by Anti-Racist Parent columnist Lisa Marie
I come to Anti Racist Parent as a black woman, as a transracial adoptee and as a woman who recognizes parts of myself as a mother to my friends, my family, my youth, and my students – while at the same time, I have no biological children.
I was born in Washington State, was adopted by a conservative, Republican, Christian white family, and grew up on the North End of Tacoma, WA. If you know this side of Tacoma at all – in the 1970’s and 80’s it was all white. I went to private, Christian schools where I was one of maybe 2 or 3 other children of color and most times the only black girl in my classes. I had a very painful and awkward childhood especially when it came to liking boys, or trying to have that long Farah Fawcett hair. Damn her hair! Right or wrong, black women’s hair is a huge cultural, social and political symbol. My life in photographs certainly reflects my mother’s and then eventually my own struggle with my hair. For at least the past 15 years, I’ve reclaimed all this anxiety about hair and find so much power in my natural mane.
Growing up, people responded to me both in and outside the protection of white privilege that being adopted by my parents procured on me. It was one thing to be in church as a little girl holding the hands of my mother and quite another to get hit with the reality of what it meant / means to go it alone as a young and now grown black woman out in the world, without the imaginary ‘veil’ of class and race privilege. It was a profound struggle to live in an all white world without the language or tools to identity racism or to understand how race was functioning in my daily experiences. There were countless incidents of racism in school, in church and from my parents friends that I can identity now that inform my identity as a black woman.
My racial identity has always been a bit of a cryptic mystery. My ‘adoption papers’ document my races as “Mexican and Irish” and “Filipino and Caucasian”, when it really is Black, Filipino and White. I like to joke in my solo show, “Ungrateful Daughter” that this was a marketing strategy by the adoption agency for prospective parents looking for an adoptable child. What is crazy is how much this joke actually reflects the currently reality 30 some years later of many pre adoptive parent desires. In the past years that I’ve been working specifically in adoption, you would be amazed at the number of people who call to adopt a baby, any baby, any color, any race, even a mixed race baby … well any baby, except an all black baby. Do people really think that if they don’t adopt a ‘technically all black’ child, they will be able to somehow shield their child from racism? Or do they really hope that if they get a half black /African child that the child will identify more as white? Do they really think Chinese, Korean or continental African children have it easier?
While my parents didn’t have this attitude, they believed the agency documentation was accurate and this belief /denial had a profound impact on how they perceived me racially and what they told me about myself. Throughout the early part of my life, my immediate family understood me as “not black”, while their church and school community absolutely recognized and saw ‘black’ when they looked at me. It was a struggle for my family when I finally found and befriended black kids in high school and university; for me, I felt an immediate sense of ‘home’ that emerged a way I could not explain in words.
Like most TRA’s I’ve struggled with the authenticity question of “who is black”, “who is not and why”. Yet, I discovered that my ‘all black’ friends struggle with the same issues of authenticity and blackness. As I educated myself in African diasporic history and culture, I realized, as fellow educator and TRA John Raible says, “this struggle of identity is an African diasporic struggle and that all black people around the world engage in this search for roots, this search for identity. (Struggle for Identity, 1997). With this realization, I was able to understand my blackness as one piece in a huge patchwork quilt of multiple and ever changing black identities. It was liberating to claim myself and to learn that those people of any race who adhere to one ‘kind of blackness’ simply don’t understand what it means to be black in the African diasporic sense.
I absolutely believe that if my parents would have had the resources and support to become anti-racist allies to me, they would have. Today there is no excuse for white parents adopting black and brown children to continue to act like race doesn’t matter. My philosophy around adoptive parenting absolutely places the perspectives of adult adoptees working in the field as experts and also comes from a place that pushes to make more visible the strong connections between international and domestic adoption. I currently work mentoring over 30 transracially adopted youth in Oakland, CA. I can’t say much about this except I don’t think they realize how happy I am to just hang around them and to be a presence in their lives.
I’m looking forward to contributing to the conversations here at ARP and to learning from others with open hearts and minds that are diving in to investigate this thing called race.
Lisa Marie Rollins is a multidisciplinary performance artist, writer and Ph.D. Candidate in African Diaspora Studies at the University of California at Berkeley. She is the Executive Director and Founder of AFAAD (Adopted and Fostered Adults of the African Diaspora) and author of the weblog “A Birth Project”. Lisa Marie is currently working part time as the Adoption Education Specialist at Pact, An Adoption Alliance, developing and teaching workshops on race, adoption and parenting. She likes spiders, trees, waking dreams and couldn’t live in a world without music.