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.
Such a failure to fully see the child also hurts his development of an identity that is true to his all (similarities to his white family and differences, all put together). This is because it says that the child – in order to become one of the white family and be accepted by them – must deny or obliterate as many traces of his difference as he can, especially those related to his blackness. This means that the family’s comfort is secured at the expense of his own. The family he becomes part of is minimally challenged and changed by including him in their number but he must deny a part of his reality and experience in order to ensure that this is so. On what basis is that fair? Would it not be fairer to allow the family to be affected and significantly enriched by the difference it is bringing into itself by adopting this black child?
I recently saw the two young (white, biological) daughters of a couple that adopted a black boy holding the cutest little black dolls. I wished I knew the story behind the couple’s decision. Their act on its own struck me as being really wonderful: they had left all the many white dolls that overpopulate South African store shelves and somehow located black dolls to help their little girls love and identify with a toy person who looks different to themselves. They seemed to be subtly teaching their daughters to perceive and yet simultaneously welcome difference in their family. This is in keeping with a race-conscious approach.
Instead of the denialism of the colour-blind approach, a race-conscious approach acknowledges what the adopted black child and his white siblings see (the difference in skin colour between himself and the rest of his family). Yet, it equips him to effectively deal with what the child might sometimes be confronted with (the sometimes racially ignorant or outright racist attitudes out in the world). Indispensably, it tells him that the latter attitudes are the error in some people’s judgement of what is the significance of the visual difference in skin colour and explains the modest and celebratory significance the family assigns instead. Interracially adoptive parents employing the race conscious approach say, “you are the same, in essence, and above all, in value and moral worth; and, while others may respond to the beautiful uniqueness/difference that is your darker skin (which we see and celebrate) by concluding that you’re not as good as the rest of us, your family, that’s a downright lie!”
I can understand why white adoptive parents might be scared to take a race-conscious approach. Socially aware and sensitive people are often afraid that acknowledging difference means necessarily saying that the different one is unequal or inferior, or that it necessarily implies a kind of exclusion. While it sure can be (we are all familiar with the long-misused legal platitude, “separate but equal”), it is not necessarily true. As illustrated above, denying differences can be a worse kind of exclusion. And, interracially adoptive parents can acknowledge difference while celebrating it and constantly affirming that it is not a source of inferiority, no matter what some in the world may say.
This can occur in events as simple as daily applying lotion to the little black boy’s body, recognising that his skin gets drier than a white person’s and that’s just a genetic difference but his chocolate skin is still just beautiful. It can occur in telling a little black girl that, though her hair is not silky and smooth like her white siblings’, it’s full of so much awesome character, which allows it to be styled in a myriad of interesting and fun ways. Her unique hair is also lower maintenance, in one sense, as she oughtn’t normally to wash it more than once a week because otherwise it can get too dry and lose some of the lustre it can otherwise get from a little moisturiser added to it.
This celebration of difference complemented by affirmation of the inherent moral worth of black people should happen in bigger ways too, such as teaching the child and his white siblings about black people (people who look like him) in history who have achieved great things. That way, the child will not grow up believing that he must claim white identity in order for it to be fathomable for him to be someone of significance or to accomplish great feats.
A moment for such affirmative interventions can be uncomfortably prompted when the little one comes home from school (hopefully a bit older, but it can happen as early as age 4, as it did with a friend’s niece) having been told that black boys are not supposed to be the boyfriends of white girls. The interracially adoptive parent can’t then just pretend that the child is white (nor should they pretend such); but also obviously shouldn’t make too big a deal of the child’s blackness as a source of difference. Rather, this is an opportunity for race-conscious parenting graciously saying “you are black and beautiful, and there is nothing wrong with a black boy being the boyfriend of a white girl, as long as they love each other and respect each other just as they are – black and white – (and are old enough :)”. Feel free to use Dan and me as an example, if you like!
Postscript: Once again, in the course of letting a piece “breathe” for a couple of weeks, serendipitously (as though to confirm the timeliness of the telling), Dan and I went to see a play we knew basically nothing about last night – the description given online was extremely vague. It turned out to have been so with good reason as to know more than that “Rainbow Scars”, as it was titled, was a production about the complexities of life in post-apartheid yet still highly-racialised South Africa would have ruined its plenty profound surprises. The central plot was about a “born free” black teen who had been adopted by a white family. On seeing it, I felt affirmed in the fact that much of the writer’s musings (and implied conclusions, if any) were along the lines of my own. So, here’s agreeing with the play in celebrating 19 years of South Africa’s freedom with a sober reflection on the importance of raising racially conscious and linguistically capable black-kids-with-white-parents!