All the Light Within Part I: Star
Reading Time: 11 minutes
In the past few years, it has become increasingly important for me to connect with other transracial adoptees. In the wake of reconnecting with my biological mother two years ago, I have found comfort and solace in the shared connection of the transracial adoption experience, and a renewed commitment to amplifying the adoptee voice by utilizing my blog platform.
I have dedicated the month of July towards telling transracial adoptee stories through a series entitled: All the Light Within.
If you are an interracial adoptee and would like to be considered for an interview, I would welcome your private message via FB or comments on my blog.
I met Starleisha, a vivacious, dynamic 29-year-old black woman, at a small but well-known eclectic café in Downtown Lancaster. She is petite, the same height as me and is wearing her curls in long braided extensions with gold cuff beads. We meet mid-evening, and the weather is finally starting to cool. As I approach the café, I can see her waiting for me at a wooden high-top bar table facing the windows. We hug, I make a hurried order and we quickly begin to reminisce what feels like a shared childhood. And, it seems almost unimaginable that only 24 years ago transracial adoptions could be denied based solely on race or religious factors.
In 1994, Congress passed the Multi Ethnic Placement Act and in 1996, then President Clinton signed into effect the Adoption and Safe Families Act. While passage of these provisions effectively prohibited the act of denying “to any person the opportunity to become an adoptive or foster parent, solely on the basis of the race, color, or national origin of the person or the child involved” it did not quell the complex politics of transracial adoption. According to a 1985 statement given by the National Association of Black Social Workers (NABSW) to the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources, transracial adoption was a racial and cultural genocide:
We are opposed to transracial adoption as a solution to permanency placement for Black children. We have an ethnic, moral and professional obligation to oppose transracial adoption. We are, therefore, legally justified in our efforts to protect the rights of Black children, Black families and Black community. We view the placement of Black children in White homes as a hostile act against our community. It is a blatant form of race and cultural genocide.
And, this sentimentality still remains relatively ubiquitous. While the politics of transracial adoption remain complex and controversial, the practice of adoption can be traced back as far as Moses whom the Bible says was adopted by the daughter of the Egyptian Pharaoh. But, these complex political ideologies regarding adoption can also, perhaps quite obviously, have a very real impact on adoptee wellbeing. Placed into foster care at the age of 7 months and adopted in January of 1995 at the age of 7 years old, Star recalled the complicated and traumatic process of her own transracial adoption.
“…Okay, um so she left me with a friend for either 3 days, she said she was coming back in 3 days or 3 weeks. I think it was 3 days. She said she would be back. She wasn’t…she didn’t come back. I’m assuming drug-fueled binge, yeah. So the friend called family services in Philly and they took me and placed me in care services in Franklin County and there my parents got me. And that was yeah, 7 months.
I don’t know the ages I was at the times of her [biological mother] 3 scheduled visits. She had 3 scheduled visits. She made it to the first one, she made it to the second one and then between the second and third one, I think maybe I went back to Philly for 10 days for a scheduled like, trial period…and my mom still talks about how she wishes she could get that dress back that she sent me in. It was like a pink polka-dotted dress. It did not work out. I came back to Pennsylvania.
If memory, if my very vivid childhood baby memory serves me correctly, it was a thunderstorm that I came back in which is why I hate thunderstorms. I’m getting over it now a little bit in my adulthood, but college was bad – anytime there was a thunderstorm…. Trauma. Like, yeah I’m fairly certain it was a sedan, I was in the back of a sedan and coming back to Franklin County. So between that ten-day visit and biological mother’s third visit, she must have decided to not come back because somewhere in all of this foster care system mess, I think my [biological mother’s] lawyers, I guess, were really pushing for me to go back with her, and my mom was not having any of it.
When Star’s biological mother’s lawyers urged for Star to be returned to her biological mother, something magical, quite fairytale-esque happened: Star’s (adoptive) mother wrote a letter to, then, Governor Tom Ridge and he responded personally, indicating that he would take a private look into the case. Star’s eyes lit up as she recalled this and she fidgeted with her phone.
“Yeah, so he like wrote her back and said he would take a look at it. And I guess he contacted her, or someone from his office contacted her and was like, your right. If I was the judge, I would err on the side of your family …. it looks like Starleisha is part of the family. So, yeah, so like I continually remind myself that hey, you can get through a hard day because your mom wrote a letter to the Governor. Do her justice. Suck it up buttercup. Um, like, you’re fine.”
We both laughed, but this statement is also a sort of nod to the phrase empowered people empower people. Star’s mother empowered her to be tenacious and gritty and those qualities impact Star’s daily life. And, while trying to reconnect biological children with biological families is certainly not a unique characteristic of social work, Star’s adoptive mother’s response hints toward an innate strength and an understanding that political people are, to an arguable level, trustworthy and fundamentally invested in familial systems.
While perhaps this ideology could also be chalked up to the 90’s sentimentality, the fact that her adoptive family lived in rural, white, small town America and were conservative Christians, it is also reasonable to suggest that this ideology also drove their familial socio-political frameworks. Growing up in a predominately white, rural neighborhood in Pennsylvania with “more cows than people,” Star recalls a childhood without significant racial incidents. “I mean, I’m sure race was an issue because it’s America, but specifically, I don’t think so.” And then she remembers an incident on the school bus when she was in grade school.
“I was in 7th or 9th grade, I don’t remember which, but I was riding the bus home with my tenor sax. And, I don’t remember, but I’m pretty sure I smart mouthed this boy – he was older. And, he said ‘Shut the fuck up. This is always why I wanna bring a chain and rope to school.’ I’m pretty sure he called me a nigger. I remember getting off the bus and I was wearing this jean jacket, and I let out this blood curdling scream and threw my jacket on the ground, and my sister came and was like, trying to figure out why I was freaking out and I was just sobbing…”
We pause and she takes a sip of water. Here in the café in the midst of the din of young adult laughter, there is a visceral vulnerability and a shared familiarity of awakening to the idea that the world isn’t always a safe place.
And while there were also the microaggressions like boys whistling ‘Dixie’ at her in the hallway at school, Star always chalked it up to them just being
“stupid boys…. [in my family] we didn’t really talk about race…I mean, I had books about African Americans because my parent thought it was really important, so yeah, like Afrotina and the 3 bears,” but talking about the police “wasn’t really a thing. Everyone knew one another, and I always thought that the police pulled people over because they were bored… It was a small town….and here’s the thing, there were so many white boys trying to be ghetto black boys by going over a town or two over and getting into fights that you kinda lose sight of the problematic white boys or overt racism because of all the violence.”
The fixation on violence by white, suburban males particularly caught my attention because of the westernized, although arguably universal, scope and framework of the deployment of racialized images rooted in appropriation and ghetto glorification. Academic discourse regarding the glorification of ghetto violence, virtual ghetto tourism and performative blackness in white, middle class suburbia has often posited, in scholarly flourish, a version of:
everybody wanna be a negro but nobody wanna be a negro.
David Leonard, in his article in the book, Re: Skin, entitled ‘‘Performing Blackness: Virtual Sports and Becoming the Other in White Supremacy,’ suggests:
“centering the ideologies of white supremacy grounded in a belief of black savagery and animalism…the abundance of racial stereotypes reflects long-standing fascination with blackness as mysterious and cool, while simultaneously playing to deep-seeded desires and needs of white game enthusiasts. Blacks have always been the other in this country. Many people living in the suburbs admire this fire and this funk they see in blacks, a kind of aggressiveness a lot of them want too. A lot of these suburban, white-bread kids hunger for this kind of experience (325).”
And, for many black transracial adoptees, understanding the concept of performative blackness is a complex and painful minefield. Being black…is cool until it isn’t cool. Slang and big butts and attitude and slouched pants and hats on backwards and Ebonics and stereotyped understandings of black culture is often buoyed and idolized by middle-upper class, suburban white males. And yet, what exactly is blackness? Is it an actual thing? Or is it a construct? As argued by E. Patrick Johnson in his book, ‘Appropriating Blackness: Performance and the Politics of Authenticity,’
“because the concept of blackness has no essence, ‘black authenticity’ is overdetermined – contingent on the historical, social, and political terms of its productions…the notion of [black] authenticity implies the existence of its opposite, the fake, and this dichotomous construct is at the heart of what makes authenticity problematic. Authenticity, then, is yet another trop manipulated for cultural capital…the key here is to be cognizant of the arbitrariness of authenticity, the ways in which it carries with it the dangers of foreclosing the possibilities of cultural exchange and understanding.” (3)
These contingencies also include familial frameworks. And, particularly in black/white transracial adoptions, proving authenticity becomes an identifier often limited to linguistic ability and black consciousness. This struggle to persistently navigate between cultural/ racial worlds can be exhausting and overwhelmingly lonely. Star explained her journey of racial identity/authenticity like this:
“Of course people question my authenticity. Like, oh yeah, people call me an Oreo, or say things like, ‘you’re not really black,’ or like, ‘you talk like a white girl,’ and like, now, I’m mostly over it. But yeah, I question myself. Like, I liked the video ‘This is America,’ and like, all of these smart black people were commenting and writing about why they didn’t like it, and I’m like – am I not black enough? Ya know, because, other black people didn’t like it.”
But what does being “black enough” mean? Understanding racial identity and claiming racial identity are intentional journeys that aren’t necessarily interconnected. When asked about what being black meant, Star laughed and quipped, “Vaseline lotion,” before getting serious.
“I mean; I think of being ghetto. Being loud. Being stereotypical…. I’m trying to differentiate between “being/sound black vs being/sounding white…. I don’t know. I’m trying to avoid the question. I want to have a great answer, but I don’t.”
She laughed again before flipping the question around on me. I realized that I was holding my hands in fists as we talked, and I unclenched them and took a deep breath. Racial identity has always been a hard concept to discuss, and I realize that maybe I was hoping to find answers to my own struggle in her answers. There is a loneliness that comes with being adopted that often feels particularly poignant when discussing racial identity. And yet, there is a security and almost calming vulnerability in transracial adoptee friendships.
In the book, In Their Own Voices: Transracial Adoptees Tell Their Stories by Rita Simon, time and time again adoptees articulate their own sense of acute loneliness as they map journey of friendship from early childhood friends to high school friends. For many transracial adoptees that grow up in predominately white areas, the first 17 years of friendship involves close white friends. Then somewhere between ages 18-30 something shifts. For most, their friendships drastically change and the majority of transracial adoptees choose friends that reflect their own racial identity.
Understanding this particular shift has been helpful to me when examining my own friendship journey and I suspected that this could be helpful to share. As I articulated this phenomenon to Star, she started to nod in agreement. While both of us didn’t consider our childhood’s lonely – we both had friends and were easily liked- the sense of isolation and Otherness had an enduring continuity. While sometimes the sense of Otherness was through self-isolation, other times the sense of Otherness was a proof of belonging and/or an intentional self-disclaimer – “I’m a black woman adopted by white people.”And, while Star identifies as black, she admits that when her POC friends refer to a cultural joke she doesn’t understand she often quips out a version of, “help me out – remember I was adopted by white people,”in order to get an explanation.
Growing up in a predominately white, rural neighborhood and attending Predominately White Institutions (PWI’s), Star described a childhood I was familiar with. We both grew up on farms. We both had little interaction with other Persons of Color (POC’s). We both know what it was like to go to a school and be the only black kid. Her parents were conservative Christians and when asked what values her parents instilled in her, we locked eyes, laughed and then blurted out, together: purity. “Purity, no abortion and marriage is between a man and a woman,”she giggled and absently twisted her small, silver purity ring around a thin finger. Star didn’t grow up afraid of police and her family didn’t really talk about race, but I couldn’t help investigate how her black consciousness evolved in the midst of a white family and what were significant indicators.
“After Trayvon Martin was murdered, I remember this celebrity posted onto FB or something, something like ‘Okay, black people, we gotta pack up and go back to Africa.’ And, I remember thinking, I don’t like black people because, for me, he was telling me to leave my white family and white people and it was kinda effectively like, you don’t like white people…and I remember that I wrote on my FB post, I don’t know what to think/feel about Trayvon Martin and like, this one girl like, went for my throat and my status wasn’t a good or bad thing, it was just like, I don’t know what to feel….
Then a few years back there was that Nicky Minaj/Miley Grammy thing. What year was that? I don’t know. Anyways, I stood up for Nicky Minaj – that was probably my first pro-black thing and Nicky Minaj is like the most problematic black girl,” she paused to laugh, “and now I’m writing statues starting with “Dear White People…
…as far as how my understanding of being black has evolved…I wanna give you an answer that is really good, but I don’t think it is truthful.” We laugh for a moment, and then she continues, “I think it’s because I moved to a more diverse area…and giving myself the freedom to think more diversely.”
This diversity, she notes, is also now reflected in her close friend group. An avid theater performer, Star has most recently been gearing up for a month-long theatrical stint in Queens, New York. Overall, Star feels well-adjusted and connected to her adoptive family.
Well-adjusted and connected. Happy and hopeful. It was important to me to tell Star’s story without driving an agenda. And, while my questions revolved heavily around race and adoption, I wanted to clarify that not every transracial adoption story is race centered. And that’s okay. Not every transracially adopted black woman is going to tell you that it was awful or that they are strongly against transracial adoptions, etc.,. Not every transracially adopted black woman is going to self-identify as black. Not every transracial story will or should be the same because the beauty of telling the story of human people loving one another and committing to relationships with one another is that it is full of variance. I think that too often we sell this story that all ______people are the same. Sure, there may be universal themes across black/white transracial adoptions but there will also be a lot of differences. Those stories still count and have value and matter.
As I listened to Star talk about her adoption, I found myself revisiting my own adoption journey. While the media loves to tell the stories of why it didn’t work, or you know, the helpful stranger with the tale about the transracial adoptee that killed their white family…I couldn’t help but smile at how transracial adoptions can also be success stories. And not just success stories in the sense that everyone survived, but success in the sense that the adoptees can and do thrive. I am forever grateful for Star’s vulnerability, resilience and her friendship.
I wanted to share transracial adoptee stories this month that are challenging and informative. Not every story will be the same. Not every story will have a happy ending. And not every story will give you the same advice. But, I hope that if you join me on this journey, you will find a new capacity within yourself to lean in, ask questions and celebrate the amazing miracle of regular people loving other regular people.