One of my dear relations through marriage has, for the last three years that Dan and I have been married, consistently misspelled my name. Dan and I have tried to gently draw her attention to the fact a number of times (by signing my full name at the end of emails or Dan posting a P.S. about this issue in communications with her directly) but she just hasn’t seemed to get the message through our not-so-subtle hints. I finally decided to write her an email specifically about this issue and tell her that my name is Sindiso with two i’s – not Sindeso with an “e”.
I am confident that she doesn’t mean to offend me by persistently getting the spelling of my name wrong. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if she has even gone to great lengths to try to remember to spell my name accurately, though unfortunately ultimately wrongly each time. Dan’s family are just very deliberate and try to be awake to these kinds of prejudices embedded in ordinary life – not meaning that they always get it right, but who does?! Previously, my father-in-love was so keen to master the pronunciation of my name that, for a few months, he would write my name phonetically, SinDIso, to remind himself that the emphasis was on the second and not the first syllable as he would have naturally thought. I thought this was cute. However, as I had to explain to this relation, despite my best efforts, I still can’t help but be stung by the fact that she keeps spelling my name incorrectly.
As I reflected on why this issue bugged me so much, I came to a couple of simple reasons.
(This opinion piece appeared in the Concord Monitor both in print and online on Sunday, October 20, 2013.)
On Tuesday, the Concord Monitor reported that a 42-year-old man, Raymond Stevens, had been charged with writing racist graffiti on black, African refugees’ Concord homes in 2011 and 2012. This was after Detective Wade Brown had painstakingly combed through 1,500 gun permit applications to match the handwriting to a suspect. Unlike some of the commentators responding to the initial news story on wmur.com, I am pleased at this news.
As a scholar of postcolonial African studies, I must issue a disclaimer. Though African, I am not a resettled refugee. Rather, I am here because I just so happen to have fallen in love with – and subsequently married – a New Hampshire native while we were graduate students in the United Kingdom, where I completed a Ph.D. on a Rhodes Scholarship. Furthermore, I do not come from a war-torn country that I either needed or was eager to leave. And, though some refugees (despite working as cleaners or at Walmart here) were qualified doctors and accountants in their home countries, unlike many, I speak English at first language proficiency.
I open with this because it is important for the reader to know that I am not representative – and therefore do not essentially have the right to speak on behalf – of African refugees. Nevertheless, on one of my first visits of any length to Concord, where my husband then lived, I was called the N word while walking down the street. A Caucasian man in a truck slowed his car, rolled down his window and hurled this expletive out of his window.
When people think of prominent black-white couples, figures that come to mind might include “sensational” (read: chock full of drama) pairings, Tiger Woods and Elin Nordegren/Lindsey Vonn, Kobe Bryant and Vanessa Laine Bryant (though she’s actually Hispanic), and Lamar Odom and Khloe Kadashian (in the picture). And for many ordinary black people, these guys ‘sold out’.
For Christmas 2011, our brother and sister-in-law gave Dan and me a great book: Navigating Interracial Borders: Black-White Couples and their Social Worlds, by Erica Chito Childs. The book discusses white and black community responses to black-white marriages. It is a fascinating study that made Dan and me feel incredibly fortunate that our families and friends were so accepting. But I’d like to pick up on one thing she talks about that made me raise a brow.
In her book, Dr Childs writes the following rather provocative statement (among many):
“In black communities, interracial relationships are often seen as a sign that one is removed from the black community. More important, they indicate a negative image of oneself as a black individual and of black communities in general. … [T]hese relationships are constructed as incompatible with black pride, cultural affinity, and fighting racial injustice. In other words, to engage in an intimate relationship with a white person means that one is selling out to white society and in the process has sold out the black community. … Contemporary black scholars such as Lawrence Otis Graham also argue against interracial marriage, stating ‘the cumulative effect is that the very blacks who are potential mentors and supporters of a financially and psychologically depressed black community are increasingly deserting the black community en masse, both physically and emotionally.’” (emphasis added)
Dan and I recently returned from a trip to Brazil and Argentina. On our flight back, we finished reading the masterpiece by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “Americanah”. It was the combination of the two (the trip and the book) that inspired this post.
In the book, Adichie’s protagonist, Ifemelu writes a post for her race blog about “travelling while recognisably black”. It resonated so deeply, I had to do the same … but with an interracial couple twist!
The first time Dan and I travelled to a foreign country together, we went to Germany (the Black Forest, to be precise) and Switzerland. What were we thinking? To be honest, we weren’t thinking! We were in the heady early days of our relationship and, only four months into being “serious”, we hadn’t been together long enough to know that this would be throwing our quite new relationship into the proverbial deep end. Read more…
Parking in the city has never been my strong suit. Where I come from in Temple, New Hampshire (population 1,200), parking lots are plentiful and meters are few and far between. If it’s not a formal establishment, you simply pull over to the side of the road and hope a passing snowstorm doesn’t snow you in. If you’re running a quick errand, you drive up to the curb and leave the engine running. No locked doors; no meter maids on patrol.
Not so in the big city, where I recently had to park my car while visiting a friend in hospital. Ten blocks into my search for a parking spot, I finally squeezed into a narrow bay in an unfamiliar, but unoffensive, part of town. That’s when I realized I had more than just the meters and parking regulations to contend with; I had my deep-seated prejudices too.
Noticing a few young men hanging out across the street, I paused and reconsidered. What were the odds that they would bust my window and help themselves to the contents of my car? Was it worth the risk? With time running out and little chance of finding another spot, I grabbed my laptop, shoved a few belongings under the seat, and locked the car doors, twice, before disappearing around the corner in a hurry. Two hours later, I returned to find my car unscathed, like every other car on the block. My conscience, however, was not.
Yes, the guys across the street were black.
In Part 1 of this post, I argued that interracially adopted black babies ought to be taught a vernacular (African) language at first language proficiency to give them the option of communing with other black people who share their experiences of being black in a (sadly, still) highly racialised world. In this part, I expand on why I think it is important to parent in a way that acknowledges the black child’s difference(s).
I think it would be an error to raise a black child adopted into a white family in a manner that says, “you are no different from the rest of us” and hence deny the very obvious surface difference and the fact that the world has hyper-sensationalised and –reified this surface difference. The boy (in the example of the couple discussed in Part 1 of this blog post) will grow up in a world that is not blind to race in its treatment of him, and the colour-blind approach of his white adoptive family cannot adequately prepare the boy to live in such a world.
An assimilationist attitude in terms of which the white adoptive parents only see the adopted black boy as “our son and therefore he must become just like us in every way possible, and we will treat him as such” also does symbolic violence to the child. In other words, it denies the child full acceptance by insisting on not seeing him for all of what he is and his consequent experience of the world. To feel fully loved one must feel fully seen and known.
For the first time, I am blogging per request and to give advice explicitly. I suppose I say that up-front, not to suggest that I haven’t thought about the topic lots beforehand, but because I had held off blogging about this rather sensitive subject out of doubt that I had the right to speak on the matter. After all, I haven’t personally experienced this. However, on sharing my views in conversation with some friends who had also been thinking about this and whose immediate relatives and close friends were embarking on the journey, these friends strongly urged me to put my thoughts on the blog. This, in hopes that my views might be of some value and assistance to parents of interracially adopted black babies. So, humbly, here it goes … (Please pardon the extended length of the piece, which I have broken into two parts; I dare say, there’s lots to write on this subject.)
I am a big fan of adoption. I know there are some black people who think it is wrong for children to be adopted not just outside of their race but even outside of their extended family circles. While I agree that it would be ideal indeed for kids to be raised by their kin (and I share the sentimental possessiveness that black people feel over “our children”), realistically, that isn’t always possible and it doesn’t always happen. So, I say “kudos” to all those parents who open up their homes and hearts to children biologically born to others who cannot care for them as they need, and save them from the terrible fate suffered by so many children who end up on the streets. I think it’s a beautiful thing – regardless of whether the parents are of the same race as the child or not, and in some ways more so when it happens across racial lines. Read more…