Monday, April 27, 2009

"Those aren't curls, Mom" and other paradoxes

From reading other adoptive parents' experiences, I knew it was only a matter of time before someone gave me unsolicited advice about J.'s hair. What I wasn't prepared for was how much it would hurt.

J.'s hair grows in tiny little corkscrews that coil like tight springs against his head. I love those corkscrew curls. I love the way they look. I love the way they feel. I know, though, that not many black boys around here wear their hair like that. When he's a little older, it will matter if he doesn't look like the other kids. That is, it will matter to him, and it will matter to his peers. At that point, I'll take him to a barber and have it cropped close. But right now, it only matters--if it matters at all--to adults. But that may be the rub.

This morning, one my son's daycare teachers told me that he needed to have his hair cut short. "Real short," she said. I like this teacher, but she can be pretty forceful, pretty authoritative. So I avoided. "Oh, but I love his curls," I said, running my hand over J.'s head. Her response caught me completely off-guard: "Those aren't curls, mom," she said. She might as well have added "you dummy," because that was clearly her meaning. There are the words, and then there is the message those words carry. The message was this: "you don't know ANYTHING about ANYTHING, and you especially don't know how to care for your child's hair."

Talking about hair is one of the veiled ways that we talk about transracial adoption. White people do it. Black people do it. And so this comment hurt, alot, because it wasn't really about hair. It was my parenting that was being called into question. And, at a deeper level, my "right" as a white woman to parent a black child.

It seems to me that hair is often the measure that black adults use to evaluate white parents of black children. We white adoptive parents know that, and we know that the reasons behind that have to do with concern for our children's well-being, a concern that we share. So we do a lot of studying up to try to get it right. But getting it right turns out to be awfully tricky. Just when I think I've learned everything I can learn, I overhear something that addles me anew. What does it mean, for example, that "those aren't curls"? They sure look like curls to me. But the disdain in that teacher's voice when she said "those aren't curls" suggests to me that she thinks they are something else, something not very nice, unkempt perhaps or unseemly. Something that should be cut off. But what?

Once that confusion lodges in my brain, the paranoia isn't far behind, and with it, the shame. All of my fears that I am, in the end, too ignorant, too sheltered--too white--to adequately parent my child accompanying the fear of being exposed. In my paranoia, I begin to believe that there's some secret that only the black community knows about why something that looks like a curl isn't a curl. And then I begn to believe that everyone knows this but me and has been judging me for letting J. go around with his curls that aren't curls. After all, my paranoid mind concludes, the teacher is probably only saying out loud what everyone else is thinking. About how I don't get it. About how J. will suffer in the future because I don't get it. The shame is like walking around all day with a big long dirty piece of toilet paper stuck to your shoe.

I know all these thoughts are irrational. And I know enough about the politics of black hair to know that there are as many opinions out there as there are people. And that transracial parenting is often about trying to be comfortable in a catch-22 that you didn't create and can't fix.

Perhaps the biggest irony of all of this is that I've never wanted to do anything but value and appreciate my son's hair. Just as it is.

And I have. And yet.... And yet....

Suffering and exploitation...and more exploitation?

From what I can tell, parents who adopt internationally tend to fall into two camps: very liberal or very conservative. There doesn't seem to be much in-between. Which means that it can get quite heated in the adoptive parent forum that I belong to, especially around religion. I could have started a real riproaring argument on Friday in response to a particular thread, but I desisted, feeling a bit like a person setting out to rain on someone else's parade. After all, I can sound off here instead.

An adoptive parent started a thread recommending a blog she called a must read. The blog, from what I can gather, is by a white American man, one Tom Davis, who is working as a missionary in Africa. The main focus of his work seems to be helping orphans and raising money to fund orphanages. Well, I read a bit of it, and I'm sickened by much of what I read.

There's a story of a girl who is beat up and raped by four boys on the streets. A photo of the girl immediately after the attack, bruised and swollen-lipped, follows. That, we come to understand, is the "before" photo. The "after" photo, featuring the same girl, now beaming and radiant, follows. "Mary Today," reads the caption. "The Mighty One has done great things!"

And then there's this:
Today I met a young woman who was abandoned by her parents and ended up
living with her aunt. All during this time she lived under the constant threat
of being raped by her cousin every night.

A photo of this young woman follows.

Then then this:
I met an 18 year old sex worker with a baby. She was really a beautiful girl and
one of our team members asked why she sold her body. "So I can have food to
eat," she replied. Nobody should be forced to sell themselves so they
don't starve.

A photo of the woman and her baby accompanies the description.

Let me be clear. There is nothing wrong with raising money to fund orphanages in countries where children sleep on the street and go hungry. And even though it drives me crazy, there's also nothing terribly wrong with proselytizing as you're doing it. I respect the work he is doing. I am not attacking that. I am sure that he means to do only good. I am not attacking him.

What I am attacking is his method of fundraising--this attempt to evoke the reader's sympathy and compassion by telling the deeply painful and deeply personal stories of the people he encounters. Worse, he presents the protagonists of these stories as victims. Worse still, he adds photos of these people, sometimes even photos OF their trauma. Someone out there will surely threaten my life for saying this, but there's something disturbingly pornographic about it all.

These are not his stories to share. They are certainly not his to share with anyone in the whole world with access to a computer. And in telling them he re-victimizes those who have already survived enormous trauma. And in identifying them in relation to their trauma, he disregards the possibility that they carry shame, a need for privacy, a need to choose when and where they share this trauma.

Surely respect should come at the very top of any list of Jesus-like qualities one might choose to emulate as a missionary. Even if respect doesn't raise much money. Even if respect means that you get to feel a little less like a savior, and a little more helpless, a little more human. Even if respect means that you don't always feel so good about yourself or so sure that your intervention is desired by the interventee.

I'll stop there, without mentioning the "trailer" for Davis' novel, Scared. (That's right: I said a trailer for a novel. If you figure that one out, let me know) I could probably write 5 more posts on its third-world-porn qualities alone. But then I'd have to watch it again. And I just don't have the stomach.

Friday, April 24, 2009

White woman as homewrecker and other thoughts

Is anyone else a wee bit concerned about the racial undertones of the soon-to-be released movie, "Obsessed"? The movie appears to be a thriller of the single-white female/basic instinct variety, with an innocent workplace flirtation between a white woman and a black man devolving into restraining order territory, with the white woman as crazed obsessive stalker of the black man and his family. Now I guess there's something to be said for our times that the white woman is stalking the black man rather than the other way around, and that the story sets up the audience members--no matter their color--to root for the black characters and not the white ones. And, if I thought that the movie aspired to a higher level of metaphor, I might find the white-woman-as-homewrecker-of-black-married-couple compelling--as in: racism extends its reach into the most intimate spheres, ruining otherwise-good marriages and tearing families apart--but I have my doubts that any movie of this type thinks much beyond its next adrenaline rush.

So, what is my problem with this plotline? For one thing, there have been few interracial relationships on the silver screen (the last one I remember was Jungle Fever) and now we have one--albeit an affair--that features crazy, violent white lady. For another, this movie takes the narrative about white women stealing black men from the community to its unfortunate extreme--i.e., crazy, violent white lady relentlessly pursuing black man. Can we have some positive depictions of interracial relationships please? Or can we at least have a little nuance?

Now, for Southland... In all fairness to the show, I have only seen the trailers. In all fairness to me, watching the trailers turned me off so much I didn't have any interest in watching the actual show. All this to say that my analysis is a bit underinformed. But humor me.

Is it just me, or does it seem like some strange PR coincidence that this show began airing shortly after a string of well-publicized incidents of white cops behaving really badly? There's something about the trailer that makes me feel like the show is trying to rehabilitate the image of the police and I don't like it. The trailer intimates that life on the job in the police force is much more complex, difficult, and nuanced than we non-police people appreciate, then features a cop car coming to a screaming halt in front of a baby crawling across the road. Well, I say bull shit to the notion that normal people don't appreciate the difficulty of being a cop, and I say bullshit again to the idea that being a cop is about heroically snatching babies from the jaws of death. If this show really wants to tangle with the moral dilemmas of life on the police force, I sure hope it spends a whole lot of time on corruption, violence perpetrated against unarmed suspects, and racial profiling, for a start. Oh, and another thing, exactly where are the black cops in this show? I think I saw exactly one in the trailer. And I think she was holding a child.

Editor's Note: For a very different take, see

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Two parodies inspired by Madonna's latest adoption quest

Tracy Ullman as an African woman who saves white children from pop culture & junk food:

Madonna & Angelina Jolie duke it out on SNL:


Tuesday, April 7, 2009

It's about time: A voice from Africa

In all the hubbub and bluster swirling around Madonna's latest adoption adventure, it hadn't occurred to me until I stumbled across this Washington Post article that most of the commentary has emanated from this side of the equator. Written by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the article offers a voice and perspective that have been conspicuously absent-- namely, an African one. Although the article was occasioned by Madonna's adoption of David Banda from Malawi several years ago, it is as relevant now as it was then, and should perhaps be required reading for any Westerner contemplating international adoption--especially adoption from Africa.

Two moments of press coverage inspired Adichie's piece. The first was an interview with Madonna in which the pop star noted concern that the media circus that surrounded her adoption of David would discourage others from adopting from Africa. According to Adichie, Madonna expressed hope for the opposite outcome: "She wanted people to go to Africa and see what she had seen; she wanted them, too, to adopt." The second moment was coverage of David's biological father. Adichie writes: "watching David Banda's biological father speak about being grateful that she would give David a 'better life, I could not help but look away. The power differential was so stark, so heartbreakingly sad; there was something about it that made Africa seem terribly dispensable."

The article that follows develops an extraordinarily nuanced and pointed analysis of the distorted Western understanding of Africa that appears to underlie Madonna's characterization of adoption as the humanitarian intervention Africa needs--the idea, as Adichie puts it, "that one helps Africa by adopting her children":

It is easy to romanticize poverty, to see poor people as inherently lacking agency and will. It is easy to strip them of human dignity, to reduce them to objects of pity. This has never been clearer than in the view of Africa from the American media, in which we are shown poverty and conflicts without any context.

If I were not African, I would, after watching the coverage, think of Africa as a place of magnificent wild animals in which black Africans exist as tour guides, or as a place of desperately poor people who kill or are killed by one another for little or no reason.

"Surely," she concludes, "the future for Africa should be one in which Africans are in a position to raise their own children." And surely, she suggests, adoption will not help Africa get there. Indeed.

Let me be clear: Adichie is not anti-adoption. In fact, she gives plaudits to Madonna's funding of orphanages in Malawi. Her point is not that adoption is bad, but that adoption is not the solution to Africa's problems, and that Madonna missed a critical opportunity to use her celebrity status to do real good:

I wish, however, that instead of asking television viewers to go to Africa and adopt, she had asked them to send a check to malaria-eradication organizations. I wish she had added, after one of those thoughtfully dramatic pauses, that Africa cannot depend on aid alone, that aid is like salted peanuts: The more failed leaders got, the more they wanted. I wish she had said that she was setting up an organization to use donations as micro-credit and that this organization, by the way, would be run by locals rather than expatriate staff whose expatriate salaries raise the rent in the cities.

I wish she had pointed out, with suitable celebrity-style rage, that Western countries need to stop appeasing and propping up hopeless African leaders, that Western banks must stop enabling and accepting stolen money from these leaders, that Western donors who insist on the free movement of capital across borders must also insist on the free movement of labor, that Western trade subsidies make it impossible for Africans to compete.

How clear that is, and how compelling. But will it interrupt the perennial conversation about adoption being a means of saving children? Of adoptees being "lucky"? Of adoptive parents being cast as selfless saviors? Adoptees are sick of hearing it. I'm sick of hearing it. And I appreciate Adichie's good sense, bringing us back to earth with a characterization of international adoption that we could all do with hearing more often:

Madonna will give David a better life, at least a materially better life: better food, housing, books. Whether this will make him a happier and normatively better human being is open to debate.

Yes, it is. And I suspect there's a whole generation of adult adoptees that would agree that this is an open question.

Given cultural and material circumstances too personal to divulge here--and making the assumption that these circumstances could not have been changed--I believe that adoption MAY have been the best possible outcome for my son. (He is the only one who will be able to say for sure.) I do not, however, believe that I saved him. And I certainly don't believe that the Western world I brought him to is better than the African world he left. There are losses and gains on both sides, and because he could only live one life--only live one of two possible paths--neither of us will ever truly know the extent of the losses or the gains. But that's not to say that there won't be grieving. That unknown other life that he did not live--and my part in deciding that--is what he will have to make peace with. That is what David Banda will have to make peace with. Let's hope his mother will have given up the notion that she saved him by then.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Oh please, not again...

There's this conversation that happens periodically on a forum I frequent for parents who have adopted from Ethiopia--often in relation to Black History month or Martin Luther King Day--about our children and their relationship to the particular black history of the US. Usually, the argument goes something like this: my child was born in Ethiopia and thus his/her heritage is Ethiopian and his/her cultural history is Ethiopian. Thus, the black history of the US is not my child's history, and there is no reason for us to celebrate or honor that history as part of his/her story. And there might be a "I think Black History month is stupid," comment thrown in there somewhere too.

The motivations behind these comments appear to fall into two, sometimes overlapping, categories. The first is a naive kind of magical thinking among white parents that by identifying their children as Ethiopian-American rather than black that they can prevent their children from experiencing racism. It's almost as if the identification as Ethiopian can somehow--this is the magical part--mitigate skin color. I was one of those naive believers once, until brought up short by a friend, and I am sympathetic to this desire, if not to its (il)logic. But the other strain--although often overlapping the first--is far more worrisome, reflecting at worst, deeply held yet deeply veiled racist beliefs, and at best, a tendency to see only the negative aspects of black history and culture. One parent, for example, even went as far to say that 400 years of African American history was a lot to "saddle" a child with. This strikes me as a sadly reductionist understanding of black history that entirely misses the point and I said so:

How about all the strong and beautiful and courageous elements of African-American history/culture? Shouldn't it be [her son's] privilege to identify with those? especially in light of all the not-so-nice assumptions that many will likely make about him?) To me, this is one good reason of many to celebrate Black History month.

It's not as if black history is ONLY a history of slavery. Or ONLY a history of Jim Crow. Or ONLY a history of police dogs and firehoses. We can't overlook that history, but what about all the rest? (On this note, you might see Tami's post on reclaiming her own history.) It probably does not need to be said that the problematic comments I note above come from white people, but I wonder, too, if there isn't a larger cultural problem (I'm talking broader American culture here) about how we represent black history in this country. I'm reminded of Ta-Nehisi Coates' childhood memories of black history month:
But mostly when I think of Black History Month, I think of being made to watch footage of Negroes getting the shit kicked out of them, and then Negro teachers extolling the nobility of letting someone kick the shit out of you.

I thought about my own limited childhood exposure to black history via the PBS documentary "Eyes on the Prize" and I could see where he was coming from. Things like "Eyes on the Prize" (scenes of which I STILL remember today) should be required viewing for all white Americans, in my book. Maybe even required ANNUAL viewing. But for black Americans, particularly black children? I'm not so sure. And should this be the ONLY thing white Americans see of black history? I'm thinking not...

But I digress. Just a few days ago, far from the adoptive parent forum, this very same issue of whose history is whose history arose in the place I would least have expected it: a therapist's office. M. and I have been seeing a couples therapist, and the occasion for her comment was a conversation about the obligations and responsibilities of raising our son, J. My husband is a historian, and so history came up. And the therapist actually says this: "J.'s history is not the history of slavery . . . THANK GOD," in the tone of someone delivering good news while helpfully clearing up a misunderstanding. I felt like my stomach had just fallen down an elevator shaft. I may have actually gaped at her for a moment. Heck, I was already parrying shots from M. and the last thing I needed was another battlefront. But here was this woman saying (1) black history is not my son's history; and (2) black history is only about slavery. I put on my battle gear and waded in, but didn't get very far. She had, apparently, gleaned these ideas from her reading of Obama's first book, which I have not yet read, and was adamant that he saw his history as distinct from American black history. All I could say, over and over, was "Only J. can say what history feels like his."

And, for the record, I'll be standing by that.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Things that don't occur to you if you're white

In the wake of the Moats incident, my thoughts turn to my son, and how I haven't even begun to get a handle on what I need to do to prepare him to deal with the police. Recently, I read anemotionally heated blog conversation recently in which one black woman said, more or less, "please tell me that white adoptive parents know that their children need to have a plan for what to do if they get stopped by the police," and I thought, "oh, crap. a plan. I need a plan." I don't have one yet (more on that later), but I'm on it--and so glad that this woman whose name I don't even know mentioned it. It's one of those things in the category of Things That Don't Occur To You If You're White (TTDOTYIFYW), which are legion and which I desperately wish were all written down somewhere so I could just learn them all. Because it's hard to know what you don't know.

In his blog post on Moats, Field Negro featured some information that registered as a TTDOTYIFYW item for me, namely the basics of what to do when driving-while-black and pulled over by the police:
I know to keep my hands where they can be seen. I know to point to where my registration and insurance card is, and to tell the officer when I am reaching for it. And I know to dial my programmed home number in my cell phone (to get my home recording device) as the officer approaches my car, and keeping my cell phone on all times. I know to make sure I make a mental note of the officer's badge number and his name. And finally, I know to always show my pearly whites before my yes and no sirs.

Learning a new TTDOTYIFYW item always makes me feel like I've been living on the moon, and in some ways, in my white privileged state, I have. After I realize I've been living on the moon again, I either feel dumb, like how- could-I-have-missed-that-it's-so-darn-obvious dumb, or very, very sad, because I become aware of the experience that I haven't had. Reading Field's piece inspired sadness, because the strategy he describes comes from looking at himself as a police officer might look at him--as dangerous, untrustworthy, threatening, criminal. That, in some sense, he must imagine himself as he is seen, that he must take on these ugly characteristics if only in his mind, to formulate an effective strategy for survival. That's not something I have ever had to do. But my son will probably have to. And that is heartbreaking.

The other TTDOTYIFYW item I mentioned today--the need for a how-to-deal-with-police plan--makes me feel more dumb and ignorant than sad. But no self-pity here. It's time to buckle down and start filling in the gaps. I'll report back here on my progress.