The first time I heard it, the words spilled from the mouth of someone I have known since high school, someone I count among my closest friends. “White people are different,“ she sighed as she played peek-a-boo with Genevieve. “You took our land. Repressed our languages. Raped our women, killed our men, controlled our history, ravaged our community, oppressed our voices. I know you do not think of life this way, that you yourself did not commit these crimes, but you should know how it feels. I am the child, the grandchild, the many-greats-grandchild of people who witnessed the destruction of their community. This is my family’s story, what my family must never forget and always rise above. You will never feel that weight. Fostering and adopting is beautiful, but someday someone like me will look at you and say: That wasn’t enough? Now you have to steal our children too?“
The second time I heard it, there were tears involved. “I’m not one of those people, you know, who hates white people,“ Genevieve’s birth mother said to me. “But she shouldn’t be with you. She should be with a Mexican family, with someone who looks like her! Who speaks her language! Who can tell her the way the world really is! How are you going to do that? You have everything you want. You can take, take, take. She isn’t white; she will always have to fight harder for less.“
Over and over the incident repeats itself. In the grocery. At the library. Sitting on the park bench beside me. The faces are different and the words are different, but the ideas are the same.
You are not one of us, they tell me. We are different. Genevieve is one of us. She is different. How can one of you raise one of us? What gives you the right?
All good people agree,
And all good people say,
All nice people, like Us, are We
And everyone else is They:
But if you cross over the sea,
Instead of over the way,
You may end by (think of it!) looking on We
As only a sort of They!
- Rudyard Kipling
When we decided to begin walking the path toward foster and adoptive parenthood, one of the classes our agency mandated focused on cultural sensitivity, competency, and connection. It was three hours long. We took the class twice, so we felt pretty confident when we selected the box under the category of Race/Ethnicity that said “no preference” when we were specifying which children we were and were not open to. Love was what these children needed, we told ourselves. And love we had aplenty. And love would be enough. The agency was making too big a deal out of this race business.
I cannot say for certain when we began to be lifted out of our ignorant fog. Perhaps it was the time that a white adult called Genevieve a racial slur and, upon confrontation, said, “Oh, I’m sorry. I did not realize she was with you.“ As though being parented by - or perhaps simply accompanied by - a white woman like myself conferred upon Genevieve a different status of human, as though it would have been okay to call her that same slur if the person “with” her shared her skin color. Perhaps it was the time a white parent allowed her children to play with Charlotte and Evelyn, but encouraged them to avoid Genevieve and the other Latino children who were sharing the same play space. Perhaps it was the time someone whose company we had always enjoyed spent twenty minutes railing against people of Genevieve’s race IN OUR HOME while we stood mouths agape, struggling to find the words to march into a battle we had never anticipated. Perhaps it was the time one of my relatives acted surprised to find that we had adopted Genevieve. She knew that we had adopted, of course, but she thought that we would have “returned” Genevieve for a baby “like us.“ As though she were a piece of merchandise. Perhaps it was the time Charlotte heard a joke made at the expense of Latinos and heard people she trusted laughing and interpreted it literally and spent weeks agonizing, torn between listening to the laughter of these people she loved and listening to my voice telling her they were way the fuck out of line.
Perhaps it was all of these things. All of these tiny ugly moments, sliding like sands in an hourglass, until one day we realized that we had previously lived in the half that was empty and now we were buried. We had to learn to survive in a new universe.
Sometimes when I think over my life, I am amazed by this simple fact: Genevieve’s arrival in our home set off a chain of events in my family’s existence that have been more life-altering than any other. We are different PEOPLE today than we were 18 months ago. We have more knowledge about the foster care system and less faith in it. We are less optimistic and more pragmatic. We set firmer boundaries and we pick our battles. We face greater challenges and have less time to devote to our friends and relatives. Sometimes I remember the days when I fretted about teething or commercial characters on children’s clothing and I want to snap that woman into reality.
Genevieve is a wonder. She turned two years old on the last day of March. She can walk and run and jump. She can put together train tracks and utterly destroy a small tupperware full of cupcakes in complete silence. She can mimic any animal sound and is forever saying “MORE HAM” without any idea what that means or any interest in ham whatsoever. She loves to put on her own shoes and says “ME HELPING ME” when she wants acknowledgement for her contributions to the family. She is sneaky, she is emotionally guarded, and she is cheerful. She loves to climb and she loves to jump on our trampoline and she loves to sit in a swing while I push her and her hair flies in the breeze. She never stays still. She has a warmth about her that can melt any heart.
But she is not white. And because she is not white, the greatest change in our lives has been that she brought with her a sort of call to action. We had to confront our privileges, listen to the oft-silenced voices in our community, read alternate histories, seek out alternate news sources, consider new ideas.
What a shame, we say to one another now. What a shame that we wasted so much time reaching this point. What a shame that we did not know. What a shame that we did not care. What a shame to find that we were born into a system of entitlement and institutionalized racism and that it not only took us decades of our lives to figure that out but that we also spent decades of our lives committing all manner of micro-aggressions (and, sadly, some macro-aggressions) without realizing this was a problem. What a shame that we never intentionally sought out the voices of color within our community, despite living in a place where fewer than 1/3 of the residents are white. What a shame that we did not privilege the voices of adoptees, adoption professionals, and transracial adoptive parents before jumping headlong into adoption. What a shame that we believed in a post-racial colorblind society.
What a shame that we thought we had it all figured out.
For awhile, we felt overwhelmed by what it would take to parent transracially. On a day-to-day basis, parenthood is parenthood. We think about the same things every parent thinks about: snacks and naptime and laundry and where the kids’ sneakers disappeared to. But race is always there, always lurking in the back of our minds. How can we provide her with the tools to deal with prejudice, discrimination, and racism? How can we ensure competency in a culture that is not our own? Where is the line drawn between appropriation and appreciation? How can we bridge the cultural and linguistic gap between her birth family and our family?
On and on the questions come, tumbling forward from the depths. Tumbling faster when an unsavory incident occurs. Making us think about things we’ve never had to consider before, making us grow, making us fret. Making us fear.
The most recent time the incident happened, I did not stand in shocked silence. I listened to the woman who was talking to me and heard her, really paid attention to her concerns. When the opportunity presented itself, I thanked her. I told her what we know now, what we want for Genevieve, and I asked if she could help us.
She stood there, my phone number in her hand, my words sitting in the space between us. Then she leaned over, hugged me, smiled at my children. “Gracias, mija,“ she said. “This is good. This is right. I will call you tomorrow.“
And she did.
And so, little by little, we cross over the sea.