Sunday, January 26, 2014

Check the Box

"I don't have a checklist [for whites adopting black children]," [Chad Goller-Sojourner] says, "but if I did, it would sound something like this: If you don't have any close friends or people who look like your kid before you adopt a kid, then why are you adopting that kid? Your child should not be your first black friend."
Growing Up 'White,' Transracial Adoptee Learned To Be Black
This one quote at the end of the piece, opened the floodgates, with people accusing Mr. Goller-Sojourner of being angry, or ungrateful; or "wondering" aloud if he wouldn't rather have been left to languish in foster care, rather than being adopted by a loving white couple. Which is understandable. We have come to think of racism as not only a Bad Act, but as the mark of a Bad Person. And to the degree that Mr. Goller-Sojourner comes across as questioning people's motives, there is a perceived subtext that he's calling people out as racists.

This, I think, misses the point.

There seems to be some convenient amnesia in the modern United States that allows us to deny the facts that Americans tend to tie certain behaviors to skin color and can be VERY critical of people "who act like someone they are not." I've read a lot of pious claims that "we all just treat people like people." This is either openly disingenuous or profoundly ignorant. From the way that I read this the point is that his adoptive parents were unable to do something that we commonly expect of parents - to teach their children to behave in accordance with the expectations of others - and they had no resources to turn to. When other parents fail to teach their children how society expects them to behave we don't call out their children as "angry" or "ungrateful" for acknowledging that. Instead, people are quick to castigate the parents. The fact of the matter is that even today, the Average American who one might encounter walking down the street is going to have a set of expectations as how a African-American is going to behave that is different from the way they would expect an Caucasian to behave, the way they would expect an Asian to behave or the way they would expect a Latino or Latina to behave. And note that this is independent of whether or not this Average American is Caucasian, African-American, Asian or Latino/Latina themselves. (In the African-American community, when I was in my teens and twenties, non-conformance to certain behavior patters would earn one the label of "confused." This was a rather severe pejorative that meant, in a nutshell, that some0ne Was Doing It Wrong, race-wise. Whether it was a Black man who didn't speak in the proper vernacular or a White woman who acted "street," the Confused were either pitiable for not knowing the Proper Way to Behave, contemptible for rejecting it or both.)

I think that we've allowed ourselves to believe that "race doesn't matter" to a much greater degree than it's actually true, because we don't want to see ourselves as Bad People. And this pushes us into ignoring the differing expectations that different groups are subject to and the penalties for ignoring them. And so we don't understand that adoptive parents who are not prepared to teach children the specific requirements that the broader society will have for them may wind up with children who, as adults, will acutely feel that lack of preparation.

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