Still hoping for change

A few days ago, I received a surprise email from a new student at the university where I work. Her heartfelt message touched me, and she gave me permission to share it with my readers.

I feel grateful that she wrote to me, because it reminded me that the work I have done over the years in the so-called adoption community has made a difference, at least to some people, which is something I often wonder about.

In her message, this student talks about being labeled as a ‘birth mother.’ She alludes to the anguish caused by the momentous decision to place her baby boy for adoption. She basically thanked me for my perspective that tries to bring to the forefront the frequently overlooked participants in the oppressive system that we have come to think of as adoption.

Now that I’ve given you some context, I will share the message sent to me from this birth mother. We agreed that I would not use her name on my blog, for obvious reasons. (And even that right there calls attention to the injustice created through this oppressive system…)

Dear Dr. Raible,

My name is _____. I recently transferred to the university as a nontraditional college student. I was elated to discover that you work for the university as an associate professor. Here’s why:

In 2014, I was pregnant with my first child. It was an unplanned pregnancy, and the only option I had ever considered before this was abortion. But as you know, things change in an instant.

I was contacted by a nonprofit organization in my town at that time that provides services for expectant parents as well as prospective adoptive parents. I soon learned that even before giving birth to my son, I was seen as a birth mother, and trust me, that is a title no one wants to have. Then one day, I came across a quote of yours (please see attached), and it gave me hope, hope that maybe one day birth mothers and birth parents like me will be respected, loved, and held in high esteem, like their children/our children are. Unfortunately, that has not happened for me yet, but I still love looking at your quote from time to time, still hoping for change.

Anyways, I would love to meet with you if you have some time in the next few weeks. Grab a cup of coffee, or whatever works for you. That being said, I look forward to hearing back from you at your earliest convenience!

All my best, ______

She attached the following quote to her email message:

adoption-quote

I plan to ask _______ where she came across the quote. I know that she was not aware of my blog, so I am curious to hear how she found it. I have a few other questions for her, as you might imagine, and I’ll be quite interested to learn more about her perspective and experience.

Anyway, I agreed to get together for coffee, and I will share with her the story of being found recently by my own birth family, thanks to my cousins in California, who took the 23&Me test that finally brought us together.

Damn the agencies, I say. Let’s use the latest advances in DNA science to get around their inhumane policies and the outdated laws they pushed through to keep children from knowing their parents. At the same time, we’ll keep working for justice for adoptees and our first families/birth families.

The power of the pro-adoption lobby that profits literally from the separation of children and parents is intensely hegemonic. The loudest voices in adoption discourse–adopters and those who prey upon them– adoption facilitators, adoption attorneys, and adoption agency executives– make it nearly impossible for us to envision a different way of meeting the needs of children and families in crisis. They make it difficult to imagine how women’s rights, even reproductive rights, include the right to keep and raise one’s children.

Even so, I have come to believe that the days of the pro-adoption lobby are numbered. Mark my words: There will soon come a time when society will eventually awaken to see the adoption business for what it really is: unethical, emotionally and psychologically violent, and essentially untenable from the perspective of human rights. Yet despite their best efforts to maintain business as usual, some of us are still hoping for change.

Family photo

Today I received in the mail some actual photos of my birth mother and her siblings, taken at different ages. Words cannot convey what it means to have and to hold these precious pictures with my own hands. Especially after a lifetime of dispossession and deliberately being kept in the dark.

My newfound cousin (and his family) are so warm and welcoming. It’s a lot to process, emotionally and psychologically. For years, my identity as an adoptee has been constructed around the second-class status many of us are forced to endure, with other people controlling access to information about our origins.And now I am being treated as a first-class family member in good standing.

b-mom-photos1

For years, my identity has been one of Not Knowing: not knowing much of anything about my birth parents. And now, I know a little something about my birth mother’s side of the family. For years, my search has been mainly for information purposes. And now, these strangers want to meet me, are welcoming me into their family.

For years, my existence was kept hidden from them, apparently a shameful secret better left in the past. And now, here I am. Found and claimed.

For years, I was angry at my birth parents for abandoning me, for not going to look for me, for not bothering to find out if I was doing okay. And now, these curious relatives want to know everything about me. They want me to visit for Thanksgiving. They want me to treat them as family. At the same time, I am learning to forgive my birth parents.

For years, I have felt compelled to educate people in the dominant groups about issues of race, adoption, and sexual orientation: the pieces of my identity relating to life and death, quite literally. And now? Does this burden continue? Or can I finally rest?

For years, I have insisted on adoptees’ rights to empowerment, knowledge, and support. Equally fiercely, I’ve defended our right to be left alone and not coaxed to search if we don’t feel like searching. And now I have been found. I am being empowered. I am gaining knowledge of my origins and genealogy. I am feeling supported by adoptee friends and family and non-adoptee allies at every step of my journey.

My adoptee friend and former student, Emily, reminded me this morning to take care of the little adopted boy inside. That little boy is still confused and scared, wondering where his first mommy went. But he is learning to trust the permanency of family ties. He is beginning to accept that not everyone leaves. He is thinking that maybe, he has outgrown his cocoon. He says that one day soon, he will let his guard down and finally allow himself to breathe the cool, refreshing outside air. The power of flight beckons.

FOUND

As you may have noticed, I haven’t posted in a while. I’ve been keeping busy with other projects, including creating some art. But I want to let my friends and allies in the adoption community– and interested readers– know what has been going on with me in terms of adoption-related stuff.

This week, I made phone contact with a biological relative! Thanks to DNA testing (we used 23 & Me), we determined that our (now deceased) mothers were sisters, which makes us first cousins. This is the first time in my life that I have spoken to a blood relative. Then this kind man, my cousin, sent me a photograph of our mothers together many years ago. In the photo, my birth mom is standing next to her soon-to-be ex-husband (not my bio dad), her sister (my aunt), their mother (my grandmother), and their brother (my uncle).

A year and a half ago, I spat into a plastic tube and shipped off my saliva with a check for $99. To be honest, the whole DNA profiling experience felt sketchy and was definitely anti-climactic. I didn’t learn anything that I didn’t already know, really. I emailed a few distant DNA cousins that 23 & Me matched me with (allegedly 2nd, 3rd, 4th cousins), but didn’t get much back in terms of replies. So the whole thing felt like a waste.

And now 18 months later, comes this huge news: I now know my birth mother’s name, along with her birth date and death date, and where she lived (not far from where I was born). I know her siblings’ names, and how many children and grandchildren she had (lots!). It’s almost unreal to get my head around the fact that I have actual factual relatives walking around, some of whom no doubt look like me, sound like me, maybe even gesture like me. Like Pinocchio, I can say with certainty, “I’m a Real Boy.”

Mostly, I’m feeling pretty excited and even happy to FINALLY learn something about my origins and my bio family. Sometimes I find myself feeling sad, for all the years of wondering and not knowing, for policies and laws that kept me from my heritage and my birthright.

I remember, too, and see in my mind the faces of the countless children and youth adoptees I’ve met over the years, at conferences, adoption camps, and workshops, who live with question marks hanging over their heads. They may never experience the empowerment and relief I’ve experienced these past few days, from interacting with a real live family member who shares their past, their genetic code, and their family history. I want to hug each one of them and encourage them to hang on. Hear this, orphans: One day, it can happen, and you will feel whole, and real, and glad to be alive.

I am fortunate that my adoptive family is totally supportive of my search, and thrilled for me at the results so far. Not all of us adoptees are so lucky. I hope my positive outcome (so far) might inspire my sons to search one day, so that they can find answers to the questions that weigh them down. I also think about their kids, my grandchildren, who will most likely have questions of their own that a DNA test may help provide answers for.

I feel dizzy just writing this. Finding and being found is an almost surreal experience, as I’m sure some of you who have gone through this know from firsthand experience. I’ll post again soon when I have processed some more and think I have something worth sharing.

 

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.

#Transracialization: It really is a thing

Rachel-Dolezalrachel-teen

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