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.
Me too.
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.

For Black Women Whom Are Considered Aggressive & Other Ruminations

Reading Time: 11 minutes

“If you’re telling a non-black person about something racist that happened to you, make sure you are not bitter. Don’t complain. Be forgiving. If possible, make it funny. Most of all, do not be angry. Black people are not supposed to be angry about racism. Otherwise you get no sympathy. This applies only for white liberals, by the way. Don’t even bother telling a white conservative about anything racist that happened to you. Because the conservative will tell you that YOU are the real racist and your mouth will hang open in confusion.” 
― 
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Americanah

I used to think about losing things a lot. Losing my job. Losing my friends. Losing my community. Losing my family. I convinced myself that if I could just stay quiet enough

 when the men came and…

 when the white people came and….

when the racist person came and…

I could protect myself. I could keep my head down. I could rely on English and a vernacular cultivated and handed down from adoptive ancestors so white you can trace them back pre-1840, pre the line where my black ancestors were just known as numbers, pre-colonialism and massacre and slavery and…me.

But, I kept losing sight of someone else.

Me.

This invisible woman. You can see me, but you can’t really see me. See, here is my face. See, here is my mouth. See, here are my legs. See, here are my hands. Can you see me?

Or, did you blink?

I have tested this theory, you see.

When the men came and ….

                                                                When the white people came and…

                                                                                                                                When the racist person came and…

My voice said no.

Body tense,

Legs closed,

Arms raised.

My mouth said – I am a human. My body said, I am enough. I am enough. I am…

But.

They just kept on coming.

This black body never looked white flag

Never looked white house,

Never looked anything but

3rd world baby & white woman smile

Never looked anything but

Mud hut in need of aluminum

Never looked anything but

Ground ready for a snowstorm

Never looked anything but

This Cherokee African American

In need of colonialism

 See, I had convinced myself that if I could erase that tight feeling in my gut, if I could erase enough kinks in my hair, if I could erase my skin with bleaching creams, if I could erase my natural instinct to scream when the people touched my hair, touched my skin, touched my body…again and again…I would be able to somehow transform myself back into approval and acceptance and goodness.

The first time I was called the N word was in 3rd Grade. My white classmates and I were playing kickball, and I was dominating…. until I wasn’t. I stepped up to the plate to kick and a classmate yelled the N word.

When you think about balls deflating, it always seems as if they deflate just a little at first and then, suddenly, everything goes really fast.

You know, like that balloon that you meant to fill up but suddenly it is whooshing all over the room making those indelicate sounds that you know absolutely sound like a fart, but you never actually say because you are too busy staring at the ground wishing away your sudden interested audience.

I think that sometimes degradation works the same way. At 9, I didn’t know what the N word meant, but I remember thinking that it had to do with me and my skin and the way in which I was different. And, I knew different. As the youngest in a family of 8, different meant that when I wore hand me-downs to school, someone noticed. Different meant holey shoes and beads and braids and a backpack that wasn’t LLBean. I knew different. But, before – different was always monetary. That day, something deflated in me but, unlike balls that are often either trashed completely or found by some benevolent gym teacher and refilled, I didn’t bounce back. I wasn’t found by a benevolent anyone and refilled.

Instead, when I finally got home, I searched all of my parent’s dictionaries (yes this was the early 2000’s and the age of dial-up internet…or at least, the age of dial-up in our house) for the word. I remember climbing into my father’s office chair and spinning in circles, tears streaming down my face as my mother hurried into the living room.

I don’t remember what she said. Maybe it was a conglomeration of reasons why the word wasn’t in there. Maybe it was reassurances that I was enough. Maybe, it was all of the above. To be honest, the only thing that I remember was the beginning prick of my own black consciousness.

And, while I didn’t have the vocabulary to articulate the concepts of my own double consciousness, I remember thinking about the imagery of a white woman holding a black child and the enduring continuitiesof racism.

How could I possibly be enough?

Growing up, we avoided those conversations. A mostly conservative farm family in rural, white America, living in the heart of the Lancaster County Bible Belt, we didn’t talk about racism or shootings or systemic oppression or Black History Month. We didn’t talk about police brutality or the invisibility of the black female body or how generational poverty creates a 7-generation inequity between impoverished white and black families.

We didn’t talk about why it was easier for strangers to assume that I was “fresh air” or a “poor African foster care kid” than a black girl from Philly. We didn’t talk about why white people asked me if I was a crack-baby, or if I could describe what living in the ghetto was like or if I was an orphan.   

We didn’t talk about how black women are usually regulated to three stereotypes: Jezebel, Sapphire and Mammy.  (Quick back history. A Jezebel is a fiery, overtly lascivious, sexually insatiable plaything. This stereotype was used as a justification for rape and sexual relations with white masters.,  The Sapphire is a fiesty, unabashed, always rude and loud angry black woman. She is a harsh nagger and displays irrational anger. She is a harsh critique of black women whom are vocal about systemic injustices and is a mechanism employed to punish black women that violate societal norms teaching them to be passive and docile and pleasant. The Mammy is the ideal enslaved person – she is happy to be a slave and she is often pictured as obese and well mannered. She enjoys the domestics and servile lifestyle. She is the caricature used for the Aunt Jemima and is the prominent figure on more the enduring racial caricatures of black women.)
We didn’t talk about the racist family members, the strangers that complimented me on my English and told my adoptive parents they were “saints, just saints,” or that looming, haunting terror that, perhaps, all adoptees experience of wondering when they will be left. Again.

I have made myself a policy not to tell other people’s stories in my space of writing, so I will not elaborate or speculate on the reasoning behind why those strategies and skills were not developed at a young age.

Instead, I hope to share a few examples of my own childhood and adult experiences in hopes to convey alternative suggestions in regard to teaching white fragility, racism and how white tears, particularly white women’s white tears, continue to propagate and perpetuate systemic and institutional racism and oppression.

First, white women are uniquely positioned in society as both oppressed and oppressors. As oppressors, they benefit from white supremacy and institutional and systemic racism. And, as women, they remain
subordinate to men in regard to –to name a few –  gender pay-gap inequities, employment contracts, 
health care benefits, etc., However, this duality remains unequivocally interconnected with white women’s ability to carry a perpetual “get out of jail free” card. 

While many POC’s can relate with mistreatment at the hands of a white woman, and while (some) white women are, perhaps, learning that not all tears matter, it is important to note the important historical framework of white supremacy and white tears. While, many racial justice advocates will use Emmett Till as a starting point when discussing white, female tears and racial violence, I think it is important to note that while white tears in conjunction with white supremacy can also be used to track multiple genocides and mass murders in the last 3 centuries, the behavior which supports white tears and supremacy is learned.  And, this behavior is learned at a young age.

Indeed, consider the following excerpts from bell hook’s “Ain’t I a Woman” in regard to power structures between white women and black women.

In Once a Slave, a book which contains a condensed body of information gleaned from slave narratives, the author Stanley Feldstein recounts an incident in which a white mistress returned home unexpectedly from an outing, opened the doors of her dressing room, and discovered her husband raping a thirteen year old slave girl. She responded by beating the girl and locking her in a smokehouse. The girl was whipped daily for several weeks. When older slaves pleaded on the child’s behalf and dared to suggest that the white master was to blame, the mistress simply replied, “She’ll know better in future. After I’ve done with her, she’ll never do the like again through ignorance.” White women held black slave women responsible for rape because they had been socialized by 19thcentury sexual morality to regard [black] woman as sexual temptress….” (pg. 37).

Or, considered this additional excerpt from “Ain’t I a Woman:”

…rape was not the only method used to terrorize and de-humanize black women. Sadistic floggings of naked black women were another method employed to strip the female slave of dignity…a Kentucky slave recalled: The women are subjected to thes punishments as rigorously as the men – not even pregnancy exempts them; in that case before binding them to the stake, a hold is made in the ground to accommodate the enlarged form of the victim.

…Yes sir, the most shocking thing that I have seen was on the plantation of Mr. Farrarby, on the line of the railroad. I went up to his house one morning from my work for drinking water, and heard a woman screaming awfully. On going up to the fence and looking over I saw a woman stretched out, face downwards, on the ground her hands and feet being fastened to stakes. Mr Farraryby was standing over her and striking her with a leather trace belonging to his carriage harness. As he struck her the flesh of her back and legs were raised in welts and ridges by the force of blows. Sometimes when the poor thing cried too loud from the pain Farrarby would kick her in the mouth. After he exhausted himself whipping her he sent to his house for sealing wax and a lighted candle and, melting the wax, dropped it upon the woman’s lacerated back. He then got a riding whip and, standing over the woman, picked of the hardened wax by switching at it. Mr. Farrarby’s grown daughters were looking at this from a window of the house through the blinds. This punishment was so terrible that I was induced to ask what offence the woman had committed and was told by her fellow servants that her only crime was in burning the edges of the waffles that she had cooked for breakfast.

It takes little imagination to comprehend the significance of one oppressed black woman being brutally tortured while the more privileged white women look passively at her plight” (pg. 38)

America has been sexualizing, demonizing and degrading black women for decades. And, while I will leave the black women/white women dichotomy for another post, it is critical to understand the historical interconnectivity between America’s contemporary framework and the roots of American racism. (If you want to brush up on this dichotomy, I would suggest here and here as some intermediate level resources).

America has been killing black children and black youth long before Emmett Till and continues to kill black children and youth today. From Ferguson to Flint, black children are killed, exposed to polluted water and disappeared in rapid numbers. 

And, while racism more often than not creates a POC body count, racism relies on latent strategies as much as it does on overt ones.

Do we always recognize them?

As a newly minted college freshman, I began to intentionally lean into my ever-emerging double consciousness. As a black woman, my identities fundamentally position me as a political figure both by nature of being black and woman but also by nature of being alive, black and woman.

And, I began to notice a trend. Something began to happen to me when I switched as an incoming 7thgrader from a private Montessori School to a Private Mennonite School. I knew something was different, but I couldn’t quite articulate it. Instead, I’d stand in line for Picture day, my hair pressed straight from hours of fighting with the hot iron to new classmate’s hands and laughter tugging and pulling and….poof, my curly afro emerged again like magic.

But they were just kidding.

Right?

I was the funny girl. The girl who you were “supposed” to be able to ask about slang. The girl you were “supposed” to ask about dance moves. The girl who was “supposed” to sing the gospel solos. The girl who…

was that weird black girl who wasn’t at good at basketball as they had hoped.

was that weird black girl who wasn’t as funny as they had imagined

was that weird black girl who never laughed at any of the Oreo jokes

In my predominately white high school, when I would manage to muster up enough courage to speak my own truth to power, I was labeled as mean and aggressive and, the ever-blossoming catch phrase: ratchet.

This compounded my own awkward inability to verbalize the lack of support I felt from my mostly white friend group. Friends support friends, right? Friends believed friends, right? Why did I have to articulate that being called ghetto wasn’t a compliment? Why did I have to verbalize that touching my hair required a verbalized agreement.

How could I be enough if I had to explain my “enough-ness?”

Once, when I approached a white male classmate, convinced by others that he seemed like he was interested in me, I was told that he and his other friends preferred “Swedish” girls instead.

And that was that. I never mustered the courage to ask him what that meant. My white girlfriends never questioned him because he was a Missionary Kid. He grew up in South Africa. He was supposed to be woke. He was supposed to be Jesus loving. He was supposed to…not be a racist.

Right?

Recently, I overheard my coworkers standing outside of my office with this adorable little conversation:

Becky1: So, what did you do this weekend?

Becky 2: I went to the Harrisburg Walmart. I love that store. I could spend all day there. I just find so many things there and I could watch the people there all day…so interesting.

Becky 1: *laughing* “You mean, you could watch the people in their pajamas and slippers all day. (another colleagues name) calls Walmart Scarymart. Ya know, because of all the Hispanics and the Blac – (looks in my direction) – I mean, city folks. You practically need a body guard when you go there…

Becky 2: *long pause*

Becky 1: Just kidding. I was just kidding *weak laughter*

Becky 2: Yeah, but it is pretty amazing what you can find, don’t you think?

 See, the way racism works is that it shows up in our conversations. It shows up in social circles. It shows up on our bookshelves and in our television and in our churches and in our politics. Racism is not relegated to cross burners and bedsheet wearers and Nazi lovers. Regular people chose to wear them. Regular people remained complicit

When the men came and ….

                                                                When the white people came and…

                                                                                                                                When the racist person came and…

And, this still happens all the time. Consider the people you seek as truth tellers. Consider the people you consider as the “fake news” wielders. Consider the people you have on your bookshelf. Consider the people you listen to on the news. Consider whom you call aggressive and whom you call innocent.

Relying on a culmination of adolescent and adult experiences, I quickly learned that my voice and my body were often relegated to the sidelines in regard to racism and sexual harassment and sexism.

When the men came and… attacked me and sexually abused me, my voice was ignored. My body was sexualized. My story was buried.

When the white people came and… attacked me and sexually abused me, my voice was ignored. My body was sexualized. My story was buried.

When the racist person came and…verbally attacked me and sexually harassed me, my voice was ignored. My body was sexualized. My story was buried.

And, while these experiences are not specifically unique, I have found that these experiences have emboldened me to speak up and out regarding the unique positioning of black women and invisibility.

As a black woman, I am used to thinking about losing things. I think about losing my job. I think about losing my family. I think about losing my friends. I think about losing my church and my community.

But, I also know that as a black woman and as a follower of Jesus, I am convinced that I am empowered to use my voice in regard to racial and social justice. And, I am empowered to use my stories and experiences because I believe that truth telling and speaking truth to power are core tenants of what Christ has radically empowered to all whom choose to follow Him.

How often have I been forced to swallow my feelings in the workplace in order to allow room for white fragility?

How often have I been forced to apologize to a white woman utilizing white tears for her benefit?

How often have I been forced to keep silent in order to maintain the status quo?

How often have I lost myself? How often have other black women?

How often have you?

What if speaking up doesn’t mean losing anything? What if speaking up means finding someone?

And what if that person is great?

You probably know that catchphrase: and still she persisted. Maybe you find the phrase irritating. Maybe you have it glued above your bed, I don’t know. But, I have found that simple phrase to have so much power. Still she persisted. When I look back at my story and I notice the timeline and I notice all the details and elements, I notice a story of persistence. And, some days, I even notice a story of enough.

I wonder, when you look at your story, what you see. I wonder when we look at America’s story, what do we see? I wonder, when we look at when the men came and the racist person came and white person came…what do we see. Because, stories matter. The stories we tell, matter. And the stories that are yet to come, matter.

And, I hope that as we write this story of now, together. It will be the story with the happy ending. It will be the story of reconciliation. It will be the story that finally doesn’t end with…

When the men came and ….

                                                                When the white people came and…

                                                                                                                                When the racist person came and…

But maybe, I’m just naive.

Or, maybe I’m not.

Here’s to hoping.

Things They Never Tell You: 25 Truths

Reading Time: 8 minutes

Reflections from childhood

One

This blackness. This caramel body, gray ash knees, 4C wonder, too sun-fried skin and wide hip, thick lips blackness. This blackness, she gave me. This blackness, he gave me before he wound up dead and she, wail deep and mourn in cocaine. This blackness, born too early: just a coffee bean, a caramel kiss, a bastard baby some blackness gave away.

Two

She follows me around the store with her camera while I work. She, scrawny adolescent. I bet she is eleven. Me: 16 at the time. She hides behind her IPhone but I can hear her click-click-clicking. “I have never seen another black person before,” she breathes. As if this is okay. As if her laugh excuses her. As if taking pictures of me as a novelty is normal.

Three

I have learned how to use whiteness to shield me. Trailing behind momma, I pick up a shirt. I can smell the saleslady behind me; hear her breathing hitch as I fumble for chapstick. I know how to lose her though. I know how to make this end.

“Momma.” A white, middle-aged woman turns, her smile half irritated. But she turns, and I know she is wondering what I want now. “What.” Her voice is tired, but I smile. Because just like that, I watch the saleslady behind me disappear. Just like magic.

Four

Historically, I am told that white people used to sell us on a block. I am told that white people used to rip our families apart that white people and black people are too different to ever be together. That white people cannot be trusted. I am told that black people and blackness and this hair and this body are too dirty and too different to be in this white space.

I am told that black people left me. That black people didn’t want me and that is why I am here with these white people.

I am told too many confusing things. I cannot comprehend why white people who don’t want black people wanted black people that black people did not want. I cannot comprehend why white people who love black people are still…white people. I cannot comprehend why black people who love white people…are nothing.

Five

Your child should not be your first multicultural friend

Six

It’s nighttime and I’m wearing a dark hoodie in my car when I hear the sirens. The police officer that pulls us over goes to my side of the car: the passenger side. He says “Good evening gentleman”, and asks me for my license. It’s only then that I realize what he sees. Me, with my newly cut hair shrouded in shadows in an oversized hoodie and my white husband.

He asks to see my white husband’s driver’s license and registration. I start counting backwards:

5

4

I am thinking of gutters. There is one close to the car and I wonder what would happen if I am found there…later. I toss the thought away. I am thinking of the wine bottle spilling beneath my seat. We had brought it for family night. It is open. Is carrying a bottle illegal? When the sirens blared, I accidentally kicked it. It spilled. I sprayed perfume to cover the scent. Can he smell it? Does he know? I didn’t drink but will that sound like a lie? My husband didn’t drink and he is driving. Will that sound like a lie? I test out the words “But I wasn’t drinking.” My voice is shaky and small. I am not shaky and I am not small. And, I’m not a man. I’m a woman. Cops don’t shoot women…right?

I am thinking of gutters again. Of how easy it would be to make me disappear. I am already “disappeared” underneath this hoodie and in this body. I am already disappeared when my husband pats my leg and tells me that everything will be fine.

This isn’t fine.

I breathe. And breathe. And breathe. Is he scared too? Does he know what he will do?

Nobody taught me to fear the police. We didn’t have those conversations. We didn’t talk about Sean or Michael or Philando or Freddie or Walter or Eric or Tamir of Terrence. We didn’t talk about the black girls missing in DC. We didn’t talk about the deaths of Charleena or Natasha or Rekia or Shereese or Kendra. But, somehow my body is already tense. I sit still. I say “sir,” and my voice sounds small.

We are okay. We are safe. We are okay. We are safe.

I repeat the words. I say the names of all of the police officers that I know. That I have worked hard to build relationships with. I say their names like a prayer, their whiteness will protect me.

I remember the police training I participated in for emergency situations. I try to forget how many times, in the training, the police accidentally shot victims because they were so confused. Because their adrenaline was so shot. Because some of them had been police officers for over thirty years and their had never been the money to fund such training.

But I’m fine now. Right?

My hands sweat on my pants. I resist the nervous urge to tap my fingers on my lap. I resist the urge to scream. I resist the urge to cry. I resist the urge…to be a, wrongly assumed, black “man” in a car with a white man. 

I force myself to not think about our location. To not think about the fact that when you cross the township line in which my parents live, the first sign says “Welcome to________this is not a gun free zone.” I try not to think about the houses decorated with confederate flags. I try not to think about the fact that when we moved to this township, my sister and I moved the percentage of black residents from 0.01% to 0.26%. I try not to think about this.

3

2

His feet crunch on the grass as he walks back to my side. The passenger side. 

               1

He hands my license back and won’t meet my eyes when he faintly corrects himself, “ma’am.”

He gives us a warning. Our tail light is out. We should get that fixed. He asks my husband where he is from. Tells him to get a PA drivers license.

We are driving again. We are still in the car.

Everything was fine. 

Now, wasn’t that magic?

Seven

If I name drop all the right white names from my white community, you like me better. If I don’t, and I hide all the photos of my white family, and I forget to speak cultured English, you pass me with the same look I see when you look at any Black person. What does it mean when I hate the part of me that wants to tell you, but I can sound white too.

Eight

They like to think we can vacation anywhere. So we go rural. Backwoods Missouri and Delaware. Maine. Colorado. Kansas. We go West and South and East. Small towns where there are only trees and skyline and woods so dense you can piss naked. Confederate flags and bonfires and me, this black tumbleweed. I wonder if they don’t notice that maybe this is uncomfortable. That maybe I have an opinion about where I want to be and where we are. They never ask because maybe they never thought to notice. But then again, if you can afford not to notice it is easy to forget what is at stake.

Nine

The first black baby doll I ever got I named Awikinaba. Just some made-up gargle. But she looked like me, and she was perfect. I could hold her in my hands and for a moment, my black body and her black body were just beautiful and normal.

Ten

I met my first non-trans-racially-adopted black person of a similar age in High School. This must’ve been the first time my white classmates had met another black person too because from the very first day, I was reminded by seemingly everyone, that finally there was a boy I could “be with.”

Eleven

I do not want to go to the salon, but I do – nails biting into my palms, I open the door and prepare myself for the questions about my hair. Growing up, no one went to the salon. Mom was the salon, but that isn’t an acceptable answer. She appraises me from across the shop, and I abruptly move my hands to my pockets, willing myself to keep my head straight and to meet her eyes. I cry anyway, two tears sliding down my face that I hastily wipe away.

She wants to know why. Why my hair is this way. What happened?! I am 24, she says. Split ends. 4C hair that hasn’t been straightened. Doesn’t my husband like long hair? Why do I want to cut it off? Why do I look like a boy? Why? I try to tell her. I try to explain. I tell her that I went natural. That I have been taking care of my hair. That I like the short look. That I feel empowered fully natural. That I feel beautiful.

But, she side-eyes me so hard I want to run out of my chair. Her words cut:

“Didn’t your momma teach you how to take care of your hair?”

I swallow. I remember braids and hours and hours of sitting on chairs, feeling mom’s hands pull and comb and part and braid until my hair looked like every other black child’s. I remember those warm, sunny days spent practicing cornrows and beads and extensions and twists and puffs. I always remembered those times wrapped in that everlasting floral and coconut oil scent of African hair-care products.

I don’t want to tell her that my mother is white. It’s as if this sudden need to protect her enshrouds my voice, so I whisper it. “I was adopted by white people,” I say. Her eyes soften. “Oh honey.” She says. “We can help you out.”

Twelve

A black girl and Mennonite walk into a bar

Thirteen

When my husband asks me to take out my weave so he can see my natural hair, I cry.

“I love your 4C natural hair,” he whispers. Who knew that the world could be made right in a single sentence? Who knew that a white man would learn with such dexterity how to tie bantu knots with ease? Or to make his fingers curl and smooth back hair without feeling the need to tame its wild beauty?

Fourteen

Be honest. Do you want to hire me because I am black or because I am educated or because I have a white background?

Fifteen

Because he is older and a patriarch, they told me I had to listen. He has a story he wants to tell you, they’d coax. I’d go and listen, my face a telling-7-yr.old disdain. His favorite “black-person story,” was the one he’d tell me at least once every couple of years. It’s the one where he called them greasy men.

Sixteen

All these years and the only apologies she gives me are the ones given in afterthought. The whispered excuse for why her friend complimented me on my English. Or, why she is sorry about the “white savior” comment.

Except. I am not a fresh air kid. Just this transracial adoptee. Do people really count equally if they have an abbreviation first?

Seventeen

When he tells me he doesn’t see color, I wonder why he even says that. Not seeing color only benefits one of us. Not seeing color only gives him an excuse for staying silent.

Eighteen

This blackness. This double shot espresso, freshly turned soil, this roll of thunder rainstorm and wildfire mane. This blackness, I found. This blackness, I revel. This blackness, I claim.

So, why…this blackness…must I also survive?

Nineteen

Someone told me that the best thing I can do as a black woman is to marry a white man.

Twenty

How can you be my friend if you never want to talk about this blackwhiteblackwhite world?

Twenty-One

She calls me to tell me about all the new black people she meets. Probably unconsciously, I surmise. Probably not doing it on purpose, I reason. I want to tell you that I am a black person.

Does she hear me calling her to tell her about all the white people I meet?

Twenty-Two

I want your skin to protect my child. But then again. I don’t. I want your voice to.

Twenty-Three

A middle-aged white man stops us in the middle of the mall. He points at me, and says to my husband “that’s a good decision for a white man.”

Twenty-Four

She says something mean about black people. Then she sees me and says, “well, you’re not like them,” and laughs.

Twenty-Five

I’ve wished everysingleday to be white. Except today.