The Pain of White Privilege and Racism in Transracial Adoption
Image credit: Marika Lindholm
A white mom to black daughters speaks from the heart
Kristen Howerton, a blogger with a multiracial family, was attacked on two fronts. First, pro-Aryan extremists wrote hateful racial epithets about her brown sons and smeared racial slogans over some of her family photos. Second, a slew of more moderate folks criticized Howerton for compromising her children’s privacy.
When I heard about the incident, my heart skipped a beat. I am a white woman of Scandinavian descent and the mother of five. Two of my daughters are adopted from Ethiopia. Like Howerton, I have written about my children online. The possibility of being targeted by hate mongers is frightening, but my true unease came from the scolding Howerton received. Fortunately, Howerton, who blogs thoughtfully on issues of race and multiculturalism, was undeterred.
Families like ours shouldn’t be bullied into invisibility. As a sociologist who has lectured and written about inequality, I’ve learned that sharing from the heart can help people understand complex issues. In that spirit, I’d like to share some insights from my experience raising a racially diverse family. And to those who worry about my children’s privacy, consider that my family is used to being on public display. We never blend in. Depending on the diversity of the location, event, or activity, the stares and questions may range from mild curiosity to outright hostility. People from all races and backgrounds look at us and seem to wonder, Who belongs to whom?
Depending on my mood, I’m either proud to be a symbol of diversity or annoyed by the scrutiny, which can be alarmingly intrusive. In front of my adopted children, I’ve been asked, “How much did they cost?” and “Are their parents dead?” Although you never get used to such questions, for me and everyone I know with a family like ours, it’s well worth the occasional awkward encounter.
We recently scored tickets to the Broadway show Hamilton. We happened to take a Chinese student with us, so we piled into our seats like the United Nations, fumbling with programs and getting settled while other theatergoers stared at us, probably trying to figure out how we all fit together. As the remarkably diverse cast captivated us with their talent and heart, I felt proud of our unique family and the complex, rich experience it brings.
But there are several other emotions that aren’t so easy or positive. As a white mother to black children, I’m not at liberty to blithely move without question through our racialized world. Nor can I ignore the impact of white privilege on my family and how I raise my kids.
Here are five insights that acknowledge the rough edges and hopefully spur the kind of discussion of race that Howerton and I view as important and worthwhile.
1. Stereotypes of black womanhood run deep.
I’m very proud that I know how to take care of my black children’s hair and skin. Sometimes in the middle of a three-hour braiding session, when I’ve pulled too hard and my daughter is in tears, I imagine that if she had a brown mom, she would endure the same or worse, perhaps being teased for being “tender-headed.” But on the days that my daughters look disheveled with ashy skin, any encounter with an African American woman makes me feel inadequate, judged, and oh so white.
If you’re thinking this white mom carries around a lot of stereotypes about black women, yup, and I feel guilty, sad, and angry about this truth. I’ve lectured on the power of pernicious stereotypes, encouraged students to remember all the times they made faulty assumptions based on identity, and repeatedly confronted my own tendency to rely on stereotypical notions of black womanhood. Yet still, to my chagrin, these notions have seeped into my subconscious. As a trained sociologist and mother of two black daughters, it’s crushing to think that if even I struggle with these internal judgments, then ugly stereotypes will undoubtedly shape perceptions of them at school, work, and all aspects of their public life.
For me to assume that all black moms would tug their daughters’ hair to the point of tears or that these moms are judging my ability to parent shows how easily these stereotypes emerge, to the detriment of all black women—including my daughters.
2. My kids will not learn about institutional racism by watching how people treat me.
I’m a woman who travels the world with a smile, so it would be easy for me to assume that the perks and affirmation I receive are based on my personality. More likely, it’s simply that white people are nicer to and less judgmental of other white people. My equally effusive black friends don’t get out of speeding tickets, aren’t given the benefit of the doubt when they forget their IDs, and don’t get a friendly wave when they bring armfuls of clothes to the dressing room.
I regret telling my daughters when they were younger that if you’re kind to people, they will treat you the same way. Now that one of my daughters looks more like a woman, I see the distrust in strangers’ eyes. I see that, as compared to her more childlike sibling, she is being judged as somehow “less than” or as a threat.
Black families are well aware of these realities and do what they can to prepare, buffer, and uplift their children against racism. Their children see the daily indignities that black citizens must endure at the hands of white citizens. I try to prepare my children, but it’s unrealistic to believe that I can accomplish this task adequately when they watch their mom stroll through each day without similar judgment.
3. The black community is more generous than judgmental.
I’m aware that our white family isn’t universally viewed as the optimal environment in which to raise black children. I understand why some may worry that a family like ours may come up short on some dimensions, but we are a family—as imperfect and real as any other.
As our family makes its way in this world, I’ve found that my fear of being judged and criticized by African Americans is my issue. More often than not, black Americans show generosity toward my brown children. While traveling with my brown daughters, I’ve received flight, car-rental, and hotel upgrades; free desserts; and many other random acts of kindness from African Americans. It’s uncomfortable to know that because my family could afford adoption, I am now included in a network of African American generosity. But for my children’s sake, I’m grateful and moved that when they navigate the world alone, they will meet kindness from strangers of the same skin color.
4. My children’s confessions lay bare the psychological consequences of race.
When they were very young, my Ethiopian daughters confessed that they wished they were white. They shed tears over their hair and skin. With my heart in my throat, I tried to reassure them that they are beautiful, valued, and unconditionally loved.
I want to believe that these wishes for white skin were more about fitting into our family and community than about racism, but I can’t be certain. What I do know is that when I taught them about slavery and Jim Crow laws, my whole being hurt, knowing that they understood that, unlike the rest of our family, they would have been denied rights and endured mistreatment.
From time to time, my brown children have expressed the wish that a black family adopted them. We’ve had some uncomfortable moments when one of my daughters is hanging out with brown kids and brown moms, and then I show up. Things get quiet and awkward—I get it. It’s exhausting for my kids to always be the object of curiosity.
Although our white privilege protects some of us individually, as a family, we ache because it’s just so damn arbitrary and cruel. We still grapple to explain and strategize about the treatment our kids may receive simply because they are black. Like any other parents of black children, we walk the fine line between teaching our daughters to be conscientious but not paranoid, to do their best regardless of how they are treated—but to understand the social context of that treatment as well.
Time spent with their African American godmother validates my daughters in ways I simply can’t. They see their future in her: a thoughtful, warm woman with a PhD who gives world-class hugs. They’ve never said this, but I imagine they are proud to pretend that she is their mom.
5. In our home, white privilege is an imperfect buffer.
We follow the Black Lives Matter movement, and our children know about Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner. But white privilege can temper our experience of such tragedies. We don’t have brown male sons—brothers or cousins who’ve been handcuffed or roughed up for no reason. We don’t routinely get pulled over, harassed, or mistaken as a suspect. Instead of the hollow of fear that resides in the chest of every family with brown sons, our family lives with a layer of false protection. I can only imagine the grip on a mother’s heart when her beautiful, beloved black son heads out to face a world that’s been shown to be cruel and dangerous.
However, no imagination was needed when we pondered the death of Sandra Bland. The video of her encounter with the police rocked us to the core. Watching it made me dizzy with fear and grief. I wept for Bland, and also for my daughters, who have to “behave” in the face of hatred so profound that they might be humiliated or even physically injured if they fight back. They watched the video with confused hurt in their eyes, especially after I explained that their lives depended on quelling the instinct to fight back against stupidity. Learning about racial oppression can be an intellectual and moral affront to white folks, but to my daughters and other children of color, it’s a matter of survival.
Every time the news reports another travesty of racial injustice, I want to wrap my arms around my girls and promise that they will never have to endure such hatred. But I’d be lying. White privilege doesn’t spare our family from the worry and fear. White privilege doesn’t extend beyond the neighborhood we live in, the schools and camps my children attend, and the opportunities they will undoubtedly have because we can provide them. It stops at the arms I wrap around them, trying to shield them. Ultimately, my daughters will have to stand in the world as African American women and face all that that means. We can only hope that the “enlightened” conversations, opportunities they’ve been afforded, and the love and pride we instill in them will make their journey easier than that of those who came before them.
Moments of normalcy
There are certain escapes, like the musical Hamilton, that make our family feel normal . . . even if just for a moment. Like so many others, we loved the play for its fantastic music, genius lyrics, and dynamic historical plot. But for our family, it meant something more, something that made my kids walk out with an added bounce in their step, a welcome affirmation of who we are. The multiracial cast—with Hamilton played by a Puerto Rican genius, his wife by an Asian American actor, Aaron Burr by an African American, and Jefferson by a rapper of Jewish and African American descent—welcomed us into a world where, for two glorious hours, we felt normal.
This wonderfully improbable and diverse cast presented human emotions without a care about true historical identity. Critics have noted that this might not have worked a decade ago but that Americans are now ready to embrace our postracial reality. I’m not sure about that; race matters as much in our lifetime as it did in Hamilton’s.
But for my family, it felt great to watch a performance founded on human pain, human struggle, and human accomplishment rather than one attached to racial identity. Great theater, like Hamilton, offers moments of transcendence and invention. But when the curtain goes down and the lights go up, our family and the actors must step into a racialized world that deserves to be examined in all its complexity.
A sociologist who taught at Northwestern University for over a decade, Marika Lindholm is the founder of ESME, Empowering Solo Moms Everywhere, a confidential community of support and connection for Solo Moms.
Please feel free to contact us with any comments or questions.