Standing at the Podium

In honor of November being National Adoption Awareness Month, Portrait of an Adoption is hosting the fifth annual acclaimed series, 30 Adoption Portraits in 30 Days.  Designed to give a voice to the many different perspectives of adoption, this series will feature guest posts by people with widely varying experiences. 

By Rachel Garlinghouse

I’m a preparer.  If I know my exit is coming up in three miles, I’m in the appropriate lane to turn.  I buy Christmas gifts in September.  I always have some homemade trail mix on hand for playdates.  I mail out birthday cards a week in advance.  I’m always fifteen minutes early for medical appointments and meetings.

In essence, I like having my stuff together.

Adoption is no different.  When my husband and I decided to adopt and to be open to adopting a child of any race, I read every single adoption book on the market.  We met with other transracial adoptive families, and every evening (EVERY evening) for four months straight, we sat on our couch and talked about our concerns, our questions, and our fears surrounding transracial adoption and race relations in America.

As our family grew from just the two of us to five, I did what any good preparer does:  I made proactive choices.  My girls have a Black, female mentor, a young woman who is in graduate school studying nursing.  We live in a diverse area where there is no shortage of families like ours.  We have filled our home with Black art, books, films, magazines, and toys.  We take our son to a Black barbershop to get his hair cut, and our girls have their hair braided by a Black woman.

We know these things matter.  The autobiographies of transracial adoptees, those who choose to share their stories online, all send a similar message to parents-by-adoption:  make sure your child of color is among others who look like them; make sure to teach and implement cultural norms; make sure to love your child for exactly who he or she is.

Day in and day out, we make choices both big and small to ensure that our children are racially confident.  Our kids love seeing characters on TV shows and in books who are, in their words, “Brown like me.”  One day my oldest daughter, almost seven, said that she and I should go on the radio together.  When I asked her what we would talk about, she replied, “You know!  Black lady things!”  These little interactions make me smile.  My children are proud to be brown.

But as they get older, they are getting mixed messages.  This past spring, my daughters were riding their bikes in our driveway when a white man driving by in a truck leaned out the driver’s side window and screamed the n-word at my daughters twice.   Earlier this year, an acquaintance of ours commented how my two-year-old son had grown so much since she had seen him last.  I said, “Yes, he is a big boy.”  Her reply left me dumbfounded:  “He’s such a cute little thug.”

Incidents like these cannot be prepared for.  They occur suddenly, and no amount of preparation can eradicate the realities: being a person of color in America can be relentlessly exhausting.

There are also the subtle ways that my children are subject to being conditioned to believe that brown is bad.  There’s the underrepresentation of people of color in advertisements, television shows, and toys.  And if these representations are present, they are often stereotyped or whitewashed.  The teaching of Black history is relegated to a single month.  Black children who go missing are rarely reported in national media.  School after school has implemented bans on hairstyles that are protective or prevalent among Black children.

And of course, one of my biggest fears, is the violence against Blacks.  Our family lives just thirty minutes from Ferguson, Missouri, a town rocked by the death Michael Brown, a teenage Black boy killed by a White police officer.  Brown’s story is not one-of-kind; story after story challenges America: what do you think about race relations?  Over the past three years, my newsfeed has been inundated with the names and faces of Black children, young adults, and adults being killed:  Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Jordan Davis, John Crawford III, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, the Charleston nine.

As parents, we are constantly fighting an uphill battle, trying to combat the ugly messages that society fights so hard to instill in our children.  We rarely go through an entire day without another news story or personal incident where we are reminded that people of color are overwhelmingly less valued in society than children with lighter skin.

Sometimes I get very discouraged, scared, and confused.  What am I to do when all preparations have been executed and bad things still happen?   Am I enough for my children?  Will they be given fair opportunities?  What happens when they leave our home and go out into the “real world”?  Will we have done enough to empower and enable them to be able to navigate the racial injustices and tensions that fill society?

There are glimpses of hope, little moments God graces me with.

This summer, we took our kids to a local children’s museum for their foster and adoptive family night.  There are multiple buildings and floors with interactive displays, including an Oval Office.  My oldest, then six, rushed to a podium with a working microphone.  As I attempted to scoop up my toddler while my husband snapped photos of our middle child sitting at the Oval Office desk, I overheard a sweet voice speak clearly and confidently into the microphone:  “I have a dream.”

I was awestruck.  Not because she knew about Dr. King’s speech, something we had talked about and watched many times, but because of all the things she could have said during her precious few seconds at the podium, she chose to speak about hope.

For all their lives, I want my kids to use their voices, their talents, their intelligence, and their actions for justice, grace, confidence, and strength.  I want them to never lose what they have now:  pride in their wonderful, beautiful selves, without shame, apology, or fear.  I want them to be exactly who they are, knowing they are not only good enough, but that they are great.

I can’t prepare my children for everything they will encounter, but I can celebrate victories and moments (big and small) today, knowing these offer hope for tomorrow.

Rachel Garlinghouse is the author of four books, including Come Rain or Come Shine: A White Parent's Guide to Adopting and Parenting Black Children.  Her adoption experience and education have been featured on NPR, MSNBC, Huffington Post, The Good Men Project, My Brown Baby, Medium, Scary Mommy, Adoptive Families, and many more.  She and her family reside in St. Louis.  You can learn more at www.whitesugarbrownsugar.com 

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