photo credit-iboy daniel
creative commons license
Kristina Chew got me thinking today with her post on "Race, Diagnosis, and Identity". In it, she talks about her son Charlie's biracial (Asian/Caucasian) heritage, as well as his other difference, his autism. Kristina also references an article by Peggy Orenstein in the New York Times Magazine called "Mixed Messenger", which discusses Barack Obama's biracial status as a candidate, and being biracial in America today.
When Liz and I were contemplating adoption, we thought long and hard about whether to adopt trans racially or not, which race children we would accept, and what sorts of disabilities we would accept (our children, Buddy Boy and Sweet Pea are biracial African-American/Caucasian). It all sounds so clinical, cold, and calculating, but that's what the adoption process asks of you. You are forced to fill out forms stating what types of children (sex, age, race, disabilities) from what types of parents (drug abusing, smokers, psychiatric issues) you are willing to accept for placement.
I knew that kids who had been adopted often had some issues to work thru regarding having been adopted, and I also knew that kids who had been adopted trans racially sometimes were OK with it, and sometimes felt very much like outsiders amongst their own race when they grew up (and resenting their parents who raised them). I always figured that issues of race would rank high within our family as our kids grew up.
Although our kids are both black and white, I realize that in many places and situations in American the "one drop" rule applies (as long as you have one drop of black blood in you, you are considered black). I knew that even though Liz and I would try to do things to make our kids feel comfortable with their racial identities, that we would most likely not be able to do this fully, and perhaps not even well. And I didn't want to cheat our kids in this very important aspect of their lives. On the other hand, I knew that there are more African-American and biracial African-American children waiting for adoptive parents then there are minority parents waiting to adopt. Thus the choice wasn't necessarily between our kids going to an African-American or biracial couple rather than us, but rather perhaps having to wait much longer to be adopted (or not being placed at all) or being placed with us.
I also worried about how African Americans would accept us as a family. I knew that part of having them grow up being comfortable in their skin would involve us seeking out relationships with African Americans, and I didn't want our kids to see us getting the cold shoulder from black people. This, it turns out, was a totally unfounded fear. Once we adopted our kids an amazing thing happened. I have never felt anything other than acceptance (and even love) from African Americans I know.
So I guess the bottom line was I expected that issues of race would be foremost with us as a family, followed by issues with adoption. Little did I realize when I started this journey as a dad that autism would trump both of those (at least for Buddy Boy). For the last 5 years autism has made my previous concerns regarding race and adoption fall completely to the wayside. I still worry how issues of race will affect my children in the future (as well as my ability to prepare them for the discrimination that they will feel once they leave the protective cocoon of being accompanied by their lily white parents). I also worry specifically how issues of autism and race will interact in the future with Buddy Boy. One of the biggest fears I have involves Buddy Boy having a meltdown as a teenager, and being perceived as an "angry young black man" by a police officer, and being arrested (or worse) because of the interaction of his disability with his race. Orenstein in her article mentions
A few weeks ago, while stuck at the Chicago airport with my 4-year-old daughter, I struck up a conversation with a woman sitting in the gate area. After a time, she looked at my girl — who resembles my Japanese-American husband — commented on her height and asked, “Do you know if her birth parents were tall?”
While I don't think anyone should have to suffer other's assumptions about their children, given the choice of someone assuming Buddy Boy was adopted internationally vs. someone assuming he was a gang banger, I'd take the first assumption in a heartbeat.
But for the last several years learning to deal with all the myriad aspects of Buddy Boy's autism (and more importantly, fighting against a system that wanted to label him as behaviorally disturbed for education purposes rather than autistic) has consumed most of our energy on a day to day basis.
I know that with Sweet Pea we'll still have the issues of race and adoption to deal with. At 5, she's already hit us with the "I wish my skin was white like yours" plea. While I know intellectually that statements like this are to be expected in trans racial adoptions, it sure made me feel inadequate as a parent at the time. Had living in a racially mixed neighborhood, playing with the black kids across the street, having a black babysitter, reading to them about black accomplishments, going to museums, had none of this had any effect? Had we neglected Sweet Pea's development of racial identity because of our time spent trying to get Buddy Boy into (and keeping him from getting kicked out of) a proper educational setting?
I guess in the end there are different trump cards at different times. I also know that part of being a parent is to feel constantly inadequate and not up to the task.