As parents of transracially adopted children, we frequently have to answer our children’s questions about why (insert race) people do (insert perceived difference) as in, why do Black people talk differently? We then commence to having a conversation with them about cultural differences and frankly, when I have those conversations, they wind up being really stilted and I get concerned that I’m walking a really fine line between explaining in a developmentally appropriate way and reinforcing stereotypes. I don’t think I’m the only one struggling with this and certainly I don’t think it’s exclusively a transracial adoption problem, but a life and death issue for transracially adopted children.
So last week I participated in the Peoples Institute for Survival and Beyond’s Undoing Racism workshop and one of the many things I learned was why these conversations get so weird and unproductive.
The underlying problem with the way we generally talk about racial and cultural differences is that we ignore at least two basic principles of how racism works: 1) white people are the default in our culture and everyone else is other (Don’t buy that? The evidence is as close as your local Wal Mart: the color of band aids, “nude” undergarments, hair care products -with no qualifier- vs ethnic hair care products) and 2) because white is the default, everything other than their whiteness defines who white people are, therefore white people are seen as individuals, whereas anyone not white is defined by their non-whiteness and thus seen as the collective in their other category: Black, Asian, Latino/Hispanic, etc and the most prevalent representation of category in our media and collective consciousness, which is very likely to be super racist representation in and of itself, defines the collective (ie: violent Black people, sexy Latino/as, smart Asians).
So, when our children ask us why (insert race) people do (insert perceived difference) the answer is not found in explaining cultural differences of the other as a deviation from the default (whiteness). It’s found in disabusing our children (and ourselves!) of the notion that the way any group other than white people do anything is different. Different from what? Different from white people is what our unconscious mind tells us and THAT is where racism lies. In the back of our minds, silently whispering and reinforcing these beliefs.
So, there is NO WAY to explain to children why (insert race) people do (insert perceived difference) in a non-racist way without confronting the default status of white people and the resulting individuation of white people and the collective status of everyone else.
This is not a one time answer. It’s a long term dialogue and it requires us to look at our unconscious defaults, bring them up to consciousness, and be able to explain it to our kids. Over and over again if we are to counteract the oppressive nature of the media etc.
It also requires that our children have strong and consistent relationships with people who share their racial identity so they have first hand experience with the individual traits of people of their race instead of being bamboozled by the collective white supremacy reinforces. Transracially adopted children cannot grow up with a healthy sense of self if their only interpretation of their race is facilitate by white people, whether those white people are the powers that be in the media or their parents.