Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Trump Card


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.

11 comments:

Marla said...

We went through intense racial counseling before being put on the adoption list for adopting a biracial or black child. At the time I thought it was kind of over done, a tad over the top....maybe even ridiculous. But, considering our culture I can understand where parents need to have extra sensitivity when raising a child of a different race.

If we adopt again we will definately adopt Black or Biracial again. M is Hispanic and we work hard to teach her about her heritage. I always thought that adopting a child of a different race would be one of the toughest challenges we would face. The adoption agency sure seemed to think it would be. But, after going through the endless health problems, learning difficulties, etc. I do think all of the preparation for a child of a different race was a bit too much.

I would have appreciated some help and assistance from the agency in regards to how to raise and advocate for a disabled child. Instead, when it was clear M had severe health concerns we were ignored. Probably because we signed papers stating when we left the hospital with her she was considered healthy. How many people know their child is Autistc at birth or has a rare chromosome disorder?

I think there is still discrimination against disabled children, adults and the parents who raise them. I am sure it is a double whammy when you are adopting a bi racial child who is also special needs.

You also bring up the topic of siblings getting enough attention. That is a real issue that deserves thought and consideration. We hesitate to adopt again because we are not sure we could financially and emotionally be able to support another child. I grew up with two siblings, one severely disabled. It does affect everything in your life. You can't even recognize some of the impacts until you are an adult.

Parents need to recognize that the child who does not have the illness or disability does pay a price. There are positive and negatives to it and much of it depends on how the parents handle the division of their time and energy. I imagine this is even more intensified when race is a factor.

If the challenges are recognized and addressed everyone will be blessed in ways at first unimaginable.

Your post could be many posts. So many important issues. We deal with these issues of disability, adoption and race with our children right now, every day and in every moment. Even if we don't see it happening...it is there and we are making impressions on our children. It is up to us to see those moments and make the best of them.

Club 166 said...

@Marla,

...Your post could be many posts. ...

You're right, it should have been. Instead I found myself reeling off this "stream of consciousness" thing instead of organizing it properly. My excuse is that I've got stuff going on behind the scenes that's distracting me.

...But, after going through the endless health problems, learning difficulties, etc. I do think all of the preparation for a child of a different race was a bit too much. ...

I agree. It's not that issues of race are not important. But dealing with disability takes more energy and time.

...I think there is still discrimination against disabled children, adults and the parents who raise them. ...
You think? Americans have an unnatural fascination with perfection. TV stars, politicians, even soccer moms must look, and be, perfect. And the disabled among us remind us that we are not, and because they do they must be sidelined and shunned.

...You also bring up the topic of siblings getting enough attention. That is a real issue that deserves thought and consideration. ...
We adopted Sweet Pea when Buddy Boy was 2. At that point we thought he was a "different" kid, hyperactive and a bit hypersensitive, and a little speech delayed. So our thoughts on adopting again revolved around whether we were too old, and whether having a sibling would be good for Buddy Boy.

Thanks for your comments.

Joe

kristina said...

Here's another card to throw into the pile----we have talked, but not taken any real steps, about adopting an Asian child, specifically a girl. Each of these conversations has quickly ended with both Jim and e rather bemused at ourselves: The time and effort that such an endeavor would take, and the expense, would be beyond what we could manage. We both suspect that the adopted child (if she had no special needs) would at some point think, "they adopted me to take care of this autistic older brother" (and to be cold and clinical---not that we'd expect that, but it would be an inevitable part of any conversation).

Frankly, Charlie has needed so much time and so many resources that it's been best to focus so much on him. But Jim has had a few moments when people have given him that certain "look" to see this blonde guy with a clearly Asian boy----less so now that Charlie is older and the resemblance is growing.

Club 166 said...

@Kristina,

Oy, more cards on the table!

...We both suspect that the adopted child (if she had no special needs) would at some point think, "they adopted me to take care of this autistic older brother" (and to be cold and clinical---not that we'd expect that, but it would be an inevitable part of any conversation). ...

Well, since Sweet Pea is biologically Buddy Boy's half sibling, we hope she doesn't think that. We hope/assume that since they have a reasonable relationship now (as reasonable as an almost 6 and an 8 year old can have) that they will continue to have a close relationship as they get older. I know that that might change.

We don't expect Sweet Pea to be in charge of Buddy Boy's care, but hope that she cares enough about him to remain in his life, and perhaps to advocate for him if necessary.

...But Jim has had a few moments when people have given him that certain "look" to see this blonde guy with a clearly Asian boy----less so now that Charlie is older and the resemblance is growing.

Human beings love to make assumptions. Sometimes making assumptions serves as a quick shortcut to the proper conclusions/solutions. Sometimes they are way off base. Both Liz and I know those "looks" well.

Joe

abfh said...

One assumption that bugs me (and this isn't directed at you or Kristina in particular, but is a general comment on how society views the autistic population) is that there will inevitably be a need to "take care" of an autistic adult.

In fact, many autistic adults (including several in my family) take care of themselves without assistance from their siblings or parents. Before autism was recognized as a distinct condition, which was not very many years ago, most parents expected their autistic children to learn how to take care of themselves.

I fear that today's cultural assumption of lifelong dependency is likely to become a self-fulfilling prophecy for many people.

Daisy said...

The sibling relationship is rare and priceless. My daughter (21, neurotypical) has developed a friendship with her younger brother (16, blind, Aspergers) outside of anything we have done. They exchange emails, she wants him to visit her at college and go to a hockey game, and more. I still wonder if we neglected her unconsciously, since she was very independent and her brother so needy. It's a story with no end -- at least, not yet.

Club 166 said...

@abfh,
No offense taken. One of the things I try not to do is to assist my son in failing by setting low expectations (while also trying to understand why he has trouble with certain things, or at least figure out workarounds for him).

@Daisy,
The sibling relationship is indeed priceless. I especially love when I catch them whispering together, conspiring to pull something over on us.

Joe

kristenspina said...

Boy that last line says it all, Joe, regardless of whether the kids are adopted, biological, have special needs or don't. We never really feel 100 percent up to the task, do we?

Emily, as some know me said...

Joe, our oldest son has commented on my skin color, hair color, and eye color, noting that they are all quite different from their father's and from all of our sons. These are my biological children, but somehow, that brunette/olive skin gene I carry wussed out and made way for the very pale, white-blond, blue-eyed group of men I live with. I think kids, with their observant ways, simply notice these things in any context.

TH has two girls in his class who are African-American, and he once said that their skin looked like chocolate. He meant that obliviously as a compliment because his favorite thing in the world is chocolate. Of course, it wasn't taken that way, though. We've talked a lot since then about why skin and hair color differ, and he knows that melatonin deposition is at the bottom of it. I've told him that with his very pale skin, he has to worry more about sun exposure, etc., and that having darker skin has always saved me that concern (pretty much). We've talked about why darker skin would be lifesaving in places where there isn't a lot of shade. And we've discussed that one does not comment on people's personal attributes except in very general ways, using words we *know* are compliments. We'll work on nuance later.

Because I'm a biologist, I consider race to be essentially a social construct, and so all of our conversations about these superficial differences are more grounded in evolutionary processes. I'm hoping that one day, we, as a society, will cease to think of it at all. Your children, Barack Obama, these genealogists claiming that everyone's related to everyone else...all of these people who transcend whatever "race" means or underscore what a false construct it is are making that happen. And what you do with your emphasis on the successes of all ethnicities may not be winning you immediate evidence of understanding, but Sweet Pea is definitely incorporating and absorbing some lasting, unconscious lessons.

Mrs. C said...

OK, another card:

Bet you don't feel the guilt some biological parents do over messing their kids up somehow. Having two and possibly three autistic kids is heartbreaking. But we're Christians unlike that Sanger character (my goodness; thanks for speaking out!!). We can't just put our kids back! God *meant* to do this to our kids and to us? OK, I struggle with that.

Club 166 said...

@Mrs. C,
I didn't see this comment when it first was posted.

Indeed, two of the best gifts of being parents thru adoption are 1)not having genetic guilt to deal with, and 2) not feeling constantly that our kids have to "live up" to some pre-conceived notions/achieve things I've failed to do with my own life, etc.

Joe