All the Light Within Part III: Bonita
Reading Time: 9 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 utilizing my blog platform.
I have dedicated the month of July towards telling transracial adoptee stories through a series entitled: All the Light Within, by featuring 4 different transracial adoptees. If you missed the Part I and II, please click on the appropriate numeric link for access.
So, full disclosure? I had four adoptees lined up for this interview series, but due to unexpected circumstances, two needed to decline at the last minute. That being said, I try not ask others to do something that I am not willing to also do, so this last and final adoptee series will be on yours truly. The following piece will be written Q&A style. I will answer the same questions used for the first two interviews.
How do you racially identify?
I identify as a black woman with a biracial experience.
When were you adopted and were you placed with any foster families?
I was born in October of 1992 in Philadelphia, two months premature, and placed into the first of three foster care homes. The third foster care home, which would become my forever family, received me in December of 1992, and, four years later, I was adopted in December of 1996.
Do you have any biological siblings and, if so, were you adopted with any biological siblings?
I have three older biological siblings, though it seems silly to say older because one is my twin sister, and I was adopted with my twin sister.
How do you think your adoption journey has been shaped by being adopted with a biological sibling?
I think that being adopted with a biological sibling has allowed me to have a sort of comrade in the journey. It helps to know that there is someone whom may be experiencing similar emotions and feelings. But, to be honest, we process everything so differently, that, maybe as strange as it is to say, it sometimes feels even more alienating.
You know, because if I experience something racist and she doesn’t…I feel like we are sometimes “pitted” against one another…and then, you know, I am told that I’m just playing the “race card” or something BS… But, overall, I am really grateful to have been adopted with a biological sibling.
What was the best thing about your adoption?
Well….being adopted was the best thing.
But also, I think that one of the best things about my adoption has been the relationship I have cultivated with my adoptive mother. We went through a lot of pain and struggle together, and there is something so sweet and sacred about our journey. She has taught me a lot about unconditional love and forgiveness, and, I think because of that (and our personalities) we are able to speak frankly and hold each other accountable in ways I wouldn’t have expected otherwise.
I am also really grateful for my relationship with my dad. I don’t have a biological father – he passed before I was born and didn’t know about me – and so, one of the things that I really appreciate about my dad is that he has really been intentional in being a part of my life and letting me challenge him on issues of race and politics.
Oh, and my oldest sister. She likes to say that she always wanted two sisters, and I have always really admired her…I think that she is really strong in ways, perhaps, that she doesn’t even know. And, I really admire that she is willing to say hard truths and stay committed to relationships.
What values did your parents instill in you?
I think that my parents both instilled similar and different values in me. They both instilled the value of hard work, and by that I mean, the importance of doing a job thoroughly and making sure it is correct the first time.
I think that my dad has instilled in me the value of service and doing things for others without seeking recognition and to always have a sense of humor.
My mom has instilled in me the value of curiosity and wonder and the ability to not discount my own ability to do hard things, particularly if those things are mechanical or industrial. I’ve learned to surprise myself by gaining new skill sets just because I allow myself to try things that I don’t always think I can do.
Did you, if at all, recognize early on that you were different from your adoptive family?
I’m not sure. I think the first time I realized that I was racially different was when I received my first black doll. I think that was the first time I had something racially representational, and that was really important.
Another memory I have and will always hold onto is the moment I went on a 1st grade visit to the Waldorf School. A girl, who ended up being one of my early childhood best friends, was watching out the windows when I arrived. And, as soon as I entered the classroom, she ran up to me, picked me up and yelled, “YOU ARE SO BEAUTIFUL.”
Up until that point, while I hadn’t really heard negative things about my skin, I knew it was problematic. Mostly because my skin was so different than my white families and it required constant attention. You know, ashy knees, easy scars, stuff like that. I remember my mom always yelling at me if I didn’t lotion right after a bath, and here to have this young, white girl just not even caring…that was really special.
Did you live in a racially dominant area?
I grew up in a predominately white, rural area in, what I would now consider would have been, a conservative, semi-Bible Belt area. But, kind of a weird, anomaly thing was that a close neighbor friend was married to a black woman. They each had had kids through their previous marriage, but I remember that her daughters offered to do my hair.
Did your parents/family discuss your differences with you?
To be honest, I don’t remember a formal conversation with my parents about race. At some point, I think race became more important to them because I started to notice that the literature in the house suddenly started to become more racially representational. We had this one book, ‘Brown Angels,’ and then all of a sudden we started to have books like ‘Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters’ and ‘I Love My Hair,’ but I don’t remember my parents ever having explicit race talks…
I guess when I was still in foster care, my mom learned how to do black hair and she did a really good job because I remember how sometimes I would get these compliments and people would ask me who did my hair, and I would just point at my white mother and they’d look kind of dumbfounded. So, I guess we talked about race by the way we talked about hair…
But, I think for the most part my family and extended family kind of adhered to a colorblind ideology, which has the unfortunate effect, I think, of racial erasure. Or, at least, looking back…it seems maybe more like a convenient colorblind ideology. I think this ideology has been the most difficult one to, now as an adult, confront because then I’m seen as the problematic, unreasonable, dramatic, emotional black girl.
So, it feels complicated and exhausting to recognize that family won’t always mean ally, and that has been a really hard truth to grapple with, particularly because it feels so alienating…but also, as strange as it sounds, it is so empowering and healthy for me to confront and recognize. But even vocalizing and admitting that feels hard because, as an adoptee, society conditions you to think so much about being grateful for being “rescued” that it is easy to just “ignore” the rest.
Was race an issue for your family?
I think, and maybe this will sound weird, but the more I lean into my own double consciousness and my own truths, the more I realize how much race was and is an issue for my family.
Let me explain. I think that in order to be anti racist and an ally one has to intentionally commit to 1) seeing race and injustices and 2) committing to a intentional anti-racist action.
I think race was and is an issue just in the vernacular I hear used in my family (extended included)…you know the white hair grab and the casual toss of “illegals” and “ghetto walmart” and “those blacks” etc, kind of tossed into everyday conversation. But, that is how it happens, right? Race colors our understanding of whom has value and whom is worth protecting and believing and whom is viewed as a truth teller. I want my kids to be loved and to have allies in their family. And…some days…I just get really sad thinking about the comments that are said to me and how I refuse to have them said to my children.
In your neighborhood, was race an issue?
I don’t recall specific racial events in my neighborhood…then again, it was a rural area. I remember being mistaken for a Fresh Air Kid, and racialized incidents at school and in other the larger community, but not specifically in my neighborhood.
What was your first negative racialized moment?
I think my first negative racialized moment was the first time I was called a nigger by a classmate in third grade. I don’t remember hearing that word before then, and I remember that when I came home, I was just crying. I ran to my dad’s office and climbed up on his chair, grabbed this big old dictionary and just searched and searched for the word and my mom came and like, took the dictionary away and just held me for a while.
What was your first positive racialized moment?
Well, I think that moment with the first grade classmate might have been the first one. But, I honestly think that other than that, I don’t really remember having a positive racialized moment until much more recently…probably in the last few years..and that sounds really sad..
Something changed within me and I realized that I deserve to be proud of my skin and my body and that I can be a powerful black woman. I had a teacher in college, I will never forget her, and she really pushed me and believed in me. She kept telling me that I could become anything, and that has really impacted me.
Do you feel like race impacts you?
Absolutely. And, I believe that race impacts all of us…just not everyone realizes it or is ready to realize it. I think…perhaps because I came into believing my own double consciousness at a later time in my life, that things feel more acute to me. And, it’s my personality to speak up and out about things. and to feel things rather intensely.
It feels lonely though, particularly, because I still struggle with the tension of allyship and family and a history of other things that complicate the familial relationships.
But yeah, I think understanding how race impacts me and has shaped my childhood has made it even more important for me to speak out for others and other injustices. Personal experience, perhaps mixed with my own unique personality, has made intersectionality with other injustices really important.
When, if at all, did you begin to identify with the black community?
I think that as I grow (and grew) older, I continue(d) to realize how much my struggles with racism aren’t a lone, solitary story but part of a much broader narrative in a much larger framework. That feels hopeful because there is a solidarity and a community that knows the pain and that have a historical record of resisting.
When I think about that and lean into my friends whom have resisted, I feel heard and known in ways that I don’t in other spaces.
Did you feel isolated or lonely growing up? And, if so, how?
I think that as a child, I wouldn’t have told you I felt lonely, per say, because I always was pretty popular and had friends. But, it strikes me as an adult that one way I did feel lonely was that I often experienced a lot of microaggressions and dog whistle comments by the same “friends.”
You know, if I got upset or something, they would mock me with stereotypical “black” anger by snapping their fingers at me and saying something they thought was “ghetto.” I could never be “reasonably” angry….and that in and of itself had its own personal and mental consequences.
So, I remember, by the time I got to late HS, I just stopped trying to show too much emotion at school…because one if the unfortunate effects is that you start to doubt your own reasonability. And, I know the statistics about black women and mental health, but there usually isn’t space for black women’s anger or feelings…and it feels even more compounded in predominately white spaces….
I remember there was this one guy in Middle School who was a real piece of work, and he would constantly harass me by putting stuff down my pants like pencils and erasers… and just saying really awful sexual stuff to me and like, microaggressive stuff too. I remember reporting him and the Mennonite Administration put him at the front of the bus for a week, and that just made it all the more worse because then I had to walk past him every day…
I remember telling my girlfriends about it and we got him back by coloring these two huge maxi pads with red marker, soaking them in water and then putting them in his brand new basketball sneakers. At the time…that felt so empowering…the solidarity.
But like, there were the other stuff too. The stuff that you just keep to yourself. You know, there was this one 8th Grade track meet, and I was walking in front of the bleachers and all of these skinny, Christian, white boys started yelling stupid racial stuff at me and spat on me.
I remember just being humiliated. And, I didn’t tell anyone because I didn’t want to be further embarrassed and I didn’t think anyone would help me….I guess this is the first time I’ve told that story….
Or like, the classmate that lifted up my field hockey skirt because he wanted to see if I had a big butt…because “black girls have big butts…”
There are a lot of stories that I’ve just kept to myself that I guess complicated and compounded the loneliness…because, it’s always like…if I speak up will people believe me? And, what if they accuse me of “playing the race card?” I feel like I often chose silence because I was so afraid of what might happen if I spoke up. Would I be believed? What if I wasn’t? Could I deal with that? What if I had to prove why it was racist? I think what really complicated the matters were some of the worst moments happened in Christian settings and so…like, everyone was already a Jesus follower and that felt trickier.
What, if anything, would you tell someone about your adoption journey?
I think I would tell them that my adoption journey continues to be a journey that shapes my ideology. I don’t think adoption journeys, like most journeys, are linear…I think they all just kind of follow an upward spiral where, at the beginning, things may feel really hard and intense, but that with each upward spiral things feel less painful and more manageable.
As always, thanks for entering this journey with me. I tried to tell this story in ways that would not infringe on my family’s privacy, so if you are curious about things, please know that I may not be able to answer all of your questions. But also, these stories are also just glimpses of a much larger biography.
Again, my most sincere thanks to Jasmine and Star whom dared to be vulnerable with me and with you.