A fellow ARPer needs your help

Reader Graig M. needs your help. He writes:

I’m a daily reader of Anti-Racist parent, but I only occasionally post.

I work in education, and recently a friend of mine started writing a book for educators on how to teach multi-racial children. As the adoptive parent of a multi-racial daughter, she asked me to write about my experiences for a chapter in the book.  I put together a piece that’s about 2000 words long.

Before I approve it’s publication, I wondered if I might share it with the readers at Anti-Racist Parent. Perhaps they could give me feedback about how to make it the best it can be for wider publication?

I read Graig’s wonderful story and knew I had to share it with all of you. Please let him know what you think.

During her third grade year, I accompanied my daughter Ashley’s class to a play. Before the performance, I was sitting between my Ashley and a classmate named Ashlee. The other girl was the class outcast. Poor, unkempt, and socially awkward, she was the kid that no one else wanted to sit next to. I’m drawn to those kids, so I was happy to sit with her and be her conversation partner.

As I talked with Ashlee about whatever 9 year-olds like to talk about, I could tell that my Ashley was growing impatient. Not only was her dad talking with someone else, he was talking with the one person that no one was supposed to talk with.

Ashlee soon made an abrupt transition. “You know what’s funny,” she started. “Her name is Ashley, and my name is Ashlee. She’s black, and I’m white.”

“I’m BI-RACIAL,” was the immediate response from my right. Ashley had whipped her head around me, her neck stretched to its limit and her eyes glaring.

I knew it was time to refocus my attention. And it was time for some discussion about identity.

Yes, Ashley is bi-racial.

I’m white. So is my wife.

Ashley is adopted. When she joined her family at age 6, we had a lot to learn about race. She had lived with her white biological mother, but had never known her black biological father.

When you adopt a child, one of the things that you’re taught is how to help the child tell their own “adoption story”. Indeed, almost right away Ashley needed to be able to explain that she was adopted. In first and second grade, her classmates would regularly look at me, turn their puzzled looks to her and then spit out some form of “Is that your dad?” that always made it clear something didn’t fit.

Of course it was race that tipped them off, but at that age the conversation didn’t readily go there. Ashley’s practiced adoption story at that point was pretty simple. “Yeah, I’m adopted.” When pressed, she could add “My biological mother couldn’t take care of me so I came to live with my new parents.”

On the day of that third grade field trip, it became clear that the issue in question was not adoption. It was time to help Ashley convert her adoption story into a story about race.

***

“I’m not black. I’m BI-RACIAL.” That statement is loaded with so much baggage. How do you help a nine year-old pick it apart?

To start with the first half of the statement, we had to examine why it was so important to Ashley that she make it clear that she wasn’t black. Initially, her response was that a third Ashley in their class was the black one. She wanted to distinguish herself from both of her like-named peers.

But of course children that young can learn the power of race and internalized racism along with it. With white parents, it’s saddening but not surprising that our young daughter would exhibit signs of such.

It would be naïve to see the vehemence behind Ashley’s statement as based in pride. It was clear upon utterance that she was rejecting her blackness. Remember that it had been prompted by her white classmate’s racial comparison – “I’m white, she’s black”.

Ashley’s response stung me when I heard it. Even as a white parent, I was keenly aware of the internalized racism inherent in the statement. Flooded with complex feelings, my thoughts flew. We hadn’t done enough to make her comfortable being black. She didn’t know how to talk about her race. My own racism even played out in briefly blaming Ashley for dropping a racial dialogue bomb, when clearly her white peer was equally involved. What a mess.

It’s been a struggle since her adoption to help Ashley find strength and pride in her blackness. In fourth grade we had advocated for her to be in a program for academically gifted students, and once she got in it she wanted out because there were no other kids who looked like her. In sixth grade, she told us with confidence that white kids are smarter than black kids.

Early in our life with Ashley, we were advised to recruit black god-parents to help us guide her development. God-parenting was not a part of either side of our family’s traditions. So we had no idea what role such people should play in our daughter’s life or our own. However, we did understand that god-parenting is a common part of African-American culture, and it was one way that we could bring the culture into our family’s life.

Luckily, we were able to recruit a wonderful couple who don’t have children of their own to share their love with Ashley. They provide her with many forms of support, but their most constant message to Ashley is guidance on how to balance the various burdens of being a strong, beautiful, intelligent, and independent black woman. Obviously they provide a perspective that we can’t, both because of our race and because children always seem to hear things differently from people who aren’t their parents.

It has been more difficult to ensure that Ashley gets the same identity affirmation in school. Now in high school, there are still a shortage of high achieving black kids in her school. When she is in advanced classes, she’s often one of three or fewer kids of color. In school-related settings where there are more black kids (such as the track team), academic success is often de-emphasized.

To counter this pressure, we’ve tried to make sure Ashley is enrolled in some of the many special programs designed to support achievement among African-American students. Like any youth organizations, some have been better than others. The best are ones that provide a space where students like Ashley can work together to build positive identities. Spaces that support the image of blackness that Ashley’s god-parents emphasize: strong, intelligent and independent.
****
Let’s go back to the second half of that statement. “I’m BI-RACIAL!”

Just as Ashley had developed an “adoption story” earlier, she needed a “bi-racial story.” I hated adding to her burden of always having to explain herself, but her life’s path had been cast. We needed to help her deal with it.

“Ashley,” I began later that evening., “I don’t think that she had any idea what you’re talking about. Do you remember when we taught you how to tell your adoption story? It’s just like that. People don’t understand just by looking at you and me. They need us to give them more information.”

There was a point when she was about seven that she got a huge identity affirmation while at the beach. Looking at lots of tanning white women, she said to her mother “Look, they all want to have the same color as me.” It’s always been easy to emphasize the beauty of her skin color, because people tell her how beautiful she is all the time.

But bi-raciality is about culture as much as color. Her color cues people to ask questions or make assumptions. But what’s always harder for her to explain (and maybe to understand) is her relationship to black culture as a kid growing up in a white family.

To help her develop her “bi-racial story” we had to dive deep into this story. We had to figure out how to help a nine year-old understand why white kids wouldn’t identify with her because of her skin color, but black kids wouldn’t identify with her because of how she speaks and acts as well as who her parents are. Really, it was a conversation about her whiteness.

The specifics of that day’s conversation elude me after seven years, but in truth it’s a conversation that has never ended. There have been so many examples of times that we’ve rehearsed her responses to peers who push her on identity issues.

There have been times in sports, such as when two black girls in her gym class told her that they were sitting out the tennis lessons because tennis was for white girls. Perplexed, Ashley brought that one home for discussion. She easily pointed out the success of Venus and Serena Williams. But the deeper struggle was about why the girls would sit out and risk failing to make a stand about racial identity. This struggle can’t be pulled apart from the idea that white kids care more about school success.

As the parent of any bi-racial kid knows, identity issues come up all the time in issues of dating. My favorite example came in eighth grade when Ashley started breaking down the complex rules of who gets to date who in her class. Her description was entirely about white and black kids. I asked her “Who do bi-racial kids get to date?” She replied “There’s a Brazilian boy who I think is cute.” A creative but ultimately unfulfilling answer, she knew she wasn’t going to get white racial privilege or black cultural currency in the dating game.

For most of those tough middle school years, her “bi-racial story” went something like this: “I’m bi-racial, but I’m also adopted and my parents are white.” The most common reply from her peers was “So are you black or white?” Ashley would roll her eyes and say “Both.” Almost any other question, such as “Why do you talk like a white person?” would be met with another eye roll and a typically pre-teen “I don’t know.”

These days, as an older teenager, Ashley is prone to telling people she’s “mixed.” I feel that term is shorthand, and for years I didn’t like it at all. I felt it was crass.

I remember being on a business trip and meeting a work colleague’s son. My colleague was white, his wife was black, and thus his some was bi-racial. I said to the son, “My daughter is bi-racial.” The ten year-old turned to his dad and said “What’s bi-racial?” “Mixed, son. Like you.” I really did cringe.

Now it doesn’t bother me so much. I understand that Ashley’s peers have developed an increasingly complex understanding of race. In part simply because their older, but also because bi-raciality is increasingly common in their lives. Most of the time, saying she’s “mixed” is enough to get Ashley by without having to pull out her whole bi-racial story again. Honestly, sometimes I’ll use the shorthand too.

In preparing to write this, I asked Ashley for her current assessment. She said “I just tell people I’m mixed. Sometimes I’ll say black, but I never say white.” Pause. “Sorry if that offends you.”

“No, that doesn’t offend me,” I replied. “I know how the world sees you.”

The world is confused by her. People know she’s not white. They also know she’s beautiful. What she never knows is what other assumptions they harbor based on her skin color. I’m sure her story will continue to evolve over time. I just hope that the world’s view evolves with her.
[I wrote this final part about adoption, but I didn't think it fit in well with the piece above. It could be added as a comment to the post or just left out.]

Most adoptive parents know that some day their child is going to drive a very specific stake through their hearts: “You’re not even my real parents.” Intellectually, this is a preposterous statement to hear from a teenager, but both parties know that it carries huge emotional weight.

Adopting Ashley trans-racially, we knew that she’d also have another zinger up her sleeve one day: “You don’t understand because you’re white.”

The two sledgehammers actually came within close proximity to one another. During a period of struggling with a daughter in her early teens (which is not uncommon for any parent-daughter relationship!), Ashley tried to use both of them within a week. The adoption line really hurt my wife. I played it off by telling Ashley it didn’t hurt because we’d always known she would say it at some point. Still, internally I was lamenting losing my secret dream that we would good enough parents that she would never say it!

But the “you’re not black” line really was a laugher. At this point several years later, I can’t remember the exact situation that precipitated it. But when it came up, I literally laughed in Ashley’s face. That didn’t help the situation given her percolating anger. But I quickly pointed out that my understanding of whatever she was complaining about was based on being her parent and not my (or her) race. It was true, and her argument was foiled.

Still, I made sure to bring it up again. Later when heads had cooled, I made a point to tell Ashley that race was not something that should get in the way of us understanding one another.

 

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About Tami

Tami Winfrey Harris writes about race, feminism, politics and pop culture at the blog What Tami Said. Her work has also appeared online at The Guardian’s Comment is Free, Ms. Magazine blog, Newsweek, Change.org, Huffington Post and Racialicious. She is a graduate of the Iowa State University Greenlee School of Journalism. She is mom to two awesome stepkids and spends her spare time researching her family history and cultivating a righteous 'fro.
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