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.

###

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.

###

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

    29 COMMENTS

  • Jamie Ivey August 27, 2014 Reply

    LOVE your words and can hear your heart so much through my computer screen. Thanks for sharing!

    • Karen August 27, 2014 Reply

      Thank you Jamie!

  • Brian Owen August 27, 2014 Reply

    Thanks for this post Karen. I grew up in a tran-racial family (my sister is bi-racial) in the 70s and remember the stares and whispers. Years later, I heard from my mom about some of the comments people would make. Today I am the father of three adopted black children (two boys from Ethiopia and a baby girl from TX) and like you, I wonder what kind of world my children will face and what kind of challenges as they grow older.

    (BTW…I”m an ISF alum 🙂 ).

    • Karen August 27, 2014 Reply

      Hey Brian! How fun you are an ISFer! I’m about to start up my 2nd year — such a fantastic program! Thanks for your comment too. So hard for your sister, the stares and whispers. Makes me sad for her. And yet, that is how it is, and had she not been in your family, you probably would not have the family you have today.

  • Judy August 27, 2014 Reply

    Karen
    You should have no worries concerning this blog’s content. Though there are many many years between us in age, absolutely all you said, applies to my experiences too…especially the insensitive comments, questions, responses to your son. Of course, I haven’t adopted anyone, but know of these issues through my teaching experiences…comments made that are so ridiculously racist and at times, unconscious. Your words were right, your memories about when and where should touch someone who said them or who was there…no fear with the truth. Your suggestions for reading are such a good idea! Your fear for your son, legitimate too, though with the right guidance, direction, anticipation, openness about the seemingly never ending attempt of some to have their isolated pure worlds, maybe, he won’t have to experience hurtful people and situations. It is perfect you brought this child into your home because you understand and will always be informed. Beautiful comprehensive and true writing.

    • Karen August 27, 2014 Reply

      Wow Judy. Thank you so much for this. Thank you for this affirmation. Means so much.

      • Judy August 27, 2014 Reply

        Karen, this is so well thought through and written, I really do want a copy of it…so proud of you! So proud of your choices, your decision to write this, and also, am happy for myself, because I know you.
        You are such an old soul with a BIG eye for the world around you…that is part of what makes you such a great writer. Your sensitivity to others, your ability to be insensitive when necessary, are key factors in moving ahead with the life you dream for your beautiful children…all of them.
        My best is only a small sum of my happiness for you.
        Judy

  • Sharon O August 27, 2014 Reply

    Great message with a lot of depth I will need to read it again. my own son is a uniformed officer and I fully realize the worry and concern for each and every one of our ‘men and women’ who choose to protect and serve.

    • Karen August 27, 2014 Reply

      Yes, Sharon, thank you for your comment. Thank you to your son too, for his service.

  • Dorothy Greco August 27, 2014 Reply

    ” But it starts with understanding and admitting something is broken. We are part of that something.” Amen. Thank you for pressing through so that we could read this Karen.

    • Karen August 27, 2014 Reply

      Thank you, Dorothy!

  • Magriet August 27, 2014 Reply

    I am a white South African woman. I will not be able to write a really good comment because I am emotionally drained at the moment. We all carry a big regret and shame with us. We all grew up very sheltered and brought up our children the same (my two sons are 40 and 43)
    Even now people adopting babies that are “colored,” as a certain group of brown people are still called, have to deal with a lot of prejudice. Here it is vital that white people adopt “brown” and “black” babies as there are so many orphans due to many socioeconomic problems. So, our shame goes on and many of us simply do not know how to stop it.
    The most we can do is making sure we are not guilty of racism and that we support our brave friends how adopt these precious babies desperately in need of a home with loving parents.

    • Karen August 27, 2014 Reply

      Magriet, thank you for this. Such a vulnerable comment. I think some of the shame and regret that you speak of in South Africa exists here in the States too. We confess our wrongs and receive forgiveness — we were ignorant, we were cruel, we were uninformed. Now we are less so. But I’m sure there are many judgements I make instinctively even still, if I’m honest. We are growing people, all of us. It takes a lot of sincere soul work to reach inside and realize how we might contribute to the brokenness. I love how you talk about supporting brave friends who are adopting babies who need a home. Grace on you!

  • Laurna Tallman August 27, 2014 Reply

    Hi, Karen,
    I wish I had copied a statistic that popped up somewhere last week, something about the percentage of whites in US classrooms this September would be under 50%. The white sector of the population is shrinking and the non-white sector is expanding. By the time your boy is a man, his skin color may put him in a majority, which will alter all kinds of social factors for him. Some countries in the world are color-blind: I have heard Brazil described that way. When I was a child the first type of prejudice I encountered was towards my Christian faith. To be radically Christian is to know rejection and, in some parts of the world right now, martyrdom. To be poor will set you just as firmly in a position to be persecuted; our own Christian parents treated us as as if we were personally responsible for two world-wide recessions. To be a young male of any color is to live at greater risk than other sectors of the population, but you see everyone from car dealers to the military taking advantage of them. Yesterday, I spent the afternoon with a Jewish woman from South Africa sharing our spiritual journeys, a meeting of minds that would have been unlikely 60 years ago. I lived in the US South for four years and was appalled by the ingrained racial prejudice; I was happy to leave partly for that reason. However, we did not leave for that reason but because whites in an accounting department were siphoning grant funds into private coffers. The biggest issues we have had to deal with center on mental illness and prejudices towards people who actually can be easily healed. A young man I know is being tortured in a US hospital right now, one of tens of thousands routinely subjected to the equivalent of Nazi medical experiments through inexcusable ignorance in a vast psychiatric/medical system with huge, undeserved social power. Although his only “crime” was to urinate in his bedroom, the courts will mandate his medication with a toxic substance that at the very least will greatly impair his recovery and could maim him permanently. He is being “shot in the head” in another sense. I guess what I am driving at is your focus on this one issue and on your fear, which is understandable. I believe if parents work on teaching their children about Jesus that all of those other issues will come into the correct perspective. If you expect good things to happen, you are teaching your child how to live in the same expectation so that with God’s Grace radical changes in society can come about through them. Bean’s adult issues may not be the ones you now fear most. The need for all kinds of changes surround us. But, through Jesus we are more than conquerors. Joy to you this day and always.

  • Seth August 27, 2014 Reply

    Keep on talking about this…

    Thanks, K.

  • Julia August 27, 2014 Reply

    So beautifully and gracefully written. Thank you for sharing.

    • Karen August 27, 2014 Reply

      Thanks, Julia.

  • Dee August 27, 2014 Reply

    Beautifully written! And THANK YOU for writing it!

  • kristen howerton August 27, 2014 Reply

    Great post, friend! I can relate so much to these experiences and observations and concerns. Glad you are grappling with these issues and how to best help your son navigate.

    • Karen August 27, 2014 Reply

      Thanks Kristen for your comment. I so appreciate you and your voice for transracial and adoptive families, and just your heart as a mama in general. Hugs.

  • Erin August 27, 2014 Reply

    As the mother of two Black children thank you for this post. Parts of it literally had me in tears. I appreciate your insight.

    • Karen August 27, 2014 Reply

      Thanks Erin.

  • Dolly@Soulstops August 27, 2014 Reply

    Thank you for writing this post.

    I’m sorry to hear about the insensitive remarks made to you about your son. It is hard to write in a comment box all of my thoughts and how I can relate to those insensitive remarks although I am not black. I’m Asian.

    I assume you write this because you love your son and you’re invested in his well-being. If we as the church, could take the time to invest in someone else from a different culture, however God leads, then we would go a long way toward showing unity in Christ in the midst of our diversity.

    I also appreciate your recognition of “white privilege” and how before, race was never an issue in your life.
    Your son is blessed to have you as a mom.

    Blessings on you and your family.

    • Dolly@Soulstops August 27, 2014 Reply

      Karen,

      P.S. For clarity sake, hopefully, I wanted to say I am not equating what I experienced (which is minor in comparison) to what anyone else has experienced …just trying to say I empathize. Thank you for being brave and sharing your heart.

    • Karen August 27, 2014 Reply

      Thank you Dolly. This means so much to me. Really appreciate your comment.

  • […] Karen Yates: On Ferguson, Race, and Adoption […]

  • Susan Tweedy August 27, 2014 Reply

    This was very challenging/inspiring to me! I really need to make more of an effort to expose my kids to other cultures/colors so they can see the beautiful variation God created, and the value He ascribes to us all. Thanks for your post, Karen!

    • Karen August 27, 2014 Reply

      Thanks sweet Susan. I think some of us wait for those opportunities to come, and we end up waiting and waiting. It is so not intentional. We’re not trying to avoid difference. We’re just … busy. Unfortunately, engaging in other cultures/colors often doesn’t arise unless we are intentional about it, ya know?

      PS. Do you even KNOW how happy I am that you are in my timezone? 🙂 🙂 🙂

      • Mik August 27, 2014 Reply

        Karen,

        I am a young woman, 21, who does not have a husband or kids; so I admit that I have few experiences and my perspective may change. I am white so I recognize that there is a type of lens that goes with that.
        I grew up in a small-town rural community with a small population. Even smaller was the population of people who were not white. At my school there were 2 or 3 black people. There were maybe 1 or 2 Asian, not including foreign exchange students in high school.

        I was best friends with 2 of the 3 black folks and the other one I had a crush on. Don’t get my wrong I had a wide variety of guys I liked. Largely due to my daddy-issues, I liked any guy pretty much. I didn’t care about his skin color or anything. I just wanted him to make me laugh and be a Christian. The black guy I had a crush on was a dark chocolate, black. I liked him because he was extremely funny and was good at acting in our drama plays. My very best friend was half-black, half-white.

        With that said, I can assure you that my racial bias is different. I recognize that there will always be some sort of bias, but mine wasn’t like most people’s. I recognized that my friends looked different than me. I didn’t think that made them exotic or inferior or superior. Just different. I had no ideas about what should be expected of black folks. By that I mean, biases are often expectations of how the people should act, dress, speak, etc. based on their skin or ethnicity.

        If I grew up in a white town, white family. Where my family did not “attempt to expose” me to diverse groups, how did I not have racist issues in me? My father and his family is racist. Also, some of the older folks on my mother’s side. I heard their little things they would say. But I ignored them and thought they sounded stupid. My mother raised me to be independently minded. She wanted me to think for myself, not based off of what anyone but God has to say.

        All of that being said, I do recognize that there are privileges. However, I recognize that their are specific privileges everywhere. If I went into a mostly black town looking for a job, there would be some business owners who would not hire me based off of my skin and others that wouldn’t care. If I dated a black man some of the members of his family would think I had no business dating him because I am not black. If you think I am making that up, just look it up. It is just as real as the racism of the one black guy at the Thanksgiving table. Depending on the culture and subculture, there will be privileges of different kinds. Since the U.S. is predominantly white for now, there may be more white privilege.

        However, I do not believe that things like affirmative action, or positive discrimination as the UK calls it, are the answer. You said that you specifically hire doctors, instructors, etc. because of the color of their skin or how diverse they are. Isn’t that as wrong as not hiring someone based on their skin? I want to teach my children to hire someone based off of the quality of their work or talents no matter their ethnicity, skin, religion, orientation. It is good to want to diversify with dolls, music, etc. But forming relationships with people just because of color or ethnicity seems wrong to me.

        This is coming from a person whose mother did not attempt to diversify. I didn’t need her to, I guess. She told me of a time I was very young, younger than 5. We were at McDonald’s and I was out of her sight for a minute. When she finally found me, I was sitting with an entirely Asian family in a booth. They looked confused and wanted rid of me. But I was sitting there smiling, with my feet kicking as they dangled.

        Recognizing difference just makes sense. When we were kids we were taught to differentiate between things. Like we have 4 apples and 1 banana, which is the thing different? Our minds naturally see the differences. There is nothing wrong with that. What is wrong is if we have ideas about things based on the differences. God made things so differently! I love that. But I don’t want to favor something just because it is different. I want to favor or like something based on its individuality and special qualities.

        I would like to know your thoughts on my post. Believe it or not, I do want to be fair and do what would be best and good for people. So I would like to know your thoughts. Starting a dialogue is the best place to start.

        Mik

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