I’m Trying To Believe That “Black Lives Matter”

Black Lives Matter

It’s an undeniably trying time to be black in America right now. There is simply no way to ease the shockwave of this  truth.  I have found myself working exceptionally hard trying to believe the #Blacklivesmatter hashtag that is plastered all around me in my social media life. I have suppressed the daily involuntary body cringes that follow statements that begin “I am not a racist, but…” or “They mean well… [but it wasn’t like the murder of the black guy was premeditated or anything]…” I’ve noticed my self-esteem shrink ever so slowly while engaging with those who’ve found it necessary to argue that the movement should shift from #blacklivesmatter, to #alllivesmatter – effectively shutting minorities up…yet again.

Britt Bennet piece in Jezebel encapsulated my thoughts well where she wrote about well intentioned White people who’ve taken an ally approach throughout this mudslide of black carnage, but who, are still missing the point.

Over the past two weeks, I have fluctuated between anger and grief. I feel surrounded by Black death. What a privilege, to concern yourself with seeming good while the rest of us want to seem worthy of life.

-Britt Bennet

I recently stumbled upon Cipriana Quann’s interview for the I Am What’s Underneath campaign.This vulnerable campaign interviews folks unearthing not just what’s physically underneath their fashion and style, but it simultaneously asks them to strip down emotionally, combining to create a reverent yet simple display of the power we already possess.

Cipriana Quann

Cipriana’s interview has is allowed me to look in the mirror and to leave behind the suppressed, yet ever present uncertainty of my skin tone, and instead to begin to fathom that black just might be beautiful, indeed.

Watch her full interview here:

While describing the traumatic childhood moments, Cipriana maintains a beautifully dignified, ambitious and proud stature. If only the intensity of her memories combined with her obvious physical beauty could serve as a blueprint for any humans struggling with self doubt.

Jillian Mercado has also taken part in this project. While Cipriana’s message of elevating black women to places of health and positivity, Jillian impacted my sense of dignity in being a person with special needs. She speaks about how she confidently looks in the mirror and is wowed by her own beauty. Every day. Both having disabilities, and working within the field I am pummeled with the notion that being beautiful and having a visible disability are mutually exclusive. Not so. Jillian Mercado

“Wow! I’m so pretty today!”

The campaign does not focus specifically on race, but interviews a range of people, with large bodies, small bodies, androgynous bodies, pregnant bodies, post-cancerous bodies and more, working to challenge what it means to be beautiful. We are challenged through this project to no longer find our self-image in the products that television, magazines and corporation wants us to buy, but from within. One interviewee so beautifully claimed her own by saying

“My skin is what I like most about my body. You can’t buy it at the store.”

Adoptees, Family Trees and Ethnic Origins

family_tree

I remember sitting in my elementary school class on the day we were to do a genealogy assignment. This assignment asked us to study our personal ancestry and learn more about our family history. The undeniably valuable assignment is continually met with frustration for many adoptees (and other people groups as well) as we may not have historical family access for one reason or another.

Having had anticipated this assignment, my parents had already helped me decide that I would use information from their ancestry, in essence, pretending that I was of European descent. This decision certainly helped me temporarily avoid embarrassment, mental strife, or worst still, having to oust myself in front of the class by exclaiming that I did not/could not know where I came from.  I still have a visual in my memory of the writing on the assignment that read “Remember to emphasize that genealogy is about biological relationships only.”  What a frustrating admonishment for someone who did not know a single biological family member at the time.

A few months ago, in the most fitting of birthday gifts, I was given an ancestry.com DNA kit from my parents! Without hesitation I conducted the quick and harmless buccal cell swab exam and mailed it off to Ancestry.com, where I would wait just two weeks before receiving this email:

Ancestry

I clicked to find my results and immediately learned that a large percentage of my DNA traced back to the countries of Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) & Ghana, as well as trace amounts linking me to Great Britain – fascinating!  I would’ve loved to have explored this information during my elementary years, possibly learning at an early age of the historical immigration to Great Britain by Africans. All of the time spent imagining that my family immigrated from the Caribbean islands before being enslaved in the South could’ve been thwarted with this truth!

This truly is a gift that keeps on giving as ancestry.com’s database continues to grow. I have been able to link together with other relatives for whom I’m able to then share this information with my birth families to help fill in the holes in our familial tree.

I urge all adoptees, or parents of young adoptees to invest in these scientific breakthroughs and allow adoptees ethnicity to be estimated through their genetics. Not simply for the sake of avoiding classroom embarrassment (admittedly a DNA test won’t solve all assignment woes), but for the purpose of being able to better understand the history of people’s movements leading us to where we are today.

This wasn’t the first time I’d taken a DNA test – the picture below was taken the day my birthfather and I met – this test determined that we indeed were father & daughter.

Sandy and Ang

“I Live With My Real Mom, She’s Not A Ghost!”

Transracial adoptees, Ella (9), Ariana (10) had never met each other prior to our Google Hangout. They jumped right in to a conversation, sharing their thoughts about what it means to be brown skinned, ideas on how to answer the “Where is your real mom?” question and they even discussed strategies for handling a “smart” bully.

Want to have a conversation with me like Ella and Ariana? I’m now accepting applications from adoptees (ages 10-18), or youth in foster care. Apply Here.

Christians and the “Silver Linings” In Adoption

This November has hit some regions of the country like a freight train. The frigid air bears down on us along with the seasonal colds, asthmatic coughs, and the reminders to get our annual flu shot. The stores have begun to line their shelves with overpriced trinkets imploring us to spend our hard earned money, while Christmas tunes quickly lose their intended holiday cheer as they are overplayed and mix like oil and water with flaring tempers and overestimated children (and adults!). These are truisms for many of us in the Western world. Adoptees can’t help but notice yet another tell-tale sign that the holiday season is almost upon us; National Adoption Awareness Month. November brings an onslaught of articles written primarily by adoptive parents exclaiming how wonderful/different their lives are, now that they’ve added to their family via adoption. Churches engage in Orphan Sunday and this year brought the first annual social media World Adoption Day, coined by a Hollywood pastor. All of this publicity is great for adoptees, right?

For adoptees like myself, November seems to feel more and more commercialized, and shallow filled with half truths, triggering words being flung around carelessly and uninformed do-gooders hoping to save a child before any more harm is done. This has led to a collective desire for adoptees to share our truth and help temper the discourse. Adult adoptees around the country have banded together to add our voices via the #FlipTheScript campaign where we seek to discuss adoption’s complexities and ethics without the ensuing label or admonishment that we must also be anti-adoption or ungrateful to our parents.

There is a fierce trend within Christianity to justify any negativity in adverse or difficult situations by focusing all efforts on any extractable silver lining. After watching Closure, many Christians have assigned my birthmother’s poverty, and my birth father’s drug use to be “clouds” in my life which were remedied by my having been adopted to a middle class family. They’ve decided that the doctor’s (incorrect) diagnoses moments after my birth of the likelihood being high that I’d never walk, was a surefire dark cloud for my life, which great relief was felt by a cheering audience when seeing the footage of my basketball moves and beating my husband in a game of one-on-one. This steadfast focus on these aspects leaves some adoptees wondering if there was something inherently wrong with them from birth, and with very few places to respectfully address this confusion.

I’ve struggled with some of the adoption language primarily heard within evangelical christian circles, and have addressed that in an article I wrote, published today at Christianity Today’s Her.meneutics.

November Is National Adoption Month! Let’s #FlipTheScript…

The Press Secretary released an official memo at the beginning of the month; A Presidential Proclamation – National Adoption Month 2014. In part it states:

During National Adoption Month, we honor those who have opened their hearts and their homes…Throughout November, we recognize the thousands of parents and kids who have expanded their families to welcome a new child or sibling, as well as the professionals who offer guidance, resources, and counseling every day.  Let us reaffirm our commitment to provide all children with every chance to reach their dreams and realize their highest aspirations.

It’s exciting that November has become adoption’s month to shine (every minority person, place or thing needs their “own” month)! Agencies and organizations center all efforts center around imploring citizens to locate and recognize those orphaned around the world (Note: not all adoptees are orphans), and a concerted effort is made by adoption attorneys to finalize as many adoptions as possible during this month.

But where are adoptees on the president’s list of people to recognize? Are adoptees left out of the conversation (or a White House Memo) because now that we have been adopted we ought to provide endless unwavering, affectionate love? Are we expected to be dormant, mute, quiet and grateful that our adoption has helped to clean up society?

This month adoptees are banding together to “Flip The Script” as National Adoption Month has officially been met with 21st century hashtag activism (Thanks Mothermade for leading this charge). Who will hear our call? We would like to add our voices to the National Adoption Month platform in an effort to no longer serve as an inanimate highway for the betterment of society, but to contribute and create awareness that our voices matter, too.

President Obama, perhaps next year you’ll include our voices, too?

Engage The Culture. Be An Ally.

Seattle Pacific University held a symposium on Ferguson and race relations with a panelist of four professors. Upon hearing of the event I posted the event flyer on the door to my office, hoping the University would use this event platform to bring justice to Michael Brown by allowing his spirit to live on through the voices of our academic community.  Immediately prior to attending the event, I drank tea at Storyville, a boutique coffee shop that reeks of privilege and safety, located atop the trendy, and upscale Queen Anne hill of Seattle. A quote on the wall taunted me the entire time I was there. It read “Love everybody, never ever hurt anybody.” In an ultimate paradox I left the coffee shop for the event eager to discuss institutionalized racism, and how it continues to hurt so many. IMG_0034

As I walked on campus I noticed the school motto plastered on all of the banners; “Engaging the culture. Changing the world.” I couldn’t help but wonder how students could dutifully engage our culture and make systemic change to the post-racial status of our world while attending a University where everyone within senior leadership is White. The University took a giant step in the right direction for the predominantly white, privileged higher education culture, by employing the voices and intellect of well-liked professors on our campus in hearing their thoughts and then allowing for a time of Q&A/reflection on Ferguson et al.

The first of four panelists (a white male) began the evening recounting an allegory from the book Divided by Faith; Evangelical Religion and The Problem of Race In America, admitting feelings of guilt in not fully realizing his own white privilege until reading this book in adulthood. He calmly related the police brutality seen today with some of the recent events to the horror he felt when first watching the videos of the Rodney King beatings.

Next to speak was Professor Brian Bantum (the only black person on the panel), a theologian who began by stating that his body shakes with rage when even thinking about Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Michael Brown and others. His visceral bodily reaction was one that few others in the room could identify with (which may help to understand the demographic of the university). His passionate directive that “our society was founded on the inhumane treatment of dark bodies” made some audience members wriggle in their seats, while others – primarily members of SPU’s Black Student Union – let out cries in agreeance. He implored students to rise above complacency and to acknowledge that “Darren Wilson is either a criminal or really bad at his job” adding that passivity is what is killing blacks.

While hoping for more racial diversity amongst the panel, I understood that in order for people to feel safe and thus truly moved to action it makes sense psychologically to hear the call from someone who racially mirrors ourselves. Tonight’s well attended and robust event was a clear indication that SPU has a community of students who want to make change, but who first need to learn more about how their own privilege may stand in the way of garnering true change. Black folks aren’t asking how to feel angry by Ferguson or Trayvon Martin it’s practically innate, but this question was voiced anonymously (via texting in questions) tonight. I can only assume that many student’s feel stunted in their action (or lack thereof) out of this same fear as well.

Rather than the current lofty and unclear motto, perhaps a more inclusive tagline, targeted toward our specific student body could read; “Engage the culture. Become an ally.” Ally’s are people who band together towards a common cause regardless of whether or not they are directly impacted. In other words, they don’t need to be Black in order to feel raw emotion about Ferguson and seeing images of police traumatizing an already broken town with tanks and military weapons. Similarly, one doesn’t need to be adopted to feel outrage towards an adoptee’s loss of their basic human rights, like knowing the identity of their natural parents.

Knowing that white privilege is largely invisible to those who have it, I can’t help but wonder how tonight’s symposium will impact our predominantly white student body. Will white, middle-class students feel moved to become an ally to those suffering the first hand injustices in the US? Would our students readily go join in the protests with those in Ferguson?

Change begins with great leadership. It looks like we are in good hands with a transparent [Caucasian] president who is obviously committed to engaging in discussions about race relations.

I Am Listening, Natalie – and any other adoptees who have yet to speak out…

Angela and Natalie

This past weekend I taught a workshop to at Umoja, a camp in Wisconsin, a state that was recently tagged as the worst place to raise black kids (…and yes, I did wear a Dear White People T-shirt with a pencil skirt!). The workshop fostered great conversation, and “ah-ha!” moments amongst the group were plentiful. After finishing, I was ready to take a long shower and retreat back to the safety of my room, after publicly wading through the still murky waters of my own story, mixed with the current events and societal “post-racial” truths. However, before I made it out the door, up the hill and to my room in the lodge, I was approached by a beautiful 21 year old woman and her parents. She timidly asked that we take a photo together, then nervously handed me a sealed envelope. With a confident, rehearsed voice she stated; “I wrote you a letter. It’s okay if you don’t have time to read it right now.”

I did have time.

I receive numerous electronic messages after movie screenings, giving a keynote or presenting at a conference, but rarely do I receive letters with my name handwritten on the outside of the envelope. I am a sucker for old-fashioned letters, and will happily dole out my attention to a fellow adoptee. I found a private spot where I knew I wouldn’t be interrupted and began reading.

Natalie shared with me how she recently found her birthmother on Facebook, explaining that she was able to do this because,

“I had her full name, I thank God for that every day.”

Although Natalie viewed me as a public figure, I saw a woman not too dissimilar from me. Her words could’ve been mine;

“I was so used to feeling like an island, thinking that perhaps I’d never see myself in someone else, until I had children of my own. I carried my adoption with me every day. I thought about my biological mother for as long as I can remember. I wrote journals about her, who she might be, where she was, why I was put up for adoption, and of course I wondered what she looked like.”

Natalie is an adoptee with a beautiful [adoptive] familial base, who is entering adulthood and trying to learn what being an adoptee means for her identity.

This was confirmed when reading through her letter and learning that her “birth was kept a secret” and that although learning this information “…was hard, it was what [I} wanted to hear as well.”

Us adoptees are resilient creatures – we simply want to know our truth, however painful it may be.  Thank you for sharing with me how you “…go through ups and downs since finding [your] biological family…” I do too, Natalie.

She concluded the three page letter by thanking me for sharing my raw self with the world via Closure, and commending me for that, as she hadn’t heard many adoptees speak out. Natalie, your voice has now been shared too! Others will read these snippets of your letter and will feel the courage to bravely move forward in seeking their own truths as well.

Bravo, Natalie. Bravo!

 

*** This post was written with express written permission from Natalie ***

Why Didn’t Any Black Parents Want To Adopt Me?

Conversing about the racial hierarchy that currently exists and how that plays into who is capable of adopting, as well as who is needing to be adopted is a common discussion in our household. Speaking about the ways in which systemic racism continues to permeate our lives as an interracial couple is an ever present dialogue. In no way do I align with the Black Social Workers Association statement that black children in white homes is a form of cultural genocide (1984) as I feel that adoption is a necessary solution to an unfortunate need, and trans-racial adoption is a beautiful remedy. But why does transracial adoption always look so one sided? White parents and children of color. I know the answer has to do with systemic racism, this is not news to me. But, are we ready to move forward with an ever pressing need?

It is my belief that if we had more options of prospective adoptive parents of color we may enjoy a more positive multiracial and/or “post-racial” America. I’d also love to see the current definition of the term transracial adoption broadened to include transracial adoptive families where the parents are Black.

I’ve read countless books, blogs and articles with a title similar to “A White Mom Wonders If Her Brown Babies Will Be Black Enough” or “6 Things White Parents Can Do To Raise Socially Conscious Children” and while I’m sure these articles are helpful and provide a sense of camaraderie between white parents who are experiencing similar parenting challenges I wonder if there will ever be a market for a “How a Black Mom Talks To Her White Daughter” article or “10 Tips Every Black Mom Should Know When Taking Her White Child to The Vanilla Suburbs” blog post? Doubtful… Seriously though, who better to parent the woes brought up within articles like these than a strong, capable, resourceful, open and honest black parent?

I will again state my disclaimer that I know of countless white parents who are parenting their children of color superbly well, and enter in to these discussions with their children and others in a beautiful way – this is not my concerned line of thinking here. My desire is to find out what it would take to balance the scales in terms of the numbers of adoptive parents of color and White parents adopting trans-racially. Can we put apathy into action and step up where we are needed?

Black folks – Is it insulting to think about raising a white child?

White adoptive parents – How might you handle this question from your child?

GUEST POST: A White Mother on Explaining Ferguson, Trayvon and Jordan to Her Black Daughter

What do white adoptive parents say to their black child when events like those in Ferguson, Missouri are playing out?  Soberingly, my children, like many children, are already too well-versed in these conversations with us, from the verdict in the Trayvon Martin trial to Jordan Davis’s murder in his parked car.  We have gone out of our way to shield them from the latest story of African-American kids shot to death by white adults… and then a random taxi screen or a thumbnail on a website catches their attention and we’ve found ourselves scrambling to explain.  We’ve searched online for the right words, emailed non-white friends and experts for perspective, sit down with our children to tell them our painstaking takes on unsparing truths, hoping that we are getting it right.
 

This summer, though, we have been on a self-imposed exile in the Sonora Desert and so, when the news first started trickling in about Michael Brown’s death and the growing protests in his neighborhood, we didn’t scramble as we had in the past.  Could there be even more to say than the words we’d already put together to explain about Trayvon Martin, about Jordan Davis?, wasn’t it enough that we’d already had to break the news of life’s breathtaking imbalances and racial disparities?  Couldn’t we just coast along like desert millipedes and watch the gorgeous sunsets and revisit this on another day, at another time?  That is, after all, what privilege allows.  In normal life, we live in Harlem — a mostly white family with an Afro-Latina child on a historically black street.  We try to make the right choices, we talk openly about our dilemmas, and we grapple with issues of race/class/unfairness every single day.  We are transracial adoptive parents who took seriously our training as such; there is no anachronistic wall decoration or casual slur in our family’s or friends’ homes that goes unchallenged by us.  We came to the desert tired, wanting to take deep breaths and leave behind those daily discussions of a world that, from my computer’s headlines, was looking increasingly brutal, divided and hopeless.  In such a world, unfortunately, we don’t always get to pick when our extended breaks from thinking can happen.  At breakfast, alas, the kids finally noticed their grandparents’ newspapers full of photos of the fire in Ferguson. When you are white parents trying to raise a thinking child of color, you are humbly obliged to maintain even less control over when those breaks can happen.  It’s rough out there.  If we don’t frame the roughness with some softened grace notes, the roughness will surely frame itself first.

“Kids,” I said, “do you remember when we talked about how some young people lose their lives to people with guns?”  They were all ears and anxious eyes, waiting for me to elaborate.  We have spoken to them before about racist assumptions as they were applied to Trayvon Martin, we have spoken about white privilege as it was used against Jordan Davis.  This early morning, I’m a little too lazy to find the appropriate words to explain shootings of unarmed men by police.  “Aren’t police supposed to protect people?,” my daughter asks.  Sigh.  I start to connect dots between the conversations we’ve already had and this one, I pause to look for words that are both truthful and not too scary, to reach for the required insight and then “HELLO, DOLLY” – my singing father enters the room, interrupting with a loud and un-ignorable “Well, HELLO, Dolly!”

We are in his spacious house, not in Harlem now.  Our only tether this summer to stark reality was supposed to be my father, whose worsening dementia has been enough difficulty for any of us to handle.  Indeed, in those quiet moments when my white child and my Afro-Latina child sit together with their grandfather, watching old musicals on the couch, it looks like harmony on earth is quite attainable.  Who doesn’t love Hello, Dolly?  Who can’t smile at Barbra Streisand and Louis Armstrong and all of our differences turned into glorious Technicolor?  Who needs to think about dementia, OR murder, OR mortality, OR Ferguson, MO anyway?  In those moments, I tell myself – we have made a safe home, a loving family, and the nasty curveballs outside these walls don’t matter.  We have enforced thoughtful language and rules for ourselves and for other adults in our family when speaking about race and identity to our children.  I think that we’ve earned the right to this summer break, when –  “What’s your name?”  My father has suddenly turned and asked that question of my daughter.

My heart freezes.  He has known her, adored her, up until right now and suddenly he is observing her as one might observe a stranger.  That is his illness.  Maybe she has sung “too loudly” for him or otherwise shaken the equanimity.  Whatever the reason, his expression is such that I fear what might come out next, and I rush to interrupt.  “Where are you from?”, he asks her, with a tone that holds special panic for parents by adoption.  I hear a THUD as I realize that there will be no summer sabbatical from explaining the extremely painful.  My father has loved my daughter more than life for almost nine years, has written pure and lovely songs about his love for her, has always respected those rules that we’ve laid out.  At this moment, though, he doesn’t recognize any of that, or her, and his look seems to me to underscore the power and the privilege that his color has bestowed on him all of his life.  It says to her, “Do you belong here?”   To tell you the truth, probably the look is not all that different from the look that, in his shakiest moments, my father has bestowed on all of the rest of us.  Given to my child of color, though, this questioning look must be treated differently.   As white parents, it is our duty to see its inherent power, to recognize its automatic assumptions, to react to its potential impact on our child.  This look, to us, says that we can not hide from Ferguson, even out in the desert, because we can not hide from some deep realities of race and difference, even in our well-meaning and well-regulated living rooms.

“She is your granddaughter, of course!,” I shout, as I hurry to take the children out of the path of any imminent collisions, out to the desert where we can escape.  Today is different, though.  Ferguson is exploding even more spectacularly in the paper this morning, my father doesn’t remember us or our careful rules, and so we start to scale my parents’ subdivision wall.  They live in a “gated community” built for cars; our New York need to go on foot instead leaves us climbing over the back wall of the neighborhood, balancing as if on a beam, stepping over a high metal fence, jumping onto the sand below.  This has always been an added, fun adventure — right now, however, all I can think about is the gated community in which Trayvon Martin was pursued and shot to death.  I worry about my children — no, actually just my one black child — one day scaling these walls as we have so casually taught her to expect to do.  Without us, however, with only her own skin, what will stop others from viewing her as a stranger?  How can I keep her safe then from those who would want to “protect themselves” from that stranger they think they see jumping over the fence?  Today, as we, with our privilege, jump over the fence and head into the desert, instead of asking the usual, “Who sees a jack rabbit?”, or instead of asking, “Does anyone spot coyote tracks?”, I say, “Let’s talk about Ferguson, Missouri.”

We talk about the importance of citizens being able to protest. We talk in smaller-word terms about institutional racism.  We talk about how rules and procedures are in place to keep things fair.  We talk about Eric Holder and Barack Obama.  We talk about how more white people tend to have more power in our culture, and that anyone who has more power has a responsibility to use it wisely.   We hear ourselves talk and we wonder if we live by these principles as cleanly as we should, as we must.  We wonder if anyone does.  We tell them that we are sure that justice will prevail, but we are certainly not sure of that at all.  We amend what we just said to, “Sometimes things don’t work out as fairly as they should.”  We say that when people talk about racism, they are not talking about “ALL white people” or “ALL black people” — obviously people of different colors love each other wildly in our family and in many families.  We say that it is our duty, as their white parents, to think and talk about all of these things even more than we already do.  We resolve to do that.  We have some revelations, (which will be Part 2 of this post).  We see that the children are understanding us.  We see that they are very interested.  We see that they are fearful.  Finally, we change the subject and we talk about jack rabbits.

When we get back to the house — climbing back over the wall, (“only ever do this with grown-ups!”, we say) — my father is there at home.  He recognizes us again; he doesn’t remember not recognizing us.  He is delighted to see the children and he playfully pretends to snatch my daughter’s nose, with all of the familiarity and love in the world.  Watching them settle back into the living room together, you might again think that there is no bad news anywhere.  “Oh, what a beautiful morning!”, my father sings at the top of his lungs.  The children answer, in pretend baritones, “Oh, what a beautiful day!”  I smile at their singing and at their familiarity, but I sit down smack in between them, a buffer and a barricade, nonetheless.  I would be negligent not to.  I am the white parent of a black child in a world where all of the protective rules that we establish, in our societies and in our homes, have shown a tendency to tumble down around us.  It is not just my job to clean up after that happens, it is my job to work to prevent that from happening to my child in the first place.   The children sing with my father, “I’ve got a beautiful FEELING/ Everything’s going my way.”   Out in our peaceful stretch of desert, on the open side of a gated subdivision, it IS an incredibly beautiful day.  Until the days get better in Ferguson (and in Iraq, and at the Nogales border less than an hour due south of us, and in Gaza, and in so many other places where we are divided in excruciating ways) — we have a particular duty in our house, as white parents, to make sure to sing songs about those places too.

 

 

As gaily told•tales, Gail Lauren Karp is the author, along with her daughter, of the upcoming children’s book Paloma the Possible (available in November 2014), the story of one girl’s imaginary search for her birth family.

Under her actual name, Gail is a long-time teacher, writer, artist, aspiring changemaker, and parent living in Harlem with her family.  On the subject of adoptive families, she has chaired the Touched by Adoption group at Bank Street College of Education in NYC since 2011 and her writing has appeared in Adoption Today magazine.

Genetics, Adoption and First World Curiosities

For much of my life I’ve succumbed to the idea that many of my unanswerable questions fall under the umbrella of nature. I hoped that someday my genetic questions would be answered through a one-time meeting or a picture (thinking that was all the openness I’d ever get). I wanted to know if my birth mom is right handed or left handed or if my birth father had dimples. I assumed that everyone in my birth family had brown eyes, 4c hair texture and dark skin. But my curiosities didn’t stop there, I was also curious about some of possibly genetically impacted markers like “Achoo Syndrome” (a dominant trait also called, photo sneeze reflex), or “hand clasping” (learning which thumb one automatically places on top of the other when clasping hands together). After reuniting with my birth family I learned some of these answers, bur remained curious about similarities between blood relatives that aren’t necessarily within the genetic category, but actually may not have to do with nurture either…

 I was enamored with this photo (this is the first time I met my birth father) for many reasons, but specifically I kept looking at our fingers. The placement on the knee, the spacing between our fingers.

I have been enamored with this photo (this is the first time I met my birth father) for many reasons, but specifically I continue to look at our fingers. The placement on the knee, the spacing between our fingers.

For example, I’ve wondered; If a birthmother and her child reunite at a later age and find out that they both use smiley faces to dot their I’s is this a coincidence, or could it be explained by genetics? (this is a true story btw).

Another [recent] example that has me scratching my head;

While on the phone with my birth mother, Deborah, she said

“Your [adoptive] father sure is smart! Don’cha wish you could just crack his head open and take a look at his brain?”

Why yes! – I wanted to exclaim, but Deborah couldn’t possibly have known about all of the time I spent time in undergrad researching brains, and that I’d you-tubed every TEDtalk having to do with brain science and the psychology of why we do the things we do, read many books on the neurobiology of our brain, and singlehandedly tried to learn about the key differences between the brains of those who’ve been abused in utero, and those who were born with healthy utero experiences. I have long dreamed of looking at the minds of people and learning how traumas have affected their amygdala, or what makes different neurotransmitters fire. Yes, Deborah. My answer is yes! Wait…does that mean she’s done all of this, too?

Okay – I understand, that one was kinda a stretch, though titillating for sure. How about this one;

When I met my birthfather after being introduced to Bryan he replied; “It’s good ta meet’cha Bryan. B-R-Y-A-N, Bryan” spelling his name out loud. At that moment my mom and I exchanged long glances silently flashing back to all of the times I spelled out words just for the sake of spelling out the word. Throughout my childhood we thought this habit was to help me to more clearly understand the word as my hearing loss made it difficult to hear the difference between the words “curb” and “curve.” But now…now I wonder – could this be genetic?

Seems kinda goofy, I know, but these are the subtleties that matter after a couple of decades of deprivation. Example #3:

When my sister met her birth mom about two years ago, we all immediately noticed their similar sense of humor and their biting sarcasm (Example – I can guarantee they’ll both laugh at this joke; “Two scientists walk into a bar. The first one hits his head. The second one does too, in order to verify his results.”). Anyways, more interesting to me was how quickly they began discussing cats. I can’t remember a time when our family did not have a pet cat that my sister took care of. She has received countless gifts, cards and shirts that have pictures of cats on them – she can never have too many. It won’t surprise me if/when my sister and her birthmother both post a status update with the same pun about cats. Will I think it to be a coincidence? Probably not.

 

Not only does my brother and his twin look alike (obviously they are identical twins), but they even act alike after living their entire lives in different families. We've learned that they've made similar life choices throughout their lives at the same points in their lives.

My brother and his identical twin grew up in different families (long story). After unexpectedly reuniting at age 18 they learned how they made similar life choices at similar times in their lives.  Scientists who’ve studied identical twins who were raised separately have found that they had similar intelligence, personality, career and leisure interest.  

I’m no longer solely curious about hitchhikers thumb (the autosomal recessive trait of having a thumb curved back at nearly a 90 degree angle), diabetes or depression, but am continually curious about how to reason and understand the non-genetic similarities between biologically related peoples who haven’t known each other. Of course, I’m well aware that these are First World Curiosities and that without the good fortune of early childhood nurture, it’d be a far cry that I’d even be positing these questions.

I greatly dislike the idea of using adoptees for scientific experiments, or my first world curiosities, but it’d sure be wonderful to learn whether of not there is a genetic mutation for spelling, hobbies, smiley faces, or…a love of cats.