White sympathy: Privilege & responsibility in the coming backlash

Although he is now safely behind bars, Dylan Roof may live to see his “race war.” But if he is sent to a prison as poorly run as New York’s Clinton Correctional Facility, some sympathetic white guard might slip him a hacksaw in frozen hamburger meat to help him escape. Just like those two convicted killers still on the loose.

Funny how ground beef keeps popping up in connection to white murderers. We now know that after they arrested Roof, the police took him to Burger King. I guess they felt sorry for him.

After confessing to the cold-blooded killing of nine innocent people—victims that Roof admitted he shot because they were black—he said he was hungry. So the sympathetic cops fed him, after taking away the weapon he had used in his deadly shooting spree .

Yet to many Americans, white privilege isn’t really a thing. Try telling that to the family of Tamir Rice.

Tamir didn’t get to ask the cops for a burger or some fries while being processed by the police. As a black male suspect, he wasn’t gently taken in for questioning like Dylan Roof. Police shot, without any warning, this 12-year-old boy—before he had a chance to explain why was playing with a toy gun in that Ohio park.tamir-rice.54ug_500

Tamir would have turned 13 today, except for one tragic fact: the officer’s aim was lethal. As the father of black sons and the grandfather of black teenage boys, my heart goes out to Tamir’s family in genuine sympathy. I share their anguish over their loss. May Tamir Rice rest in peace.

Tip for allies: Talk to children and young people about this unfair double standard, and the danger it poses for youth. Don’t let anyone get away with saying that the tilted playing field isn’t real. Help kids understand that privilege gives advantages to some and disadvantages others. Reinforce the notion explicitly that black lives matter. Don’t just say, “All lives matter.” Young people need to be taught, in this time of crisis, that specifically black lives do indeed matter.

As people of conscience share in the mourning of yet another senseless massacre, this time in South Carolina, it is heartening to see so many standing with the Charleston victims’ families. At the same time, it’s troubling to realize that for some of our fellow Americans, Dylann Roof is a folk hero, like George Zimmerman.

It’s even more disturbing to read that to others, Roof didn’t go far enough. Some have talked cruelly about his incompetence, for needing to reload so many times just to kill older women and men in a church. Our country is deeply fractured, and I really wonder what can possibly bring us together.

It’s upsetting to see both Roof and Zimmerman being celebrated for standing up to the perceived aggression of black males. Remember, Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin after picking a fight with the unarmed teenager. Zimmerman then used the excuse of “self-defense” to justify his shooting of the boy. He claimed he was merely “standing his ground.”

While there have been half-hearted calls for more effective gun control, I don’t hear too many people calling for repeal of dangerous “stand your ground” laws.

Tip for allies: Research “stand your ground” and self-defense laws in your state. Act to get them exposed and more widely publicized. We need a conversation about who the laws protect, and who they actually target.

Another thing that we haven’t talked enough about is how privilege played into Zimmerman’s legal defense strategy. He and his attorney, Mark O’Mara, counted on racialized sympathy to win an acquittal. And lo and behold, they got what they wanted. Zimmerman to this day walks around as a free man. And TV viewers have to watch O’Mara touted as some kind of expert after every police shooting. It really is sickening and painful to witness.

I mean, why do we as viewers reward the man who helped Trayvon’s killer get away with murder? Why should O’Mara enjoy a lucrative television contract? Because the media knows whose sympathies really matter, and which viewers they can count on. Their business interests keep certain personalities on the air. It’s a disgrace to consider the real reason why O’Mara gets air time. I cringe every time his face comes on-screen. O’Mara has zero credibility, and it is shameful that otherwise fair-minded people tolerate his presence on the air.

Tip for allies: Join the movement to keep O’Mara off the air. Use social media to spread the idea that his presence and participation, particularly in discussions of race, are offensive.

But against what aggression was Dylann Roof defending? By his own admission, he said he had to take action because “blacks are taking over the country and raping our women.” So in his mind, Roof was valiantly defending “his” women and “his” nation.

But which nation exactly? The Confederate States of America that seceded from the USA and fought under the Rebel battle flag? Or Rhodesia and the Union of South Africa, whose flags Roof wore as patches on his jacket?

Recall that the nations now known as Zimbabwe and the Republic of South Africa were formerly white nationalist countries. That is, until the white minority governments were overthrown through the armed struggle of Africans who had suffered enough under white supremacy. Clearly, Roof’s nationalism does not extend to our nation and the Stars & Stripes. Remember, it’s our country’s flag that he likes to burn.


Rather than being random or irrational in carrying out his shooting spree, Roof deliberately chose the Emanuel AME Church for its historic symbolism. His research taught him that the free black leader, Denmark Vesey, famous (or infamous, depending on your own sympathies) for plotting a slave revolt in 1822, was a founding member of that church.

In the aftermath of Vesey’s planned uprising, white hysteria across the state led to the burning of the church. 300 alleged conspirators were arrested, and 35 were executed, including Denmark Vesey. Even though not one slave owner was actually killed, blacks who were intent on liberating themselves had to be taught a lesson.

None of this history was lost on Roof. Its significance should not be lost on us, either. Especially now, when our nation’s first black president is about to visit the historic and symbolic church to deliver the eulogy for its slain pastor, Rev. Clementa Pinckney. Who, by the way, was also the state senator who was leading the effort to get body cams for South Carolina police. Pinckney was organizing in response to the shooting of an unarmed black man killed in April. Mere coincidence that he was the target of Roof’s assassination plans?

Yes, we are talking about the same state where Walter Scott was gunned down after a traffic stop. As Scott fled on foot, a North Charleston police officer, Michael Slager, shot 8 rounds at the unarmed suspect. We all remember this chilling moment caught on a bystander’s camera from April 2015—the same month we were reeling from the videotaped police execution of Tamir Rice:


So to my ears, South Carolina politicians who now call to remove the Confederate battle flag do not sound like they have suddenly had a change of heart. Events in 2015 have made their state look like a hotbed of racial tension. I’m certain the elites in charge are doing everything they can behind the scenes to avoid looking like another Ferguson or Baltimore.

They do not want thousands of angry protesters in the streets calling the world’s attention to the entrenched racist power structure in their city and state. Conventions, tourists, and prospective college students might decide to stay away, given how the state’s negative race relations are gaining media coverage around the world.

In fact, their cover has already been blown. Word is getting out that South Carolina is home to 19 hate groups. Among these are the Council of Conservative Citizens, whose website Roof claims inspired him to target the AME church. Others include six neo-Confederate groups that still advocate for secession, several branches of the Ku Klux Klan, as well as the League of the South.

One might ask, what is it about this state—this region—that makes it such a welcoming haven for hatred? Why would 19 extremist groups feel at home there? Why is this particular state the one that produced a Dylann Roof?

Maybe it has something to do with the fact that South Carolina is one of only 5 “friendly” states without a hate crime law on its books. And why is that? A more practical question is this: When will people of conscience focus less on the symbolic gesture of taking down a flag? Important, yes. But equally important is making sure we change the laws to legally protect victims (and future victims) from the actions of these extremist organizations.

Tips for allies: Consider carefully a given location’s recent progress with race relations before spending your hard-earned dollars as a vacationer, consumer, potential college student, or conference attendee. Spend some time perusing extreme right-wing websites to inform yourself.

Even on more mainstream sites, you can monitor hate-filled comments posted after news stories and opinion pieces about the Charleston tragedy, police killings of unarmed black men, and other highly racialized events. Then think about how you can challenge the emerging dangerous narrative of white victimization.

Millions of Americans feel like victims. They resent that “their” country is being taken away from them. It is revealing, but not all that surprising, to hear so many people express their feeling that Roof was justified in standing up for white rights. In a twisted racialized logic, African American members of a black church founded by a potentially violent ex-slave who planned to kill whites 200 years ago were asking to be punished.

It reminds me of the outpouring of sympathy and money raised in support of white officers after police shootings. The common thread, in essence: blacks are becoming uppity, dangerous, and out of control. They need to be taught a lesson, and put back in their place. White power needs to be maintained at all costs.

I can understand why many Americans feel that their way of life is under attack, and their God-given rights are being restricted. They want the police to feel free and unhindered to protect them from the growing black and brown menace. I can plainly see, too, that they will never give up their guns, because of the perceived danger from the burgeoning hordes. It’s sad, and admittedly scary, to see how infected so many are by fear and loathing.

And now, what is revered as a symbol of states’ rights and Southern pride is being demoted and recast as a symbol of hate. Many of our fellow citizens are becoming upset that yet again, something they hold dear to their hearts is being taken away from them, for no good reason (that they can see).

Millions of Americans already feel that their Constitutionally protected religious liberty is being threatened. Even if you think this sounds far-fetched, you can understand how this might strike them as completely un-American.

Millions also resent the way the acceptance of abortion and same-sex marriage have been shoved down their throats. For many Christians, their most cherished holidays, Christmas and Easter, can no longer be celebrated in government-sponsored institutions. School prayer has been stripped away and banished from classrooms. Their list of legitimate (to them) grievances goes on and on.

I guess I worry so much because I see evidence that lots of Americans tend to sympathize with the perpetrators of crimes against people of color. Scapegoating marginalized groups is always useful when it comes to feeding the sense of victimization that extremists try to whip into a frenzy.

I’ve watched how even mainstream media personalities waffle when it comes to covering black pain inflicted by white criminals. Repeatedly, in media coverage and elsewhere in our society, people paralyzed by privilege are struggling with how to respond to more and more outrageous acts of terror against people of color: police brutality, urban unrest and protests, a teenage pool party, a massacre in a black church. And the list goes on.

Watching TV coverage while black

It was eerie last week, watching one CNN anchor reporting on the mass shootings as the story broke. Wolf Blitzer kept referring to the killer almost sympathetically by repeatedly using Dylann Roof’s first name. Did anyone else notice this? I couldn’t help thinking that Blitzer felt sorry for the kid. It struck me that he identified with him on some level, maybe as a dad. Then I wondered how many viewers shared Blitzer’s perhaps unconscious identification with the cold-blooded executioner. Maybe because the victims weren’t white.

Then I watched the video footage of a police officer gently tucking Roof’s head down as he was put into the police cruiser. It looked like the cop practically tousled Roof’s hair in a fatherly manner. Watch Roof’s arrest again on You Tube if you think I’m exaggerating.

I contrasted the police kindness towards Roof with the rough (and too often lethal) treatment of countless numbers of men of color caught on camera being taken into police custody. This was before news broke of the police side trip to take the killer to Burger King. How tragically different was the treatment of Freddie Gray, Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and other black suspects too numerous to name? Why didn’t the officers treat any of these back men and boys with the same decency and compassion? Whatever happened to innocent until proven guilty? What happened to our humanity? Oh that’s right: black males have never been seen as fully human.

Next, I watched a robed judge use his authority to call for empathy for the killer’s “side of the family.” As if there are two sides in some conflict. The judge actually referred to Roof’s family as “victims, too.” I watched with growing disgust this same judge, who we are now told has used the phrase “rednecks and niggers” when addressing a defendant from the bench during a different hearing. To me, the judge looked and sounded angry as he called for forgiveness. He made forgiveness sound like an obligation owed to Roof on the part of the grieving family members. And they were still in shock from their recent losses!

Finally, I watched numerous politicians, media pundits, and so-called criminal law experts argue over whether or not Roof’s murderous actions were inspired by race, considered a hate crime, an act of domestic terrorism—(yes to all of the above)—or simply inspired by mental derangement.

And then, refusing to lower the Rebel flag (or remove it altogether) was the last straw, the final insult. As an African American, I was reminded at every turn and with each new development that even the lives of these nine innocent, church-going Christians still do not really matter. Because they are black.

And this is what further enrages many of us: not just that this kind of dehumanizing treatment still occurs, over and over again. But that our fellow Americans don’t even recognize or acknowledge that it is happening. And that they actually sympathize with the perpetrators, instead of with victims of color. Decent people seem to be truly paralyzed by their privilege to see what is really going on.

Preparing for the backlash

Now that even Wal-Mart, Sears, and other big businesses have decided it’s not such a good idea to continue to sell items emblazoned with Rebel flags, I actually fear the coming backlash. It’s fine for corporations, politicians, media pundits, and members of highly educated elitists to denounce the flying of the Dixie flag. But when schools suspend students for wearing the Confederate flag on their clothing or as fingernail polish decoration, doesn’t this feed the growing resentment about the degradation of personal liberty and Constitutional rights?

As I wrote in a previous post, I don’t view Dylann Roof as an anomaly. I do not see his racist worldview as something all that out of the ordinary. True, his willingness to act violently is what sets him apart. But Roof is not so different from millions of disaffected Americans who feel increasingly victimized and abandoned by their government.

I have grave concerns that people who feel self-righteously outraged and self-pityingly victimized may soon rally around extremist groups bent on fomenting another civil war.

Last week’s slaughter was manipulated cleverly by Dylan Roof. I worry that in the smoldering public outrage at the overreach of government leaders (including just today the Supreme Court), we are in for a huge backlash. The swift, almost knee-jerk capitulation to calls to take down the flag may comfort some, in the short term. But it may fuel the resentment of many, as more and more flags and monuments come down over the long term.

We are told that Confederate flag sales have been skyrocketing, as are the sales of firearms. Now that the Court has announced that Obamacare is here to stay, the conservative right-wingers are ramping up their base. I hate to say this, but I really shudder to think how the outcry could escalate into more violence if same-sex marriage becomes the law of the land.

We need far more than symbolic gestures. We need effective leadership and anti-racist education. Allies must step up to lead real discussions to help heal these divisive issues.

We want to believe that love will win over hate. But we must make it so. We say we believe in interracial families and multicultural communities. For those particularly who declare their love for and allegiance to children and youth of color: How are you using your privilege to deflect the coming backlash?


The paralysis of the privileged (Part 2)

In truth, all of us currently living in what is now known as the United States must come to terms with the legacy of profoundly troubling human relations that has infected us with false and distorted notions of superiority and inferiority.

Our first task: Own our privilege

The main idea I want to leave with you is that those of us with greater degrees of power and privilege cannot keep treating people who are different as “inferior” and expendable. This is especially important when we claim to care for members of marginalized groups, as neighbors, fellow Americans, and even family. Ignoring their human suffering does violence not only to the people we say we care about, but to the notions of faith and love that we hold sacred.

This is why, as an adoptive parent, it angers me to see how transracial and transnational adoptive families are continually touted as preferable. Why not work harder to find homes among extended family in the kids’ communities of origin, whether on reservations, in the ‘hood, or in the countries of their birth?

It also bothers me to consider what happens when Americans keep adopting children from overseas, especially from non-European nations. What is the overall message to the rest of the watching world? Are we stupid enough and arrogant enough to think that everyone around the world agrees that U.S. homes are superior?

News flash: Adoption does not equal absolution

Adopting a child of another race does not absolve us of sin. Ironically, it points to our voluntary participation in systems of oppression, which some people of conscience might consider sinful. What’s more, adoption underscores our self-serving exploitation of our privilege.

Transracial adoption highlights our personal unchecked superiority complexes that make it possible for us to participate—joyfully, ignorantly, and self-righteously even—in the heart-wrenching misery of less privileged women who suffer the loss of their kids. Throwing salt on the wound, it makes us complicit in the all too frequent post-adoption suffering of their long-lost children—now our children—whom we typically insist on raising in racial and cultural isolation, because that’s where adopters feel most comfortable.

Delusions of grandeur, delusions of privilege

No wonder we can’t see Dylann Roof for what he really is. Our unexamined superiority complexes are so deeply ingrained in our collective psyche that they shield us from the realities of our domination of others. Our bloated sense of superiority prevents us from noticing the ongoing pain caused by every person of privilege.

Furthermore, our superiority complexes feed the self-delusions that maintain the status quo. From cowardly opinions about the flag controversy, to our muddy thinking about the Charleston killer, to our tacit approval of the global adoption industry, our delusions bolster our self-image as innocent or neutral participants. In our arrogance, we get to render a verdict for ourselves as “not guilty” of any wrongdoing.

But instead of clinging to our delusions, we can choose to think for ourselves, and move beyond knee-jerk responses.

We can see the killer for what he truly is—not a freak created out of nowhere, but as one of our own misguided children: a resentful, scared son of the nation, an imperfect, wounded soul born into the unresolved human relations nightmare that has plagued these United States since Day One.

We can admit that it is time to retire the Rebel flag, once and for all.

We can stand as allies with activist adoptees and birth mothers to call for real change in the way adoption is thought about and practiced. We can work to reduce the need for adoption. We can commit ourselves to better supporting struggling families so that adoption doesn’t have to happen.

We can sow the seeds of peace by working diligently for social justice.

We can stop acting as if our way of life is the only way and our religion is the right way. We can stop pretending that our experience of the world is the best, that our families are the superior families.

Our second task: Root out every superiority complex

Dylann Roof represents nothing less than the ripening of an unhealed superiority complex taken to the extreme. His ideology about inferiority/superiority is the same ideology that we continue to pass on to all our children with each succeeding generation.

The same superiority complex that exposes our youth to dinner table diatribes about “niggers” and “illegal aliens” is the same superiority complex that celebrates the purchase of so-called orphans in the marketplace of adoption. And it is the same mentality that normalizes (and profits from) the separation of birth mothers and their children, twisting it into some grand act of charity, turning adoptive parents into heroes and saviors.

Our sick and fractured nation remains ill-prepared to offer social justice to adoptees and their natural families. And we have yet to bring social justice to other marginalized communities yearning to have their lives count as much as anyone else’s.

The Confederate flag will continue to be debated, and in our lack of clarity we will squander the opportunity to offer leadership, education, and healing, as long as we are paralyzed by our privilege.

Tragically, black, brown, and other marginalized lives will never truly matter until we root out the superiority complexes that grant us our privilege. The question remains: What will it take to force the necessary changes?

Dylann Roof and the paralysis of the privileged

I dedicate this essay to my adoptive parents, who taught me—through their unwavering commitment and their loving example—the values by which I strive to live. The education they provided and the support they continue to offer have encouraged me to take creative risks and to use my privilege to address injustice. My heartfelt thanks go out to Mom & Dad for helping me find opportunities to serve.

Despite the history of genocide, slavery, and ongoing acts of horrific violence, I still believe that the nation is changing for the better. I also believe that we are all accountable for doing our part to create the kind of harmonious society we aspire to live in. For me, this includes working on a personal level to root out notions of superiority and related prejudices about people–I am embarrassed to admit– I have come to see as “inferior.”

The focus of this essay is the superiority complex—mine and yours—that makes genuine dialogue and radical change nearly impossible. I will talk about the adoption of children as a way to illustrate the supremacist mentality that infects many of us, even those without any personal connections to adoption. So if you are not involved with the adoption community, hang on: there is something here for you to think about, too.

My analysis links the more privileged members of the adoption community (and beyond) to avowed racists like Dylann Roof. My argument is simple, and perhaps upsetting to some: The dangerous mentality that guides participants in the global adoption industry is the same mindset expressed by the Charleston killer, just in less extreme form.

It is also the same mindset that prevents Americans from having honest conversations about race and social justice. The connecting tissue is an ethnocentric belief that our way of life is superior to others. The danger arises when dominant groups claim the power to label those who are different as inferior, and then proceed to treat them as if their feelings and their very lives don’t matter.

Adoption and superiority

The adoption of children (by strangers, at any rate) historically has been rooted in deep-seated prejudices that reinforce our ideas about inferiority and superiority. Separating children from “unfit” (usually poor and unwed) birth parents and from their communities of origin and then placing them with “better” (e.g., wealthier, white, heterosexual, Christian) adopters has been held up as the gold standard in child welfare.

However, those of us who choose to participate in the flawed system of adoption know, if we are honest with ourselves, that every adoption is, in a sense, a vote for superiority. We know that every child placed for adoption is done so in the belief that the child will be “better off.” A judgment has been made that one family (the birth family) is not as good as another family (the adoptive family), for different reasons. In this way, the unnatural separation of children from their biological families becomes not only thinkable, but understandable as a humanitarian act.

Each transnational adoption to the USA reconfirms our smug patriotic belief in the inferiority of non-American families and nations. Perversely, through the purchase of children in the marketplace of adoption, wealthy Americans get to be seen as “rescuing” unwanted children, who are understood as rejected by their uncaring, backward nations. In the same way, every transracial adoption by white parents is an assertion of racial superiority. White folks “rescue” poor children of color from unfit birth parents or uncaring foster parents, and reinforce their sense of themselves as well-intentioned doers of good deeds.

Moving from guilt to action

Keep in mind that, as a middle class, American adoptive parent of color, I am also implicated in this system. I recognize my own guilt for buying into the mindset perpetuated by the adoption industry.

I have come to see how I colluded with the professionals who labeled the biological families of my black sons as “unfit.” When I accepted the pronouncements of social workers, adoption lawyers, and family court judges, I justified my participation in the corrupt system of child welfare. I went along with their system in order to get what I wanted—a child to raise. The system is so slick that it even helped me see myself as doing some kind of a good deed by adopting a needy child, rather than as legally kidnapping someone else’s son.

Even though I don’t personally believe that my sons’ birth mothers are inferior, I nevertheless took advantage of a system that positioned them that way. That’s how privilege works: I don’t have to agree with racist beliefs or espouse hate. Yet, as a “good” person, I am still part of the oppression.

Now that I acknowledge myself as part of the problem, I accept personal responsibility for making amends. This is one of the reasons I can never stop advocating for social justice.

Power and privilege are not a white thing only

Clearly, you don’t have to be white to be tainted with a superiority complex. The dangerous complex I am describing links various mainstream identities, many of which I share (insert in no particular order: male, American, middle class, Christian, heterosexual, able-bodied, English-speaking, and so on). Superiority is about learned dominance within interlocking systems of oppression. It’s not only about racial supremacy. It’s a lot more complicated than simply black and white, as shown in my personal example above.

The inability of otherwise good, decent parents to acknowledge our privilege as adopters makes me think about the reluctance of otherwise good, decent Southerners to acknowledge the bitterness connected to the Confederate flag. What we have in common is this, put simply:

Our sentimental attachments mask our selfish desires and advantages. We insist on accentuating only the positive aspects of what others experience as oppressive. When they hear calls to remove the Confederate flag, sentimentalism apparently clogs their ears to the very real pain behind the calls. Sadly, it has taken the cold-blooded murders of nine innocent African Americans to move the nation to action on the flag issue.

DRoof-rebel flag

A similar dynamic happens frequently in the adoption community: When adoptee and birth parent activists call for more truthfulness and radical reforms in adoption, the emotional attachment to the positive benefits we gained (as adopters) tends to cancel out the genuine and equally valid emotional pleas from the other side of the adoption experience.

In both instances—the flag controversy and in discussions about adoption reform—the privilege of the beneficiaries of systems built on oppression cuts us off from the harsh reality experienced by the victims of those same systems. In our cluelessness, we throw the people we say we care about under the proverbial bus.

To top it off, we proclaim, in effect, through our insensitive actions (or inaction) that their lives and priorities simply don’t matter as much as our own. Our superiority complexes shore up our sense of entitlement to insist on having things our way. This is what keeps oppression going: our denial of our advantages, and of the pain we unwittingly inflict on others. Yet we ask ourselves defensively: As good, moral people, we can’t possibly be racist or privileged now, can we?

Dylann Roof is not a monster

What makes Dylann Roof different from most of us who wrestle with learned superiority is his calculated decision to act violently. Most of us, thankfully, don’t express our privilege in such extreme and lethal ways.

But let us consider why this self-appointed race warrior felt justified in acting out his resentment. It was precisely because he knows that many, many fellow Americans also harbor extreme racial animus deep within their hearts.

Counting on their shared hostility, Roof thought his actions would spark a race war. Time will tell whether or not he was successful. Understand: Our actions will decide whether he was correct, especially after the Confederate flag comes down. (I am currently working on a follow up post about the potential backlash to the removal of the flag and its effect on a potential “race war” that I will publish soon. Stay tuned.)

I don’t view Dylann Roof as an anomaly. I do not see his racist worldview as something out of the ordinary. Except for his willingness to act out violently, Roof is not all that different from the thousands of decent, hard-working people I interact with on a regular basis.

Truth be told, in my dealings with members of dominant groups, I am accustomed to encountering, usually just under the surface, a complex mix of fear, ignorance, resentment, and superiority. Most of the time, this is couched behind a veneer of niceness and respectability. Luckily for me, superiority complexes usually manifest in less extreme ways, not through the barrel of a gun. Even so, as a biracial African American gay man, I remain ever vigilant, always alert to other people’s discomfort with my racial identity and my sexual orientation.

I interpret Roof’s professed anti-black hostility as arising on a continuum of anti-diversity sentiment. People who fear difference these days also target, for instance, immigrants, Indigenous people, queer people, religious minorities, and lately, young men they label as “thugs.”

The scary truth is, Dylann Roof dwells within each of us, particularly those of us with greater access to power and privilege. He is not some freak or an outsider.


In Part 2, I will explain why it is a mistake to write off the Charleston killer as a complete monster. Part 2 will continue to explore an analysis of privilege and the way it keeps us committed to maintaining the status quo. I will also offer a few suggestions for how we can dig ourselves out of the mess we’ve inherited, and how we can build a multiracial future based on unity and social justice. Thanks for reading.

#Transracialization: It really is a thing


Dear Rachel Dolezal,

As I have listened to your interviews on television, I have tried to set aside my personal feelings and judgments in order to better understand your story and your struggle. I am a biracial African American who was transracially adopted as a child, and I have two white non-adopted siblings. I’m now an educational researcher who has studied identity in the context of transracial adoption. You and I also share an interest in diversity studies in higher education, as I teach courses in multicultural education. There are a few things I want to share with you, Rachel, mainly to be helpful and educative.

After being raised in what I jokingly refer to as Whitesville (for reasons that I’m certain you will recognize), I adopted two African American sons from foster care. I have learned through experience the challenges of raising black boys in a white supremacist nation. I’ve come to appreciate how parenting is particularly difficult for those of us who were socialized as children into whiteness and privilege, making it sometimes impossible for us to see the dangers that lie in the road ahead, much less to comprehend the nuances of intersectionality.

As a point of information, I am known by some in the transracial adoption community as an Angry Adoptee and parent (and I don’t mind at all), mainly because I continue to hold transracial adoptive parents (including myself) accountable for our admittedly selfish actions to form families using the corrupt system of adoption. I get especially worked up when I encounter parents’ arrogant denial and ignorance of social justice issues in child welfare. This includes their parentalist privilege which drowns out the voices of adoptees and non-adopted siblings. I’m also continually outraged at the malpractices of the global adoption industry run by agencies, adoption lawyers, facilitators, and others who profit from the separation of children from their natural families.

I don’t expect adoptive parents who might read this to agree with me or to understand my position. I have very little patience anymore (after three decades of trying) for dialogue about the primacy of race and adoption as issues confronting transracially adopted children, youth, and adults. These comments are for you, not them, anyway, Rachel, and I am trusting that you will receive these remarks in the spirit in which I offer them: from one guinea pig to another in this grand social experiment about which we find ourselves trying to make sense.

It sounds like the word you were searching for to name your experience is transracialization. When you talked about how different you felt as a white girl in a transracial adoptive family, I imagined you as the conflicted young daughter of well-meaning missionaries, and as a devoted sister to black siblings. Listening to your attempts to articulate your experience reminded me of the white adults I interviewed for my dissertation on transracial adoption. All of them, like you, grew up with black (and in some cases, Korean) brothers or sisters. Despite ongoing misunderstanding and community disapproval of their parents’ decision to adopt children of another race, all of them declared their love for their siblings. Some of them struggled, as you have, to verbalize why they felt so totally different from other white people. I was curious to learn what transracial adoption might have done to their emerging identities as young white people, for example, what was it like to be known as “that family of nigger lovers”? When I saw you tear up during some questions, I had no doubt that you have at least a story or two to share that would break our hearts. To your credit, you did not wallow in self-pity, although I think you could do more to steer the conversation back to racism and the ethics of adoption and away from your personal narrative.

My research participants shared their stories about feeling responsible for their adopted brothers and sisters, for instance, feeling like they needed to protect them from the hostility and insensitivity of neighbors and classmates. One white sibling told me about how his eyes were opened to racism as a teenager once he saw his black sister being profiled by the storekeepers in the supposedly liberal college town where they lived and shopped. He also described the persecution he himself experienced (from African Americans as well as whites) when he fell in love with a black girl in middle school.

Other non-adopted siblings described their ambivalent emotions, such as pride and resentment, at having been thrust into the public controversy around transracial adoption. They described their anxiety from feeling visible, always on display whenever the family went out in public. Some disclosed heart-wrenching stories of emotional disconnections between their misguided parents and their adopted siblings who struggled with discrimination, substance abuse, and other mental health problems, or trouble with the law. In too many cases, parents and adoptees no longer speak to each other, even in adulthood. For some white siblings who were paying attention, their consciousness was raised about the reality of racism and adoption issues even in their own families and supposedly safe communities.

But none of the white siblings I interviewed, Rachel, claimed to have become black. Even as some of them worked out new ways of being white—of performing their shifting white identities in unusual ways—they didn’t come to the conclusion that they were now magically black. One woman did explain that she feels as much a part of the black community as the Swedish American community. But she never said, “Now I am black.” Like you, Rachel, her work among African Americans has taken her far out of her comfort zone as a person who was socialized in childhood to be white. And like you, she is raising black children, and she takes anti-racism (and black hair care) very seriously.

Another woman in my study, with a biracial brother and African American sister, talked about how fearful she became whenever they traveled to visit a favorite aunt who lived in what she described as a redneck area. She explained how she talked to their mom about her concerns for the safety of their multiracial family, and how painful it was to visit this beloved relative surrounded by plentiful pickup trucks with gun racks and Rebel flags in plain view. I sense that you will be able to relate easily to this woman’s concerns that were rooted in her love for her black siblings. When I asked her how she identifies racially and culturally, she told me, “I feel like part of the tranracial adoptive culture. But that doesn’t really mean anything to anyone outside of the culture.”

Rachel, I think she hit the nail on the head. Part of the problem is that families formed through transracial adoption are still rare enough that we don’t have a word in common usage to describe our family members’ possible identities. This devoted white female sibling was struggling to name a unique reality that she saw as very different from the way most white people, even those in transracial families, tend to think about and live with race.

Like most Americans, this woman was socialized to be white, which meant staying with her own kind and developing certain ideas and beliefs about various racial groups. Racialization is the process by which we all learn the rules of race, however unspoken they may be. As I am certain you are aware, sometimes these rules are codified in law and policy. But mostly they go unrecorded, and instead are reinforced through peer pressure such as public ridicule, and so on. Growing up in a highly racialized social context, we hear messages all the time about which groups are safe and which groups to fear, which groups to associate with and which to avoid. Racialization happens in ongoing overt and subtle ways, with the media, schools, and other public institutions shaping our consciousness, and then influencing how we understand the world and our place in it.

The result of this white sister’s socialization into a highly racialized social order encouraged her to see whiteness as normal, if not superior. Yet her parents worked hard to debunk a racist worldview by educating their children about the history of race relations and racism. As an adolescent, she dated interracially, and grew increasingly comfortable socializing with individuals of different races. In this way, she broke with racialization, which is what I suspect you also found yourself doing.

If I dare go out on a limb, Rachel, I’d guess that you came to reject the way you had been socialized into the spoken and unspoken rules of race, which offended your sensibilities as a conscious person deeply connected to your black adopted siblings. You felt implicitly that you were different from most other white people, yet you found little (if any) support for your emerging racial identity and your new way of performing your whiteness. Had I been your teacher back then, I would have supplied you with one word of empowerment: transracialized. You, Rachel, like some of my study participants, were experiencing the transracialization of your white identity.

By transracialized, I mean that they remained white, but they hardly felt or acted like typical white people. For example, they transcended the ingrained fear of blackness by becoming emotionally connected to people of color—their siblings, people they dated, and in some cases individuals they partnered with or married. Some of these white siblings eventually moved to predominantly black communities (the way you went to Howard University), and some adopted children of color as second generation adopters.

They got this way largely due to their long-term relationships with key people of color in their lives, both inside and outside the family. I was impressed by their tenacity to make good on their parents’ teachings that race mixing was a good thing inside the family, and by their commitment to pursue diversity outside in the real world. I admired the courage it took to persevere at boundary crossing, even when it meant risking social approval and physical danger. In the same way, I kind of admire you for sticking to your guns, and risking social disapproval by insisting that you are not a typical white person who unconsciously accepts the intended results of your childhood racialization process. Instead of running from diversity (as most whites learn to do), you seem to have embraced it in many aspects of your life. As a transracialized white parent responsible for raising black children, this is especially important, and it is no easy feat to pull off.

As a researcher, Rachel, I labeled these new identities collectively as transracialized. That is, these courageous individuals were still white, but they had crossed over the boundary markers that normally serve to police racial boundaries. But they didn’t somehow actually become people of color. Instead, they insisted on enacting innovative and creative definitions of whiteness that flowed from their commitments to anti-racism and social justice. I can tell you that since I have published my research that is now ten years old, a number of white individuals have thanked me for giving them language to name their experience, because they, too, have felt alone, isolated, misunderstood, and marginalized as non-adopted white siblings with black brothers and sisters. Maybe you’ll find the transracialization construct useful, too.

I think I get you, Rachel Dolezal. I’m not saying I understand you completely or that I agree with all your choices. But I think I understand very well the complexity of growing up in a transracial adoptive family formed by well-meaning white parents, however mis-educated about race and adoption they may have been. I think I understand the commitment and affection you express for your adopted siblings of color. And I think I see why you feel strongly that, as you say, you are no longer white. Not because you have become black, I would argue, but because you have transcended your childhood racialization process.

I only wish that we both had come across the term transracialized sooner, because I think it more accurately describes your identity and your experience as the non-adopted white sibling of transracial adoptees. I hope that you will find it useful in the social justice work you have chosen to do, and more importantly, in leading your multiracial family that now looks to you for guidance and healing.

Be well,

Dr. John Raible

Latest Gazillion Voices article

Below is a preview of my latest essay just published in the online magazine, Gazillion Voices. I hope readers will find it useful as a way to think about our responsibility to fix, if not abolish, the broken adoption system.

In my latest piece, I really am not attacking anyone. I even include myself as complicit in the problems, especially as an adoptive parent. If each of us involved with adoption were to be face honestly the outdated and flawed ideological underpinnings of adoption, we might be able to transform it. This, in my view, is the only way to ensure that fewer birth/first parents and extended families will lose their children, and fewer adoptees have to suffer adoption’s aftermath.

If you enjoy the preview (maybe “enjoy” is the wrong word), consider subscribing to Gazillion Voices, so you can get the latest hard-hitting and inspiring perspectives on adoption from a variety of voices. Here’s the preview:

Another way of putting it is this: There is no “post-adoption” until we have ended adoption, once and for all. Just as the boarding school experiment for Native American children has been discredited as genocidal, just as the Indian Adoption Program has been disbanded… so too, I anticipate that the transracial and transnational adoption experiments will be replaced by a much more just and humane practice that is less about the business of selling children (and in the process, disrupting extended families of color), and more about ensuring justice and care for the most needy and vulnerable—namely, poor women of color and their children around the world…