Rape, Race, Education: How Justice Failed a Black Adoptee

The judge says it was not a rape case, nor was it about racial bias. While the determination of rape may be legally correct, the case was assuredly about race.

On February 24, Idaho Judge Randy Stoker sentenced a white high school football player, John RK Howard, to probation and 300 hours of community service for an attack in which a black, developmentally disabled teen (also on the football team) was lured into a hug with a teammate, and then another teammate shoved a hanger in the teen’s anus. Howard kicked the hanger further into the teen. Howard was initially charged with forcible penetration by use of a foreign object, and ultimately pled guilty to a lesser charge of felony injury to a child.

The black teen is a transracial adoptee. It’s taken me a few days to post about the case, given its tragic outcome. While there certainly can be gains in adoption, there is also loss, and this young man has lost a great deal.

I cannot imagine the psychological and physical pain the young man has endured as a result of that vicious incident. My sense is that he was struggling to fit in, as a black person in a tiny almost all white, Idaho town, thinking that the football players were his friends, putting up with bullying and taunts because he wanted to be accepted in a football-focused town.

Probation and 300 hours of community service seems an astonishingly light punishment for the perpetrator. What a message it sends to a locker room culture that tolerates, if not encourages, violence and racism.

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Equally disturbing, though, are remarks the Judge Stoker made about the case as he discussed his rationale for sentencing.

Stoker said it was not a rape case. I am not a lawyer, but I am guessing that this perspective is based on Idaho’s sexual assault laws that say rape is defined as the penetration, however slight, of the anal (or oral or vaginal) opening with a penis. Stoker said, “This is not a rape case. This is not a sex case…Whatever happened in that locker room was not sexual. It wasn’t appropriate.”

No, inserting a hanger in someone’s anus is not appropriate. It should be criminal.

Stoker also said this “was not a case about racial bias.” Speaking to Howard, the judge, a 66-year-old white man, said, “If I thought you had committed this offense for racial purposes, you would go straight to the Idaho penitentiary.”

It’s hard to see the judge’s statement as anything but naïve, disingenuous, and dangerous.

Howard and other members of the Dietrich High School football team, in a town of 335 people, had taunted and bullied the victim for months before the October 2015 event. One documented pre-season incident, not directly connected with this case, reminded me of a scene from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. I wrote about it here: Battle Royal: Racism, Football, and an Adoptee in Idaho.

But this case, says Stoker, was not about racial bias. Stoker may well be a qualified judge (elected to the district court since 2007). His understanding of racial bias, though, is, and I am being polite, sorely lacking.

“The coaches admitted the victim was called fried chicken, grape soda, and Kool-Aid, but only because he said he liked those things.” (You can see video of the judge’s comments here.) Judge Stoker then said, “I don’t think that’s a racial slur. If it is, I guess I’m not very educated.”

I guess not. Those are all slurs, longstanding and historic. Here are a few explanations:

Making Fried Chicken and Watermelon Racist

Judge says Dietrich locker room crime was not racially motivated.

Where Did That Fried Chicken Stereotype Come From?

The judge might want to take a look at Code Switch and Black People Are Not Here To Teach You About Race. He might have more free time to peruse these things, as there is a change.org petition with over 166,000 signatures calling for his removal from the bench.

This is not a case entirely about race, I realize, though white privilege is absolutely at its core. At the end of the day, it is about the horrific, violent way one young human being treated another young human being. It is about how power and privilege play out when racial slurs are considered nicknames, when a vulnerable youth is abused verbally and otherwise yet school officials look away, and when bullying becomes physical violence in a locker room. Make no mistake, though: race plays a central, painful role here.

Imagine if it were your child, wanting to be part of the team, who was so violently violated. Learn, act, and do not look away.

 

Is Randall Pearson A Grateful Adoptee? Is That A Good Thing?

When my kids were little, I used to hear fairly often how saintly and noble and exceptional I was for having adopted. I don’t know if it was because of the choice to adopt, or because the adoptions were transracial, or because my daughters were six years old when they arrived from Ethiopia: clearly, different folks were motivated by different reasons. Their dad and I got comments like “How lucky these children are!” and “I could never do that!” I guess “that” was adopting, or white people adopting black children, or adopting older children—I don’t know. We would accept, demur, and deflect the ostensible compliments.

It took me a while to understand the impact of the remarks about the luck of the kids and the saintliness of us parents. I felt fortunate—I wanted kids, and these four are blessings—don’t most parents feel that way? But in adoption, there’s always an undercurrent of rescue, which is a step away from saving, and from saviorism, a word often preceded by “white.”

The object of a rescue is often understandably grateful. People who are saved from some dire outcome are grateful.

Ergo—adoptees are supposed to be grateful.

And that is a complicated, contentious, disturbing, problematic statement, one which is often discussed in many an adoption circle.

We can all be grateful to our parents, especially if they have been kind and good to us.

But should adoptees be grateful they were adopted? Were they truly saved from a dire outcome?

Do they owe us, their adoptive parents, a special note of gratitude for having “chosen” them, and raised them?

Is adoption a kindness, one that our adopted children should thank us for?

“This Is Us,” a series on NBC, resonates with many in the adoption community, especially transracial adoptees and their adoptive parents. (Spoiler alert) When Randall became the replacement child for the triplet who died, the Pearson family had no idea what awaited any of them. A kind doctor arranged for the white parents to take the abandoned black baby home from the hospital with them in 1980. Now, in 2016, Randall is 36.

The final episode of this season’s “This Is Us,” a show which I have been enamored with, takes place on Christmas Eve. There is a flashback scene where, coincidentally (this is a show that thrives on coincidences), the doctor who delivered Randall’s siblings (and gave Randall to the family) is in the hospital at the same time that Kate (Randall’s sister) is undergoing an appendectomy. The kids are all around 10 years old.

The Pearson parents, Jack and Rebecca, tell the kids that Dr. K was responsible for their family, and now, since Dr. K’s family can’t get to the hospital, “tonight we’re gonna be his” family.

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Randall meanders into the gift shop, and buys a snow globe for Dr. K. In presenting the globe to the doctor, Randall says, “My dad said you’re the reason they adopted me. So thank you.”

I know firsthand there were some adopted adults whose eyebrows went up and hearts sank at that line.

 

Dr. K is kind and complimentary about the snow globe, and about his role in the adoption. “Only thing I did that day was nudge a man in a direction he already wanted to go.”

A sentiment that unwittingly speaks to the lack of agency by the adoptee, omits the role of the mom, and is silent on what direction Randall’s birth parents may have wanted to go in.

Dr. K goes on to say to Randall, “If at some point in your life, you find a way to show somebody else the same kindness that your parents showed you, well, that’s all the present I need.”

Adoption as kindness: there’s a much bigger picture, and I recognize that many folks don’t want to hear it, think I’m being negative, and wish I would lighten up.

I love my children beyond words, and I know that my joy has come at a price, for them and for their first families. They love us, their adoptive parents, deeply. Each has experienced and dealt with loss and trauma differently. Their view of gratitude around adoption is multi-layered, and theirs to express.

I don’t think my children should be grateful to be adopted. Maybe they should be appreciative and thankful for sacrifices their dad and I have made for them, but that’s what parents are supposed to do. We hope they will do their best for their children.

But adoption is based in loss. It’s supposed to take children from a bad situation into a “better” one, and sometimes that happens. Adoption should certainly be an option for abused and neglected children, when parents can’t or won’t take care of their children and keep them safe. Adoption shouldn’t be a permanent solution to a temporary situation, when, with a little help, parents could raise their children. Adoption can be positive and powerful, when done with transparency and integrity.

As an adoptive parent, I am often stunned at how rarely the losses (or existence) of birth parents are mentioned, as well as the grief that adopted children/adults may experience as a result of having been adopted.

To its credit, “This Is Us” has a strong birthfather story line. On his 36th birthday, Randall found his birthfather William, and it turns out that William had desperately wanted to know his son. Rebecca, Randall’s adoptive mother, closed that door for 36 years. (Randall is now in danger of going from a grateful adoptee to another stereotype, an angry adoptee. The writers of “This Is Us” have a lot on their plate.)

I both understand and despise Rebecca’s choice in cutting William off. As a white, middle class, non-drug addicted parent, she held the power. (Indeed, we white, well-educated, non-addicted parents have traditionally held the power in adoption, and have often been considered saviors and rescuers of our children, especially of brown and black children, and of orphans. What a burden that places on our children.) She exercised her power, and it was not a kind decision. I hope the show continues to unpack the nuance and heartache of what seemed “best” to her.

I hope also that those who were a bit teary at that scene of Randall expressing thanks with the snow globe realize that tears fall for many reasons in adoption, and not necessarily for gratitude or kindness.

 

Here are some adoptees’ perspectives on the complexity of gratitude in adoption:

 http://the-toast.net/2015/11/19/adoption-and-toxic-gratitude/

http://www.declassifiedadoptee.com/2013/02/who-is-entitled-to-my-gratitude.html

http://www.thelostdaughters.com/2015/04/dear-adoptive-parents-burden-of-adoptee.html

How My Granddaughter Changed My Perspective on Adoption

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2011 Reunion in Ethiopia. Photo © Maureen McCauley Evans

I am pleased to have an article on Catapult.co today, titled “A New Light: How My Daughter’s Pregnancy Made Me Rethink Adoption.”

I am the parent through adoption to four amazing, wonderful, beloved children, now all in their late 20’s. When my daughter Aselefech, adopted from Ethiopia when she was 6, became pregnant at 17, all our lives were changed. I had worked in adoption professionally for several years. I couldn’t imagine, though, even before she was born, my granddaughter being placed for adoption.

 

 

My article includes the story of my daughter’s re-connection with her Ethiopian mother. My granddaughter is her granddaughter as well, always and in all ways that matter.

I have often spoken out about how first/birth parents deserve far more support and resources than they currently receive, and that their voices are among the most marginalized in adoption. I have also spoken out about the need for greater emphasis on family preservation. There surely is a place for ethical, transparent adoptions, and there surely are children who will benefit. That said, we need to do a better job of supporting those mothers and fathers who want to keep their children, and of providing resources and communication for those who do place their children.

My eyes were opened in many ways because of my daughter’s pregnancy and my granddaughter’s birth. A decade later, and we have all met/reunited with my daughters’ Ethiopian family. I have learned so much, about love, privilege, and family, in ways I never could have predicted.

 

National Adoption Awareness Month Brings New Adoptee Voices

Increasingly, adult adoptee voices are being included in National Adoption Awareness Month (NAAM), and this year is no exception. Today is the first day of NAAM, and two new resources have launched today.

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Reshma McClintock, an adoptee from India as well as a writer, producer, and subject of the documentary Calcutta Is My Mother, is the creator of Dear Adoption, a new site dedicated to “giving voice to those most affected by adoption: adoptees.” It debuted today, and has three compelling stories by adoptees, with the promise of many more to come. The site also has resources for adoptees (books, art, websites, films) and a section for adoptive parents. I hope the site gets lots of traction and attention.

 

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Also debuting today is Black Anthology: Adult Adoptees Claim Their Space. “A diverse exploration of the black adoptee journey,” the book is a collection of 16 essays by both domestic and international adoptees. from the US and other countries. Ruth McCoy, Ph.D, says in her review that the “writers’ visions, perspectives, and personal reflections truly provide excellent insight and awareness to all who have been personally touched by adoption.” I know several of the writers in the anthology, and look forward to reading everyone’s essay.

 

 

 

Adult Adoptees Speaking “Out of the Fog”

 

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I believe a lot of our lives are spent asleep, and what I’ve been trying to do is hold on to those moments when a little spark cuts through the fog and nudges you. ~Rufus Wainwright (Photo © Maureen McCauley Evans)

How familiar are you with being in the fog or out of the fog, in terms of understanding adoption?

“Out of the Fog” is a new Canadian radio magazine where critical, thoughtful, lived perspectives on adoption are brought to the forefront. It is co-hosted by Kassaye MacDonald, co-founder of  Ethiopian Adoptees of the Diaspora, and filmmaker Pascal Huỳnh. The first episode aired this past Friday. It featured Shaaren Pine, whose Washington Post article “Please Don’t Tell Me I’m Lucky to Be Adopted” last year generated a lot of conversation.

I hope “Out of the Fog” also generates a lot of listeners, conversation, and the occasional controversy. Last Friday’s show was a great debut, as the speakers talked about the complexity of growing up as the only adoptee/only person of color, about adoption prevention versus family preservation, about struggles with depression and suicide, about reproductive rights versus reproductive justice. Big important topics. The show airs every first Friday of the month on CKUT 90.3FM at 8:30am EST.

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Friday Harbor, WA (Photo © Maureen McCauley Evans)

“Out of the Fog” is part of an evolving, important perspective on adoption. Betty Jean Lifton, writing in “Lost and Found: The Adoption Experience,” might have been the first to voice the “great sleep” of adoption. In the years since Lifton’s book was published in 1979, the idea of the great sleep has evolved into a fog: the sense that some folks connected with adoption are in a fog, not wanting or able to see the clear, full reality of adoption. Like Lifton, Deanna Doss Shrodes and Laura Dennis are adoptees. In Adoptee Restoration’s blog post “Shaking the Adoption Fog Out of Adoptees,” Laura defines the fog as “that hazy perception that everything about adoption is simple, straight-forward, beautiful, and most importantly, not to be questioned.” First/birth mother Claudia Corrigan D’Arcy provides another thoughtful perspective in “The Birthmother Shift–12 Years in an Adoption Fog.

“Out of the Fog’s next episode will be on November 4, 2016. November is National Adoption Awareness Month. I’m looking forward to that show. Well done.

Be sure to like and follow Out of the Fog on Facebook.

 

Ethiopian Adoptee to be Featured on Al Jazeera

Tomorrow the Al Jazeera show The Stream will feature a story about adoptees who return to their motherland to live for a short period or even for the rest of their lives. Al Jazeera reached out to Ethiopian Adoptees of the Diaspora, a global Facebook community, and connected with Heran Tadesse. Heran will be on the show tomorrow, September 29. It airs live on Al Jazeera at 3:30 p.m. EST/ 22:30 in Addis Ababa/ 20:30 in London/ 21:30 in Amsterdam.

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Heran is one of the writers included in our soon-to-be published anthology by Ethiopian adoptees, Lions Roaring, Far From Home. Born in Ethiopia, she was adopted to the Netherlands, and returned to live in Ethiopia several years ago. She has re-connected with her Ethiopian family. Heran is married to the artist Mulugeta Gebrekidan, and they are raising their three children in Ethiopia. Heran is on the Adoptee Advisory Board of Ethiopian Adoption Connection, a free, grassroots resource to reconnect families separated by adoption. She holds a degree in forestry, is a yoga instructor, and is currently the general manager of a wonderful child care facility in Addis, Regina Family Center.

I last visited with Heran and her family in Addis this past February. Heran is a person of depth, warmth, and strength. Hers has not always been an easy journey, and she handles challenges with grace and openness. I know you will be moved by her essay in the Lions Roaring anthology, and I have no doubts her perspective on the Al Jazeera show will be compelling. I am thrilled that her voice will be heard.

As to how to tune in to the show: I have not always been successful in viewing Al Jazeera here in the U.S. Depending where you are in the world, you may be able to watch live.  Ethiopian Adoption Connection tells me that the show will be archived and can be viewed at this link after tomorrow’s airing of the show. My guess is that could mean September 30, but could be sooner. Thank you!

 

Kaepernick: Patriotism, Racism, and Adoption

Ever been to a public sports event, say, an NFL game? When the national anthem is played or sung, does everyone stand quietly and respectfully?

No. Drunk people shriek and yell during the national anthem. Sober people talk and stare at their iPhones and bobble in the hot dog line, all during the national anthem.

Colin Kaepernick sat rather than stood through the national anthem, with intention, in the tradition of civil protest, and calmly explained why.

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick told NFL Media in an exclusive interview after the game. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

We all need to sit with his statement, before conflating it with disdain for all police or hatred for America. This may especially be true for white adoptive parents of black children.

Kaepernick is a transracial adoptee, raised by white parents.

White adoptive parents: Can you see Colin Kaepernick as your black child, protesting the oppression of people of color, and then being vilified from many quarters?

Have you consulted with black friends as to their perspective?

Have you read through theroot.com and blavity.com or hiphopwired.com for their take? Have you read through the many social media sites that reflect the views of black people?

The world is going to see our children as black men and women. Whether we want to believe it or not, we live in a racist society. Our white privilege will not protect our children. It’s not protecting Colin Kaepernick.

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How would you handle your black child repeatedly and publicly being called “nigger” and told to leave the country, because he protested the oppression of people of color?

How will you explain to your black kids that there are people burning Kaepernick’s jersey, in a manner reminiscent of hanging effigies? Those folks are not writing commentary or thoughtfully tweeting: they are setting fires and posting videos. It’s not a peaceful dialogue. When you reflect on lynching and strange fruit, what will you say to your kids?

How will you explain “patriotism” to your children: as speaking up for people of color in a legal, non-violent way in a country founded on freedom of speech? Or as standing for a national anthem that, as it turns out, is rooted in racism?

I stand when the national anthem plays. I take pride in many aspects of being American, and I recognize the many privileges and advantages we have.

As a white parent and grandmother of black children, I also stand with Colin Kaepernick, as he has shown intentional advocacy in raising awareness of the racism in our beloved country. Colin will be fine, and will weather the attacks and the ugly vilification that are the tradition of responses to civil rights protests in America. It will take time, it’s a hard road, and we all have to travel it.

 

 

 

 

Lions Roaring: Learning From the Stories of Ethiopian Adoptees

Our upcoming anthology “Lions Roaring Far From Home,” with more than 25 essays by Ethiopian adoptees from 7 countries, is on the final stretch to publication, and will be published this fall. It’s been a longer road than we anticipated. I am aware now of how much I did not know about the process. Had I known, would I have embarked on this adventure? Yes. It’s been wonderful to learn so much about working with diverse authors, editing across languages and cultures, engaging with translators, and grinding through the details involved in putting a book together.

Beyond learning about publishing, though, I have learned much more from the stories these amazing writers have shared.

The essays reflect a range of Ethiopian adoptee experiences. Some are happy, some are tragic. Some adoptees were deeply loved, some were cruelly abused. Yes, those are realities for non-adoptees as well. Add on the layer of adoption, though–the removal of a child from his/her mother, family, country, and culture–and both the love and the cruelty take on different poignancy.

Racism and being “other” is a constant, around the globe, sometimes low-key and polite, sometimes harsh and shocking.

Many Ethiopian adult adoptees are involved in amazing, impressive programs to give back to Ethiopia.

Some adoptees have struggled with significant depression along the way, even while in loving families, sometimes to the point of considering suicide.

Many were older at adoption, and remember well their parents and siblings. Some have searing, wrenching memories of being separated from their mothers.

Some have stayed in contact with their Ethiopian families, or have reconnected with them. Some continue to wonder why they were adopted, and have not been able to learn their truth.

For some, being adopted has had a profound impact on their becoming parents, and the way they have chosen to raise their children.

Some have returned to Ethiopia to live and raise their families.

Some adoptees have very happy memories of being in orphanages, often with their siblings.

Some adoptees, even as adults into their 30’s and 40’s, hesitate to tell their adoptive parents about wanting to learn about their birth families, or .

All these snippets give you a flavor of the book, perhaps. It’s the stories, though, that have such power.

Here are brief excerpts from 3 essays:

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Mani, Ethiopia. Photo © Maureen McCauley Evans

My grandpa was paying for my older sister and brother to go to school already, and when five more of us came to live with him and my grandma, he did not know what to do with us. It was a constant battle with my grandma as to what she should feed us. I don’t think he had any option but to put us in an orphanage. He never would have sent us back to the village because he knew if we went back, we never would have gotten to see the doorway of a school. Education to my grandpa was, and still is, the most important thing in life, after his faith.

 

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Woman walking in Addis Ababa. Photo © Maureen McCauley Evans

 

My mother’s brother wanted to murder my mother because she, as a young schoolgirl, without being married, became pregnant. My mother came from a Muslim family. A girl who is pregnant and unmarried shames the whole family. My mother fled to her older sister’s home in Addis Ababa, and there I was born. My mother would take me sometimes to visit my father, who comes from a wealthy Christian family, but he would not acknowledge me, given the disgrace.

 

 

 

Original art © Maureen McCauley Evans

Which family, in my heart, do I belong to more? Which parent do I love more? Where should I live once I grow up, in Ethiopia or the U.S.? Which parent do I listen to more? Which one do I call Mom? Why did I get adopted if my one parent is alive? What is my purpose in life in America? Why me?

I feel I am living a double life. I am Ethiopian, but I am also American. I have family in Ethiopia, and I have family in America. I lived my first 8 years in Ethiopia and have lived the rest in America. This has been a blessing as well as hardship for me. I feel blessed that I have my American citizenship and I got that very easily, by being adopted. I know of other Ethiopians that have immigrated to America and had much more difficulty and fewer opportunities than I have had.

On the other hand, I feel like there is a hole in my heart, because when I go back to Ethiopia, I don’t feel 100% Ethiopian. I look Ethiopian, but I can no longer speak Amharic. There are many cultural differences. When I am in America, I speak the language, but I do not look like others in my community. So, being an Ethiopian adoptee in America is both a blessing and a curse.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

White Adoptive Parents of Black Children: How Uncomfortable Are You?

Given recent events, I hope you are extremely uncomfortable, and ready to take action.

Being uncomfortable is good. We white folks should be uncomfortable, and especially so if we are raising black children. We should not be dismissive or defensive. We should recognize that the slurs, racism, and worse that have happened to so many black children, men, and women can and will also happen to our beloved children.

As an American, as a white person, as the parent of transracially adopted children, I am uncomfortable, sad, grieving, confused, and at a loss about the multiple acts of violence in Louisiana, Texas, and Minnesota. Add hate-based political rhetoric, plus the onslaught of videos, tweets, hashtags and blog posts, and the whole thing is overwhelming.

We must learn to become comfortable in the difficult, challenging conversations about these recent violent events. We must have these conversations for the sake of our children. I get that it’s hard, and we have to support each other as we move through these hard times. (And if we white people find things exhausting, what must it be like to live the racism and conflict on a daily basis as a person of color?)

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So what do we do?

For one thing, we must understand the difference between #AllLIvesMatter and #BlackLivesMatter. Saying ‪#‎AllLivesMatter‬ is an anesthetized, self-soothing way of negating the raw realities of life in America.

Of course #AllLivesMatter. Saying that, however, dismisses the reality of black people’s history and lives. Black women have had the right to vote in all 50 states only since 1964. Black men are disproportionately represented in prison. Black children are disproportionately suspended from school, even in kindergarten. My black granddaughter was told by her white third grade classmate that the classmate’s grandpa would shoot a black person who tried to enter his home. That was the explanation as to why my granddaughter would not be going over to play at her classmate’s house. I’ve witnessed too much, on an academic and personal level, to be able to blithely say #AllLivesMatter. It’s a phrase that slams the door, loudly and firmly, on the genuine, hard, uncomfortable conversations that must take place, if our country is ever going to change.

‪#‎BlackLivesMatter: Understand and be able to speak out about this.

Resources:

“The Next time Someone Says ‘All Lives Matter,’ Show Them These Five Paragraphs”

“The Problem With Saying ‘All Lives Matter’

Uncomfortable conversations are a good first step. Reading essays and books that challenge, disturb, and rile us is good. Attending meetings, in the name of racial and social justice, where we are outsiders and uncomfortable is also good. Here are a few thoughts.

First, be intentional in seeking out writing and information on racism from black people and other people of color. White people can have a voice, but we are not the experts on racism; the value of our advice is mitigated by our privilege. Starting points might be Michelle Alexander, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Johnetta Elzie and DeRay Mckesson. There are lots more.

Recognize that it is not the responsibility or obligation of black people to educate us white people about race.

Resources:

“Black People Are Not Here To Teach You About Race”

“What Writers of Color Say We Should Read Now”

Verna Myers Ted Talk: “How To Overcome Our Biases? Walk Boldly Towards Them”

“How To Talk About Race With Your Kids”

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Second, if in this last week you did not talk with your black friends about how they are doing and feeling, you may need to accept that you don’t have close black friends. And you should, if you are raising black children.

Third, step out of your comfort zone further and attend meetings of black community organizers, meetings where you as a white person may be asked to defer to the voices and experiences of black people. To be silent. To move to the side, and listen.

It could be a great opportunity to see what it feels like to be treated differently because of your race.

If there are not any black community organizers where you live, pause and think about the role models and racial mirrors available to your child. Is he or she genuinely well-prepared for being black in America?

 

The challenge of social justice is to evoke a sense of community that we need to make our nation a better place, just as we make it a safer place.

— Marian Wright Edelman

 

 

 

 

 

“Racial Identity” Is a Safety Issue for Children of Color Adopted by White Parents

Prior to adopting, should white parents be able to show proof that they can provide a strong, genuine sense of racial identity to their adopted children of color? Should “strong racial identity” be considered a standard of safety for transracially adopted children?

I know children of color can thrive even when raised in all-white areas, if the white parents are genuinely willing to do the hard work involved. I also know of way too many cases of adoptees of color who have struggled mightily with their racial identity, to the point of depression and worse. Some examples are here, here, and here. The recent, highly publicized case of the black adoptee in rural Idaho is especially tragic.

Bullying based on race, micro aggressions, racism directed at the individual and the larger racism imposed on the racial group–these are huge realities for children of color, and can be overwhelming. Many times, white adoptive parents do not become fully aware of the realities of racism until their children of color are school-age or older. A lot of damage can be done by that time.

Permanency–a permanent family–is a legitimate, important goal in child welfare advocacy. Children need families. Permanency and safety, though, go hand in hand.

To me, “safety” should mean that white adoptive parents of children of color, as well as the children themselves, deeply understand what it means to be a person of color in America. They should have multiple resources nearby, including racial role models and mentors, and have access to appropriate therapies and options for adoption- and race-related trauma, behaviors, and questions. The children may not be safe if they do not have a strong sense of racial identity and awareness.

Consider these child welfare definitions, the standards by which children are deemed to be safe or unsafe.

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” ‘Safety threat’ means family behavior, conditions, or circumstances that could result in harm to a child,” according to Oregon’s Department of Human Services, which, similar to other states, oversees and advocates for vulnerable children.

Could not having role models and racial mirrors result in harm to a child?

” ‘Unsafe’ means there is a safety threat to which the child is vulnerable and there is insufficient parent or caregiver protective capacity to protect a vulnerable child from the identified safety threats.”

Does an unstable, shallow, or nonexistent racial identity make a child unsafe, especially if the child is racially isolated?

” ‘Vulnerable Child’ means a child who is unable to protect him or herself. This includes a child who is dependent on others for sustenance and protection.”

Are children of color who are adopted and raised by white parents “vulnerable” if they have no contact with people who look like them, or no contact with the culture/country into which they were born?

Are the children “vulnerable” if the parents provide only white privilege and/or white fragility?

What would happen if we made “racial identity” a focal point from which children of color are placed with white parents in non-diverse areas, and demanded it as a matter of safety?

Would it mean we would work harder to better prepare and screen white adoptive parents, or to recruit more families of color for children of color, or what? Would it mean that fewer children of color would be placed with white families? Would it mean that fewer children would be adopted? Would it mean that child welfare policies would insist that white parents immerse themselves in communities of color before they had a child of color placed with them?

I say all this in full awareness of my white privilege and my own biases and failings. It’s a lot to think about, and it needs to be thought of well before adoption, for the safety of a vulnerable child.

More often, though, a child of color adopted by a white family is safe within that family, and then encounters a new, harsh world as a teen and adult outside of that bubble, a world which sees him or her only in terms of race. In our current racial climate in the U.S., that child had better be genuinely prepared to grapple with, fend off, and heal from racist assaults, large and small. Otherwise, that child is not safe.