Saturday, July 22, 2006

The other side (of transracial adoption)

Over on Erin's blog, she posted a link to this article. It's about an African American woman who was adopted as a small child into a white family. It's not a feel-good, warm, fuzzy sort of adoption story. But it is her story, of finding her racial identity and the struggles she faced. Adult adoptees definitely have a story to tell, and by telling their stories--even (or especially) the sad ones--they offer adoptive parents a glimpse into the sorts of things to guard against and to do. This story was mostly "what not to do."

After I read the article I felt really sad. Sad that not all that long ago adoption was clouded in secrecy, things (like race and birth family) were considered too "taboo" to talk about, and that many people suffered as a result.

I am not naive enough to believe that our sons won't face challenges during their lifetime because of the fact that they were adopted transracially. There are inherent challenges in our country for minorities as it is; our sons will have two "worlds" that they are essentially a part of. I don't know what it's like to be black (or any other minority) in the United States first-hand. SO, it's important for me to do what I can to gain an understanding so I can best equip my kids.

Here are some things that Kevin and I are committed to, being that we are now a multi-racial family.

--Relocating to an area in the next few years that is more racially diverse (specifically a higher percentage of African Americans.) The town we live in is actually mostly Hispanic, and the town we attend church in and do most of our hanging out in is almost all Caucasian. We hope to move for other reasons as well (Kevin's tired of commuting!), but one of our prerequisites is a place where our boys won't always be "odd man out." We'd also love to live in somewhat close proximity to a city with an Ethiopian population so that our sons (and we) can be part of cultural events, eat Ethiopian food, etc.

--This goes along with the first one but we also hope to eventually be part of a church that is more racially mixed than our current one.

--Being open and honest with our sons about their beginning, their birth family, and their background. It's their story, they have a right to it, and it's beautiful because it's theirs.

--Educating ourselves about their birth country, and in turn educating them. This includes reading books/watching movies related to Ethiopia. Also, educating ourselves about African American culture as well. For example, it's important for our kids to see that we value so-and-so's music, because so-and-so looks like them.

--Being open and honest about race and racism. While I don't plan to scare my kids or set them up to always expect to be treated differently, I'm also not planning to sugarcoat anything. I've seen racism with my own eyes (both directed at them and not); they'll eventually see it too.

--Bringing them up to value their identity, which is made up of many things. We love the fact that they are Ethiopian, that they're black, that they're our sons, just like we love Anna's identity as our daughter. I hope that they grow to see that the core of their identity is that God loves them and created them to be the exact people they are today. That they're valuable because they're them.

--Kind of scary but I'm gearing up to learn how to cook Ethiopian food. I hope to incorporate it into our regular meals. My goal is to eat it twice a week. Eventually they'll go to Ethiopia and realize Mommy wasn't very good at it, but hey at least they can say I tried!

I don't know how each of our sons will view their race, heritage, or identity as they grow. It is intimidating in certain ways because I love Yosef and Biniam so much and want to give them a good, solid foundation--life's tough enough as it is! I pray every day that God will give me the right words and actions to love these precious boys.

Finally, for adoptive parents of black children, someone gave us as a gift a WONDERFUL children's book called Colors Come from God...Just Like Me! Also, my favorite book on transracial issues is I'm Chocolate, You're Vanilla: Raising Healthy Black and Biracial Children in a Race Conscious World. Read it!


Rachel said...

i just finished the article, and what a road you have in front of you. My parents best friend is half hispanic and half white and has always felt like an outsider in both communities. I totally don't get it, but that is probably because I am white. I also know that minorities didn't last long in our honors program in high school. It wasn't that they weren't as talented, but the peer presure they were under was unbearable. At least that is what I was told form the people who stuck it out. There was a stigma that by being in those classes you were trying to be white. It's just so sad. I know one thing is for sure, Yosef and Biniam are going to know they belong because of your love and openness to their culture.

Brianna Heldt said...

It is really sad how it is possible for some to feel like they don't belong in either place, like your parents' friend. Something I can't specifically relate to either being that I'm white, but it definitely exists. I felt so bad for the author of that article that her parents didn't educate themselves on how to do her hair, or on cosmetics she could use, etc.

I have read research that says transracially adopted black children overall end up equally well-adjusted as black children raised in a black home. While I know God brings beauty out of adoption and especially transracial adoption, I also feel that adoptive parents have a responsibility to educate themselves on their child's birth culture and also their race's culture in the US, and to equip their child to the best of their ability to be part of both worlds.

Kevin sat next to an African American man on our flight home from DC to LA (incidentally an actor from the original cast of "In Living Color") who was adopted by white parents. He was very encouraging and had some good advice, shared some of his own experiences, etc.

I know of some (white) adoptive parents who have faced opposition from African Americans for adopting a black child. However we have met several black people in town and they have all been nice and had very positive, encouraging things to say.

Jeannett Gibson said...

This is were I'll show you my really naive and albeit cheesy side: Why can't love just be enough? It's sad that it has to matter whether you are white, black, whatever. You would think that so long as you are raised in a loving, God centered home, that would be the most important thing of all. But I guess that's me not understanding what it's like to look different...just wish it weren't like that at all. Although I have to admit that I do believe that sometimes when you go out of your way to embrace your culture (whatever it is) it helps accentuate the divide (remember my blog?)...I wish more people could celebrate their identity in Christ rather than through some uncontrollable factor such as race or nationality. Anyway, I know you and Kevin will do a fine job with that delicate balance...just don't invite me over for dinner the nights you do Ethiopian food...I saw those pictures! :0)

P.S. There's a little Ethiopian Cafe that just opened up in Solvang (I know, random). It's called the Blue Nile Cafe at 1693 Mission...the owners are Ethiopian and I think they intend on serving E. food, but I think they're just doing deli sandwiches so far. Anyway, FYI.

Rachel said...

I'm sure on the flip side there are just as many black children adopted by white parents who want to focus on the white culture too. Probably more so for older children that were in and out of the foster program before being adopted. I have no idea if this is true. It would be interesting to see if there was a rebutal to the woman's article the following week.

On a lighter note, a VERY white coworker of mine (I'm serious, pale skin, white hair, blue eyes) went to get her hair cut and was always trying new places. She went into this little place called Universal Hair and put her name in for the next stylist. As she sat there she noticed that all of the employees were black. No big deal, right! Then she began to thumb through the magazines on the table. They were all "black" magazines. As she surveyed the walls, all the posters of hair styles were again of "black" people. She had wondered into a salon that specialized in cutting African American hair. When it was her turn she delicately asked if it was alright that she wanted a hair cut. They all had a good laugh and she left with one of the best hair cuts of her life.

Brianna Heldt said...

Thanks for the info about the cafe!! I am SO excited and we will so be hitting that place up! Seriously makes my day. (I seriously think all Ethiopian restaurants are called "Blue Nile.")

Nothing I can say will make anyone see why race "matters", but it does. Some think the answer is in ignoring race altogether (common opinion among the majority culture), but then isn't that also ignoring what God made, and also ignoring the pain (and general life experience) that racism causes many people every day? Race matters in our society and probably always will. I think it SHOULD matter in the sense that that is who God made you to be, and He loves uniqueness. But it SHOULDN'T matter in many of the ways that it does.

I don't agree that embracing your culture "accentuates a divide" and is therefore a bad thing. God created all of us with equal worth and value, but He obviously didn't intend for us all to look and speak the same (so why try to suppress it. Why not rejoice in it?) My sons' identities in Christ include the fact that they're black and from Ethiopia. You're right, they couldn't control that, but God could. And He made them black from Ethiopia. (On a side-note, when you adopt from there, and probably most other countries, your dossier includes a letter you have to write to their government explaining how you plan to incorporate Ethiopian culture into their lives.)

I can "love" my kids to pieces but if I put blinders on and refuse to see that some of their experience includes race-related issues that are different from my own experience, or if I don't acknowledge this huge aspect of who they are (which of course they're especially conscious of since they're being raised by a white family), then in my opinion that isn't "loving" them very well. There are many adult adoptees out there who endured a lot of pain because their parents just assumed that love was enough. (Even with our biological daughter Anna, love isn't enough in the sense that we also want to delight in who she is: the way she looks, her personality, her temperament.)

So far, Yosef and Biniam's race has actually "mattered" to several people. The kids at church who stand there for five minutes gawking at them because they've never seen a black person before in SLO. The people who tell me out of the blue that they're going to be great basketball players. The people making loud racist jokes about them and us at the airport and yelling at the boys. And it's only been five months. When you have kids, it is extremely painful when someone is mean or hurtful to your child (be it intentional or not.) Now having two black sons, I have gotten a glimpse into issues that African Americans face every day. I can never know first-hand and don't pretend to, but it's a glimpse nevertheless.

The fact that they're Ethiopian (as opposed to being born here) adds another dimension, because it is also our responsibility to provide them with information about their birth culture. Yes I'm happy that they're "American" but they're Ethiopian too and it's a sweet part of their past. If we don't treasure it, they might not either. (If they grow up not really caring to identify as Ethiopian, that's their own choice, but I want to at least give them the option!)

I'm NOT wanting this to turn into a socio-political debate; I think this post was pretty standard for an international/transracial adoption discussion. I just wanted to put the article forth for adoptive parents to read (or anyone else who cared) and then to share what we personally are planning to do. Hope that helps explain where I'm coming from, goodness knows it was long enough!

Rachel said...

I didn't think your comment was confrontational at all. Did I miss something?

Brianna Heldt said...

Wait whose comment? I didn't think anyone's comment was confrontational per se either. Jeannett was wondering why love wasn't enough so I tried to explain why, and also why I didn't think that embracing your birth culture was accentuating a divide. I added I didn't want it turning into a debate b/c there's always that potential and it's a sensitive issue (although in a sense I suppose Jeannett was debating me and I her.)

Your story was awesome, how funny! I would have been wondering also if it was okay that I came to the salon.

Andy Gibson said...

I think your right on Brianna. I think what Jeannett meant when she said it "accentuates a divide" is correct to an extent. But, think about where we are coming from....we live amongst an extreme here in Santa Maria, and California in general with the Hispanic culture. They celebrate their culture and embrace it so much, it overpowers the part of them that is "American", and that just is not right, in my opinion. It has gone to far, as evidenced by the little protest(s) back on May 1.

I know you don't intend to harbor something like that in Yos and Bin, but I can't say that the Hispanic, dare I call it, epidemic, isn't the first thing that crosses my mind when I hear about "celebrating" ones culture. There is just a grey area that has to be balanced, I guess.

Jeannett Gibson said...

Just wanted to clarify: no confrontation here. Just thinking out loud.

I love Bin and Yos...Andy and I were once discussing how awesome you guys are and how it never even occurs to us that the boys aren't your "real" kids, well, know what I mean (DO NOT read anything weird/confrontational/offensive into that!). They are your sons just as much as Anna is your daughter, and it never even really crosses my mind...except when they are wearing bright white socks against that great dark skin! I LOVE it!

Rachel said...

"I'm NOT wanting this to turn into a socio-political debate" I thought you were afraid you were being confrontational, Brianna. Oops. We stirred the pot once again. I would love to eat some of your Ethiopian cooking! I'll even eat it with my hands!Hopefully when you find that city with an Ethipian community you can get some hands on practice from the families! I love that your kids are Ethiopian American. I do get a little peeved with fourth and fifth generation minorities holding protests in the US while holding another country's flag, but that has nothing to do with your post!

FYI, the ten year old hispanic kids that I taught had no desire to live in Mexico and were very happy to be in California. They realized what an opportunity they had. In fourth, the kids learn about the Mexican-American War and how the US bougth CA, Texas, and other parts for pennies from Mexico while using force. There is always a bit of the "this should be Mexico" vibe, but when we talk about what it is like when they go to TJ and that's how all all of California would be, they quickly change their tune. (This paragraph was for Andy)

Brianna Heldt said...

Ah gotcha! I did put that in there in case my comment seemed confrontational (which of course it wasn't meant to be.) Unfortunately in written form you can never tell what someone means, so I decided to cover my tracks! Yeah we'll see how my Ethiopian cooking goes. It's kind of a lot of work so I hope it turns out, nothing's worse than investing a bunch of time on a meal and having it turn out bad! I'll keep you posted!

Yeah, I do think many Mexicans are happy to be living here. They risk a lot to come here, both legally and illegally and I think they appreciate the opportunities afforded them. In Santa Maria, most of them retain their culture. (I love watching what the women buy at the store, lots of produce and stuff to make their food from scratch.)

My dad once observed that although America is often referred to as being a "melting pot", it is more like a patchwork quilt. Pockets of different cultures living out their culture here in America. I think that's accurate. I don't know how much "pride" immigrants take in being American--I believe they like America, but perhaps do not identify themselves as patriotic, etc.

Kev and I were just discussing this last night. We do love many things about this country--the freedoms, opportunities, and services. We feel blessed to live here. But we don't feel that strong, hardcore, "I'm American and we're the best" sort of patriotism that some feel. Personally I'm okay with other cultures living out their culture here in America. (This is for Andy): Even if it overpowers "American", because to me that's part of the beauty of America, freedom to live as you wish. Plus, what does "American culture" look like?

Andy, I don't see any "grey" area when it comes to celebrating where Yosef and Biniam are from. They're Ethiopian (in fact they're not even US citizens yet) and that will never change. They had a life before us, parents, a sister, wonderful caregivers, etc. I don't feel threatened by that. If as adults they choose to identify themselves more as Ethiopians or Ethiopian Americans, than as Americans, so be it. There's nothing Biblically or otherwise wrong with that, in my opinion.

One of the most emotional moments of my life to this day was at the airport in Ethiopia getting ready to take them out of their country. I cried. I cannot begin to describe the feelings of sadness as I sat there, realizing that these children were being taken from their culture, especially a culture so wonderful. I felt sad for their birth mother, sad for their country and the lack of options there that is the reason these children must leave. My sons needed a family and I am so happy to give them one, so happy that they will have opportunities, but they still experienced a huge loss. A lot of people only focus on the idea of "Oh, they get to come to America! Those lucky kids!" but those people haven't been to Ethiopia. They don't think about the boys' mom, or sister, or the amazing culture itself. Now there is no opportunity for orphans there, and I do feel that (for now) adoption is a beautiful part of the solution, so yes God is working all things for the good for our boys.

Oh and Jeannett, I am sooooo buying you a big Portugese flag (like the one on your sister's myspace) for Christmas. Be ready.

Andy Gibson said...

Sheesh, defensive. I didn't mean my comment to be confrontational, although I'll humbly disagree with some of what has been said.

Geez, that seems to be the trend around here. Maybe I'm too conservative. Nah!

Brianna Heldt said...

Oops, sorry Andy, I wasn't trying to be defensive, I was trying to explain my perspective, respond to you and Rachel and explain why I don't feel like raising my sons to understand, celebrate and appreciate their beginnings is a grey area.

BTW you have been conspicuously silent on Life Together...what gives?

Andy Gibson said...

I told you, I was phasing down my life together posting count, and being much more politically correct.

Although, I did throw up an anti-SLO development post the other day, and asked an honest question. Nobody seems to want to respond. So sad.

Brianna Heldt said...

Yeah Andy you really have scaled down your involvement over there, this is true. However it seems to result in fewer people commenting overall!

Yeah you sure did, but no one said anything. I don't know anything about development so I figured I shoudn't say anything. :) I had some thoughts on the social justice one but figured I'd let it lie. :)

Andy Gibson said...

Yeah, I thought I'd let it lie too, but Jeannett had to type her dissertation...and I had to respond.

We are all HYPOCRITES!! said...

I just wanted to say that it is wonderful people like you who keep this world going. Yosef and Biniam would still be in an orphanage waiting to get adopted and probably suffering from diseases if you had not been there. I am an Eritrean (bordered by Ethiopia) who lived in Ethiopia for 7 years while growing up and I'm lucky to have had a supportive family who were able to help me relocate to the U.S at the age of 16 (without my mom and dad, just my 14 yr old sister). You could have adopted anyone you wanted to but you made the choice these two boys. I wish that race didn't matter but it does and the only choice you have is to love them (which you apparently are doing a good job at. Love does not see colors, neither does God and you have set a wonderful example for others.
P.S If you ever decide to move to Dallas, there is a huge Ethiopian and Eritrean population and plenty of ethnic restaurants.


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