Here’s one reason why you can’t take the racism out of the race conversation

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.


The folly of diversity as the holy grail

So we’re visiting a fellow TRA family in another city and one of the parents and I got into a conversation about diversity in school for our children and something along the following came tumbling out of my mouth: “I don’t care about diversity anymore. School diversity is held up as the holy grail of transracial adoption (TRA) and I’ve worked my butt off to get that for her. I’ve achieved it, in TWO schools, but we’ve seen the same thing in both. She’s got Black friends and of course that’s important but that’s not enough. She’s witnessed her Black friends being over disciplined in relation to their white peers and she’s clearly identified for herself that as the only Back child in her grade in the gifted program, she’s not viewed as being as bright as her white peers.” I was honestly surprised by the intensity of my feelings and words. I was really looking forward to having a relaxing summer for us to regroup and heal from this last school year. The combination of a truly anti-racist summer camp and vacationing with TRA kids who share my daughter’s cultural heritage and are like cousins to her seem to be doing the trick for her but I’m feeling defeated and worried. Based on what I’m reading, it seems as though the key to truly equitable education for Black children lies with a high percentage of Black teachers in the school.

But here’s the rub, in the city where we live and one city where I’ve considered relocating (and this seems to be the case pretty much across the country), schools with high number Black teachers fall into two categories: schools that serve predominantly low income students and as a result of the high need to support struggling students, have very limited/non-existent gift program (which my daughter needs to be effectively engaged and challenged) or high achieving schools that are extremely strict, structured, and high pressure (which would not be a good environment for her given her history and personality).

My friend mentioned that she has a friend with TRA family and they experienced pretty much the same at diverse public schools so they moved their child to a private school where the child is the only Black child and they are finding the situation to be much better related to bias in teaching but, GAH, given the research on the damage caused by Black children being academically & socially isolated from Black peers, that doesn’t seem to actually be a good solution.

So here I am again, sitting in my privilege of choices as a result of my education, social and professional connections, and above all, my whiteness, with no real best case scenario choices for my brilliant Black child. THIS is what racism looks like and I cannot believe how invisible it is to white America, because it certainly was to me, though I definitely thought of myself as a thoughtful and anti-racist white ally. I was wrong and I am heartbroken.

Edit: I’ve gotten some comments on a FB group that leads me to believe that I might not have been completely clear. I’m not arguing against putting TRA kids in diverse schools!!! I’m just saying, I naively thought diversity was the panacea and it’s not. I thought that somehow by living in a progressive and highly diverse community and being really diligent in making decisions for my daughter I could protect her, not from everything but from a lot. I was wrong. I honestly think the school where she is is a best case scenario and yet, it sucks. Not because I should move, or change schools or anything else, but because racism is so engrained in American culture and so unconscious, that there is no real and true best option. It’s just shades of suck and pick your poison. My privilege blinded me to the concept that I will be required to make hard compromises in my daughter’s education simply because she is Black, and that’s why I’m heartbroken.