I often come away feeling misunderstood after I speak to white parents about my experiences growing up in an interracial family. “If only I could have said it differently,” I think to myself. If only I could make them see what I see and feel what I feel. It is important to me that people understand why I identify so strongly with people of color.
As an adoptee, I know that my childhood experiences may be quite different from what transracial adoptees experience today. Yet, as a teacher with a degree in Multicultural Education, I firmly believe in the need for all people of color to develop a clear, affirming cultural identity in order to minimize the psychological effects of racism.
The main idea I want to leave with you today is the vital necessity for you to encourage the development of such an identity in your adopted sons and daughters of color. By using my life as an example, I hope to illustrate how a child in a predominantly white environment faces an enormous challenge.
I hope to offer some insight into what needs to happen in families in order for their children to feel good about their cultural and racial heritage. I also hope my comments will be of some use to social workers and others involved with transracial adoptions so that they might more effectively serve the children with whom they come in contact.
As a biracial child growing up in a virtually all-white setting, I set out on a search for a cultural and racial identity. I was looking for a social niche I could fit into where I could feel whole and affirmed. I needed such affirmation of who I was culturally because I wasn’t taught a racial identity in a clear, straightforward, unambiguous manner. Yet all the while I was receiving very clear messages, from people in my surroundings and from the media, that I was different, unacceptable, and by extension, inferior.
Particularly stressful was my adolescence, the time when we all struggle for an identity separate from our parents. I found I had to struggle very hard to find role models and knowledge to help me answer the nagging question of “Who am I?” It was painful because, while I perceived racism all around me, I didn’t have people around me to talk to who had experienced what I was experiencing, and who could, therefore, validate and share my perceptions.
You may ask, “Where were you perceiving racism?” I sensed it at school, in the Eurocentric curriculum that excluded a multicultural perspective. I sensed it among my peers. I felt it from the fathers of the white girls I was interested in. I sensed it from prospective employers when I was job hunting and from security guards in shopping mall stores and from police who watched me and sometimes stopped me on the streets. I detected it in the comments and jokes that went unchallenged among friends, and even among members of my family.
I often felt crazy, doubting my perceptions of racist situations because I was told I was being “too sensitive” and “too serious.” At some point I gave up trying to talk to my family about what I was going through and resigned myself to expecting less in the way of support and understanding from them. I felt alienated from my family and friends and totally alone as the only person of color I knew who was coping with a racist reality.
It took years of pulling away from and scrambling back to my adoptive family before I could say with conviction and certainty, “I am black.” It took years because I had to figure out for myself what being black meant. I had to unlearn false information and negative stereotypes I had absorbed from the racism in the environment we all grow up in.
I had to gather my own strength and proceed to read and educate myself about the black experience while my parents worried that I was rejecting them, which made me feel guilty and disloyal for seeking knowledge of my black heritage. My loyalties were divided. I was torn and confused by what I felt emotionally and what I had been taught intellectually. I felt hurt and belittled by the racism I was experiencing yet simultaneously guilty, ungrateful, and maybe even wrong in my thinking. I felt isolated and misunderstood. My days were filled with anxiety, and anger.
Many of you are no doubt thinking, “Sounds like a typical adolescence to me!” But let me remind you that I’m just talking about my feelings about race at the moment. Of course I was also dealing with regular adolescent issues around dating, peer pressure, sexuality, gender roles, going to college, and growing up in general. The racial confusion made adolescence that much harder to cope with.
How did I mange to survive this emotional turmoil with my sanity intact? I believe several factors came together that enabled me to land on my feet. To begin with, my parents did love me– that goes without saying. They offered their support, to the best of their ability. They effectively raised me to believe in myself, fight injustice, and stand up for my convictions. I will always be grateful for the love and guidance they have given me as my parents.
Beyond this, I began on my own to connect with significant members of the black community. For example, I started a correspondence with a black social worker whose name I learned from an article on transracial adoption in which we were both quoted. When I finally met her in person, I was immediately impressed with her warmth and her maternal concern. We had begun our correspondence with me questioning her about what I then saw as the “racism” of the National Association of Black Social Workers’ position condemning transracial adoption. When I began to understand her point of view, part of me was relieved to realize that there was a group of people sincerely concerned about my welfare and my pain who were extending to me a welcome into the black community as one of their own.
This was highly significant for me, to realize that black people did accept me and want me to be part of “their” community. I had grown up with the story that the social workers considered me “too light” to be adopted by a black family, and “too dark” for a white one. Which left me feeling like I didn’t belong anywhere, except with a liberal, colorblind family that “rose above” racial designations.
Through my studies at college, I continued to grow in consciousness and understanding of the roots of racism, cultural imperialism, and white responsibility for racism. At the same time, I got the expected payoff from my decision to attend a public institution rather than a small, elite, “preppy” college. I had made this decision against the advice of my high school guidance counselor and friends in the hope that I would gain exposure to a wider diversity of students at a state university.
Apparently, it worked. I got to know other middle-class black students as real people who were not that different from me. I began to appreciate the variety of ways of being black, and I recognized in the black community the same variations, class distinctions, and lifestyle choices I was familiar with in white society. Yet all was not smooth sailing, by any means. I felt nervous and anxious around my new black friends and peers. I was self-conscious about sounding or acting “too white.” I felt scrutinized for having white girlfriends, and continued to fret over being rejected and not being taken seriously as an equal.
Naturally, when my parents would come to visit, I was self-conscious about being seen with them. I worried about being seen too often or in the “wrong” places with my white friends. I was very aware of feeling caught between two cultures, of having to tread the line between two worlds. Fortunately, in my multicultural education courses, I was learning new language to describe the experience of biculturality.
More and more, I was identifying with black culture as an African American. I was lucky to meet other biracial individuals who were clear about their own identities as African Americans. And I also met black students who struck me as even more confused than me about their affiliations and allegiances. I finally came to understand that there isn’t only one way of being black; that there was no mystique I had to measure up to. I came to believe that I could live however I wanted to live and still be accepted as a member of the black community. I enjoyed that feeling of belonging. I liked hearing my African American friends affirm me with teasing phrases like, “Man, you a n***a just like the rest of us.”
While this was going on, my consciousness expanded to incorporate the related issues of oppression and resistance of Indians, Latinos, Asians, and women of all cultures. Then, when I went to teach in a Pueblo school in northern New Mexico for a semester, I had an amazing, revelatory experience. For the first time, I was aware of being in the majority; everyone had brown skin and dark hair like me! It was the first time I felt I could let my guard down and not have to anticipate the next racial insult or attack. I enjoyed the peace of not having to think about race all the time.
As with my black friends at college, I was pleased with the warm reception given me by the Chicano and Indian people I met. I had never felt so automatically welcomed in any white community I’d lived in. I had the sense now that most people around me were kind, generous, and trustworthy, people whom I could count on if I needed help. This contrasted sharply with my experience of white people, that only a few could be trusted and relied upon in that manner. I revelled in the camaraderie, the shared spirit of resistance to cultural domination, the pride we took in our respective heritages. I loved it all, and decided to stay on and teach in New Mexico for the next two years.
Again, I experienced the same warm, welcoming feelings and acceptance living in the Navajo Nation. While there, I also met white people who were more or less comfortable with their minority status, and who seemed less uptight and more down to earth than many of the people I’d grown up with. Finally, after teaching Navajo children for two years, I decided I was ready to move to a black community, and challenge myself to life and work in a so-called ghetto.
I ended up getting a job teaching in Compton, near Watts, in Los Angeles. Once more, I was immediately accepted and made to feel welcome– I don’t know why I should have been surprised, at this point! I found that I was accorded a certain respect from my peers, both for being well educated and my commitment to teaching black and brown children in the public schools.
You can imagine the culture shock I experienced whenever I visited my family and friends from what felt like “my other life” back east. I do want to say, I will always love my adoptive family. And I also love, in a different way, my people. I have found that I need– indeed, that I cannot live without– the acceptance and friendship and inspiration of people of color. Truly, as Nikki Giovanni says, “Black love is black wealth.” I choose to no longer be poor.
I hope by now it is clear why I choose to identify so strongly with African Americans, in particular, and with people of color in general. It is a natural, logical and emotional identification, and one that I wish for all transracially adopted young people. I don’t know if I have adequately conveyed the pain and frustration I lived through before arriving at a deeper sense of my cultural identity and a new consciousness. If I could, I would spare every child of color my feelings of isolation and despair.
This is the reason behind my commitment to finding same-race homes for children of color, whenever possible. Please don’t misunderstand– it’s not about hatred or segregation. Rather, it’s about self-love and belonging, peoplehood and healing acceptance in the face of pervasive racism. It’s about doing what needs to be done to eradicate racism, which is the subject of the next part of my talk.
I am grateful for what I have been given by being adopted. I received a great start to a life as an independent, self-sufficient black man. Now, living on my own, raising my own black son, no longer buffered by white middle-class supports, I must make my way in a hostile, racist society drawing on all the resources at my disposal. For the most part, those resources are found in the black community and in other communities of color.