Transracial Adoption, Research, and Me

So, I’m on the downhill side of this mental health counseling degree I started three years ago. I can see the light at the end of the tunnel—but before I can emerge victorious from the darkness, I must complete a handful of tasks:

  • First, I must accumulate three hundred hours of direct counseling experience. I am about a quarter of the way there.
  • Then, I must amass a dozen or so hours of direct observation of my counseling skills. I’ve got that covered—no sweat.
  • I must also acquire many hours of supervision, which I am working on and should have little trouble accomplishing.
  • Simultaneously, I need to add about 20 credits to my credit total, six of which will come from the two remaining required classes I must take, Intro to Research and Tests & Measures, eight of which will come from my remaining Case Consult classes, and the rest of which will have to come from a couple of electives.

I am taking Intro to Research now, right this very quarter, and it has me flummoxed. I should not have put it off this long. I should not have waited until I was in internship to take it. I should not have dropped it all those previous quarters when I registered for it. Nope. Bad decisions have come back to bite me in the ass, here Dear Reader. I have no room in my little pea brain for academic articles. I am up to my armpits in counseling clients who have many serious mental health needs, and I am having difficulty wrapping my head around how researching and writing a paper is going to help me be a more effective counselor. It seems an exercise for its own sake, a tuition-generating requirement, if nothing else.

So, while I could not give less of a fuck about this paper in general, I am quite interested in the specific topic I have chosen, which makes me reluctant to simply blow it off. I have decided to research Trauma and Transracial Adoption (TRA). It’s a topic that is near and dear to me, a topic that I neglected to address 27 years ago when I first adopted my oldest daughter, a topic that I am now ashamed to admit that I gave no serious consideration to until just recently.

cropped-me_nala_t_halloween941.jpgIt makes sense to me that if adoption is a traumatic experience, that transracial adoption would be even more so. I mean, think about it. How in the world can white people adequately prepare children of color to navigate our racist culture? I know now that our optimism when we adopted our girls was misplaced and the result of white privilege. We didn’t have a clue how steeped in white privilege we were. Of course, when the social workers asked if I would be willing to make sure my kids received information about their cultural heritage, I promised to provide it. Of course, I said. Of course. I will read them books. I will tell them about Martin Luther King, Jr. I will hang pictures of Rosa Parks and celebrate Black History Month. But I had no idea how, 27 years later, my ignorance would affect my girls.

I had no idea. I was so naïve, my friends. So very naïve. I did not imagine all those years ago that race relations would be WORSE in 2017 than they were in 1990. Who among us would have predicted? I had no idea raising two black children in our lovely little liberal bubble Bellingham would not prepare my daughters to live in the greater world as women of color, would not adequately prepare them for future encounters with racists, with white supremacists, with law enforcement officers who would just as soon shoot them dead as ask questions.

I should have known. I should have tried harder. I should have. I should have. I should have. And so now, here I am, trying to figure out what I wish I had known then, what I wish someone had slapped me upside the head with all those years ago: how will being raised in a white family impact an African American child? What will they learn? Who will teach them how to navigate this racist world? How did I contribute, willingly or not, to their marginalization? This is perhaps the toughest question: what was my culpability? Did I collude? Can I admit it?

Admittedly, getting to the place where I can acknowledge my culpability has been tough. When my ex-partner and I adopted our kids, we just wanted children. We did not think beyond our desire to have a baby. She wanted kids, and I was along for the ride. Don’t get me wrong, I love my daughters. I would not trade them for anything. But that love doesn’t mean I don’t have regrets about the way in which we went about the adoption process. I should have steeped myself in Black culture. I should have moved to a city more inhabited by Black people. I should have made an effort to connect my kids to their heritage. I didn’t. I admit it. I took the easy path. I surrendered my responsibilities.

And now, as a sort of atonement, I am writing this research paper. It is not enough, but it is a start.anna and taylor xmas


Makeup Beauty Doll and Other Problems with White Privilege

Reposting, again. It’s been two years since I last posted this and many years since I wrote it. It’s still relevant.

Pamela Helberg

Many years ago, flummoxed by the joys and perils of raising two non-white children in our predominantly white culture, I wrote an essay expressing my doubts and fears, and (surprising to me now) my certainties (you will recognize them when you see them). Some of what I wrote makes sense and some of it clearly needs rethinking. Yesterday on the day we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr., my eldest daughter, now 23, texted me (this is how we communicate these days). She was wondering if I thought it odd that the company for which she now works didn’t celebrate the national holiday. I do find it odd, odd that only governments and banks shut down on this Monday when the world grinds to a halt, more or less, for other national holidays: Christmas, Thanksgiving, Memorial Day, the 4th of July.

My initial response to her was yes, MLK day…

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R is for Racism

Last Tuesday in my Multicultural Perspectives class, we watched Ethnic Notions, (please watch this clip before continuing to read) a disturbing 1986 documentary by Marlon Riggs that chronicles the history of the depiction of African-Americans in popular culture in the 100 or so years just leading up to and following Emancipation.

A large part of what made watching this film so unsettling was that I remember many of these caricatures and have spent a lifetime trying to forget them: Little Black Sambo, Aunt Jemima, The Cream of Wheat guy, the cartoons. The mammy, the pickaninny, the coon, the Sambo, as Riggs points out. I used to sit on my grandpa’s knee while he read Little Black Sambo to me. I remember lawn jockeys, cookie jars, and other knickknacks that exaggerated and distorted African-American features in the name of entertainment.

These memories stirred deep within me as we viewed the film, as Riggs systematically demonstrated the intention behind each caricature, the impact each has had on the ways whites currently view Black Americans. With such pervasive and insidious images in our consciousness, it’s not surprising (completely unacceptable, but not surprising, really) when someone like Paul Ryan blames inner city poverty on lazy “inner city” men. And we know what he means by “inner city.”

Images like those in Ethnic Notions serve as shorthand to remind us that African-Americans can only be either simple, shuffling Uncle Toms or scary, monstrous savages. These are the images that have lodged in our minds. These are the images George Zimmerman had to have conjured up before he shot Trayvon Martin, the notions that Michael Dunn had before he opened fire on a truckload of Black teens who were playing their music too loud.

For only by dehumanizing African-Americans can we justify our treatment of them over the course of our country’s history. Only by dehumanizing an entire race can we continue to insist that they are all the things we say they are, only by dehumanizing them, can we maintain our ideas about white superiority and cling to white privilege.

Last night I watched 12 Years a Slave, and I think I must have felt the way my grandparents did when they watched Roots all those years ago—appalled by my ignorance, angered by Solomon Northup’s story, certainly. Aghast at the pervasiveness of evil, not just at how Northup came to be captured, but that there was even a system into which he could be sold. And ashamed that in spite of the intervening 100+ years, so much remains unchanged.