On Ferguson, Race, and Adoption

sleepingLet me tell you, my hands are shaking writing this post.

But I really feel I need to share a little bit on this blog about some of the things that have been happening in the world, particularly things relating to Ferguson.

I don’t know how much you know.

I don’t know how desensitized you are.

But I’m just going to come at this straight on, as if you were sitting in a chair across from me, in my kitchen, sipping on some tea, chatting about life happenings.

First, the backstory.

Ferguson, Missouri.  Population around 21,000 people.  On Saturday, August 9, an 18 year-old, unarmed black man named Michael Brown was killed by a white police officer.  There are eye witnesses who say Michael and the police officer were in an altercation.  He tried to escape and was shot 6 times, twice in the head.  Witnesses say he turned around and faced the officer with his hands raised before he was shot.  His body lay in the street of a residential neighborhood for many hours.  What followed were some largely peaceful protests by the African American community, as well as some criminal ones.  The police responded with full force, including tear gas, rubber bullets, and tanks, which escalated tensions.

I watched it unravel on TV from Lake Almanor.  And all I could think about was my son — my beautiful, brown-skinned Ethiopian son.  I felt afraid for his future.

I guess in some way I could understand a tiny fraction of how all those mamas of beautiful black son’s feel.

Except I am white.  I grieved in some way my own skin color.

I don’t know what it feels like to be black, or yellow, or red, in this white world.

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Pull up a chair with me and listen.  Really, really listen.  I’m so grateful for the police who protect us.  I am not suspicious of police officers.  But I have never had to be either.  I have twice finagled my way out of a traffic ticket through the use of charm and apology.  I can only imagine what it is like to live day in and day out as a police officer, responding to calls, whether criminal or domestic or traffic or medical, and the split decisions police officers have to make every day.  I have three friends with husbands who are police officers and they are valiant, brave, and kind men.  But I can also only imagine what it is like to be frequently targeted and profiled for not having white skin – what it feels like to have people suspicious of you, to have people say ignorant things to you, to get turned aside for jobs and various opportunities because you are not white.

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Before the age of 22, I only had one good friend who was not white.  (He was Filipino).  I had a few acquaintances who were asian, or hispanic, or black.  At my high school in Northern California, you could count the number of black students on one hand.  There were a few Mexicans, but not many.  I recall one asian.

As a kid, I never thought about race, at all.

The reason I didn’t think about race back then is because I was white, and race was, to me, a non-issue.  It was something in the past, back in the days when MLK rallied for the end of segregation.  It was something our country went through and got over.  I couldn’t imagine how slavery or segregation ever existed, and my heart broke for the way blacks were treated back then.

My greatest exposure to race came through three avenues –

First, as a young child I was pen pals with several missionaries from our church.  One of these women I wrote to for about six years, and she lived in Cameroon.  She’d tell me about the tribes and the people, and I loved learning about how big our world was. She sent me an African doll, showed me money, and some of the language in handwriting.

Second, when I was in college, I went to Turkey, Greece, and different parts of Europe for 6 weeks.  There I got to visit my first Muslim country, and hear different languages spoken, experience cultural differences, worship at a mosque, and have tea with my first Arab.  (I got scolded by my professor for leaving our hotel alone as a woman, head covered, and going down the street to a shop for tea.  The owner of the tea store was most gracious and sat down with me.  He shared with me all about Turkey, eager to practice his English.  I didn’t realize going out alone as a woman was not safe.)  Additionally, one of my friends on the trip was from India (though white), and she was a practicing Hindu.  This led to many interesting discussions.

And third, after graduating from college, I moved for 5 months to New York City.  I lived in Manhattan, took the E train from World Trade every morning and every night.  My eyes burst open with all the colors of the world — all the ways different people lived — and I’m not just talking about race.   I came back from Battery Park City and lived a stint in Los Angeles, another BIG city full of diversity, and this too, opened my eyes to things I had never, ever experienced before.  These things were hard to navigate and brought many questions, but I also found there was SO much to learn, and realized I had grown up very sheltered.

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One of my first jobs was for an international non-profit organization that helped persecuted Christians, Open Doors.  Our office was “the hub” where different church leaders would visit.  Brother Andrew, a beloved mentor, would talk with me about his visits to the Muslim World and how hungry his Muslim friends were for God.  I met Egyptian Coptic Christians, Palestinian Christians, Colombian Christians, leaders of the underground house Church in China, Sudanese Christians, and so many others I can’t remember.  We would gather hands and pray in our respective languages.  Many of them would weep as they prayed.  It was beautiful.

After our two children were born, and the doctor said I shouldn’t carry more babies, it wasn’t too hard for us to ‘go there’ in terms of welcoming another child into our family through adoption.  We knew friends who had adopted, though none of them had adopted a child from Africa.  When we settled on adopting from Ethiopia, (back before the Ethiopian-adoption boom), we had two family members express concern.

One said: “Are you SURE you want a black child?  Racism is real.  Do you know what you are getting yourself into?”

Another said: “Are you SURE you want a black child?  Shouldn’t you maybe pick an asian instead?”

These were well meaning statements from people expressing genuine concern for us.  But do you hear how these statements sound?

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Shortly after our son joined our family, an extended family member brought her black boyfriend to Thanksgiving.  I held my {very cute} infant, and everyone doted on him, but there were whispers of disapproval from the older family members about the guest at the table.  We made a point to engage him (because gosh, isn’t it hard to be the visitor at a family gathering?), and so did some of the younger generations.  But there was an elephant in the room.

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When we decided to adopt an Ethiopian child, we knew race mattered and we knew race was a factor to pray and think over.  We read some books about becoming a transracial family.  But we WAY underestimated it.  This is because we are white, and at that time, our experience of racism was reserved only to what others had experienced and testified to, not what we ourselves had encountered.   We certainly thought about how it would feel to be white and have a black son.  But did I didn’t think through how it would feel for him to have white parents and white grandparents and white cousins and white aunties.  Someday he will tell us.

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Fact is, when you are white you generally don’t think about race, unless someone you love, someone you are very close to, someone in your immediate family is of another race.  Then suddenly you start to see the world through a more varied lens.

So far, most of the questions we get about race are usually addressed from other parents to me — parent-to-parent.  I field all sorts of questions about his skin, his hair, his temperament, whether he is athletic, whether he has rhythm.  I am asked all the time by well-meaning people about his ‘real family’ — where are his ‘real parents’?  Note: When you adopt a child of a different race than yours, you place a post-it note on your child’s forehead: “I WAS ADOPTED.”

Once we were at a Payless Shoe Source in town, all three children (it was mayhem), and while I was helping Peanut try on shoes, the Bean was sprinting up and down the store isles.  I let him because, well, he was THREE.  The store manager came around the corner and vented  (to me), “Where is that kid’s mother?  I can’t believe how they leave their children unattended to.”  “I am his mother,” I snipped back.

On another occasion, I had a dad at little league ask me if our son was the product of my ‘hooking up with a black guy.’  When I explained that he was adopted from Ethiopia, his response: ‘ohhhh, you are one of those humanitarian types.’  Yep, that’s it.  I was trying to be a good humanitarian so I decided to PARENT another child.

We’ve had many comments about how great it is that his skin is not very black.  Those are always painful.

At one point, when the Bean went through a not-so-pleasant phase of sleeping on the floor in the hallway, someone suggested, “Maybe it traces back to his tribe and how people sleep on the floor in huts in Ethiopia?”  Nope.  That’s not it.  Maybe it’s because he has anxiety.

What I find with these statements is that many people, with little first-hand exposure to diversity, simply do not know what is ok and what is not ok to say.  Sometimes it is meant as a jab, but more often than not, it is pure ignorance.  Many questions are the result of curiosity.  Additionally, many statements are the result of never been corrected or rebuked before.

Maybe they grew up just like me.

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As I thought about this post, I took a break (because I am literally pained by what I’m writing) and went over to my twitter feed for a second.  It occurred to me how much sameness was on my twitter feed, even though I’ve tried to diversify it some.  How much sameness is in the pews of our church.  How much sameness is in the books I read, and the music I listen to, and the circles of people we hang out with.  We have a LOT of friends in the Ethiopian adoptive community, and the international adoption community at large, and I’m very thankful my children are playing side-by-side often with children who do not look like them.  They have more exposure to race than most.  But  it is still not enough.  If they are going to have exposure, it is going to have to come through me.  I am responsible to teach them.

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Almanor with Yates 2014_0001He is too young for it now.  Practically every where we go I get comments from people about how handsome and beautiful my son is.  And he is STUNNING.  He has these eyes that sparkle, literally.

But some day he will be a teenager.  Some day he will be 18.  Some day he will be 25.  Some day he might be the black guy at a white Thanksgiving dinner.

It isn’t here yet, but sometime soon I’m going to have to have that conversation — where I tell him about the fact that because of his skin, people are going to assume things about him.  That people DO judge you by how you dress and how you speak and how you hold yourself, but people will judge him more harshly, simply because he is not white.  He is going to be the brunt of some assumptions, and some biases, and some fears.  He might be ridiculed because he has a white mama.  Or maybe he’ll be more trusted because he has a white mama.  I’m going to have to teach him about racial profiling, about our shameful past with slavery and our tragic todays with Treyvon Martins and Michael Browns.  One day people will quit directing their ridiculous comments to me and they will direct them at him.  That day is coming soon.

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I’m not pretending to have all the answers.  But I’m absolutely certain all of us have biases and prejudices we must fight against.  Many of those we learn and many of those are because of life exposure.  And let us not forget that there is an enemy who seeks to divide and destroy us — to fuel our hearts with hate and not love.  We are each fallen, and none of us without fault.  But it starts with understanding and admitting something is broken.  We are part of that something.

If you are a white family in a white city in a white school and a white church, my prayer is that you expose your family and your children to some friendships with people who are not white.  And people who are not of your same religion, for that matter.  And people who are not of your same value system.  Because the biggest reason we fear difference is due to lack of education and lack of exposure.  

Here are some very basic suggestions for how you can help your children start to break out of their racial bubble:

1. Become pen pals with someone in another country.  

2. Lead by example.  Invite someone of a different race over to dinner.  Look around and notice who in your church or school or community is not white.  Pull up a chair next to them at the soccer game.  Chat with them about their job.  Sit by them at church.  Don’t stick to your same circles of same colors. Don’t presume you have more in common with the white lady.  

3. Watch movies and read books about racial issues.  As a family we recently watched Remember the Titans.  My eldest (10 years old) is currently reading The Dairy of Anne Frank.  We also took him to see 42.  After you read these books and watch these movies, engage in a discussion.  Your children will shock you.

4.  Travel internationally with your children.  If you can’t travel internationally, travel to a big city.  Go to a museum.  Study different types of art for different cultures.  Take a cultural music class.  Expose your children to the big, diverse world while they are still in your nest and your can still speak into their experience.

5. Choose doctors, teachers, dentists, and other role models who are not white.  Our dentist is an Iranian woman.  The Bean’s karate instructors are two black men.  It is important for our children to see people in positions of authority who are not only white.

6. Try international cuisine.  We have several delicious Ethiopian restaurants nearby we love to frequent.  There are also asian, mexican, colombian, and moroccan restaurants nearby that I love. But showing an interest in other cultures, rather than a fear of them, is a great start!

7. Diversify your twitter, Facebook, and news sources.  Be willing to follow someone who has a different political ideology than you, or a different theological perspective, or a different socio-economic one.  Read a variety of newspapers — from the Wall Street Journal to the New York Times to Forbes to the LA Times.  Fight sameness.

8. Buy dolls and toys that are not white.  Check out children’s books from the library that have characters who are of different ethnicities.  Watch TV shows that have a diverse cast of characters.

9. Don’t assume racism and white privilege aren’t real just because you haven’t experienced it.  Listen hard to what others are saying. Seek to understand before you rush to defend or deny.

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Related reading and role models:

Why I Fear for My Sons

More on Ferguson and White Privilege — Matt Chandler

Jumping Tandem — Deidra Riggs

Ferguson and my White Looking Son — Trillia Newbell

Leroy Barber

Eugene Cho

Lecrae