Transracial Families: More Than Skin Deep?

 I have a dream that one day down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, that one day right down in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”

— Martin Luther King, Jr (Aug 28, 1963)

Granted, I don't live in Alabama, but this quote brings me to tears every single time I hear it. Is it really possible for all of us to "hold hands" and become like family -- either literal or otherwise? 

Oh, I do pray so! But I know the path to get there is a complicated one filled with conviction and repentance and respect and love.

One question, spoken in complete and utter honesty and love, has left my mind reeling since it was asked.

A couple of months ago, a friend looked straight across the table at me through her gorgeous African American eyes and said, “How do you, a white woman, expect to raise a black man in America?”

I swear to you, in that moment, my heart galloped. I honestly had NO IDEA what to say. My mind went dark and I began to blubber and stutter and, honestly, question the entire call. Who am I?

Let’s face it. I’m not really put in a position where I feel highly uncomfortable all that often. Everywhere I go, I am usually surrounded by people who look like me, talk like me and see the world a lot like I do.

I grew up in a small town in Northern Colorado (which some refer to as the “Great White North”) and most of the kids I went to school with had white skin. The major variation appeared via hair and eye color and whether or not you could boast a summer tan. I could not.

Yes, there were a number of Hispanic kids (some of whom were my very BEST friends), but not a huge population. There may have been a few families of Asian decent, but I’m pretty sure there were no African Americans. At least, not as far as I remember.

I cruised along, for the better part of my life, fairly oblivious to any sort of racial struggle. I definitely had my fair share of teenage angst about not fitting in and all that, but none of it had to do with the color of my skin. Oh, I got teased by the other lifeguards for wearing a t-shirt during my shifts around the pool while they all flaunted golden midriffs and compared tan lines, but no cop was gonna pull me over for that. 

To be honest, I kind of took the whole thing for granted for quite a long time…

Until we adopted two kids from Africa. 

In that moment, the comfortable world in which I lived felt awfully bright against their beautiful, chocolate skin.

The closest thing I’ve felt to being a complete “outsider” was when I spent a year in Spain as an exchange student. I can muster a bit of what it feels like to “not belong” but again, I never once feared for my life.

And now here I am, mother to four adorable, amazing, funny, moody, complicated kids; often quite similar on the inside, but very different on the outside. Two are white and two are black. 

When my older two entered the school-age years, I never looked around the classroom to see if anyone else looked like them. It rarely crossed my mind. However, now my insides do cartwheels when I see kids sitting in desks that have brown or black skin and hair. It means my kids won’t be the ONLY ones. 

To date, they have not experienced blatant racism.  But they have confessed from time to time that they wished their “skin wasn’t so dark” or that their “hair was straight.” And each time it breaks my heart. I lavish them with compliments and truth about how they are “fearfully and wonderfully made.”  

And while this is absolutely, 100% true, I often wonder if it brings little solace coming from someone who’s skin is light and has straight hair. I pray my words sink more than skin deep, but I don’t know…

So, how will I (a white mom) raise two beautiful black children in America?  Honestly, that is a really profound question with not a lot of clear answers. I definitely can’t tie a bow around this one, but these are some things that come to mind:

1.    Let my kids know they have a voice.  I want to foster a safe space for them to express themselves however they need to. I have very little control over what happens outside our home, but I will fight like hell to make the space inside one of dignity, love and mutual respect.

2.    Be aware of my privilege and my place. It’s not a secret that white-middle/upperclass folks have a lot of influence in this society of ours. Just look at the presidential placeholders over the years. Of course we are not the ONLY ones with influence, but we are by far the majority.

One thing I’ve learned over the years is that we can’t be responsible for what we don’t know. The last thing I want to do is hurt someone else, intentionally or unintentionally -- BUT! Once we know better, we need to do better.  So, how can we use that influence FOR GOOD? How can we use our God-given influence to seek understanding and respect and justice for all.  (If I’m not mistaken, that one should be ingrained pretty deep in our American DNA.)

3.    Seek out diversity. This can be a tough one when you live in a pretty homogenous place. But it can be found. I’m constantly praying for opportunities to build authentic relationships with people from other cultures and races. It’s not easy, but that doesn’t mean I’m allowed to give up. 

4.    Seek out same. In tandem with seeking diversity (for all of us), it's also important to find spaces and places where my kids feel more comfortable. We don’t always do the best job because life gets busy and the hours slip away, but we really do try to be intentional about finding places where we can connect with Ethiopian culture — festivals, restaurants, other adoptive families, etc.  We also recently hired an investigator to pound the pavement in Ethiopia to see if we could find out any current time information about their birth family. The guy we worked with was fantastic!! If any of you out there are wondering about this for your own children, please email me, I'd be happy to share a bit of our experience and how it has blessed our family. 

5.    Seek opportunities to put myself in the minority. This one is probably the hardest by far. Not only is it extremely uncomfortable to journey outside my comfort zone, it’s hard to find opportunities to do so. Our routines often keep us grounded in comfort. We don’t always have time or money to travel to other countries to find it, but we can step foot in another place of worship or a neighborhood that looks different than our own.  As I type this, I’m convicted because I don’t remember the last time I actually DID this… 

It’s not often I intentionally put myself in the minority and yet, my kids have no choice. Stepping out of my comfort zone even for a fraction of a minute helps reconnect my heart to theirs.

While this is certainly not an exhaustive list, it is at least a start. I know that as an imperfect individual I will never be able to give ANY of my kids ALL of what they need. Only God can do that.

I once got a FB message from a friend who said that she was always completely opposed to transracial families, but, after seeing ours, she may be softening to the idea. SO -- naive or not, I guess I really do have a dream. And I'm hoping our family, along with many others, is part of the manifestation of it. 

Christina's Take

Your friend's question is so powerful and I've asked it (in my head) more than once of both you and Holly's decision to adopt. Her question almost had a tone of: "who do you think you are...white parents adopting black kids?" The challenge in her question is not altogether unhealthy, though. It's a push-back that says: can the Holy Spirit really be that audacious? I say, you're damn right He can. 

Holly's Take:

The other day, I was walking hiking around Garden of the Gods with my kids.  We were coming down a trail rather quickly, when we passed a large black family who I just immediately wanted to be a part of.  They were laughing and hollering and the whole black family nine yards.  Right as we were going by them, Macie, my little Ethiopian, slipped and fell.  They all stopped and the matriarch of that family goes, "You OK Little Mama?"  It was darling and a little touching and a little bitter.  In that moment, with that stranger giving my daughter the nickname, "Little Mama," I wondered if she belonged in a black family.  She is loud and crazy and nuts and singy and dancy and sometimes I wonder if she ever wants to bust out of this buttoned up white bread family.  It's in her DNA to be loud and crazy and nuts and singy and dancy.  I only have the dancy and sometimes the nutsy part in my DNA and my DNA is actually strongly opposed to loud. 

I honestly can't name why on earth I would be qualified to raise Macie.  I'm not.  I know that.  One look at her ethnic hair and there is confirmation.  But after three years, my heart for her is grown.  (and shrunk and grown over and over again). But I watched her sit next to her teacher last night at Back to School Night  (she felt so cool sitting ON THE TABLE in front of everyone) and my heart was overflowing with pride and humility that she is mine.  Maybe it is the humility that will qualify us white people to raise these, full of life, black and brown kids.  God help us all to never feel like we are the end all, be all in our kids' lives.  Give us what we need, Jesus and help us to give them YOU.