African American

"What Is A White Personality?" and Other Questions From Young Transracial Adoptees

Recently, I had the privilege of speaking at the African Caribbean Heritage Camp in Denver, Colorado. Instead of preaching to a group of middle and high schoolers, I invited them to participate in a discussion between myself and three other panelists about the concept of race and adoption. Many of the campers candidly explained that they feel that they have a "white personality" or that they consider themselves to be an Oreo. I asked the tweens/teens to expand more upon what they meant by white personality or black personality, and we came up with a list. They explained that having a white personality meant that you liked to hike, camp, dress preppy and seek education whilst a black personality meant that you liked hip hop, dancing, sports and could wear bright colored clothing. The panelists (consisting of an Ethiopian man, an African American woman, a transracial adoptee and myself) worked to rebut their definitions explaining that some of us enjoy hiking and camping while not enjoying hip hop music. A contemplative conversation ensued to which I ended the session by asking each of the teens to write what they felt their emotional identity to be in light of our conversation. This question was meant to tap into who these bright young adults felt their true identity to be. I challenged them to not view themselves as white because their parents and the majority of their friends are white, and to not simply think of themselves as black because their skin tone and society says they are black, but instead to think about who they feel themselves to be emotionally?

Here's a sampling of some of the written responses I received:

"I think I'm white, maybe, because I don't get physical when I'm mad, where a lot of Blacks might shove someone or something when they are mad." -13 year old male,  African-American transracial adoptee

"My emotional identity is gray because that's Black and White." - 11 year old male, African-American transracial adoptee

"My emotional identity is white because of the way that I talk and dress. I really enjoy it though. I feel that I have the ability to code switch if needed. I am comfortable with the preppy style." - 16 year old female, African-American, transracial adoptee

"My emotional identity is both, because I am academically charged and I 'dress white' and I am black because I am all about family and think it's important to stay together." - 14 year old male, White adoptee

"My emotional identity is white because I grew up in a white family, so I think i got more influenced to a white personality, also at my school I hang out with white people. I'm the only black person in my grade. But also at my school it's bi-lingual so there is a hispanic culture too, and since they have darker skin I don't feel left out." - Female, middle school African-American transracial adoptee

These complex thoughts young transracial adoptees are grappling with is a beautiful reminder that allowing our kids to be in safe spaces so they can explore these complexities is so necessary. All of their statements and feelings are true as we cannot argue with one's own feelings. However many of the statements are laden with stereotypes, we must recognize when we do have opportunities to educate and challenge these inherited assumptions. This will allow these young adoptees to grow in to an identity that best exemplifies themselves.

Celebrating Afros vs. The Blue Ivy Petition

Two weeks ago a women created a petition using change.org, the text simply read:

Dear Blue Ivy, Comb your hair.

The creator begged Beyonce and Jay-Z to use their money to ensure that Blue Ivy no longer have "matted dreads or lint balls." One commenter stated "Because no child whose mom spends thousands on her hair (monthly) should live life looking like a sheep!"  I am disturbed and saddened by the petition especially in knowing that so many black folks (including myself) struggle with embracing our natural roots. Unbelievably, the petition has reached its goal of 5,000 signatures.

Walking through Seattle's Northwest African American Museum's Afro exhibit personally provided some balance, hope and strength. The exhibit features stunning photos (by social documentarian Michael July) of strong black men and women who wear their natural hair proudly.

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photo-26

One male shared the complexity of natural hair and professionalism:

"Being out of an office environment allowed me to have no restrictions on my personal style. I decided not to cut cut my hair. The longer it got, the more free I felt..."

A woman shares the complexities of being mixed race;

I be that half breed/Bastard seed

Not in need of your validation

Brothers in need/Think I'm pretty

While brothers in know/Know the cost

They say that I am beautiful/By historical default

I am what happens when love mixes with hate

I am what's produced when oxymorons mate

I've become acutely aware of the confused stares from strangers and children, and have mastered the art of deciphering the unspoken wonder from folks who silently wonder if I forgot to comb my hair.  While confused in wondering why life sometimes feels akin to the stories I hear of the afros in the 1960's being worn as a symbol of power and making a statement,  I'm simultaneously empowered by the proud and few rocking their natural hair.

Black Ownership of the Words "Natural Hair?"

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When I type the words "natural hair" in to the search box on Pinterest, my feed is automatically flooded with pictures of black women confidently wearing their hair au naturel. I find lots of information about natural hair care, afro styling suggestions, braiding techniques and encouragement to stay away from straighteners. Instagram and Google provide more of the same. It seems as though the words natural hair have meandered its way into mainstream Black cultural lingo. My Caucasian friends who aren't wearing wigs or weaves don't describe their hair as "natural hair," and photos of natural caucasian hair never pop up in these searches...can we then classify this as black terms? Obviously, neither the words "natural" or "hair" are inherently or exclusively Black...

To some extent every group participates in code switching in one way or another. The relationships that particular sub groups have to languages happen as a result of different groups living together as a consequence of historical events, human migrations, redlining etc. Although it may seem that attempting to fit in and ascribing to a cliquish mindset will only serve to keep unwanted racial barriers, languages and word associations of various ethnic and cultural groups is critical for uniting communities and preserving our identity.

Many transracial adoptive parents ask me styling questions about caring for their children's black hair. Whilst being steadfast in my encouragement towards wearing black hair au naturel, I openly acknowledge through words and photos that my journey towards ridding myself of wigs and weaves did not happen overnight. I also know that peer pressures (for both the child adoptee and their parents), finances, weather, access to black hair salons and politics are factors when deciding upon natural hair. After NYC Mayor de Blasio's son donned his afro I read a tweet by political correspondent Hunter Walker who stated that de Blasio "...should probably encourage Dante to give his hair more than a weekly washing."  This culturally insensitive comment is not unique - a once per week or once every other week hair wash is easily understood by the black community, but other ethnicities may think this to be unsanitary. Though comments like these may feel to be a jab in our weary armor as we continue to be embrace our natural selves, let's plod and take a cues from Esperanza Spalding and Lupita N'yongo as they help to redefine the rigid lines other cultures have drawn for us.

I'm curious what minority subgroups may take over next? Perhaps instead of the general public stigmatizing adoptees as adorable, cuddly, black, orphaned babies, we will begin to be seen and heard as articulate and intelligent adults? We, adoptees are making progress via sites such as The Lost Daughters and Land of Gazillion Adoptees, but truthfully we still have a ways to go until we gain as firm the grasp that Black women have on the term "natural hair." 

***This post is dedicated to 22 year old, Karyn Washington, who took her own life last week. She was the creator of the website For Brown Girls, and worked hard to empower black women everywhere learn to love their complexion and themselves. She seemed to have so many things going for her. It's important that we check in with each other often - especially to those for whom we think may 'have it all.' ***

Isn't All Black Beautiful?

When I traveled to Tennessee to meet my birth family I experienced being called names like; "lite-bright" and "High Yellow," I later read that the term "redbone" would also apply to me. I saw a plethora of skin bleaching creams in the grocery stores. Isn't it interesting that blacks can reap benefits from light-skinned privilege while being raised by white parents, and therefore being afforded some white privileges too? In that same vein, isn't it odd that we slice and dice ourselves up so much that darker skinned people can be edited out of a conversation just because of the shade of their skin? Clearly there is some deep seated, likely genetically imprinted projections going on here dating back to slavery and the types of work slaves were ordered to do oftentimes based on the tone of their color. This photo of OJ Simpson is another demonstration of how skin tone was edited in an attempt to tap into our racial psyche. Presumably TIME was implying that the darker he looked the more guilty he may've been perceived.

I was not aware of the alienating adjectives that blacks use towards blacks until I traveled to the South. Is it because my parents didn't introduce me to black culture? No. It's simply because I was not raised in an area of the country where I often heard these terms. I did have experiences though that had I the vocabulary and the insight at the time, I could've grasped the full truth of what was going on.  For example, years ago I had a beautiful darker skinned friend who was offered a modeling contract, which at first was exciting as this was a dream of hers, but the excitement waned when she was routinely being called to audition for parts seeking an "exotic, african looking woman," and never receiving any calls to play the girl next door. It was, and still is hard to fully grasp that preferential treatment can be given to some over something as trite as shade of skin tone, or hair type.

Through instances like these I was learning that some black people are not black enough, or on the flip-side (the side more commonly associated with white privilege, or middle class socioeconomic levels), you're just black enough for me to feel comfortable around you, but not so dark skinned that I'm fearful and having Trayvon-Martin-like thoughts. Knowing this, why would we ask prospective adoptive families to check a box about which race they are open to parenting (one of the boxes being the overly simplistic label; "Black") How can transracial adoptive parents of black children successfully parent these truths?

Perhaps a start is by coming to the realization that all black skin is not viewed equally in our society. Perhaps by looking inward and noticing ones own thoughts and feelings towards the different tones of skin of black people. These two suggestions may aid in an understanding that all trans-racial (African-American) adoption cannot be approached the same way. There is no one size fits all when it comes to us adoptees - we are as varied as the folks who are parenting us.

I'm looking forward to teaching a session on transracial adoption at the end of the month at the REFRESH conference where I can delve in to this topic a bit more and add the caveat that I don't think that color victimization is a black only phenomenon. I think it happens cross racially.