This is part of a series of posts about our expereinces at a camp for families formed through transracial adoption.
Intro is Pact Camp: An Introduction
Part 1 is The Information
Part 2 is Challenges on Planet Barnacle
Part 3 is First Glimpses out of the Race and Adoption Fog
I came to camp desperate to understand what I needed to do to help our family become a safe and supportive place for Rosie to explore her identity and ultimately love and accept herself as a black woman raised in a white family. The volumes of solid information, practical advice, and heartfelt sharing of life experiences blew my mind. I’d been clinging to the idea of Pact Camp for the past 4 months, trying to keep myself from spiraling into a messy explosion of angst-ridden motherhood. What I was offered was far beyond my hopes and expectations.
There were many speakers at camp with very well organized presentations about an array of subjects related to transracial adoption. Maybe someone else will objectively outline them, but since I don’t have all week to write about the wonders of each presentation, I’ll just focus on my big take-always. One of the things I really liked about the presentations was that all of these people had direct experience with transracial adoption: adult TRAs, siblings, parents. And their professional lives reflected this. So all of the information we got was expert level but with the necessary underpinnings of true understanding, rather than just academic speculation.
Sue Harris O’Connor and Lisa Marie Rollins shared honestly about what it was like to be them growing up as transracial adoptees in white communities. Their descriptions of always feeling like “the other” – both in public and in the privacy of their own homes – and their honest conversations about not feeling fully accepted and beautiful were answers to questions I’ve been asking myself for a long time. Basically, what happens if we don’t move out of our Disney-white perfect neighborhood and lifestyle? Now we're house hunting.
Sue also communicated her racial identity model. This is so helpful for understanding Rosie’s world, I found it breath taking! Swiped from Susan Ito’s blog, here it is with Susan’s helpful examples.
· Genetic Racial Identity: this is the factual identity that comes from birth family. A person is half X, and half Y. They may or may not know the details of these facts, but this is what is. (for example: I know that I am half Japanese and half… something else)
· Imposed Racial Identity: this is what others assume/say/think about another’s racial identity. This is about people thinking that I just can’t be Asian, that I must be Jewish, or Italian, or Puerto Rican or whatever. Or this is about people thinking I’m not at all white. Or about people thinking I look just like their freaky aunt Betty. Many people experience this as racism or confusion or judgment, but it’s all about other peoples’ experience of you. Biracial/multiracial and transracially adopted people get other peoples’ imposed racial identity their whole lives. Susan Harris, in a different forum at the conference, read an incredibly poignant piece from notes that a nurse took about her as an infant in foster care: on days that she appeared to be especially “Negroid” in her features, she also seemed coincidentally “delayed” in social development; on other days, she seemed less black to the nurse, and oddly, also more “advanced.” (sigh)
· Cognitive Racial Identity: This is what a person thinks or knows themselves to be. I know that I am biracial/hapa. I know this with my brain.
· Feeling Racial Identity: (okay, this is where I really started blinking the tears) This, Susan Harris explained, is what you feel like inside. Regardless of what other people tell you, and regardless of what you even know to be true. This is where I say, I feel Japanese. Whatever that means. I feel Asian. I don’t feel half white because I feel like I have little proof or experience of that aspect of myself. I have not met or seen proof of my white birthparent. The three out of four parents I know (2 adoptive, one birth) are all Japanese. Despite the “facts,” this is all that I feel I am inside. She says that this feeling RI is not always in synch with the other kinds of racial identity: genetic or cognitive. At this point my brain was going BINGO BINGO BINGO, the cherries were all lining up, the slot machine lights were flashing and twirling and I just felt like one big Yes.
· Visual Racial Identity: This is when you need to use a mirror to understand who and what you are. Often transracial adoptees feel disconnected from their visual image (I know I am, although after forty-something years I’ve gradually, and I do mean gradually, started to get used to what I look like) and have a distorted racial image in the same way that people with eating disorders have distorted body images.
John Raible talked about the concept of transracialization . My nascent understanding is that this means not just living in an area where there are some people of color, but actually creating lots of meaningful long-term relationships with adults who look different than you do. He then asked us to question with whom we work, live, worship and drink. He introduced the idea of Allies, stating that in the struggle of race, there is no neutral. And he had plenty of practical suggestions for how to become racial Allies and how to begin to transform our lives. Suggestions beyond joining a church and putting our kids in a racially diverse school, which are two things our family is very unlikely to do.
Amanda Baden gave me some initial vocabulary for understanding the transracial part of our world, defining and using words like race, culture, ethnicity, white privilege and class privilege. None of these are unknown words to me, but presented in this context with her explanations, they now hold a more useful and meaningful place in my head.
Holly Van Gulden specializes in attachment. I loved everything she said and bough both her books about adoption and attachment. They’re at the top of my reading pile now. Her stories entranced us all, and she had a fascinating way of talking – using what she calls “parts language.” Like any new way of expressing oneself, it sounds really stilted at first, but she had several compelling examples of how it is effective with adults in professional settings. Basically you describe the parts of you and/or your child as you talk: your stubborn parts, your singing parts, my helpful parts, his sad parts. I, of course, had to try it out on my kids as soon as we reached the anonymity of the airport. Both kids have really responded to it, and so far I find that the conflict between us has diminished. Can’t wait to learn more through her books!
The Information and Concepts
For me, the best part of Pact camp was the relief that comes with the acknowledgement that yes, something is not right with our family. What a relief to have some initial vocabulary and concepts I need to start making the changes my mommy-instinct has been screaming about over the past several years.
I’ve talked about most of them, but there is one additional, giant idea I wanted to share, something I have never needed to see or understand before. Race is IMPORTANT – many of the speakers underlined that in their life journey, race trumps all. In dealing with all the challenges of transracial adoption, each of them first needed to resolve the issues of their racial and cultural identities and how they fit into the world before they could begin to move into understanding the layers of questions brought in by adoption.
The To-do List
So with this knowledge and compassionate professionals to set me straight, here are the action items I see for the next year.
- Get cultural-sensitivity and anti-racism training for both Bill and I
- Take a long hard look at where we live
- Exchange our extra-circular activities for more diverse ones in more diverse locations
- Figure out what is developmentally appropriate for conversations about race and racial identity with our children and start talking
Another great moment at Pact Camp was what I’ve been think of as “The Compliment.” Winter, the really loving, alive and fun woman in charge of the hair clinic, high fived me when she realized I’d been the one to braid Rosie’s hair. And another for doing the beads myself. Ah…… a little salve for the many wounds of hair anxiety. I don’t totally suck at this!!!