I just went to see “Waiting For Superman,” the depressing documentary about the sorry state of urban schools in the United States, particularly those intended for children from families that are forced to eek out an existence below the poverty level. I came away with a clearer understanding of what has gone wrong, not only in our schools, but with our society. It’s not, as the movie points out, that there are too many bad teachers, or that teachers’ unions block needed reforms. It’s not that poverty makes it impossible for some kids to learn, as some believe. One of the main problems facing our increasingly diverse society is that we have abandoned the struggle for integration. In fact, we are moving further way from, rather than towards, each other, especially from those who don’t look like us.
We’ve all heard the term “White flight.” As Blacks and Browns move in to neighborhoods, Whites tend to move out. The flight away from diversity means that formerly White neighborhoods and schools quickly turn predominantly Black and Brown, once a few pioneering upwardly mobile families move in. Rather than staying and welcoming the newcomers to the neighborhood, Whites flee, apparently preferring to reside in communities where only other White people are their neighbors. Comfortable White enclaves change almost overnight once Whites make conscious decisions to leave. The old adage, “There goes the neighborhood” is a cynical reminder of how property values (not to mention feelings of neighborly loyalty and friendliness) tend to plummet when too many of “those people” start moving in next door and across the street.
This social phenomenon of mass flight from diversity is only possible in a society that is highly racialized, color-conscious, AND individualistic rather than collectivistic. Racialization encourages individuals to view others who seemingly match our racial designation as part of the group we call “Us. Then racialization separates those in other racial designations as “Them.” In this way, we are socialized to accept race categories and segregation is upheld without needing enforcement through legal means. Rather than see all their neighbors as fellow Americans, regardless of color or apparent “race,” most Whites would prefer to have neighbors who share their racial designation rather than mingle with neighbors with a different designation. Neighborly sentiments are reserved for fellow Whites, not fellow Americans. Neighborly feelings are withheld from people of color, because people of color are not seen as potential neighbor material.
This is where we go terribly wrong, as a society. Couple racialized thinking about who qualifies as a neighbor with a growing ethos of individualism, and you start to see how easy it is to deny aid and comfort to people who don’t look like you or your neighbors. As long as my kid gets to go to a good school, I don’t have to think about what kind of school other people’s children attend. As long as I get to feel like a successful and responsible parent for working hard to be able to afford to live in an area with good schools (or to send my kid to private school), I am rewarded for my individual success and prowess as a parent. I can pat myself on the back for doing right by my kid—and thumb my nose at supposedly less successful and less responsible parents who can’t do the same thing for their kids.
Wouldn’t it make more sense to stop running from diversity? Wouldn’t we do better to stop judging others for their supposed moral failings or cultural deficits? Wouldn’t we feel better if we could simply accept all our diverse neighbors as part of “Us?” And then work to make sure that all our kids do well in school? Wouldn’t it be better to treat the people around us as true neighbors, rather than act as if we are in some competition for status and individual recognition? But to shift our way of thinking in that direction requires that we overcome our social conditioning about race. We need to transform dualistic “Us” and “Them” thinking into a collective “We are all in this together” stance, regardless of race. And I don’t mean acting in a color-blind way. Rather, we need to acknowledge the ways race has divided us in the past, to the great benefit of some and the extreme disadvantage of others. If we truly believe that we are all in this together, as Americans or children of God, as fellow humans, or planetary citizens–however you choose to see the new “Us”– then we can start extending courtesy and compassion to our neighbors who are struggling to make ends meet, to do right by their own kids, and to contribute to the greater good.
I say, stop wasting your time reading this blog and trying to “understand” race and adoption. Your time just might be better spent getting off your computer and heading outside and making a new friend, or figuring out how to find a home in a better (for your unique family) multiracial neighborhood. Now go out and mingle! Get out of your comfort zone already. Stretch yourself and live by your integrationist values. If you adopted a child from another race or culture, this is your responsibility. Stop trying to master race and adoption intellectually. Go out and live the experience that your adopted child is living already (or soon will be living, once he or she hits school age), which is EXPERIENCING life in a hyper-racialized society in an exposed, vulnerable manner.
Feeling a bit uncomfortable at the thought? Chances are, so is your transracially adopted kid! The point is to transracialize your life yourself. Don’t just let your child do the integrating on her own. YOU need to integrate your life and social networks and friendship circles. YOU need to welcome the opportunity to live next to neighbors who look like your kid. The magic happens once you find that you are immersed in social networks peopled by individuals and families that look a lot more like your child and less like you. If you want evidence from actual white parents of kids of color who have taken the plunge, read about their experiences here. (Skip right to the Comments section after that post.) Then, I beg you–stop reading and go transracialize! It may turn out to be the best thing you ever do for your entire transracial family.