Black Angst: Outside The Quite Visible Black Backpack

Black Backpack
A professor at Seattle Pacific University recently told me that she requires her students to read Peggy McIntosh’s essay, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. My gut reaction was that of delight and satisfaction. A feeling of being glad that students in the very Caucasian northwest corner of the United States, at a college located in a particularly affluent area in town will be forced to realize, understand and then acknowledge that they have an unearned privilege because of their race. Through my pride I felt that perhaps I should give the article another read, as I’d read it so many times before.
Almost immediately I realized that the once very poignant words sounded differently than  read them before. Perhaps it was Lauryn Hill’s song “Black Rage” playing on my speakers in the background that seeped in to my subconscious. Maybe the shift represented the change in the way I saw myself, moving from a youthful Black adoptee in a largely white smaller town, to a young Black women in a large American city. Whatever the reason, my gut told me that educating students cannot simply stop with an acknowledgment about the unearned advantages that Whites have, but educators must also provide a narrative from  the opposite viewpoint and a history about what had to happen in order to allow for hierarchies and such privileges.

McIntosh’s infamous and well-written piece was published in 1989. In this 21st century, Black men and Black women are learning how to climb out of the deeply entrenched history of oppression simply while journeying through our everyday lives. By the time Black men get to their classroom, they have learned the correct way to walk the streets in order to avoid being accused of acting in a disruptive or frightening way. Black women, like myself, have exerted much work and effort in learning how to be proud being dark-skinned despite the defaming innuendos and sexual objectification of African-American females.  This readily backed-up fact is a far cry from Ms. McIntosh’s account on her Whiteness:

“My schooling gave me no training in seeing myself as an oppressor, as an unfairly advantaged person, or as a participant in a damaged culture.I was taught to see myself as an individual whose moral state depended on her individual moral will.”
It seems to me that Blacks have realized that many doors open for people most certainly due to virtues bestowed upon them before their birth. Peggy’s list contained 26 indisputable facts aiding in her unearned yet, more privileged life. I have realized that for me, a Black Women, my very visible black backpack can be summed up in one undeniable truth:
Ordinary privileges cannot be had for Blacks, without a fight as this country is founded upon a widespread enslavement and systemic genocidal dispossession of my entire race.
Only once we truly understand that the U.S. history of capitalism, followed soon thereafter by racism, aids in the privileges of Whites and fuels the angst of Blacks and our uphill battle. Once this knowledge is truly assimilated will we be able to move forward with peace and understanding around the continued oppression and denigration of Blacks. Coming to this realization may not stop the bloodshed or lessen the dormant fear others have of black men, nor should it lighten the feelings of white guilt and the desires for white folks to “rescue” or adopt black children. These truths will remain. Even under the leadership of the first Black president our country has ever been bold enough to elect. Even with the hiring of the first president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts (Cheryl Boone Isaacs). Even with the first African-American female four-star admiral (Michelle J. Howard). For as long as we enthusiastically salute African-American firsts as though we are babies moving into toddler-hood, I will know that racism and Black oppression is systemic. It is my hope that the confusion around with whom is oppressing whom is banished under the cloak and facts of our history. We must know that the reason behind the oppression goes much deeper than Mike Brown ever would’ve seen had he not died an early death because of his quite visible black backpack.

“I’m Too Old To Be Adopted” -16 year old

 

Interact with me on twitter as I’ll be posting actual quotes from teens who are currently in foster care. I’ll be using the hashtag #agingout in an effort to bring awareness to the kiddos and ensure that they have support as they age out, or even better that someone may decide to adopt or seek guardianship. Everyone deserves a place to call home.

Ferguson and the Responsibility For Transracial Adoptive Parents of Black Boys

I am appalled (but not necessarily surprised) at the actions taken by Ferguson police this past week. From this horror comes a fear and curiosity of how white parents with Black sons will speak to their children about our current climate. Here’s an excerpt from my most recent piece;

How will white adoptive parents teach lessons of safety to their growing black sons?  How will they teach that it’s okay for some people to talk trash during a spirited football game, but not them?  How will they explain that daddy can walk to 7-11 with a hooded sweatshirt for some skittles, but if they want to make a midnight run to the convenience store then they need to code-switch and whistle Vivaldi as they walk with their hands in plain view in an attempt to lessen the fear from strangers who automatically perceive them as a threat.  How will a black boy learn appropriate behavior in a city like Ferguson if he grew up in a culture where he was consistently fetishized by his teachers and joyously picked first to play basketball as classmates espoused to the black athlete stereotypes?  How might a transracially adopted black child gain a healthy identity when the world that you’ve created in your home or community does not match this world we live in where the police, Congressmen Steve King, Cliven Bundy, Janelle Ambrosia, Donald Sterling (shall I go on?) don’t care if they grew up in a stable and loving adoptive family? Their skin is still black and according to some, that in and of itself is a crime.

Read my whole piece at The Lost Daughters.

Adoptee Solidarity and Post Reunion Support

At the beginning of the month I spent a few days up in the mountains with adult adoptees after candidly speaking to a couple hundred adoptive parents. Our retreat included a meditation room, art, journaling and yoga supplies, food, wine, and a graffiti wall (of course). The emphasis on self-care and the sanctuary of having an adult adoptee only space helped me to not only regain my balance after speaking engagements, but it also helped to provide a blueprint through some of the muddy waters of adoptees in post reunion after a lifetime of secrecy and wonder.

Before, during and after my recent visit with my birthmother I received texts, emails and calls from these incredible folks, acknowledging the plethora of emotions that I was feeling. The feeling of connectedness, being understood and uniquely known by others who have experienced similar trials is a long awaited gift. We may differ in our religion (or lack thereof), gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, body shape, hair color, clothing styles or any other segregating way that Americans like to section off and isolate members of society, but our adoptee status binds us together. My post-reunion sadness is palpable, but my community is strong.

Adoptee Solidarity

Below are some sweet lines about the importance of having an adoptee support system from some of my adult adoptee friends:

“Being a transracial adoptee growing up was a bitter sweet experience. I always felt unique and special, but at times I yearned to connect with others that shared my experience. As an adult, having other adult adoptees in my life has given me the validation and support that I was lacking. It is without a doubt essential to my identity development and overall happiness.” – Mariah Dixon

“What an amazing group of fellow adoptee activists at PACT camp with 98 families of adopted kids of color. I’m so grateful that these kids get to experience this great community but it’s so bittersweet and painful too. We can’t rest until women are given the support and resources they need to parent their children! Let’s redefine birth justice to include birth mothers at the forefront of our movement.” -Chinyere Oparah

“I always underestimate the power of coming together with other people who Get It. It’s healing, beautiful, moving to spend time with other adoptees. So needed.” – Susan Ito

“I appreciate the diversity in our community. So many different lived experiences with space for all of them.” – Steve Kalb

“There was something really powerful about sitting in that lounge and just being with everyone’s energy. There were times when we talked and times when we just sat and I needed all of that!” – Katie Wynen

“Being and sharing with other trans-racial adoptees is absolutely CRUCIAL to creating a counter-narrative to the negative and oppressive internalized messaging of not being perfect, good enough or less than on so many levels…race, family structure, birth order, gender identity and sexual orientation to name a few.” -Amy Cipolla-Stickles

Anticipating My Birthmother’s Visit

Tomorrow my birthmother will be in town. Last night I watched Rain Man. Today I clearly see the correlation between these two happenings.

This poem used to served as my desperate plea:

“I wish I could turn away and move on with my life

but my heart won’t allow it when I try

That sounds so weak coming from me

a woman who overcame extreme adversities

If you don’t want me to find you

whatever the reason may be

do me a favor and sign up to the registry

Send me a few pictures, a reason, and my medical history

give me some closure and set me free.”

I used to wish that I could turn away from this search and reunion madness and move on with my life. I used to wish that I didn’t need to fulfill this selfish curiosity of learning more about my roots. I waited for the magical moment when her name would match up with mine on the registry. I thought – if only I could see what she looks like, if only! Now I no longer need to fantasize, or try to wish away intrinsic desires. Now, I can simply ask her all of the 26 years of pent up questions.

While watching Rain Man last night, Charlie (Tom Cruise) attempted to convince his brother Raymond’s court appointed psychiatrist that he should have legal custody of his brother so they could be together, as a family. Charlie said “I just don’t understand. Why didn’t dad tell me I had a brother? Why didn’t anyone ever tell me that I had a brother? Because it’d have been nice to know him for more than just the past six days.”  This statement cut to my core as Charlie no longer cared about the lure of a multi-million dollar inheritance, or his limited understanding his brother’s autism or the extraordinary differences between his own self-centered living in Los Angeles and his brother’s confined reality within the walls of the mental institution. He simply wanted to be with his brother. I’d imagine many adoptees can understand the beauty in seeing this seemingly incompatible duo spend these six days together.

I echo these thoughts of the convoluted and difficult to understand relationship. I find it to be superbly beautiful, uniquely refreshing and a clear definition of family. With all the differences between myself and my birth mother I nervously/contentedly await her arrival tomorrow, and look forward to allowing her to spend a few days with my family and I, AKA, her new family.

We Need More Foster Parents! Why Not You?

If my foster mother’s scent was bottled up in a jar, unlabeled amongst five other unlabeled scents, I’d pick hers out in an instant. I knew her smell, and when we hugged, those preverbal memories imprinted somewhere within my body came flooding back. I had spent so much energy over the years fantasizing about how I would feel when meeting my birth parents, that I largely overlooked the significance of this reunion. One hug with my foster mother felt like a missing puzzle piece being snapped into place.

Read the rest of my piece on the Dave Thomas Foundation website.

“What Is A White Personality?” and Other Questions From Young Transracial Adoptees

Recently, I had the privilege of speaking at the African Caribbean Heritage Camp in Denver, Colorado. Instead of preaching to a group of middle and high schoolers, I invited them to participate in a discussion between myself and three other panelists about the concept of race and adoption. Many of the campers candidly explained that they feel that they have a “white personality” or that they consider themselves to be an Oreo. I asked the tweens/teens to expand more upon what they meant by white personality or black personality, and we came up with a list. They explained that having a white personality meant that you liked to hike, camp, dress preppy and seek education whilst a black personality meant that you liked hip hop, dancing, sports and could wear bright colored clothing. The panelists (consisting of an Ethiopian man, an African American woman, a transracial adoptee and myself) worked to rebut their definitions explaining that some of us enjoy hiking and camping while not enjoying hip hop music. A contemplative conversation ensued to which I ended the session by asking each of the teens to write what they felt their emotional identity to be in light of our conversation. This question was meant to tap into who these bright young adults felt their true identity to be. I challenged them to not view themselves as white because their parents and the majority of their friends are white, and to not simply think of themselves as black because their skin tone and society says they are black, but instead to think about who they feel themselves to be emotionally?

Here’s a sampling of some of the written responses I received:

“I think I’m white, maybe, because I don’t get physical when I’m mad, where a lot of Blacks might shove someone or something when they are mad.”
-13 year old male,  African-American transracial adoptee

 

“My emotional identity is gray because that’s Black and White.”
– 11 year old male, African-American transracial adoptee

 

“My emotional identity is white because of the way that I talk and dress. I really enjoy it though. I feel that I have the ability to code switch if needed. I am comfortable with the preppy style.”
– 16 year old female, African-American, transracial adoptee

 

“My emotional identity is both, because I am academically charged and I ‘dress white’ and I am black because I am all about family and think it’s important to stay together.”
– 14 year old male, White adoptee

 

“My emotional identity is white because I grew up in a white family, so I think i got more influenced to a white personality, also at my school I hang out with white people. I’m the only black person in my grade. But also at my school it’s bi-lingual so there is a hispanic culture too, and since they have darker skin I don’t feel left out.”
– Female, middle school African-American transracial adoptee

 

These complex thoughts young transracial adoptees are grappling with is a beautiful reminder that allowing our kids to be in safe spaces so they can explore these complexities is so necessary. All of their statements and feelings are true as we cannot argue with one’s own feelings. However many of the statements are laden with stereotypes, we must recognize when we do have opportunities to educate and challenge these inherited assumptions. This will allow these young adoptees to grow in to an identity that best exemplifies themselves.

TSA Needed to Search My Afro For Your “Safety”

TSA

Racial profiling is alive and well in America. Not only do I continue to be pulled out of the line after going through the security screeners for a full body pat down, but yesterday, TSA (Transportation Security Administration) agents at the Denver International Airport felt the need to put their fingers (with gloves on) through my medium sized afro. Haven’t we already discussed ad nauseum how black women feel about being treated like pets and a petting zoo? Please do not touch our hair without asking. Not only does this seem to be an incredibly ineffective way to identify someone intent on doing harm while in the air, it’s flat out disrespectful.

I’m aware of the “behavior detection program” that TSA agents went through last year, where they were taught of certain behaviors and antics that they deem to be an aviation threat and thus necessitating a further search. My awareness to this subjective discriminatory practice has caused me to act exceedingly “normal.” I code-switch when going through airport security. Being a black woman (which stereotypically is synonymous with danger, crime and/or lower socioeconomic and educational status), I silently work hard while in line about to go through security at ensuring that people all around me can feel safe. I come prepared with all of my liquids in the correct sized ziploc bag, I take my shoes off earlier than necessary (as to not suspiciously hold up the line), and I pack my laptop in a bright colored, preppy case, and never wear a hoodie. However this code-switching routine rarely works – I’m nearly always given the pat down, while Bryan waits patiently on the other side for TSA to finish with me.

After polling some of my black friends, and learning that I’m not alone in having to go through this procedure, I’d like an explanation from TSA about how  much more protection and “safety” they’re offering the general population in searching a travelers afro. I’d like to see statistics to help me to better understand this practice. Until I hear from you (TSA), I will not allow another agent to put their hands in my hair again. Feel free to support the internal complaint I’ve filed by emailing TSA at TSA-ContactCenter@tsa.dhs.gov.

Do you feel safer knowing that TSA conducts a secondary afro pat down?

Are Adoptees Selfish For Wanting To Search?

Keep Calm

One of my birth sisters was placed for adoption just one year before I was born – I am hoping that someday I’ll get to meet her. Is my desire to find her being fueled by an attitude of entitlement? Since I was able to find all of my other birth relatives does that somehow mean that I should be able to find her too? When does it end? When should I draw the line? I have seven siblings in my immediate [adoptive] family, many nieces and nephews, parents, aunts, uncles and have had host of foster siblings over the years, yet I want more. I want so badly to meet my birth sister. Is this desire selfish?

This question has been posed to me many times over the past year during the Q&A’s after Closure screenings. Folks have asked this question in a myriad of ways:

Your adoptive family is so great! Why would you need anyone else?

—–

What if you find out something that you wish you hadn’t known?

—–

What if your birth sister doesn’t want to know you? Doesn’t she have rights, too?

Debate.org posed the question “Should adopted children be allowed to seek their biological parents without their consent?” Aside from feeling slighted by being continually referred to as an adopted child, I find this question irksome as it inherently suggests that an adoptee learning of their roots and kin is somehow not our right. 19% answered “No,” one comment read:

The adopted child should get down on his knees and THANK GOD who intervened on the child’s behalf and provided warm, stable, loving parents, and I for one (who is an adopted parent, a REAL parent, btw) would be insulted if my kid told me he wanted to seek his bio parent.

I’d like to suggest that the person who left this comment view Lisa Marie Rollin’s one woman stand up show entitled Ungrateful Daughter. Lisa, an adult adoptee turns the “Why can’t you just be grateful?” question in to a comedic fare.

Perhaps adoptees are labeled chameleons since we have difficulty understanding when we are allowed to have a say and make a choice. Our birthparents decided to create us, and then somewhere along the line someone (the State, birthparents, foster parents etc.) decided that we should live somewhere else. So, we adjusted and acclimated to new smells, new rules, new schools, new bedrooms, a safer/different environment etc. How are we expected to grow into competent, strong adults if decisions are continually made without our consent? How will we learn to navigate which decisions are ours to make and which aren’t?

I’m grateful that my [adoptive] parents raised me to pursue my curiosities, to strive towards satisfying my incessant existential questions, and to simply try things – even though I may fail. I’m thankful that both my birth family and my adoptive family support me in this endeavor as unfortunately, this isn’t the case for all adoptees. I’m glad that my family understands that my desire to search and learn more about my roots does not simultaneously cease my desire to be a part of my [adoptive] family. Finding my birth family has never been an attempt to replace anyone else, but simply an effort to find myself. Selfish? Maybe…although I’d wager to guess that I’m not alone in my human desire to know how and why I’m alive, or, more simply, to be able to see a physical reflection of myself in someone else. I’m thankful that the great majority of people are able to access this information with relative ease. What makes me (and other adoptees) jealous is that those who question our motives to search are often the same people who brazenly take for granted getting to know foundational knowledge about their life. Adoptees are keenly aware of this injustice and in the absence of this vital and axiological information we search, and search and search (and sometimes we have to defend ourselves while we’re at it).