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Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Differences...

Still working on the day-to-day activities in Ethiopia. It'll probably take a year to get all that down!

In the meantime, I thought I'd post a bit about my thoughts on the experience of actually becoming a transracial adoptive family. I've debated posting about this. It's a heated topic - or, at least, it can become one.

I want to first say that I'm a pretty open person. I'm more than happy to put myself out there and welcome what comes back. However, what comes back must be respectful. These sorts of discussions are important. But the only way they work is if everyone engaged is respectfully engaged. If your opinion is fixed, and it differs from mine, we'll never get anywhere. I don't have time to travel long roads that have a Dead End sign fixed in cement fifty miles away! Before I had Grace, I worked as the communications lead for the North American diversity program of a major consulting firm. The issues aren't new to me, but the perspective from which I see them certainly is.

I have four biological children, two of whom look NOTHING like me. Seriously, blond hair and blue eyes. When we were initially with the Guatemala program, it was mentioned more than once that a Guatemalan-born child might very well look more like me than these two biological children of mine. I've been asked many times if one of my blond-haired, blue-eyed babes is the other's friend or if I'm a nanny or if, as though surely the answer is no, they are all mine. And before anyone says anything, I do understand that having a biological child who isn't the spitting image of you is different from having a child of a different race altogether who became a member of your family through the gift of adoption. I'm merely pointing out that I don't have four biological kids whose features scream, "My genes are hers!"

But I also wonder, "Isn't there another dynamic at play here besides skin color? At least when you're talking about adoption from Ethiopia?" At first blush, I realize that people are initially staring because she's black and I'm white. When speaking about domestic transracial adoption, meaning a black or bi-racial child adopted into a white family, I suppose it's possible that if a black family were available to adopt that same child, they might (if they chose) be able to provide that child, or continue for her, a heritage that a white family couldn't provide in the same way. But, with regard to an Ethiopian-born child, even if a black couple did adopt her, there's still a missing link: the child resembles the parents, and I acknowledge that a black parent is likely far better equipped to help a black child deal with issues of racism, etc., but the issue of a lost culture remains. It stands to reason, in my mind, that an African American family cannot necessarily nurture the lost culture or language of an Ethiopian-born child any better than I can.

And, in the end, what are the alternatives on the table? When you have a child, whether white, black, or purple, who needs a loving home and family, would anyone out there prefer that that child languish in the foster care system or on the streets of Addis Ababa homeless and hungry to being raised in a loving home where her parents are doing all they can to honor her heritage, even if they are learning themselves as they go? I know there are folks out there who would prefer the former. But it makes little to no sense to me.

I watched the CNN special "Black in America" several weeks ago and thought it was well done. It didn't address transracial adoption specifically, but the general discussion was still relevant. One thought I had as it ended was, "It sometimes seems as though there's a strong need to separate black and white, to make the issue black and/or white (literally and figuratively). Is there any possibility at all that transracial adoption might provide an opportunity to bring these two communities together? To begin discussions that wouldn't otherwise begin? To break down stereotypes?" I also know this is perhaps an easy question for me to ask because I am white. I only know it from my perspective and my experiences. But considering that white families are adopting as their sons and daughters children from other races, does it not make some level of sense for these cultures to come together and try to learn from and about one another, not only for the good of the children, but for the good of mankind?

I read a fantastic book a while ago called The Faith Club which was based on dialogue between a Christian woman, a Jewish woman, and a Muslim woman. The Christian woman obviously represented the majority. But she was in there, in the conversation to be heard and to learn. And I think both occurred. The overall intent of the discussions was the same as I just mentioned: put the stereotypes on the table, put the misconceptions out there to be corrected. And this occurred between three friends. The discussions weren't always easy, but I think the three women would all agree that they are better for having them. And I assume they are still friends! I think it's too easy to respond to white parents' vows to want to learn and engage in the dialogue by simply saying that it's easy to be in our shoes. To say that is also just an easy response. Many of us are eager to listen, to learn, to understand. That's one of the guiding premises that brought many of us to this place. It's not fair to dismiss us simply because we're seen as "having it easy."

I know it's not as simple as this, but we must start somewhere and let it branch out into as many limbs as necessary. Again, provided we teeter respectfully. Without respect, we can't get real far.

Anyway, when we were in Ethiopia, I was of course very aware as we drove and as we walked that it was evident that I was adopting an Ethiopian child. It was clear to everyone around me. It was clear to those looking into the windows of our van and clear to those who passed us as we walked to Hannah's Hope or to the Addis Ababa Golf Club. It was clear to the hotel staff, who see this same thing week after week.

After having a baby biologically, I've been out and about and people have stared. I've KNOWN what they were thinking, "A little baby!" Everyone loves a baby. But in Addis Ababa, I became conscious that I was wondering what they thought --- and certainly not confident that it was as simple as, "Oh, what a cute baby!" That feeling was exacerbated as I entered the U.S.

In Ethiopia, I wondered, "What is that person thinking? Does he or she support this? Does he or she think poorly of me (or not) without having a clue who I am simply because I am carrying this child?" Almaz told us that most Ethiopians are very open to the idea of adoption by Americans (or Europeans) because it means a life for these children that they could not have in Ethiopia. However, there are some who are opposed to the idea, and they are very loud about it. For that reason, Almaz and a few others involved in adoptions on the ground in Ethiopia now choose to keep families a little more protected and sheltered than they perhaps did in the past. This may speak to why there aren't as many public outings as there once were (though I also think that has to do with the reality that packing so much activity into four days can be challenging given the circumstances).

Watching TV in the hotel in Addis, I was struck by the way that Americans are portrayed. I know it's propoganda, but really, it's no wonder that we're not liked all that much. Al Jazeera TV and Ethiopia's CBS division portrayed us in ways that made me laugh --- but only because I knew how ridiculous it was. Those who don't personally know an American and who assume we're all like this don't find it terribly funny. And to see one of us carrying one of them down the street, well, that probably doesn't always go over real well.

As I wandered the streets of Ethiopia with Nina, I again found myself wondering, "What do these people think of me?" As I sat on the plane next to an Ethiopian woman for 17 hours from Addis Ababa to Dulles, I wondered, "Does she approve of this?" When I got off the plane in Dulles and the ladies at the United check-in counter oohd and aahd over Nina I was so proud. And when the customs woman began making racist comments, I wanted to make a few comments of my own to her and to her supervisor. But I refrained. I decided not to give it more energy, to let the negativity stop right in my very tired --- and suddenly very annoyed --- brain. I decided that karma would bite her in the ass sooner than later and that was enough for me.

When I exited the international arrivals area and several Ethiopians or Ethiopian-Americans were standing waiting for their friends/family members to exit, I wondered what they thought. Their faces revealed nothing. Nor did the faces of the African Americans standing nearby. Ditto for the faces of those who look like me. Perhaps we were all just exhausted. Perhaps there was nothing more to it than that.

And then I again began thinking of terminology (as I was dragging myself and all my gear out of the terminal; deep thoughts for someone who's nearly incoherent.). African American vs. Ethiopian American vs. Black vs. White. The topic can feel so complicated. Probably because it is so complicated. And you want to be able to boil it all down to something simple, like, "it's the HUMAN race." But I think that's ignorant. Because it's not that simple. It's nowhere NEAR that simple. And I know that most of all because of how I felt in the airport in Addis Ababa --- one of only 15 or so white people. Suddenly, some things were awfully clear. Suddenly, I felt the shoes. Just for a moment. We want it to be simpler because it feels like that would make it easier. But ignoring the elephant in the room doesn't make him disappear.

As I walked through the Dulles terminal, exhausted beyond measure, I cried each time someone smiled at me or at Nina. And I cried when a black woman at my gate glared at me. Or did she? Was I too sensitive to what I perceived her opinion to be? To what I interpreted from her facial expression (or lack thereof)? Maybe she was tired, just like me.

And when I bypassed a newspaper stand and then went back, feeling like I should buy water and the woman at the register asked if Nina was Ethiopian and I said Yes and she said, "I am Ethiopian!" I turned into a puddle right there over a stack of New York Times. She bent down and kissed the tops of Nina's hands in typical Ethiopian fashion and talked to her. Her name was Mimi. She gave me a discount on my water. I cried most because I knew that I was meant to walk into that shop to be filled with a bit of validation.

At my departure gate, a woman marveled at Nina. Another woman asked how long we'd been traveling. When I said, "25 hours," she asked where we'd come from. "Ethiopia," I answered. The woman who'd been marveling put two and two together and asked, "Oh, you adopted her?" I was flabbergasted. It was the first time that Nina's adoption wasn't assumed. I felt great hope at that moment. And I know the assumptions will run the gamut: that my husband is black (or that David's wife is black), that Nina is a product of the American foster care system --- perhaps a baby born to a drug-addicted mother, that I'm babysitting. And just as people assume one of my twins is smarter than the other, or that they have two different fathers because they look so different, I'll have to get used to it.

As an adoptive parent of a child of a different race, I've considered and researched the concept almost to death. And it did scare me at first. I had many questions and few answers. Most important, I had few answers in my own heart. But after reading and thinking and talking and thinking some more, I found those answers. And that was all I needed. What I realized was that no matter what you do, someone won't be happy with you. Heck, I didn't breastfeed my twins for more than 4 weeks and I got an earful from some. People get pregnant with quads and don't reduce and the minute they make that fact public, someone will judge - loudly. People who choose to homeschool are often judged simply because it's not "the norm." Fill your cart with Cheetos and someone's going to whisper something to her companion about how your kids are going to get fat and score low on tests and need cholesterol medication by the time they're 8! Have a child with a physical challenge and people might stare. Have kids pitching a fit because you won't buy them M&Ms and people might stare. Have 4 kids waddling behind you pinching each other and whining in Target and, trust me, people WILL stare. Have a child of another race and people might stare. But is it personal? Maybe. Maybe not. What we have to get a hold of is our own comfort level with and confidence in our choice --- in each of these situations. That's Step One.

At the end of the day, we have to be able to make decisions that are right for our family without worrying about what the rest of the world will think (or say). That's what keeps us sane. At the same time, we must remain flexible to issues that may arise and have the presence and the grace to respond in a way that is in line with our values as people and as parents and in a way that protects the spirits of our children.

But, when you have other children especially, you consider how they will be affected by certain questions or comments. I've already experienced this in the twins world. I've had folks ask me right in front of Jack and Henry which one is smarter. I've had people say right in front of my 3 boys how sorry they feel for me that I have 3 boys. The Double Trouble comment is so old it's beginning to decay. In many ways, I believe all these instances are learning experiences for our kids as well --- to hear things and to know when to ignore them, when to stand up for themselves and their siblings, and when to say something in response (which, while I wouldn't advise it in most instances, I have no doubt Henry will do sooner than later!).

Miraculously, over the last 3 days, I've felt all my concerns and all my anxieties over what people might think dissipate. I went to Babies R Us today and honestly didn't care if people were looking or what they were thinking. I went to Babies R Us on Saturday with Heather and didn't want to notice what people's reactions were because I was still tired enough that an obvious reaction one way or the other would have rendered me hysterical once again. Heather said most everyone smiled. And I believe that in the long run, most everyone will. But I can't expect everyone to. And as I expect them to respect my choices, I must respect their opinions --- especially if they aren't made known with unkind words.

So, here we are. We're a bi-racial family. And even after only one week, I can pronounce unequivocally that I love Nina as much as and in the exact same way as my four biological children. And this does not surprise me in the least. I know that she's Ethiopian and that her birth culture and history are different from mine and from our other four children. As her mother I want to honor those differences in every way that I can. And I'm not so naive as to insinuate that she has differences just like our biological kids have differences. I hope I'm not that unaware.

I'm willing to put myself out there and enter discussions about transracial adoption. I'm willing to entertain respectful, intelligent discussion about issues related to it. I'm willing to step foot, potentially as the only white person, into the Ethiopian Orthodox church in our area. I want to learn all I can. Not just for her, but for me.

But more than anything, I'm willing to love this child for the rest of my life. I'm willing to offer her whatever she needs to find success, to feel love, to be who she is and to know from where she came. That is what her birthmother wanted for her. That is what I was asked to provide for her. That is the promise I made from the bottom of my heart. From here on out, I am her mother. And in the end, once I shoo all the other complicated issues aside, it boils down to only that. And in that, I feel great peace.

6 comments:

JonesEthiopia said...

Beautiful and honest post. What you are experiencing are very similar to what I did, and still do, right after R came home. (When I am out by myself with R, people mostly assume she's my biological, bi-racial daughter. When my husband is out with her, most assume she is adopted. This stereotyping I found surprising.) Like your experience at Babies R Us, our experiences are mostly postive, but not all are. In the end, I know R was meant to be my daughter, that she was meant to leave Ethiopia and become an American girl.... Thank you for expressing a lot of the feelings I have felt!

Eryn said...

Great post. I am finding myself much more aware of racial issues suddenly, as I enter into this adoption thing.

I just posted about my trip to walmart yesterday, and how there was literally ONE black baby doll, out of HUNDREDS of dolls on the shelf. I never noticed that before...

Anyhow, thanks for your honest words.

jody said...

I really enjoyed this post and many of your thoughts resonated with things I lie awake wondering/worrying/pondering. Thanks for sharing your experience!!

The Six of Us said...

I too have thought this one to death and find myself worrying about what people are thinking. I need not do this. This child is mine...and I am his. Hopefully we can increase a positive awareness to interacial families without it taking a tole on the little ones.

The Redman's said...

Thank you!! With little ones underfoot right now, I don't have time to post more comments, but I did want to take a moment to thank you for your honesty and opening up this discussion. I hope it produces a great conversation!!

Easties and Co. said...

Wonderful post. Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts. They are so valuable as we are just now embarking on this journey ourselves. I also strive to be very respective of other's opinions, even when they are possibly unkind or very unlike my own values, but at the same time I think it's important to educate a little on the way. I am not so naive as to think that I can change someone else's thoughts and values, but I hope that we as adoptive families do have the ability to open the door to polite discussion and respect for one another. It is very clear to me that families adopt biracially out of pure love, and that it that. It might not be so clear to others, but maybe they will see...over time. If not, at least you have your Nina, and she has you. That is all that matters. Thank you again!