Saturday, October 6, 2007

Family Perspective Week Part 2: Okay, here's what I think...

Weird, isn't it, that I always seem to end my titles with elipses? Elipses may be the defining punctuation of my life, now that I think about it! (Weird, isn't it, that I'm thinking about it?) I lapse into elipses (how's that for a grunge/alternative band name) constantly when I write (when I'm not writing parenthetically....which is a whole OTHER pathology), and if I were to choose an end punctuation for my life, I think it would be elipses... 10 years ago, I would have said exclamation point; 15, I would have said a question mark; now, it's elipses...hmmmm.

But this post is about Transracial Adoption (though I can't imagine how anyone would guess that from my title or introductory paragraph...see why my journalism major only lasted a semester?), so I'll get right down to it. In the last post, I described the evolution of my feelings about parenting, race, and this adoption journey of ours. Now, I'd like to share some ideas that I have about the same sorts of issues. I like to divide things up, break them into smaller parts so that I can look at them more closely (see Homeschool vs. Public School, for example). I have come up with two concepts of race that hold perfect tension on the tug-of-war line between confusion and truth in my mind. I'd like to share them with you, but the caveat for embarking on this post is that if you read only part of it, the tug-of-war sways grossly out of balance. So (if you can tolerate all of the self-indulgent parenthetical asides), read the whole thing in a single sitting. Otherwise, you'll be choking on dry cereal one morning and drinking silty milk from a bowl the next.

First off,
Race is a CONSTRUCT: One of the last classes I took during my last run at school spent a lot of effort in examining the ways in which people create ideas, especially socially significant ideas like race, culture, and gender. We talked about the fact that categories that seem pretty discrete and concrete actually exist along a much more fluid continuum than our conceptions would allow. Gender was, during that course, the example that impacted me. Our professor walked us through reading and class discussion that shook apart the dividing lines between categories so broadly accepted that stick figures in skirts or slacks almost universally symbolize their preeminence. But what makes a man a man and a woman a woman? Biology? That answer seems most obvious, but consider the biological qualities that we accept as identifiers. Hormones? Some self-identified women have hormone levels more saturated with testosterone than most culturally identified men. Chromosomes? What about Jamie Lee Curtis and the better part of a women's Olympic shot-put squad, all of whom have been dramatically affected by their ambiguous chromosomes, which include the decidedly male Y attatched to their pair of Xs? That's not to say that men and women aren't different, but it does illustrate the fact that the words we use to meen "male" and "female" are more pliable than we might normally recognize, that they actually represent some combination of a whole slew of factors that may or may not come into play in every instance to which they are applied.

Did I mention that this post is about Transracial Adoption? (7 right turns do, indeed, make a left.) All of that to say that if categories such as male and female represent loose amalgamations of expectations that we drag around without realizing it, then certainly already ambiguous categories like race and tribe slip their fences.

Did you know that people who are from India living in England are considered black? Most American people don't use that word in the same way. What about the word "Indian" in America? At least two stridently distinct ethnic heritages carry that label in our country. And are Russian's Asian? Are Haitian's African? Do you see how the words we use to describe other people leak like sieves? None of the categorical qualifiers that we might stuff in the bottoms of our language are sufficient to plug their holes. Complexion? Language? Family History? Many people who would check the box next to "Black" or "African-American" on a survey line have lighter complexions than other people who identify themselves as categorically white. People from several different continents all speak Spanish when they talk to their great grandparents, friends, and business associates. And while we're on the subject of great grandparents.....consider the flexibility in your family tree. Most of us don't know our great great grandmother's maiden name, and we know even less about the minutae of her daily life or the person she perceived herself to be. Some people's worlds are rocked when their family tree changes color or shakes off its leaves. My husband's German family is actually Danish. My grandmother's mother was Scottish and not Irish. My patrilineal ancestor snuck over on a boat from England and not Ireland. What about Carlos O'Kelly? Where's that guy from? Where are any of us from? Cultural heritage and ethnically rooted traditions can bind families together, but they cannot be regarded as racial signifiers. They don't have the stickiness to do the job. They're like a pencil-scrawled post it note, passed down from generation to generation: the writing has faded, and the back just never holds.

So what is race? Just like gender (only moreso) it is a conglomeration of labels that have slowly saturated our ideas about one another. Some of those labels were scribbled on the back of the post it note passed down to you through the generations. Some seeped in between the worksheets in our kindergarten classes. Some, we made up to explain the vague trends in our own experience. Who knows? I didn't know that "Jewish" could be used as a racial identifier until recently. Ten or twelve years ago, when I went to college, I think, I first heard someone say something like "He looks Jewish" or "That sounds like a Jewish last name." I had absolutely no idea what that person meant. In my arrangment of seives, Jewish was the religion of Moses, Abraham, and Jesus, and the people who observed Purim and Yom Kippur in my high school were white, like me. They just went to a different church. There was no special look, no identifiable last name in my construct of that "race."

Add to that (or add that to) the fact that I am committed, by a lifelong faith, to the absolute particularity of every person and his or her crucial importance to the heart of a loving God, and you have nothing but a shattered reflection through which to sift for any remnants of what you (or I) once labelled "race." In such light, the CONSTRUCT, simply cannot hold.

My children will be (are being) raised in accordance with that truth. Their indispensable voices, their irreplacable selves, their inimitable perspectives...their perfect particularity in the sight of God....will always govern the way our family operates. Our lives and the love that infuses them with meaning will unrelentingly reflect our commitment to the unity that comes from absolute diversity (not the shoddily drawn diversity of arbitrary categories but the radical diversity of individual, unrepeatable souls).

There you have it. Tug of war team # 1, truth, and its presidence over our family and all of its members: Race is a CONSTRUCT. It does not exist.

And here's the second, unmistakable fact:

Race IS a Construct: It DOES persist as arguably the most powerful construct in human history. It has been used to justify war and cruelty beyond measure. It continues to dellineate neighborhoods, churches, and cafeteria tables. In its prevalence, it creates commonality. People who have been stung by the broad, stupid application of the construct, again and again, are galvanized into unity by the heat and pressure. Likewise, people coagulate into like-mindlessness and power by virtue of their appropriation of a construct in common. So, at its best, the construct of race offers people a home, a place where belonging exists before words because common experience rarely needs to be spoken. And in this solidarity, people are comforted, empowered, and understood. At its worst, well....read the papers.

If I don't arm my children with the tools to face down the wrong-headed implications of the most powerful construct in human history, then what kind of parent am I? And if I deny them an opportunity to melt into a community where they can find ease and identity without words among people who share common experience, an experience of a construct that I will never have nor completely understand, then I will have failed my children. I have an obligation to educate, encourage, and empower my family on all sides of this volatile, powerful, hateful, ennobling construct with every tool that my own resources and the resources of my community can provide.

I don't know how we'll manage it, but I'm fairly sure that if we let these two facts slide out of balance, if either side begins to pull harder, our whole family will collapse in a filthy heap. So I'm committed to the effort, with all of my heart. And I'll trust in the miracle of being set aright and hosed off again and again by the one who created without construct and yet enabled us to create them. And I can't tell you how much peace washes over me as I end that sentence with a solid, definitive period.

6 comments:

ltdave06 said...

An interesting question one might find on a psychological evaluation: if you were a punctuation mark, what punctuation mark would you be? I think most people would end up question marks, being forced to respond to that question by asking, "What's a punctuation mark again?"

I'm glad you made it to the second half of the tug-of-war -- not that I doubted that you would consider all sides of the argument/discussion, of course. More that, as much as we as parents like to imagine that we can raise our kids to overcome and see beyond the constructs forced on us by our society, our kids are going to grow up in that same society -- so, if we haven't prepared them to face those constructs and to deal with them, then we have failed them as much as if we had imposed those constructs on them ourselves. You're right in that there has to be balance -- you can't team 1 win, or reality will inevitably shatter your children's identities -- conversely, you can't let team 2 win, because the elevation of the one over and above the other will cause discrepency and resentment within your family. The balance is the key.

I'll admit that when you first mentioned inter-racial adoption, I was scared, mostly for Josiah and Olivia -- that (like is prevalent in America, that it's not cool to take pride in your race if you're not a minority) their racial identities might get subordinated due to a focus on the racial identities of their new sibling(s). And while I think that's a struggle you're still going to have to face, I also believe that with your balanced perspective, your family will survive and thrive. It's not going to be easy -- you're ensuring some hard times for yourselves down the road, to be sure (remember how much Junior High sucked? The feelings of "I don't have any friends" and "I don't fit in with anybody" will carry a racial component that we didn't have to deal with, making it difficult for you to honestly say, "I know exactly how you feel," because you won't -- that will be true for more than just for junior high, but to me that's when it all came crashing down at the same time... needed ellipses to close my lengthy parenthetical...)

All that to say, I'm proud of you -- you're undertaking a major challenge at the urging of your deep heart, and that's impressive and commendable. You're stepping out of the boat in faith, when others (myself included) stay safely ensconced inside the hull. I love you and am proud of you.

Dave

Anonymous said...

Amy,

I am so glad I have this life to share with you. I am confident that in our weakness, God will prevail.

I just finished mowing our lawn and was listening to various songs and thought I would look at the soundtrack section on my MP3 player. One of the albums I have loaded is the soundtrack from Jungle Fever. I have always been a Stevie Wonder fan and thought that a little Stevie would give me the final push to finish mowing my back yard. While I was listening to Stevie, I started to wonder what growing up in America must have been like for a blind African American boy. What unique experiences he must have encountered. I mean here is someone who experienced racism, but never saw (visually) what caused people to act the way they did. In many ways, our family will have similar experiences as we braid our lives between "racial" boundaries. There are some experiences that we will never fully understand, but their are infinite experiences that we will share and try to understand in our love for each other.

I have to say that there are times when I am scared about the journey we are getting ready to embark. However, my fear is less about the pigmentation in our skin as it is about having four kids to love on and teach and grow. I had this same experience when Josiah was born. I couldn't imagine loving another child like I love Olivia. My love was already fuller than I could have ever imagined. Fortunately, God's well has no bottom.

However, there have only been a handful of times in my life that I have felt that the decision I was making was in line with God's love. I have no idea where this journey will take my family. I have no idea what struggles we will encounter. I have no idea what joys we will experience. I only know that with God there is no challenge that is impossible.

Thank You all for your love.

Cindi Clark said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Cindi Clark said...

How I wish I could say that I have never had any racial prejudices. I am ashamed of the way my heart has responded across the past five and a half decades. To try to rationalize my thoughts by saying, "those were different times" just doesn't even begin to excuse making decisions about relationships based solely on the color of one's skin. I might have been able to remain comfortable in the world of my perceptions...except I gave birth to four children who have perpetually pushed and challenged my belief systems helping me to clumsily sort them out based on the reality of God's desires. I have not attained anything near perfection, but I pray that each day I become more a woman after God's own heart.

I will never forget the day that you first challenged my prejudices, Amy. The date was September 6, 1977, late in the morning. Your baby brother, David, was only about three hours old. You were proud to be wearing a sticker that exclaimed, "I'M A BIG SISTER!!!" Daddy carried you in his arms and I moved slowly next to you in the anticipation of showing you for the very first time, your new little baby brother! His little bassinette was right in front of the nursery window with a little blue card saying CLARK - BOY.

With hushed animation, Daddy and I whispered, "There he is...there is your baby brother...baby David." Without hesitation, you simply responded, "No. I want that one." We pointed you back to your little brother and restated, "Look, sweetie. This is your baby brother, David." A little more energetically, you stated, "No! I want that one...that one over there!" You were pointing at an adorable baby girl two bassinettes down from your brother. She was black. Her parents were at the window as well and we all laughed a nervous and uncomfortable laugh as I tried to explain that this was not a baby store and that David was the baby in mama's tummy and that he will be coming home with us. It's all a blur and probably poorly handled, but the internal feelings and worries flashing through my mind...just questioning...what was this moment going to mean in the course of your lifetime?

You were not the only one of my four children who challenged my prejudices during your dating years. In response to your interests in the possibilities of dating someone who was black...I failed completely. No good answers...none...just something like, "just because" or "it would be so difficult for you if you got married" or "no." Great parenting, huh? I apologize for the pain and confusion that we all experienced in those days because of my pre-conceived and rigid notions.

Just so you know...I was an equal opportunity stupidhead because I often responded poorly to the love interests of my children regardless of race!

I'm better now than I was then...I hope. I have worked next to wonderful people of several races...as well as a sampling of jerks of several races. I believe that I am doing better at being able to open my heart, seeing past color, size, or any other external barrier from my shameful judgemental past.

I know this to be true...I don't see color when I look at a baby...a child. I flirt with every baby I see because I can look into eyes of tiny people who need love, affection, and attention.

I am confident...without a doubt that I will love your new little baby/babies without reservation...that every single one of my grandchildren will be loved with every fiber of my being, every ounce of my energy, and every corner of my heart.

So...thirty years ago, I questioned what this moment was going to mean in the course of your lifetime and now I am beginning to see.

I am so proud of you and Josh for responding to God's love by opening your hearts, lives, and home in such a huge way as you prepare to welcome these children into your family. I know I'm still prejudiced because I don't believe there is a better home in the whole world for these little ones. I have yet to know them, but i already love them and always will.

Little Sister said...

The main thing I've learned this week, is (even outside this adoption) I have lots of work to do on perceiving people equally rather than considering them different due to appearance. I think the perspective week every year may be a really good idea - I've got some follow ups that I wouldn't mind devoting my time to, and I can imagine I'm not alone. I'm more aware at this point (and Jeremy and I discussed this and agreed we're both this way) that someone's appearance directly relates to how I perceive him/her as a person - and I need to work on that. This can mean race, but it also means how they dress, how they wear their hair, etc. People are people - souls that God loves - regardless of what they look like.

I was just chatting with a girl who grew up in a multi-racial household because her parents adopted African American children. I asked her some of the tough questions we've been asking each other about adjustments, perceptions, approach, etc. She seemed almost surprised by all of the things I was asking about because she said it was just a part of her life...no adjustments, no "situations," no problems or differences - those were just her brothers and sisters that she grew up with. I was pretty surprised thinking - surely there were adjustments that needed to be made - and things that came up along the way - and differences, etc. The only thing she could think of that was at all a situation was that her African American siblings had to use different hair care products. For me, this really brought the whole adoption back down to earth. I believe it's good for all of us to be prepared, to ready ourselves, and to feel as though we need to be aware of the possible adjustments that may arise. But the truth is - these kids are our family. Just like all the other cousins that there'll be, they'll run and play and be a part of the plays they'll make up, hide and seek in the dark, spoons, telephone, and many other traditions that will surface just in this family. They'll be a part of the inside jokes between brothers and sisters and cousins. They'll love their aunts and uncles and grandparents, and that's the way it will be. Of course there will be adjustments for them, and of course, we'll have to make sure we're not insensitive to differences, but I'm excited about the fact that mainly - we'll just have a total of seven grandchildren/nieces and nephews/cousins to enjoy throughout the years starting here in the next few months! And counting! This is only the beginning for some of us just getting started on families, and those of us that haven't started at all!

I'll email additional comments.

I'm excited for your family, Amy and Josh!

Kimberly said...

This post and commentary remind me of a story told by one of my husband's best friends, Dave. For some time Dave's parents were missionaries in Liberia, which is where Dave was born and spent the first few years of his life. When his parents returned to the US, they adopted two American black children. So, Dave often jokes about who in his family is more African American -- he (the white/caucasian who was acutally born there) or his adopted siblings (the black male and black female who hail from Ohio)?


Thanks for another intriguing post, Amy. I look forward to witnessing the many ways in which your children -- those you have and those who will come -- will enrich your life and family.