Bonita, Bonita, Bonita

Reading Time: 10 minutes
I have wanted to be beautiful for as long as I can remember.
Ironically cursed with severe acne as an adolescent, I was used to teachers that, during roll call, would chuckle at their amazing propensity for Spanish and ask: Do you know what Bonita means?
Numbly, I would nod my head and pray to white Jesus that they would leave me alone.
No one listened. Every teacher would excitedly explain, thrilled to pay homage to the A they got in 9th Grade Spanish: It means beautiful. Beautiful name for such a beautiful (they would scan my face and see the acne)…smile. Such a beautiful smile.
Afterwards, a smart aleck with perfect white skin would inevitably turn around and declare: They should’ve named her the Spanish word for ugly. And the class would erupt.
Adopted into a large, white, Mennonite farming family in rural Pennsylvania, I knew that beauty wasn’t supposed to be a high priority. Afterall, you didn’t need to be beautiful to feed the cats, check the chickens, shovel manure, hang laundry, take out the garbage and do a myriad of other chores.
You didn’t need to be beautiful to can beans, peaches, cherries, applesauce and jam.
You didn’t need to be beautiful to go to Church every Sunday and Small Group on Wednesday.
You just had to show up and get the job done.
I grew up on a small chicken farm in Lancaster County where there were not many places where my last name was not known. A few farms over a distant cousin had played outfield for the Philadelphia Phillies in the ‘70s. A few miles away, a great uncle owned a large agricultural business. Other uncles owned dairy farms, chicken farms or pig farms. We were farming people. We weren’t supposed to care about beauty.
As a child, I would watch as my white family members would change various shades of tan throughout the summer.
I would watch them become effortlessly sun-bleached blonde and tan and beautiful. Powerful and pure. Desirable and innocent. White and strong.
In the mornings, I would slather my body in sunscreen and in the evenings, I would layer myself in cocoa butter and Vitamin E oil, wrap my hair and pray to wake up a white skinned, blue-eyed blonde.
I wanted to be the you look just like your mom rather than a is-she-your-fresh-air-kid or were you adopted as a crack baby kind of beautiful. I wanted to be the farm tan and sun-bleached blonde kind of beautiful. I wanted to be the kind of beautiful that fit in seamlessly. The kind of beautiful that you didn’t question.
The kind of beautiful that everyone just recognized as beautiful. Without questions. Without stigmas. Without doubt.
Somewhere around middle school, I discovered relaxers. I don’t remember what first made me realize that wearing my hair in braids and beads was ‘so elementary.’ Was it a locker room conversation? Did someone ask me one too many times why my hair was so kinky? Was it after my white brother loudly declared that girls with short hair like me would never be pretty?
Whatever it was, something shifted.
I wanted to feel the wind in my hair. I wanted to ‘put my hair down.’ I wanted to be beautiful.
And, beauty could be mine for $7.99.
During the next few years, my mom would occasionally relax my hair with home relaxers. The paper cartons showed light-skinned girls with long smooth tresses and wide smiles.
Relaxers for black hair, unlike relaxers for white hair, rely on sodium hydroxide which can cause hair loss and third-degree burns.
Despite the intense burn from the relaxer and the countless horror stories from friends (bald, burns, hospitalization), I would grit my teeth and close my eyes.
Tell me when it starts to burn and we will rinse it right out, my mother would caution, and I would nod and grit my teeth.
Afterwards, I would stand in front of the mirror and swish my hair and wince with pain.
Beauty was pain, right?
The first time I remember being called ‘beautiful,’ was the first day I visited a Waldorf School. I was in 1st grade, extremely talkative, emotive and already classified as a handful.
I guess the teacher had told the class that I would be visiting for a week because as soon as I arrived at the school small white heads poked out of a third story window screaming ‘hello.’
It was equally traumatic and exhilarating.
A tall brick building with a large arched door, Waldorf felt both enchanting and historic.
Large doors with brass handles opened to reveal hallways and classrooms painted in soft fairytale hues: caerulean, rose, dandelion, moss and ultramarine. Pastel silks stretched across windows as elegant curtains and hand painted artwork covered gallery walls in neat, straight lines. Handmade felt puppets, beeswax figures, wooden bowls and spoons crowded in corner tables and display shelves. Chalk art featured fairies and gnomes and whimsical woodland creatures embellished the daily schedules: Circle time, Main Lesson, Snack & Recess, Beeswax, Handwork, Lunch & Recess, Eurythmy, German, Painting.
The first-grade room was on the tallest floor of the building. A bright corner room with large windows and rose colored walls, the room featured wall-length chalkboards, a balance beam, a braided circular rug and twenty-three desks including one with my name.
A teacher appeared at the door, his hands chalky and his eyes kind. I don’t remember what pleasantries were passed or how long I hid behind my mom and sister, astonished and horrified that I was actually expected to spend a full week with strangers.
But I do remember that a girl came barreling through the front door, brown ringlets bouncing and picked me up. “You are so beautiful!”
It was easy to be beautiful then. And, it was hard to be beautiful then. I was a black kid. An adopted kid. A girl kid. A loud kid. A sensitive kid. A don’t make me tell you twice kid. I had isms and quirks. I was hyperactive and talkative.
And, I was desperate to be beautiful.
Beautiful people were wanted by their parents. Beautiful people didn’t have other kids ask them what it felt like to be an orphan. Beautiful people didn’t have abandonment issues. Beautiful people didn’t get asked if they were ‘real’ or not.
Beautiful people were just beautiful people. They weren’t pretty for a black girl. They weren’t you’d be almost hot if you were white. They weren’t my mom said I’m not allowed to date black girls. They weren’t oreos or monkeys or n****rs. They were just always human. And, they were always beautiful.
Right?
I wanted it. I wanted the bluest eyes and saccharine smiles. I wanted blonde hair and white skin. I wanted to be able to buy my hair products from stores that didn’t offer skin bleaching creams in the same aisle. I wanted to be able to feel the air flip ponytails across my back. I wanted boys to stop asking me if I would have a big butt when I grew up. I wanted teachers to stop telling me that if I ever wanted to be taken seriously, I would need to change my name|hair|speech. I would need to apply for diversity scholarships. I would need to tell my story and make sure to say that I was adopted.
I just wanted to be beautiful.
In Elementary School, I was one of 3 black girls in the whole school. The others were a biracial girl named after a flower whose name matched her beauty and my twin sister. The school was small and the whiteness was blindingly ecofriendly. It was May day flowers and wreath dancing white. It was handmade knit socks and crochet scarves white. Sugarless organic fruit roll-up and babybel snack kinda white. Composting and save the trees white. Liberal white. TV turnoff week white. Tie-dye shirt birthday parties white. Handmade purposefully didn’t comb my hair dreadlocks white. Inclusive white yet exclusive white.
And, I was allowed to play.
Waldorf boasted diversity and inclusivity initiatives before they were a “thing.” Every classroom was mainstream and persons with mental health illnesses were included and expected to participate and engage with the curriculum and the community.
At first blackness seemed like a constant show and tell.
Do you need sunscreen?
        What kind of lotion do you use?
                Why does your hair stand straight up?
                            Why does your hair smell like coconut?
Kids asked me questions in between asking another why he sniffed people or why she ate her boogers and didn’t clip her fingernails.
One recess a classmate asked why my knees were ashy and I didn’t know what to say so I made something up: it’s a super power I have that tells me when I need more lotion.
Awestruck, he leaned closer. Woah, I wish I had a superpower.
For at least the first half of second grade, daily recess rituals included hopeful girls asking one another: May I play with you? Status was determined by whether you were the one doing the asking or if you were the asked. Recess and social politics dictated that playing as a threesome was the most desirable. Any more and it became difficult to control dynamics. Any less and your status suffered. After all, playing wild horses required two people to actually be horses and one to narrate the storyline.   
As a child, I would often proudly announce that my schedule was booked – couldn’t play with anyone until December I told a child once…in October. Reasons not to play with someone included if they smelled, if they said something mean about you to another classmate or if you were worried they might become more popular than you.
As an adult, I cringe remembering moments like this. And, in moments of desperation, I want to defend myself and write it off as immaturity and ignorance.
After all, it was immature and ignorant.
And yet, child’s play often mimics real-world scenarios. Somehow as seven and eight-year-olds we knew, innately, what we were doing. We knew these were acts of survival.
As I grew older, I would find that reasons to play with someone would evolve to include hair type and skin color. Reasons that would sometimes include me and exclude other black girls. Reasons that would sometimes exclude me and include other black girls. Reasons that would sometimes exclude all black girls.
In middle school, I transitioned from Waldorf to a small Mennonite school. Out of the over 300 plus children in attendance in K-8, I was the only black girl. An adopted black girlfriend of mine transitioned out of the school just as I began, and I quickly learned from my classmates that there were expectations with being black.
Average at basketball, I tried out for the team and, to the utter dismay of my coach, was only good enough to be a part-time player on the ‘A’ team and a full-time player on the ‘B’ team. Where was my skill? Didn’t I watch basketball at home? C’mon, where was the hustle?
As a seventh grader, a white, blonde-haired, blue-eyed boy I liked gave me his phone number and asked me to call him. When I did, his mother informed me that he wasn’t allowed to talk to “people like me.” I remember hanging up the phone in shock. Later, I cried myself to sleep.
The next time I saw him, I ignored him. He followed me around after choir practice, apologizing Then he told me we should stop being friends. He had prayed about it and it would make things easier for him. And, that was okay, right? I understood?
A few weeks later a classmate, whom often called me an ‘Oreo,’ told me that his parents said that people like me could never be a “Proverbs 31” girl. I walked into the bathroom and cried.
People like me. Oreos like me. Things like me.
In eighth grade, a classmate would, much to the hilarity of my teammates, lift my field hockey skirt to see if I had a big butt. I was too horrified and embarrassed to report him.
In class, a cocky white boy would sit on my lap and apologize with an oops, I didn’t see you there. On the bus rides home, he would whisper sexually explicit things to me and shove me into the wall.  
Late night bus rides after basketball and field hockey games would turn into weekly nightmares. Forced to sit in between horny adolescent eighth grade boys, I would have pens shoved in my hair, pencils shoved down my shorts and hands grope my back, chest and butt.
They would only stop if I cried.
Their apologies were often bold threats and excuses: you are such a baby. Can’t you take a joke? It’s not like we actually like you. You should be flattered we are paying you attention. If you tell anyone we will make it worse for you.
After asking one boy why I was always targeted, he laughed and said: because you’re not, you know, like the other girls.
In desperation, I went to the school’s guidance counselor and confided in her what was happening. She was one of the boy’s mom and told me that she didn’t believe me. Her son would never participate in things like that. Certainly, I was mistaken. This sounded like drama and she heard that I caused drama.
I never went back to her again.
Another time, during track and field practice, a popular classmate wanted a select group of girls to watch her run and then tell her if her butt bounced while she did the long jump. I just really want to have a bouncy big butt. She whined, and then she pointed at me. A big butt like her.
In 9th grade, after a classmate grabbed a hold of my breast in the middle of gym class, I remember feeling astounded that my white male teacher, Mr. T, stepped in. The boy was sent to the principal’s office and Mr. T asked me if I wanted to file a complaint. He said that he was going to and that it would be my decision to write one, but he recommended that I did.
Out of all the times I had been sexually harassed in class and at school, this was the first time that a teacher stood up for me.
This was the first time a teacher didn’t say that it happened because I caused drama.
This was the first time I was believed and supported.
I wrote the damn report.
Later, when a popular classmate would slap my butt, hard, in the hallway in front of a crowd of boys, I chased him down and slapped him across the face.
Never touch me again, I warned. “I just wanted to see how firm it was.” He laughed before declaring: never touch me again, crazy b**ch.
The next day a rumor went around that I was crazy and slapped him for no reason.
No one sat with me at lunch that day. Another told me that I should apologize. No one wanted to hear what had actually happened because no one cared.
People cared what happened to be young, white beautiful people. Once, after the same classmate that wanted a big, bouncy butt told another that a boy had looked at her weird, he was shunned from the next class party.
Just like that.
No one told her stop causing drama. No one accused her of being mistaken.
She was believed because she was popular. She was believed because she was white and beautiful. She was believed.
Just like that.
Historically, the first time I verbalized my ‘otherness,’ was when I was four. My aunt recalls this moment by my alleged declaration: there were “too many white people” at the family reunion.
While I don’t remember this incident, I do remember the first time I learned to associate my skin color with items that were dirty or burnt. The first time I was called a n****r. The first time I was spat on.
Transracially adopted into a rural, white, farming family, my modes of representation were limited to the very few black adults and families I encountered in public places
Although my family was a part of a small, vibrant community of transracial adoptive families that met once a month, I struggled to find racial representation in media, literature, education and music. Many of the adoptive families were large white conservative families that adopted one or two Black or African children.
While, as an adult I can recognize that the transracial adoption group’s goal was to normalize transracial families and provide support and resources for families and adoptive parents; as a child, I dreaded the meetings for many of the same reasons. Abandonment and trust issues, while ubiquitous, are also an integral marker for many adoptees.
Knowing that my story would be told to others without my permission, terrified me.
What if nobody wanted me? What if they told my parents to un-adopt me? What if everyone only knew the worst parts about me?
What if I was truly unlovable?
I would often overhear my adoptive parents talking about my issues with other adoptive parents and I felt overwhelmingly betrayed, hurt and angry.  
Didn’t they know how much it hurt me? I would wonder. Didn’t they know?
As a child, I would often wonder if every black woman I saw could possibly be my mother. If every black boy could possibly be my brother.
I was desperate for representation but struggled with the cognitive, linguistic and emotional ability to articulate this.
I was desperate for something to make me loveable and wanted. Inherently trustworthy and honest. Innocent and pure.
Beautiful and white.  

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.