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.