, after the dormant pain of my adoption erupted, beyond the shocking reverse polarity in my white + asian biracialization.
It’s time to begin telling these stories.
What lies past, though?
Where is this story heading? Well, to a positive place, I think. A deeper understanding of self. More love for others. More appreciation of God’s endless beauty and creativity. This is an ongoing realization that I have only been seeing in part that which God is redeeming into a unified whole, a new creation.
So yeah. I’m ready. Here we go.
Too dramatic a header? “Born into a fog.”
Well, if you don’t like it, too bad. I like it because “fog” is kind of a misty, white intangible that disorients you and keeps you from seeing what’s coming. Then before you know it, you’re crashing into something.
The fog was part broken relationships.
My biological father was married with kids. My biological mother was not his wife. The pregnancy shut it down. No further contact. I was born into a brokenness that carries an inherent trauma. And I didn’t even know it. You’ve probably heard differently about the impact of adoption on adoptees, but I’ll challenge you on that in the future.
The fog was part adoption into a white family.
I was adopted at birth. And yes it matters that my family is white. I grew up without anyone who looks like me and it turns out, that matters a lot. More on that later. For now, know that I am both white/anglo (of the German flavor) and east asian (the Chinese variety). I appear ethnically ambiguous to some and “What kind of asian are you?” to others.
Both my adoption and my ethnicity were always spoken about positively by my adopted parents.
Unfortunately, they had a very elementary understanding of race and ethnicity. And they had a shortsighted view of how adoption would impact me, the adopted child. Naturally, I inherited their perspective that my adoption was meant to be and, “Everything Is Awesome!”
Therefore, I learned to only see the positives about my adoption and the superficial positives about my ethnicity. I did not have language or space to talk about the parts that were not positive.
I knew my family loved me, but I also observed that everyone else saw me as separate and not belonging. So I felt loved, but I also felt that I didn’t belong. It was confusing.
I was told that my ethnicity was good, but my experiences taught me that it drew negative attention, unwanted personal questions and expectations about my behavior or abilities that I didn’t understand. So ethnicity was good but it made people treat you bad. This was disorienting.
I was taught that we should NEVER treat people differently because of their skin color. Yes, we could notice that God made people to look differently and that was a great thing. But I was told in so many words that racism was mostly a thing of the past. Good people aren’t really like that anymore. And we were all good people. Therefore, it was a non-issue.
So if someone treats you differently from your friends, it’s likely not because they are white and you are not. It’s probably because of other reasons.
This approach to racism has been termed “colorblindness”.
The idea is that we see people and not the color of their skin. Which is well-meaning, but the practical implications when carried out are actually dangerous and harmful. More on that later.
Being raised “colorblind” did not prepare me.
When it would happen, when I was treated differently because I looked differently, I did not recognize this interaction as race related, as THEIR wrong belief and behavior. So I internalized it. I interpreted it to mean something was wrong with ME. Somehow these recurring negative experiences were my fault. To make them stop, I had to change something about myself. Or at least I had to prove, somehow, I wasn’t who I appeared to be (i.e. someone who wasn’t white).
What does that mean, exactly? I will write a lot more about what this means and what it looks like later. For now, hold this idea in your head: when a child of color is not guided through understanding negative race-based experiences, they will make sense of it in their own way.
Without a voice of wisdom speaking God’s truth
against the specific sin of racism,
children will grasp around in the fog for answers
and wind up trapped in lies.
I was trapped in a fog that hid racism from my sight. I couldn’t see what was eating away my self-worth and God-given identity. Not seeing or understanding what was attacking me, I assumed my wounds were self-inflicted.
I assumed I just had to be more like my family and friends who didn’t have these problems; family and friends who all happened to be white. This wasn’t a difficult assumption-jump to make because their culture was my culture too. I valued the same things they valued and elevated the same behaviors and beliefs and ways of seeing/doing things.
Without ever being explicitly told or taught this, I associated the White Way with the Right Way.
I just had to work harder to think and act like them and everyone would see that I was just like them and I would be fine.
This misunderstanding of ethnic identity and racism had other side effects. I saw my “true self” as my inner self; the good student, the promising musician, the bookworm. Meanwhile, in secret, I prayed to God above that the dormant genes of my german biological mother would take over and I’d slowly become a blonde-haired and blue-eyed beauty by adulthood. I couldn’t articulate it at the time, but I believed that if God answered that prayer, then my appearance would match my inner self. Then I’d be comfortable in my own skin.
I couldn’t see any of this until my 30’s.
My whole life, I tried seeing myself as just another (white) person whose ethnicity did not matter. To better identify with the family that raised me, I sought to embody the best of our (white) culture. I had constructed a positive view of my (white) self. The (obvious to me now) problem was this was NOT who God created me to be. At least not the full picture.
I looked in the mirror one day as a 30-something new mommy and realized my reflection did not compute.
I was not embracing the part of me that was not white. God had given me a physical appearance that carried the image of an ancestral heritage from which I was completely disconnected. And that mattered. It matters because it is the history God gave me, the landscape He painted for me and placed me in. I had not been able to see any of that in the fog. I had not let any of that context inform my understanding of His purpose for me.
Until I escaped the fog, I would not be able to see where I was or what my place was in the work God was doing around me. It was time to get out of the fog.
So here we are. I am waking up to what God has for me. I am re-learning who God made me to be. There is more to me than I thought.
I am claiming this space on the internet where I can relate and release. And there is more to come. Thanks for reading along.