Words cannot fully convey the embarrassment, shame and helplessness one feels when adoption lawyers, social workers and even one’s own mother urges one to ‘make black friends’.
Of course, one does know black people and consider them friends, or friend-ish… and one has phone numbers and emails and Instagram and Twitter accounts to back this assertion up, but when one examines one’s soul, especially after a transracial parenting workshop, one might be left to conclude that one has seriously failed to be anything other than a typical American white human.
In addition, after a transracial parenting workshop, one may also be left to conclude that if a ‘workshop’ isn’t actually a room full of sawdust, nails, lathes and gently seasoned metal wood-working tools, but takes place in a fluorescent-bathed, windowless conference room with an overhead projector and California (aka awful) bagels, it should not be called a workshop. It should be called eight hours of learning just how passively racist one has been my, I mean, one’s entire life.
And one learns this through social worker-led workshop games, which should not really be called games because they are not fun. Games implies fun. Do not let social worker-led games lull one into a false sense of gaming security. And one is also aware that it is not only NOT a social worker’s job to be fun, but it is also not a fun job to BE a social worker, so one is not knocking social workers because they do the Lord’s work, but even more, they do an AWFUL lot of filing, which is the Devil’s work.
We childless but hopeful couples each received a cheap clear plastic cup and a box of plastic beads- each color of bead was assigned a race- Black was dark brown, Native American was brownish red, Asian was well… yellow (which feels racist just typing), White is white (no shit) and Hispanic is beige (unlike every Hispanic person I personally know).
The How Racist R U?!? Game is played thusly: Unfun Social Worker #465 reads a series of questions and one is asked to place a correspondingly colored bead in one’s little clear plastic cup- those clear plastic cups that used to represent free cheap wine at art openings and now represent How Racist One Might Be.
“Game” questions: What is the color of the people you work with? What is the color of your boss? What color are your favorite authors? What color are your neighbors? What color is your dentist? What color is your hairdresser? What color is your best friend? What color are the stars of your favorite TV shows? What color is your favorite movie star? What color is your favorite musician? The point was made. My cup was like tapioca pudding with one yellow, one black and 2 brown raisins in it. Shameful. Gut churning. Depressing. True.
Then we had to talk about how we’d incorporate the race of our child into our lives. Shopping in markets that cater to their culture, going to barber shops for their kind of hair, their culture’s language, churches, festivals, restaurants- my betrothed brightened at learning new foods to cook, and places to explore. We all shared our stories and laughed and acted as if we’d all get together in the future with our mixed race children, but we won’t. And that’s okay.
Now let me clarify. I do KNOW black people. I’m a mother to one and even though she’s only four, I’d like to believe that my kid would like me if she had a choice in the matter.
But when one’s own mother calls one and urges one to call up virtual black strangers and ask them to be one’s black daughter’s grandparents, one cannot fathom even dialing the phone but gets deeply carried away envisioning the conversation.
ME: Omigod, I know I never call you but you know, kids. It’s Kathleen. Kathleen? Elizabeth’s sister? Right. Anyway, I don’t ever not call because I don’t really know you, but because I have a kid, and you know how kids eat your life, amirite?! You do know we had a kid, right? Well, we didn’t HAVE her. We adopted her. So, can we come over and hang out with you? Or can you come over, but only when Grace is awake?
BLACK ACQUAINTANCES: Um, okay… Are you having a party?
ME: Well, um no… we want you to be closer with us so that Grace has positive reinforcements… of her color, her race, um… she needs to see that we enjoy the company of people who just so happens to be her color?
BLACK ACQUAINTANCES: Oh… Hm. interesting. Well, thanks for calling. We might have an opening in hmmm….. Spring is very busy for us. Easter is huge for us rent-a-blacks. What with all our glorious gospel brunches… that we are left to assume you want us to drag you to and give you the black seal of parenting approval? Do you want braiding lessons too? Maybe some tap-dancing lessons? That’s gonna run you a little more. Or why don’t you just tell us what the fuck you really want.
ME: Please come and let our child know that we are okay with people of your skin tone? Not you, of course you are okay, MORE THAN okay, but I guess what I’m asking is can you let our brown bead, I mean our KID know that we are okay? Oh and would you be her black grandparents? Because she has almost too many white ones and well… she needs some brown ones? Is that okay? Can we pencil you in on Saturday?
BLACK ACQUAINTANCES: How about… never? Does never work for you?
First of all, doesn’t ‘positive role model’ or ‘positive character reinforcement’ or ‘positive culture reinforcement’ make everyone wince? As if we have to make a seriously surgical effort to extract from the masses of humanity the correct representations of ideals of race and then insert these ‘influences’ into a four year-old’s life? Couldn’t I just show her Beyonce videos? Wouldn’t that just solve it all and make black people not hate another well-intended but falling-all-over-herself-white-woman?
And then one starts to wonder why one doesn’t have black friends. And if I don’t have really close black friends, why? Because I was raised in a time in America where everyone pretty much stuck to their own kind?
My first memory of racism was when we lived on a small, all white block on Long Island. While we were on vacation, our house was destroyed by local boys who broke in, knocked a 400 gallon aquarium onto our couch and floor, broke all our china, tore up or peed on all our clothes, and murdered all our toys. These were 12 year old boys- all white- and while I wouldn’t call them friends, they were the neccessary bullies no childhood appears to be complete without. We lost everything that could be destroyed. And the kids were never prosecuted.
Just as my parents decided to move us out of the suburbs, a family of black doctors with two little boys moved onto our street. It being the 1970s, the very next day, at least five white families on our block put their homes up for sale.
My mother, bless her soul, made a point of walking over to Virginia and Tauriq’s home, introduced herself and explained that our house was on the market before they moved in. She wanted them to know we weren’t selling because of them, but because of the white future criminals who escaped prosecution.
Then our parents moved us to an all-white beach community and plunked us in 99.9% white private schools. This is not me blaming my parents for not integrating us better with people of color, because we did have some friends of many races, and anything else they might have done in the extremely polarized and segregated 1970s would have been a forced on their behalf as it currently felt on my behalf, for my daughter’s behalf.
Then suddenly, and quite out of nowhere and without any forethought on my part, I accidentally made a black friend. Stephanie and her husband and their son moved next door to (white) friends of ours. The friend who introduced us knew she had hit the jackpot when she uttered, eyes wide–
WHITE FRIEND: You have to meet her! She’s black AND she’s adopted.
I almost swooned from the sheer amount of dumb luck that had just landed in my lazy lap. I vigorously accepted a backyard playdate for the three families.
And then I auto-self-corrected, suddenly reeling with anxiety and inadequacies and old, long-buried self-esteem issues. Would Stephanie be annoyed that we adopted transracially? Would we actually like each other or would the only things we have in common be her race and adoption and my kid’s race and her adoption? Seeing as how I didn’t have many brown beads in my cup, would I slip and say something accidentally racist or 1970s racist, or adoptionist? Would Grace reject me and want a young, brown bead to be her mother? I was exhausted from terrifying myself by imagining all that could go wrong that I almost cancelled the playdate.
My husband dragged me along, and we met and instantaneously hit it off. Even better, our kids fell deeply in love. Stephanie’s of mixed race parents and had been adopted by a mixed race couple, and married to a man even whiter than me, so her patchwork quilted life was even more patchworky than mine and helped me become more comfortable with my patchwork quilt family.
Was that my problem? My lack of comfort with my own self hinders me from being utterly comfortable with other selves… race, religion, creed, cult, etc, notwithstanding. Add to that an OCD proclivity for blurting out racially charged jokes in a Tourrettian burst of saying what everyone is thinking (or thinking I know what everyone else is thinking and being super wrong).
But Stephanie laughed at my obviously inappropriate jokes and made a few of her own. Her son endeared himself by pointing out the adorably honest.
MAHON: (pointing at Grace) She’s brown. I’m beige.
ME: Finally I have a brown and beige bead in my cheap plastic cup!
It’s really fun hanging out with Stephanie and her family, especially in public when she lugs her beige boy and I lug my brown girl and everyone looks at us and our white husbands like… what the what?
The best irony? Stephanie and I crack each other up with race-bending humor. In my earnest refusal of colorblindism, which is the least effective way to erase racism ever– I acknowledge my daughter’s actual color.
ME: Grace had an incredible naked tantrum last night. She is so gorgeous when flailing, kicking and screaming that it felt like a private Alvin Ailey dance recital.
Stephanie wails in laughter and claps in joy. When I repeat this story to white friends- I get called racist.
Stephanie points out that if I had said an ABT dance recital, it’s not as funny because ABT dancers are largely white.
White folks think I’m racist for acknowledging my daughter’s skin. But if I pretend my child is not black, isn’t that not only racist, but also slightly insane?
My kid is black, I’m white. Those are the bare, naked facts.
Does it matter?
Does it really matter?
Of course it does.
Until I can find black grandparents who won’t hang up on me, I’m thrilled with my new black friend, her white husband and their beige child.
My little cheap plastic cup overfloweth.