I’ve lived in Seattle about four years, and it’s still a culture shock for me to go to places like restaurants or malls, or Seattle Town Hall, Elliott Bay Bookstore, the Seattle Public Library, or wherever, and not be surrounded by black people. That was the norm in Prince George’s County, where I had lived for almost 30 years. My four children, all adopted transracially, all of whom identify as black, were raised in Prince George’s. They attended schools with black, white, Latino, Asian, and mixed race kids. There was no shortage of role models, or of people who looked like them.
Of course, at the end of the day, my children were raised by white adoptive parents. My children travel in at least two worlds: the one at home with people who love them unconditionally as amazing sons and daughters, and the one outside our home, with people who saw and see them as black people first, not as beloved children.
Had they been raised in Seattle, they would have seen far fewer people who look like them. Even in Prince George’s County, a highly diverse area filled with black people, their sense of identity was challenged, by white and black people. Being adopted, and then having white parents, brought extra layers of complexity.
My daughter Aselefech, adopted from Ethiopia when she was six, is considering moving to Seattle with her 8-year-old daughter. Aselefech and I have given a lot of thought and discussion as to what this move could mean for her and for her daughter.
I recently attended a program called “The Rewards and Challenges of Being Black in Seattle.” It was held at the Bush School, and was part of their Intercultural Speakers Series. The talented Tonya Mosley led the program, which included a wonderful panel: C’Ardiss Gardner Gleser of Rainier Scholars, William Witt of the Seattle Police Department, Jonathan Cunningham of the Experience Music Project Museum, and Daudi Abe of Seattle Community Colleges. You can read more about it here.
Serious subjects were discussed. Some hard truths. These conversations are valuable for everyone, including white adoptive parents of black children–especially when the family lives in a non-diverse area and the children rarely see others who look like them.
Prospect or Suspect?
The audience of about 100 people for the program was predominately white, like Seattle itself. By the end of the 2 hours, a lot of territory had been covered. A lot of voices had spoken up. One black man in the audience offered the powerful idea of “prospect versus suspect.” Are black people (including children and teens) seen by others as prospects, as people with potential and talents, or more often as suspects, people who probably committed some crime or misdeed?
The cloud of “prospect or suspect” can start hanging over children when they start school. Seattle has a troubled history with African-American school suspensions and graduation rates, starting in the late 70’s.
Th notion of being a suspect, of course, links easily with discussions about police and radical profiling. The U.S. Justice Department said about a year ago that their “investigation in 2011 found that Seattle Police Department (SPD) officers often exhibited confusion between a casual, social contact (where a person is free to leave) and an investigative detention short of an arrest, also known as a Terry stop (where a person is not free to leave). Some data and community input suggested that this confusion – as well as other problems with training and oversight – led to inappropriate pedestrian encounters that may have resulted in a disproportionate number of people of color – in particular youths – being stopped where no offense or other police incident occurred. Incidents of overt discrimination and the fact that excessive force disproportionately occurred against minorities also gave the department concern and lead to the inclusion of these issues in the settlement agreement.” Read the press release here.
The dispassionate government language is a window to the realities of being a parent of black children, and especially of being a black person subject to “overt discrimination” and disproportionate “excessive force.” It resonates for me as an adoptive parent knowing and loving my sons and daughters, worrying for them when they are seen, unfairly, as a threat or a suspect.
I hope that other white adoptive parents who are hugging their sweet little black boys and girls will recognize what can happen later in life, and surround their children with people who can teach them what it means, the good and the bad, to be a black person in America.
Hair Care, Smiles, and the Freeze
If they move to Seattle, my granddaughter will come home from school to her black mother, a role model who has experienced bigotry, and who can help her daughter navigate through racism and difference in a way that I could not do with my children. One surprisingly complex issue is hair. I did a pretty good job with my children’s hair, but there was definitely a steep learning curve. Hair is a big issue in the black community. It was only briefly mentioned at the Rewards and Challenges program, but I’d love to see a forum where the rewards and challenges of black hair are addressed. I think it would open a lot of white people’s eyes, and it’s especially important for white adoptive parents of black children.
One of the heartfelt suggestions provided by a woman at the program was that we all look at each other when we are walking by and say hello. She was a high school teacher. She said she was black and Filipina, and she exuded love for her students. Let’s look at each other’s faces and smile, she said. Let’s say hello to our neighbors.
Can that help race relations? It could surely help human relations. The “Seattle freeze” does not refer to weather, and it does not care about race. It’s the phenomena here of people being polite, but not especially friendly. I would guess that, for black people, their small numbers and the potential for isolation are exacerbated by the Freeze.
The Freeze makes me think of snow, which brings me to some of the reasons people love Seattle: the lack of snow and of humidity, the mild temperatures, the beautiful mountains and lakes, the hiking, the biking, the boating, the skiing. My next post will talk about some of that beauty, and its attraction for all of us. What might it mean for my black daughter to be a skier and a hiker out here?