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. 
Shalom always,

All the Light Within Part II: Jasmine

Reading Time: 4 minutes

All the Light Within Part II: Jasmine

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 Part I, please click here to access.

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 think one of the best things about telling adoption stories is that ultimately adoption stories are relationship stories. Relationships often include struggle and disappointment, sometimes loneliness and abandonment, but relationships are also miraculous because of how they connect people with other people. I think that transracial adoptions can sometimes provide a particularly important lens when seeking to investigate systems of attachment, childhood development and transracial relationships, and I hope that you feel privileged and encouraged by Jasmine’s openness.  

I still remember the first time I met Jasmine during a college theater activity. Because both of us attended the same small Mennonite college in the middle of rural, tumbleweed Kansas, you can imagine that it wasn’t very racially diverse. I will never forget how her vivacious personality, beautiful smile and infectious belly laugh immediately caught my attention, and I remain grateful for her vulnerability and genuine spirit.

Jasmine is a 25-year-old black woman and currently resides in the Southwest. Because she was unable to Skype, this interview features Jasmine’s written responses to specific questions regarding her adoption.

Born in 1993, Jasmine begins her adoptive story with this memory:

The day I was born, I was placed in a home because my birth mother was incarcerated. I have been with that wonderful family ever since. Barb and Dick Jones then became my legal guardians when I was 5 years old.

According to Bureau of Justice Statisticians, Lauren Glaze and Laura Maruschak, in their study, Parents in Prison and Their Minor Children, the number of children with a mother in prison increased 131 percent between 1991 and midyear 2007..and, children whose parents are involved in the criminal justice system have an above average likelihood of entering foster care.

These statistics are particularly staggering when you begin to consider the demographics which were most affected in the wake of the Crack Epidemic. But it is even more important to remember that these are not just statistics, but people. And, that real people were effected and continue to be effected.

 I invite you to read Jasmine’s story with care and I remain grateful to Jasmine for her vulnerability and openness.

How do you identify racially?

I honestly identify myself as biracial. My birth mother’s mother was white, but my mom had more black on her.

Did you recognize early on that you were different from your adoptive family?

I truly never really felt different from my adoptive family. I consider myself very lucky to have been placed in such a loving and understanding home. The community that I grew up was mostly white and they never treated me any differently.

Did your parents/family discuss your differences with you?

 Yes, very much so, and it helps me love who I am even more.

What values did your parents instill in you?

How to be a hard worker.

What has been the best thing about your adoption?

For me, it would be growing up in a loving, safe home with people who actually cared for me. I can’t even imagine what my life would have been like if I had not been adopted

What, if anything, would you want to tell someone about your adoption journey?

I would tell them if they are thinking about adoption to not hesitate…to just do it…. that they are saving the precious baby.

Did you feel isolated or lonely growing up?

No. I had a pretty good set of friends we are still pretty close today and I truly value their friendships.

Was race an issue for you/your family?

No.

Did you live in a racially dominant area?

Not at all. My younger sister (who was also adopted, but is not my biological sister) and I were pretty much the only black people in our town. There are maybe, maybe 7 total. But our town is also very small.

In your neighborhood, was race an issue?

 If it was, I never once experienced it. But also, we never had a neighborhood.

When did you, if at all, first begin to identify with the black community? (ie: some have said when Trayvon Martin was killed, some have said when they began to make more black friends, etc.,):

Hesston College actually was the first time. And, I am happy I got to experience Hesston. I made a lot of good friends.

Do you feel like race impacts you?

Yes, now that I am grown up and looking for work it is very hard….it seems like no one wants to hire the black woman.

What was your first negative racialized moment?

I honestly cannot remember and maybe that is for the best. I haven’t really had any bad experiences with being black.

When was your first positive racialized moment? (ie: For example, maybe you always loved being biracial, or maybe you did when you began to love your hair…etc.,):

 I think it was when I realized how awesome bright colors looked against my skin.

I love that positive racialized moment statement. And, I love Jasmine’s continued optimism. She faces the world with a sunny disposition, and she continues to inspire me. And, maybe, she also inspired you.

Keep on the lookout for part III of All the Light Within. 

Shalom always,
B

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.