Friday, January 13, 2012

talking about race

Race is one of those things that I have hesitated to write about for a few reasons. It is scary to me to write on such a far-reaching and loaded topic because two of my biggest fears are being misunderstood and offending people, and race might be the topic most prone to misunderstanding and offense in the whole universe. I'm also hesitant to write anything about race because I know I can say something but I can't begin to say everything, which means I'll leave something out and not say what I really mean and not give this topic the thorough and nuanced treatment it merits.

Buuuuuuut, those are all basically excuses. As a transracial adoptive parent, this is something I can't afford to be afraid to talk about, so today I'm diving in and sharing my thoughts, questions, and ideas about race.

Three years ago I would have told you that the issue of race did not play a major role in my life (spoken like a true white person). I did not believe myself to hold any racial biases. I believed that America was a place where people of any race could succeed if they worked hard enough, and the election of our first black president seemed to put an exclamation point on that sentiment.

What do I believe about race in America now? I'm not sure. I do know that in terms of racial equality, this country started on a very bad foot, and that the echoes of those beginnings still ring loudly today. I grew up and remain today largely shielded from that noise, but that doesn't make it any less real.

I am a product of White Privilege. I'm not ashamed of that, I don't feel guilty for that, and I can't apologize for that because I didn't choose to be born white, nor did I create the system which afforded me such privilege. I believe that my whiteness has been a critical factor in my success in school, sports, and relationships throughout my life. If you misinterpret that statement it could actually come across as being racist, so let me clarify: I am not saying that being white in and of itself made me a better student, better athlete, or better friend/wife/mom. I am saying that the systems and institutions of our society provided me, my (white) parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and on down the line, with unearned privileges that significantly impacted our ability to succeed... because we were white.

Maybe that last paragraph makes you roll your eyes and say "duh." Maybe it makes you confused. Maybe it makes you yell at your computer screen, "What are you talking about?! What about poor, unsuccessful white people?! What about rich, successful black people?! What about all the hard work that you and your family members before you put in to earn the success you all achieved?!"

Fair questions. Questions I just wrote 450 words trying to answer and then erased them all because they didn't even scratch the surface.

Other people have written clearly and thoughtfully about this, and rather than trying to summarize their words, I'll just tell you why I decided to listen to them. During the process of preparing to parent a child of another race, I had to come face to face with the truth that I didn't (don't?) have the first clue what my son will experience as a child of color. I realized that the sum total of my knowledge about race in America today could fit on the head of a pin. I stopped talking and started listening. The things I heard sounded strange, impossible even, but I had to remind myself, I wouldn't know.

It might sound magnanimous to say that race doesn't matter in adoption. Love is colorblind, and all that. I can say that race doesn't matter, because it's never had to matter for me. But it might very well matter to my son. And if I am not equipped to understand or even acknowledge that reality then I am leaving him out in the cold on a critical identity issue. Please, let's not do this to our kids. Let's not be afraid of race. Let's not shove it in a back corner and pretend it doesn't exist. Let's put it on the table and talk about it, because our children learn from what we don't say as much as from what we do.

Our first-grader is learning about Martin Luther King Jr. this week at school. He was telling me what he had learned about the civil rights movement, and I shared with him that racial discrimination and prejudice still exists today, though they take different forms than in MLK's time. N considered this, then looked up at me and asked, "Then who is helping today, Mommy?" Gulp. "We need to," I told him. And we do. I'm still bumbling my way through figuring out exactly how we do that, but I won't put my head back in the sand and pretend it doesn't need to happen.

Books, Links, & Resources
[this is a VERY incomplete list -- less of a resource list and more like a road map of my specific journey]
White Like Me, by Tim Wise -- start here.
Uncle Tom's Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe -- slavery sucks.
White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, by Peggy McIntosh -- free pdf
The Sword of the Lord, by Andrew Himes -- this one is not focused on racism, but it gives a window into race & conservative Christianity in the 20th century.
The Same Kind of Different As Me, by Ron Hall and Denver Moore -- again, not a book about racism specifically, but Denver's story blew my mind.
Love is NOT Colorblind, from the Livesay [Haiti] blog
Parenting While Not Noticing Race, from the Adoption Talk blog
Love Isn't Enough, blog about race and parenting
Racialicious, blog about race and pop culture

**What's missing from this list: more stuff written by people of color. Thanks for your patience, I'm working on it.

**What's missing from this picture of our boys and their cousins on J's side? You guessed it - more people of color! Thanks for your patience, and no, we're not working on it yet... but hopefully someday. :)


  1. Thank you for opening this conversation in our "little circle" of the world. As adoptive parents, to ignore issues about race would be a complete disservice to the children we love so much. I feel like I have a lot more questions than answers at this point, but I guess we have to start somewhere.

  2. This is a great start!

    Do you like that? How I have decided that you need to keep reading and writing on the topic? After all, if you do it, then I can just link to your blog from mine and I won't have to do all that pesky reading, thinking and (gulp) writing.

    I love what you said about White Privilege and that you pointed readers to a place where they can delve deeper into the concept. It is very real and you and I and so many APs are recipients of it. It is hard to wrap my head around the fact that while I have naturally had doors opened to me, solely based on my race. My child will have doors closed on her, solely based on her race. Period.

    Of course the doors present themselves in any number of ways. They may represent a conversation, a response when asking for help, the benefit of the doubt, the way a teacher {police officer, probation officer, bystander, sales clerk, store owner, waitress, judge} interprets my behavior, my ability to receive a scholarship, a business opportunity, where I can travel, there is no limit to what I have been given or how I have been received simply due to my race. The same holds true for our kids. And at my best, I am still pitifully ill-prepared to help walk my daughter through those moments.

    Alright, I promise, I'll write my own post on this as well. But first I have other promises to keep regarding other posts yet to be written.

  3. Thanks for writing about this. It is difficult and scary to put it out there, but if not for the courage to do it we are all stuck in the same place. Great post!

  4. Haley, thank you for posting this! My boyfriend (who is Zambian) and I read your post and one of the blogs you alluded to and have had many great conversations about the topic of race and interracial dating. It's tough, the whole topic of race is tough, but it is so beautiful and I am so thankful to God for the diversity he created. I hope that you continue to write and think deeply about race. It is going to be essential and so beneficial for your whole family and especially everyone around you, as you know. It seems that you know the power in talking openly about race in this way. I hope that you know how thankful people are to read this. We were blessed by hearing your words and the other ones too. I also just watched the entire MLK speech (not sure if I had ever watched it from the beginning to end, which is really too bad) thank you!

  5. If you want to read a book that gives a perspective of what it is like to grow up black in america, i would suggest reading "makes me wanna holler" by nathan mccall