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Thursday24 April 2014

Becoming a Transracial Family: A Work In Progress

By Stephanie W

All I need to do to know that my husband and I have a lot of work ahead of us as transracial adoptive parents is to look at the magazines lined up at the check-out counter of our grocery store. All the white faces remind us that whiteness is still privileged and the "norm" in this country, even though our President is biracial and identifies himself as black. Looking at the magazines sometimes fills me with dismay but most often I feel a sense of resolve and responsibility and fierceness to fight for my children. Our job is to help them develop a positive sense of racial and cultural identities as they grow up. There are so many different things that we need to do, and some of them my husband and I are able to do now, and for other things, we hope to do them in the future. We have two transracially adopted children, but since our daughter is older, I'll share what we are doing for her (most of it will be the same for our son).

Our daughter was adopted from Guatemala, which has such a complex history and culture. Right now, we focus on all that is positive there; there is plenty of time to go into some of the more difficult aspects of its history and its current economic and political state. When I talk about the Mayan and the Garifuna people (both in her racial heritage), I mention what they are famous for, and how they have survived mistreatment and oppression. I aim to ensure that she understands that narrative as one of survivorship and resistance, one that highlights the strength of the people and not the strength of the oppressors.

In order to develop a sense of pride in the rich culture of Guatemala, we have many items that we purchased on our pick-up trip that we use to decorate the house. We have them up on the walls and talk to her about them. She has some in her own room. They are definitely prized possessions, which I hope helps her to develop a sense of pride in the people who create such art. To help her learn about where she was born, we have kids' books that relate to Guatemela (e.g. Guatemalan ABC's, Abuela's Weave). If we're reading something unrelated that might touch upon volcanoes or toucans or quetzals, we quickly relate it back to Guatemala; in the sandbox, instead of making sand castles, we will make a pyramid, and I can talk about the famous Tikal pyramid in Guatemala.

We also keep exposing her to different cultures and also to books about adoption. We started reading these before she was really grasping everything, but it helped us to become familiar and comfortable with the stories. We try as much to have books on hand that represent adoption and people of color. One of my major gripes about the children's picture book industry is that white kids and the standard, homogeneous white and biological family are the mainstays. I once spent a morning in Border's going through every picture book to find a regular picture book (one not specifically about adoption or about being "different" racially) that had a child of color as the protagonist, and I would have been ecstatic to find a book that would have had a multicultural family as the background. After all of the searching, the only one I found that featured a child of color doing regular childhood things was a Jack Keats book. That was it. Perhaps it's the result of our community since it is overwhelmingly white, but it was an eye-opener for me, and it made me feel even more passionate and energized to find literature that reflects our children's reality.

Traditions and food are an important part of our introducing her to her cultural heritage, and as she grows and can understand the complexities within the details of some of the traditions, the more we can share with her. A friend of ours who lives in a more diverse city than we do, brought us tamales and a cookie around Christmas since those are part of traditional Christmas meals in Guatemala. We often include black beans in our meals, and we tell her the story of how she ate them sitting on my lap while we were in Guatemala. She knows what the national bird of Guatemala is, but as I write this, I realize she doesn't know what the national bird of the U.S. is, nor does she know about prairies too much, but she knows about rain forests. We plan to make our own "sawdust carpets" for the next Easter so that she can connect to the idea of the Semana Santa that is Guatemala's biggest holiday. On Day of the Dead, we plan to fly kites, and even make our own as they do in Guatemala and think about our loved ones who have departed the earth.

For about a year now, she has shown a growing awareness about the color of people's skin; she loves the fact that she and her brother have similar skin tones, and she loves to read Karen Katz's The Colors of Us and figure out what words best describe our skin tones; we even go to the kitchen cabinet to see the actual spices. I am along the lines of a nutmeg, and she is clove while Dad might be a light shade of cinnamon. It was a revelation to me that I had no idea how to describe my skin shade beyond the olive that has been remarked on for most of my life. Dad is a woodworker, and wood makes a great comparison for skin tones. Her skin tone is similar to cherry while mine is a darker shade of maple. We've made it into a fun activity to look around us and talk about the different beautiful shades of color and how absolutely wonderful it is that so much detail and complexity exists in the world. Other books that promote a strong pride and have a fun take on skin color are The Skin You Live In and the two bell hooks books we have. She gets to watch some television, and in that area, we make sure that she is exposed to multiculturalism too. (I do get a little irked with the shows that feature animals such as a white bunny or a white pig, but who have best friends who are brown. Why can't the main protagonist and her family be brown or varying shades of brown?) We make sure she watches Little Bill, which has an African American family take center stage, and Sid the Science Kid which has an interracial family just so that when a family is presented on the television it is not always a white family with identical features.

Another priority in the house is that dolls and the images on clothes are multicultural. Our daughter has dolls of all shades; most of the multicultural dolls have been bought by us because some family members still don't quite understand the value of dolls that reflect our daughter's heritage. I think , though, as they see her with her dolls of different skin tones, they are beginning to understand how important is for her to connect with a doll that looks like her. Clothes are the same issue; our families are beginning to buy her clothes with children of color on them instead of always have a white child on them (it's usually Dora The Explorer, but that's a start). It's not that she doesn't have any white kids on any of her clothes, it's just that majority of what we put on her have kids with darker skin tones.

Another dimension we have been focusing on though it's difficult in our rural area, is to develop friendships in the area with other transracial and adoptive families. We try to make sure that we see each other so as to "normalize" the idea of the transracial family. A major gap in our lives is the lack of diversity in our adult friends, which is mostly the result again of where we live. There is an African-American family who recently moved in our subdivision whom we would like to get to know.

We celebrate differences-we make sure that it is just a habit of mind that we privilege the idea of difference from having different shoes from one's friends to having different interests to having different cultural backgrounds. One thing my husband and I have been a little slow in doing is incorporating our own cultural backgrounds into meals. We do a little but probably not in enough repetition to get the message to sink in quite yet. When there is the opportunity, we delight in learning about a different cultural practice, activity (we do some games that are from around the world), food, holidays, etc. A major theme in our house is how amazing the world is, and that extends from nature around us, to our bodies, to all of the different kinds of people there are.

Because some of the more important factors that contribute to a positive racial identity are missing from where we live (access to friends, coaches, teachers, etc., of color), we are trying to sell our house and move to the Chicago area. It's a city with which we're familiar and have family in the area, so it's a natural move--a big one, but one we feel absolutely committed to.

Of course, we nurture her self-esteem in the typical ways, scaffolding her until she can do something independently, encouraging her to persevere in tasks, and giving her the opportunity to do things she truly enjoys (like music and dancing). I also read at one time that it's important to give your family its own identity, so for us, it's taking care of the earth, books, and everyone having a special, different hobby.

Developing our children's self-esteem as people of color while growing up amidst a family of predominantly white people will not be easy; it will be filled with challenges, learning, and expansion, not only of our kids' lives, but also ours. We hope that our children's upbringing creates such a depth of pride in their heritage and positive self-esteem that they will be able to weather the intolerances, if not outright prejudices, that they may encounter as they grow.