Review of Weaving a Family: Untangling Race and Adoption

by Anti-Racist Parent columnist Cloudscome

Weaving a Family: Untangling Race and Adoption by Barbara Katz Rothman. Beacon Press, 2005.

Rothman is a professor of sociology at Baruch College, CUNY. She’s written several other books on motherhood, giving birth, race, and gender. In Weaving a Family Rothman talks about her own experience as a white mother of three children; two white whom she gave birth to and one black and adopted. She moves back and forth between telling her own family’s story and discussing the wider social, economic and cultural implications of mixed race families. Although she is an academic writer, the tone and style is conversational and engaging. There is a very illuminating interview with Ms. Rothman at Literary Mama which gives a good overview of the book and lays out her opinions on many issues.

In the first section of the book Rothman talks about adoption and tells the story of her own family. She says, “In a better world, adoption would all but disappear, leaving us infertility as a problem that still needed to be addressed on its own terms. And in a better world, race too would almost cease to exist; race as a system of power and domination would collapse. Ethnicity, community based on heritage, would or could continue, but race, with all of its history of horror, would disappear.” Up until this point in the book I was thinking of race as a good thing, along the lines of strong identity, etc. As she unpacks the repressive elements of racism and it’s effects on Black families I began to see that the positive thing is ethnicity. Categorizing people by race is a tool of oppression and violence. A world that didn’t recognize race but honored ethnicity would be a world of greater freedom and equity. I am curious to see what others think of this. Do you consider race to have a positive connotation or is it only a means of oppression?

After extensive discussion on race as understood biologically, socially, historically, and contrasted with an understanding of ethnicity, Rothman dissects what it means for a white parent to mother, or do the work of nurturing and raising, a Black child. As a sociologist she had access to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. She studied the images, stories and histories contained there and organized them into themes. She calls is a “typology, a description of the various ways this relationship has been imagined, done, thought about.” She says, “I’m taking this image, the black child at the white breast, the little black hand trustingly placed in the big white one, the white mother with her black child, and tracing it back.”

She focuses on three motifs: Proteges, Pets, and Trophies. She recognizes that none of these descriptions are attractive or desirable. Nor are they limited to families of adoption. There could be a whiff of these tendencies in any parenting relationship. What is gained by categorizing these types is a certain clarity; a historical context for our current parenting. She acknowledges that this is an ugly way to look at ourselves and our children. No one wants to see their child as a protege, a pet or a trophy. Nevertheless, by closely examining a historic perspective she finds some useful truths.

The mentor and protege relationship is compared to the traditional father – child relationship. Fathers act as bridges into the wider world for their children. “Fathers share their place in the world with their children, passing on names and identity, privilege, position, and property.” The role of pet is described as more of a mother’s indigence toward babies and small children. The third category, of trophy, relates to the way children represent our identity in the world. They display our taste, discernment, status, wealth, and values.

In analyzing these three modes Rothman points out some of the complexity of multiracial families in our racist culture. When one or both parents are white the child with dark skin is still called Black. Having white parents doesn’t make one white. Although middle class white parents may mentor their children and attempt to give access to privilege and power, the Black child grows up to become a Black adult with all that it entails. The Black/white divide seems immutable.

In comparing mothering small children to caring for pets Rothman points out the innate capacity of humans to attach to smaller, needier companions. The difference in indulging one’s cat with treats and doing the work of raising a child is made apparent when the child grows up independent and the relationship becomes reciprocal. If the child is marked by society as being less valuable (because of disability, race, apparent minority status or the like) the mother’s nurturing behavior may come into question. The child is not always seen as “your own” if he/she doesn’t look like a match. Rothman says, “When a child, a healthy child, is born to you, you don’t distinguish, you’re not asked to distinguish, the narcissistic part of your love from the altruistic. When you take care of that child, no one asks you why. But direct that nurturance towards a child the world has made clear it will not value, and not only motivation but the very legitimacy of your actions are up for question. The joys of nurturance, the self-indulgence of parenting, the pleasures of mothering are made apparent when their legitimacy is questioned.”

The “trophy child” takes it one step farther. If an adopted child is seen as a trophy it is because of what acquiring the child says about the parent or the world the parent seeks. Rothman mentions the idea that some white people may use connections to Black friends, partners, or children in order to make a statement. She also gives the example of Josephine Baker (African American) who adopted twelve children from all around the world. She wanted to have a “rainbow family”. She went around the world with her husband collecting children from different countries and adopting them in the 1950s. Rothman states that Baker seemed to genuinely love her children. Pearl S. Buck (European American) is another example of someone who adopted children in a “rainbow” family and made a statement about families in the process. Rothman says, “It requires a position of privilege to begin to think about “collecting” children. The trophy child says something about who the parent is; this kind of collection is one type of trophy. The “rainbow tribe,” as Baker called it, is an attempt to remake the world, with the family as a little UN, the parent(s) as visionaries.” Rebecca Walker, the daughter of Alice Walker, calls herself a “MovementChild”. Her white Jewish civil rights lawyer father and her black mother meant to make a new world for their daughter to inhabit. The problem here, Rothman points out, is that we are expecting the little child to lead us. In this type of attempt to remake the world without race we are using race for that purpose. “We celebrate race, we take pleasure in it, as we overcome race. It is a way of thinking about race that involves not thinking about race, denying its significance, its politics, and its history.” A child who starts out as a trophy soon finds the burden heavy and unwieldy. The world they grow up to inhabit is not yet ready. The back of a child is not meant to be a bridge.

A great deal of the second half of the book is about how white women learn of their whiteness from having Black children. She considers how we (white people) often don’t know we are white until we “belong” to a Black child, or a Black partner. We discover the shock of being, not the only white person in a room full of Blacks, but an aware white person in a room full of whites who are not thinking about being white. You may look like every other white person, but you don’t feel or think or react like one. There will be the time you are going along at the meeting or conference or whatever and something is said; something racist or not, some assumption of whiteness or privilege and no one reacts. You are alone and baffled. Or here’s another situation: you’re the only white person in a room of African Americans. You feel like you know what’s going on, you are partaking of the events, you’re happily enjoying yourself. Something comes up that brings race onto the stage. A white cop strolls by, an incident is mentioned, a joke is told. You don’t know how to react. Will you be judged? Are you too white to respond? Will there be anger directed at you? Is the joke on you?

Twoards the end of the book Rothman discusses hair care in the context of culture/diversity celebrations, identity, and entitlement. She tells about how her family is woven together, how adoption has changed, how the world has changed in the past forty or fifty years. She says in the book she is “tracing the tensions between the intimate, personal lives we lead and the social contexts in which we lead them.” I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in these topics and I invite your response here.

Cloudscome has three sons. She is a library-media specialist and blogs at http://awrungsponge.blogspot.com.

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