An examination of privilege. A question of responsibility.

by Anti-Racist Parent Columnist Michelle Myers

I know I haven’t been able to keep up with my posts as much as I’ve liked over the last month, but I’ve been reading recent posts with great interest. In particular, Dawn Friedman’s post calling out anti-racist white parents of white children struck a particular chord, as it did with many people. I also found Carmen’s post about recent comments Angelina Jolie made in an interview interesting, and though at least one person commented that he/she didn’t get “much of a racial connotation out of [Jolie’s] statement,” I would argue that Jolie makes two points: her second statement about Shiloh being a “blob” may be about the differences between adopted children and biological children—but Shiloh’s blobbiness won’t last too long, so this isn’t even a critical point. Her first statement, however, is very revealing and implicitly has a racial context. At the heart of both of these posts, and I’m not saying anything that someone hasn’t already said, is white privilege. I think that many POC parents and some white parents of biracial or transracially adopted children (as many have admitted) are compelled to enter and engage in the discussion precisely because they are of color and/or have children who are of color, and they are actively trying be aware of and head off things, even unpleasant things, that their children may be forced to confront. For many—and I’m not saying all, but many—of these parents, they speak up because they feel they have no choice since race is so much a part of their lives.

White parents of white children on some level do have a choice; as the perceived-if-not-actual representatives of the human standard of culture and living in the U.S., white people often are not confronted for being “of their race” on a daily basis and frequently do not have to deal with racial issues unless they find themselves in a situation or forum in which POC perspectives are a part of the dialogue, if not the dominant point-of-view. Even then, white folks can stay out of the conversation—and believe me, many POC folks don’t want you comment because they fear that you will try to usurp the discussion. But I think Angelina Jolie is admirable for a number of different reasons; no matter how much people question her motives, she is clearly aware of white privilege. Maybe this has something to do with the fact that her mother is part Iroquois; however, she is obviously mindful that she herself is “read” as being white (despite that, from what I’ve read, she is currently filming a movie where she is playing a mixed race woman whom many say is black, which has caused an uproar among some black folks). Anyway, when Angelina Jolie says, “I think I feel so much more for Mad and Z because they’re survivors, they came through so much. Shiloh seemed so privileged from the moment she was born. I have less inclination to feel for her . . .,” you really cannot take that out of its racial/cultural/political/class context. Jolie has been to and spent time in Cambodia; she has witnessed that the country STILL suffers many debilitating effects from Pol Pot’s oppressive and murderous regime. She has been to Ethiopia; she has seen the effects of poverty, famine, ethnic conflict, political instability. Both her adopted children are orphans; their parents perhaps had died or had to give them up as a result of these pervading issues. I’m sure as U.N. Ambassador, she probably learned how children like hers are exploited for labor and as sex slaves. You cannot separate these issues and their vulnerability from the fact that they are Southeast Asian and African—people across the West/First World have turned a blind-eye to the problems in these areas of the world for a long time, and many have contended that such unconcern is rooted in racism.

Jolie believes that to have been alive when she met them in their young lives, they had to be “survivors.” As a person who has been excruciatingly open about her own troubled youth/past, Jolie’s personal connection to her adopted children and their experiences is understandable. Shiloh, on the other hand, has been born into privilege on SO many levels: she has both her biological parents; her parents are currently two of the most successful, multi-millionaire actors in Hollywood; her parents have been tagged as two of the most beautiful people in the world; and her parents, and by extension she herself, represent the epitome of white privilege (despite Angelina being mixed)—I mean, isn’t that the main reason why most people hate on Angelina and Brad for adopting Maddox and Zahara? Anyway, to get back to my original point, even though Angelina KNOWS she is read as the billboard for white privilege, she makes it a point to speak up, engage in the discussion of race and class and inequality. She does this even as most of the world sets her in the sights of their crosshairs. That takes a great deal of courage.

Of course I’m writing this on a WHOLE LOT of assumptions, but I think Jolie has been pretty consistent about her vocal/public recognition of the complexities surrounding her life situations and these life choices. My question then becomes: if she’s aware of how she feels towards Shiloh as a child who has been born into so many levels of privilege, what is she going to do to try to prevent Shiloh from growing up to hate her? On the flip side, what is she going to do, as a rich, famous, defacto white parent of children of color, to make sure she connects with her adopted children in a way that communicates to them that she is not paying lip-service to racial and cultural acceptance so that they don’t see her as a hypocrite and then grow up hating her?

As parents, after all the joys and struggles of having and raising our children, we don’t want to think about “What if my child grows up to hate me?” I think we all assume that we will have wonderful relationships with our children as we grow older, and one day, we’ll be able to enjoy life as doting and proud grandparents. We idealize about the holidays and family reunions. We imagine that our children will call us every-other-day—or at least every weekend—to chat because they want to and because they love us. I hate to burst this bubble, but this sometimes doesn’t happen. I’m running too long on this post, but I want to use myself and my life as an example of the kind of concerns I’m raising because I’m not above reproach or immune from critical missteps made in my life, personally and as a parent. So sometime soon (fingers crossed!) I hope to talk about my own experiences as a troubled teen and young adult who grew up hating my interracial background and both my parents (Korean and white). After that, I’d like to examine how I may be transferring these issues to my own children, even if I do so inadvertently. Finally, I challenge all parents on this site to consider: What kind of relationship do you want to have with your children as they grow into adulthood, and what words-combined-with-actions can help you to meet your children’s needs—not your own egos, but your children’s needs—in order for you to realize that desired relationship?

Michelle Myers holds a Ph.D. in English from Temple University, specializing in Asian American Literature. She is a founding member of the spoken word poetry group Yellow Rage, which was featured on HBO’s RUSSELL SIMMONS PRESENTS DEF POETRY, and which recently released its second CD: HANDLE WITH CARE, VOL. 2. She is also a founding member of the performance collective Asians Misbehavin’. She is currently an Assistant Professor at Community College of Philadelphia and Grants Coordinator at SEAMAAC (Southeast Asian Mutual Assistance Associations Coalition). Michelle lives in NJ with her husband, Tyrone, and their three children: Myong, Victor, and Vanessa.

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