Things They Never Tell You: Q&A

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There is this weird expectation that transracial/interracial adoptees often “owe” society free access to personal stories in exchange for having been “given a better life.”  
While these assumptions are perhaps tacit, I have noticed that these assumptions manifest in a variety of different ways and often require multiple narratives which, I believe, are not always my stories to share. For example, a lot of people usually ask me about my biological family:
“Why did your birth mother give you up?”
“What kind of drugs was she doing?”
I wish I could tell you, dear reader, that these questions happen once in a while, but growing up, these questions happened and continue to happen frequently. And, later in this post, I will dig deeper into how the above questions aren’t always mine to answer.
Additionally, it is important to note that these questions, particularly when asked by strangers and acquaintances – though also this can be true for friends and family members- are often driven by a singular narrative which centers on privilege. For example, when a stranger would stop my family and interrogate my mother about whether or not my sister and I were “Fresh Air” children and “where my parents got us,”their questions were no longer “innocent curiosities,” because these questions ultimately centered around a narrative which relied on the structures of two privileged frames:

1.       Deserved knowledge: The tacit function of asking a prying question hinges on the implicit assumption that the asker deserves some sort of response. I offer the following as a consideration: when complete strangersask me about my biological family the narrative no longer centers around a relational one but a transactional one. Now, my response may not comply with the transactional code – I may deny access verbally or physically, but the question is often considered, at minimum, indecorous when applied towards non-adoptive families. However, relational decorum is usually forgone when applied towards mixed, multi-ethnic or diverse families.
While the critic may argue that prying, indecorous inquiries is hardly a substantial evidence towards underlying privileged lenses, another may argue that these questions, whether “innocent” or not, stem from individualistic narratives steeped (in this context), in western ideologies. Indeed, asking questions is an integral part of being a lifelong learner.

However, I believe the following questions must also be considered before engaging with one another:

  • How are we asking our questions? 
  • Why are we asking our questions 
  • When do we ask our questions?
  • Where do we ask our questions?
  • What are we hoping to gain?
 Try out these, although perhaps ridiculous sounding, sentences with me:

“Hi. My name is (fill in the blank). I noticed you standing there and I admit, my next question feels a bit awkward. I want to ask you a question that is personal, but I don’t have a relationship with you. It appears that you belong to a blended family and I too am curious about blended families but I recognize that you do not owe me any answers. If you are open and up for it, I am wondering if I could ask you a few questions. I also want to recognize that you do not owe me answers.  I believe the answers you may have to offer are a skill set and I am wondering if I can offer you monetary compensation in exchange for your expertise.”

Sounds crazy, right? Maybe even insulting? But, I want you to consider what happens to the narrative when this happens. There is a shift in power. Instead of demanding answers, you become the possible recipient of a gift. By empowering one another, there is room for transformation. This creates space for dialogue and open, I would even argue- honestrelationship because it starts by recognizing that this is openly transactional.
2.       Stereotyped Agendas: It’s not an exaggeration to say that folks have asked me about my biological mother’s drug addiction as a first, get-to-know-you, type question. Lately, the past few conversations I have had with strangers, whom are saavy enough to know that when I call my white mother, “Mom,” that I am adopted, are often a combination of rash assumptions such as the following: “So, tell me about your biological mother’s drug addiction, I mean, that is why she gave you up, right?” While this question is
a.       Dangerous – hinges on assumptions
b.       Indicative of racial stereotypes
c.       Offensive
d.       Personal (ie: none of your business).
This question is also not particularly unique in its ubiquity nor in its structure. Historically, poor black communities suffered vastly disproportionate sentencing in the aftermath of the 1980s’90’s crack epidemic and, arguably, continue to suffer unequitable, disproportionate sentencing. Contemporarily, the opioid epidemic often draws criticism because of how it is framed: Epidemic over war. And, it is untenable to suggest that the historical framing does not affect modern ideologies and policies.
While I have reacted differently to this question over the years, I have consistently been alarmed by another one of its tacit functions: narrative ownership. Asking me about my biological mother assumes (incorrectly), that I have access and should have access to telling another person’s story. My story is ultimately tangled up in a myriad of narratives. I am affected by others choices all the time at the macro and at the micro level. Regardless of my mother’s choices, I firmly believe that my story does not need to reveal her story. While, in some cases, I have chosen to disclose facts about my mother, I continue to carry and grapple with learning how to care for and share my story.  
I have found that as I continue to grapple with who I am as a black woman and as an interracial adoptee, it is equitable andreasonable to require monetary compensation when asked to provide others with inclusive and diverse tools. Let me be clear: while the critic may imagine an image of me requiring any and all community members to provide monetary compensation for prying questions, I envision compensation for providing workshops, trainings and/or “personal” question and answers for large group sessions.

Recently, I discovered that an organization for which I was co-leading class, which I was willing and able to provide for “free” compensated my co-partner, a multi-ethnic black male, for providing access and training for racial justice without extending me an offer as well. While I could take the time here to articulate the variety of inequities illustrated by this snub, I wanted to instead focus on historical impact.
Historically, black female narratives often involve wage gaps. According to the American Association of University Women (AAUW), “Black women were paid 63 percent of what non-Hispanic white men were paid in 2016. That means it takes the typical black woman 19 months to be paid what the average white man takes home in 12 months.” Or, if you are numbers person, Black women are paid 63 cents for every dollar a White, non-Hispanic man makes. Or, if you really want to sink it home: Black women work 7 extra months for free just to earn the same paycheck.
Often, it is easy to think individual events happen on the micro level rather than connecting the individual story with a larger narrative. Thus, my “working” for free isn’t and wasn’t a onetime event.

Black women are persistently over-represented in low-paying, often minimum wage, jobs and underrepresented in jobs that rank in the top-tiers. According to the AAUW “the gap widens with higher levels of education in some fields…This inequity stretches to more visible fields, too, like business (there are zero black female Fortune 500 CEOs as of 2017) and Hollywood (none of the 10 highest-paid film actresses in 2016 were black).”

Equitable wages often mean the difference between poverty and sustainability.

Because I am the type of person that likes action, I thought it may be helpful to put in a few tips for what you can do to help alleviate this gap:

1. Demand pay transparency. Organizations should be expected to annually release a wage report which articulates the pay each employee makes.

2. Call your congressman and demand equal pay by passing legislation that enforces equitable pay

3. Negotiate for an equitable salary with benefits

4. Advocate for one another’s pay equity

As it is MLK Day, I wanted to end with a quote: 
There comes a time when silence is betrayal. That time has come for us today…some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak.

 –Martin Luther King Jr.

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