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.

TO BE CONTINUED

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.

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