On Black Children, White Parents, & Black Panther

In September of 1972, The National Association of Black Social Workers (NABSW) put out their "Position Statement on Trans-Racial Adoption."  It was met with opposition and continues to be something that is talked about often in adoption circles.  It's likely a part of required reading for every white prospective adoptive parent who is open to adopting a black child.  And to be honest, when white people read it, it tends to cause ire.

While you can read the whole thing here, let me just share the first paragraph for now:

The National Association of Black Social Workers has taken a vehement stand against the placement of black children in white homes for any reason. We affirm the inviolable position of black children in black families where they belong physically, psychologically and culturally in order that they receive the total sense of themselves and develop a sound projection of their future.

Let me be transparent for a moment and share that when I read this back in 2005, I was incensed. I remember getting furious, and I even remember thinking it was one of the most racist things I'd ever read.  Now, after more than a decade of parenting Black children as a white parent, now that I am beginning to understand the realities, I realize that my feelings back in 2005 were uneducated and mis-informed. You can't know what you don't know.  I didn't understand the definition of racism.  I didn't understand that being "colorblind" is actually a troubling concept.  I didn't understand. Now I can read the statement (and you really should read the whole thing) and find myself more nodding in agreement than being resistant to the ideas presented.

Hear me on this.  I am not, in any way, regretful we adopted. Nothing could be farther from the truth.  Nico and Sam are irreplaceable members of our family and there would be no Mangine family without them.  They are loved and cherished and I cannot even imagine my world without these boys in it.   I just worry that Nick and I are terribly ill-equipped to be their parents-- for many of the reasons the National Association of Black Social Workers put forth in their position.  I get that all parents worry.  But these are different kinds of worries.  And unless you also have skin in the game, it's hard to explain.

For example, the statement puts forth that the need for socialization begins at birth and that cultural heritage is a significant part of that, as there are are different developmental needs for black children largely because of racism.  In black homes, children are taught from an early age how to cope with the institutional and individual racism they will encounter.  Black parents have experienced these things.  White parents have not, and therefore, cannot fully prepare their children for the ways they will have to move in the world.  We have already seen and experienced this as truth.

Here's another paragraph of the NABSW position:

Special programming in learning to handle black children’s hair, learning black culture, “trying to become black,” puts normal family activities in the form of special family projects to accommodate the odd member of the family. This is accentuated by the white parents who had to prepare their neighbors for their forthcoming black child and those who hasten, even struggle, to make acquaintance with black persons. These actions highlight the unnatural character of trans racial adoption, giving rise to artificial conditions, logically lacking in substance. Superficialities convey nothing of worth and are more damaging than helpful.

Ouch.  Guys, there is truth in this.  Some things have changed on this front since 1972 in that we are, in some ways, living in more diverse spaces.  But there's a LONG way to go.  Can I admit something?  We are always trying to figure out how we can include more Black mirrors for our Black children.  Like it's pretty much a daily conversation between Nick and I. We don't ever discuss who will be our mirrors for our white children, that's just not a topic of conversation.  But We KNOW that there are things that we cannot teach our Black sons. We know we are missing major lessons because we can't know what we don't know.  But at the same time, we do not want to just seek out Black people to befriend because of what we need for our boys because that is just SUPER gross.  It's a dance of trying to move in more black spaces without co-opting the things we want and need from them.  It's complicated.

When we lived in Haiti this was much easier.  We were surrounded by mirrors for our boys without having to try.  And I do feel confident that they have a decent idea of what it means that they are Haitian. And I feel like the rest of our family also has decent understand of this. Living in Haiti was so beneficial in that we could all come to know what it means when we say our boys are Haitian.

But in America, none of that really matters because here Nico and Sam are not perceived as Haitian.  They are seen as Black.  Period.  And so all the "identity groundwork" we laid during their formative years are helpful in establishing their identity and pride in being Haitian.  We we do not at all regret this. But it seems to be not very relevant in how they are perceived now.  Because after all, Black people are just lumped together in American society as Black despite their VASTLY different cultural heritages, which is now largely unknown on an individual basis because that is something that was stolen from them generations ago.

Indeed, this kind of "lumping together" of Black people is just another consequence of slavery.  After a generation or two, slaves did not have a cultural identity other than negro slave.  Today in our more evolved (ha!) times, they might be seen as "African American" but guys, Africa is not a country-- it's a continent of 54 countries all with cultural distinctions in their histories, languages, customs, values, social norms, etc.  But we lump them all together.

We love to claim America as a melting pot and proclaim the beauty of that.  But we need to remember that not everyone jumped into this melting pot willingly or on equal terms. Not everyone wanted this new, morphed identity.  Some were kidnapped, tied, bound, gagged, beaten, raped, forced to do hard labor for no compensation, stripped of their identity, culture, and their humanity, and then thrown in the bubbling pot only to come out the other side something entirely unrecognizable and given no value.  It's just what we did, and quite frankly, still continue to allow, albeit in slightly less obvious ways.

I can now understand this was some of the motivation behind the position put out by the NABSW.  In reading the entire statement there is this persistent concern about further white-washing of the Black experience, and re-defining it according to what we (white people) see as the Black narrative.  (Which, I totally understand is what I am sort of doing here in this post-- acknowledged.) There is a line  where they talk about white parents having to seek out help from black parents with some of the most basic parenting needs and how that's equivalent to having to teach someone something that should be instinctual.  "It is tantamount to having to be taught to do what comes naturally."  They also put forth concerns surrounding the motivation for white people adopting Black children.  Their concerns are legitimate.

In the closing few paragraphs, the NABSW rejects the notion that Black families will not adopt.  This was also a misconception I used to hold.  The truth as I see it now is that we have not allowed Black families to be resourced equitably and as a result, fewer are in the position to be able to adopt.  That might be the number one thing Nick and I learned in Haiti.

We learned that as white foreigners, we were not the people who were best equipped to raise Haitian children that we wanted to remain in Haiti and impact their communities as adults.  In the beginning, we imagined that we'd be in Haiti long-term raising a whole gaggle of Haitian foster kids to adulthood.  But along the way, we realized that we were NOT preparing them for a healthy Haitian adulthood and that we were, in fact, incapable of doing so because we lacked the cultural resources and experience to accomplish this. And so what we did was to put material resources in the hands of Haitian families so that they could do for these children what we believe they deserve and we could not give.  Many Haitian families were willing to take in a foster child.  It is a culture of big families and taking care of one another.

I don't want to speak for Black culture in the US, but we've seen similarities. We've seen tough-as-nails mamas, aunties, grandmothers, uncles, and grandfathers stepping in when there's a need. We've seen them champion their families and stand in gaps.  We've also known Black families with wealth that have built their families through adoption of older children.  We've seen Black organizations mentoring young people and building into their communities.  We've seen cultural pride and heritage being passed onto the younger generation.  It's happening.  But we need to remember that because of our history of slavery and oppression, (as well as current policies that perpetuate its continuation), we have a GIGANTIC wealth gap between Black and white.  We say things like, 'I don't see Black families lining up to "take care of their own.'"  But guys, don't you see that we've taken away their ability to do so?  If we want to have more Black families able to stand in the gaps (because I believe many are willing), we have got to find ways to address issues of justice in an equitable way.  Consider this excerpt (lightly edited for length) from an article written in September 2017-- 

"Between 1983 and 2013, according to a new report from the Institute for Policy Studies, the wealth of the median black household declined 75 percent (from $6,800 to $1,700)... At the same time, wealth for the median white household increased 14 percent from $102,000 to $116,800. It’s an almost unbelievable contrast, and by 2020, black households are projected to lose 18% more wealth. After those declines, the median white household will own 86 times more wealth than its black counterpart... This isn’t a wealth gap—it’s a wealth chasm."

As white Americans, we come from a history of colonization.  We just do.  We can't change our history.  But we can start writing a better story for our future.  The problem is that we have a colonizer model of just about everything. We're used to even our well-meaning benevolence and charity being on our own terms and done in ways that also benefit us.  It's almost part of our DNA-- something we have to unlearn.

And I am starting to understand how even our own motivation to adopt children came from a place of wanting to solve something.  It seemed like an easy equation at the time.  We would like to add to our family, there are children who need families, bingo-- easy answer. Why should we make more children when there are already children who need families?  Seemed to make perfect sense. Again, I am SO glad we adopted.  SO glad.  But what us adopting Haitian children did not address was the root problem-- the systems that operate that tell Haitian mamas they should surrender parental rights because they are poor.  We took on two children who were in vulnerable positions (and don't get me wrong, we always need to care for the needs of vulnerable children), but we perpetuated the cycle of poverty.  We gave no other solution for a Haitian mother in financial trouble except to give away her child.  Her future.  Her heritage.

I am not anti-adoption. And even with all I am coming to understand about international and transracial adoption, I am not anti-international adoption or anti-transracial adoption.  But my attitude about adoption now can be summed up in two phrases--"last resort", and "yes, AND..."

First, adoption should be the last resort.  It is for the cases only where it is truly warranted.  It's now being more widely recognized that adoption always involves trauma-- even under the "best" of the last resort situations. Hear me, I agree that there are circumstances (lots of them) when adoption is necessary. I am just no longer sure that being poor is a good enough reason.  (That's a whole other complicated topic for another day.)

And second, when we, as parents, agree to adopt, our drive should be that of things like:

  • "Yes, AND this is how I am going to engage in the root problems that made this adoption necessary."  
  • And, "Yes, AND I am committed to do the hard work of helping my children establish a healthy cultural identity."  
  • And "Yes, AND I am willing to be the one in uncomfortable-for-me situations so that my child can be more comfortable."  
  • And "Yes, AND we will put our family under the leadership of priority voices who we will believe, respect, and honor."  
  • And, "Yes, AND the psycho-social needs of my children are more important than any other relationship, and so, I choose my child over any family member or friend who is unwilling to join us on this journey in a healthy way.  It is my joy to do this, not my trial to bear." 
  • And, "Yes, AND when we are confronted with our own biases and racism (intentional or not), we will receive this information well and be committed to making changes."
  • And, "Yes, AND we will intentionally and respectfully develop genuine, reciprocal relationships with Black families, not out of a motivation to get something from them, but out of the pure belief that we are better together."
  • And, "Yes, and we will work to maintain a (healthy) relationship with birth family relations when it is appropriate/possible.  We will find ways to invest in their well-being because they are OUR family."

 This list is by no means exhaustive and always growing...

About this time, you're probably wondering when I am gonna bring up the Black Panther, as it's in the title of this blog post.  You're probably also wondering what it has to do with the topic I am discussing.  I am getting to that.

So, I hate superhero movies.  That fact alone makes me suck as a wife and boy mom.  But that kind of reality-bending is a hard sell for me.  I prefer to consume more realistic media-- like when rich people fall in love and live happily ever after, or when the country is in peril due to an incoming missile and the whole world ends up being saved by a rag-tag team of former criminals who turned their lives around and now use bubble gum and shoelaces to build a contraption they aren't sure will work. (Spoiler alert: It does.)  Or you know, any number of reality shows.  Those are so real that the word reality is in the title of their genre.  (Sarcasm alert, and I am digressing.)

So, I will be honest.  I was excited for Black Panther only because I knew it was a big deal movie.  I was excited because my kids were excited and my husband was excited.  I was excited because the Black community was going to finally have superhero representation and all that comes along with that.  And so, we bought tickets several weeks ahead of opening weekend, because I wanted my kids to have that opening-weekend-experience.  We bought six tickets-- a block of four in the middle of the theater and a block of two closer to the front.

As the opening weekend approached, we realized Nia wasn't going to be able to go with us because of a conflict in her schedule.  So we had an extra ticket.  I asked Nico if he wanted to bring a friend from the neighborhood.  He picked his friend Jaylin.  I bought everyone their favorite movie candy ahead of time at the grocery store because I am not trying to not make rent this month so they can each eat a $7 box of Skittles.

All six of us entered the theater.  Friends, other than the time that Nick and I have bought tickets to go watch pan-African step shows for black fraternities and sororities, I have never been in a situation where I was so much in the minority in America.  The crowd was at least 95% black.  And the lobby of the theater was packed to the gills.  I picked up our pre-ordered tickets at the kiosk and Jaylin said, "Hey, my mom gave me money for popcorn, can I buy some popcorn before we go in?"

The line for concessions was really long, so I told Nico to wait with Jaylin to get his popcorn and then they could take the block of two seats closer to the front.  Nick and I took Josiah and Sam into the theater and found our seats in the stadium seating area.  I kept watching for Nico and Jaylin to get into the theater, but it was taking a long time.  So I texted with Nico a few times to make sure everything was going okay.  It was.  "Calm down, Mama," I had to remind myself.

Finally, Nico and Jaylin entered the theater while the previews were going on.  It was the BIG theater.  And as far as I could tell, every single seat in the theater, except their two, were taken.  I sat up there and watched as they tried to find their row and their seats.  And I watched them pass the seats and I wanted to get up and make sure they could find them, but Nick jut patted my arm and said, "They're fine.  They will work it out."  And they did.  They talked to a couple of other movie-goers and found their seats.

I tell you about this because in that moment, I was watching my son be perceived by a crowd of people as an average Black teenager.  No one down there knew that he was caught between worlds-- a Black (Haitian) kid with white parents. Instead, this was a place where he totally fit in. His buddy by his side. He was in the majority.  His heritage was being celebrated.  He was in a place where he wasn't the token different one.

This time I stood out.

And in that moment, I became very conscious of how I was perceived as a white woman with my Black 7 year-old son sitting next to me and on my lap at times.  I was there in the midst of this beautiful cultural phenomenon made by, for, and about Black people.  I started to feel insecure. I wondered if people were judging me for having a Black son--especially a 7 year-old in a PG-13 movie.  I wondered what people nearby me thought about white people using up three seats in a sold-out theater when I saw Black people walking out of the lobby just moments earlier unable to get tickets.  I wondered if me being there was appropriation, especially because I don't even like superhero movies. (PS- I LOVED IT.)  All of these thoughts were swirling. Admittedly, these thoughts were all pretty self-focused.  Not that anyone did anything to make me feel insecure, it's just what I think we all default to when we stand out.

And then it hit me.

That's how Nico feels 99% of the time.

I remembered that scene in the episode of This is Us when Randall goes to check out Howard University even though his parents are pushing him towards Harvard.  He's in a place where he's finally a member of the majority and you see physical changes in his face and in his body language.  He's relaxed and less rigid.  He's understood despite being surrounded by complete strangers.  And as much as he loves his Dad, he sort of wants him to leave. (To Jack's credit, he does.)

And I thought about this thing I read (and quote to myself often) written by Chad-Goller Sojourner, who grew up as a black child raised by white parents in the 1970s. In addition to other things, he is now a transracial adoption coach.  I love this quote-- "By it's very nature, when it comes to transracial adoption somebody is going to be uncomfortable. It's the parents' position to be uncomfortable because they're the ones who chose to adopt" and should embrace discomfort for the sake of their child's self-exploration."

On Saturday when we were sitting in that theater, I realized, yet again, that it's my job to be uncomfortable so that my boys can feel secure.  We can go to rallies and marches for issues of justice. (And we do.)  We can participate in and contribute financially to people who are doing responsible, respectful, grassroots work towards justice. (And we do.)  We can vote for candidates who represent the interests of marginalized people.  (Yup.)  We can join the NAACP.  (Done.)  We can support black businesses and we can we can discuss black history around the dinner table each night. (We do all those things and more.)

But we do it all from the perch of privilege.

At this point, that privilege extends to our Black sons by virtue of the fact that they are under our privilege umbrella, but their time there is short.  They grow older each day.  Soon enough they will have to begin their own "descent into blackness and out of whiteness" as Goller-Sojourner describes in this NPR interview. And I really, really want to be able to help give them the tools and experiences so that they will have the ability to love themselves as Black men-- to love the reflection in the mirror.  To feel confident and strong and secure in who they are.

This weekend I read an article about the lessons we can learn from the Black Panther and I came to realize that our sons don't need white allies. That's what I have been trying to be. Their allies. Instead what they need are co-conspirators. The last segment of this article explains the difference. 

Solidarity requires sacrifice.  It requires an intentional peeling off of privilege.  It requires listening and taking cues from priority voices.  It requires that we don't try to take charge-- the back seat is our spot. We're the followers and we're the laborers. It requires that we put in hard work.

Black Panther gave me a renewed sense of commitment to keep forging ahead.  It's complicated and I will not do as good of a job preparing my boys for their future as Black parents could do.  But I am committed to keep learning.  I am committed to keep listening.  I am committed to embracing uncomfortable-for-me situations, so that my boys can be more comfortable.  This work is my joy, not my burden.

I am not going to recommend potential adoptive parents do or do not consider transracial adoption. That's your deal.  But I am going to beg you that if you choose to proceed, that you do so with eyes wide open.  And if you're not willing to make a life-long commitment to being a co-conspirator, please sit this one out.


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