Several years ago, my friend Rita saw a play written by Asian adoptees raised in America. She told me about one vignette in particular that started out with this statement:
“It takes exceptional parents to raise a child of a different race. [beat] My parents were not exceptional.”
I keep thinking about that statement as people, primarily Black people and White people, weigh in passionately about the White women suing a sperm bank that mistakenly impregnated one of them with the sperm of a Black donor.
I think about it as a person who had to figure out how to navigate growing up mixed race, with the benefit of parents who loved me deeply, including a White mother deeply committed to raising me with a deep appreciation of my South Asian heritage, and as someone who pays a lot of attention to mixed race dynamics as a result. I find myself thinking a lot about that kid and the world that’s been created for her by that clerical error. I’m not all that interested in pouring contempt on the parents. I’m more interested in thinking about the world we live in and the world we’ve created that resulted in this moment in history:
- It is more complicated to navigate multiracial realities than most people in a predominantly monoracial context realize
- People usually select their baby’s genetic makeup when they choose who to partner with; the outrage over this lawsuit pretends that’s not true and pretends that race matters less to people than it does
- Advances in fertility treatments raise serious issues about race but also about disability and what constitutes a desirable baby
- Perhaps what we’re really talking about here isn’t about how we treat multiracial children, but the culture of anti-Blackness baked into America. And maybe we should be honest about that.
Race is complicated
I find myself thinking about a lifetime of explaining my name and my heritage.
I find myself thinking about a childhood of “translating” my father to my friends, even though my father’s English is better than mine.
I find myself thinking about the shock of my best friend when we were shopping at a party store on the South Side of Chicago and he turned to me, noticing the glances askance at us (him African American and me clearly not) and almost stage whispering, “They think we’re TOGETHER!” and me stage whispering back “Welcome to my entire childhood,” because I was used to those particular stares.
And I also find myself thinking about taking my African American niece to Off the Grid because it’s the best that Oakland has to offer in terms of everyone being welcome and everyone dancing and celebrating, and pretending not to notice the looks of hostility from women of color as she grabbed my hand to pull me towards the custard stand and wanting to say, “she’s my NIECE,” and wondering what my reaction was all about, as someone who plans to adopt and will likely not end up adopting a child who looks anything like me, whether that child be African American, South Asian, or whoever the stars align to bring into my life.
I find myself thinking about my White friends who have adopted African American and mixed race children who have worked incredibly hard to place them in contexts where their children will have Black role models. And I think about a White friend sharing with me that she and her partner were thinking of adopting, and they knew they would most likely adopt a child of color, but their network was almost completely White, and I remember bringing tears to her eyes when I said, “But that’s a choice, and if you want to adopt, it’s a choice you need to consider more intentionally.” I think about how often other White parents of African American and internationally adopted and mixed race children have banked on good intentions and “we’re all the same” to be adequate to the task. And I think about friends who are grateful to parents for the effort of connecting them to their culture and friends who have no connection to their culture at all and feel completely at sea and deeply resent their upbringing.
And I find myself remembering that cross-racial adoption was MUCH harder before the Clinton administration opened up the pathways towards it, and how excited I was about that decision at the time, and how I have a little more grace these days for the people who created those limitations in olden times.
It takes exceptional parents to raise a child of a different race.
Let’s be honest about the selection process that creates most babies
What I find disheartening about this debate is the lack of honesty in it. People say “you love who you love,” and then often end up with someone from their same race and cultural background. And that’s understandable. And their offspring end up the same race and cultural background. And that’s understandable.
And yes, there’s a little more racial mixing these days than there was before. (In the Bay Area, there’s a monthly sangha at the East Bay Meditation Center specifically for mixed race people! That tells you that around here, we do have some critical mass. And it tells you we have stuff to work out around our identity. Mixed race is something folks from one racial background really think they understand better than they do. But I’ve already written about that.)
For the most part, though, most people do still end up creating babies of their same race, but since they didn’t check off a particular box, there’s not the same level of accountability around the choices that led to those babies. Which, again, is understandable.
But when you know that your baby is going to come into the world with a different lived experience than you, when you know your baby will have to navigate the world differently than you, you have to make a lot of adjustments. And if you married someone of a different race, you often had to confront some of those realities in advance and had some practice in navigating that terrain. (I think about my parents’ neighbors circulating a petition against them buying their first home because the neighbors who signed didn’t want miscegenated babies in the community. And the international student community they built around themselves as their family of choice, British and South Asian and Egyptian and Eastern European, some of whom they remain in relationship with today, a continent away.)
Those are things that people of the same race having a baby of the same race don’t have to think about, whether Black, White, Latino, Indigenous or Asian.
Making Babies Raises a Lot of Ethical Stuff
I feel like I do not have much of a right to weigh in on the issue of medical advances in fertility, because I’ve never experienced the desperate desire to give birth to a baby, and because in theory, as someone with heterosexual privilege, I could certainly have tried to have a child in the traditional way if I had ended up with a partner. (In a couple of instances, my lack of desire to have a biological child is why I didn’t end up with a partner.) So I’m not going to weigh in too much on this issue, but I want to name something a friend pointed out needs to be addressed.
The argument I have found most compelling in what I’ve read about the women in Ohio is what this means about custom-making babies and what constitutes a healthy baby. I made the flippant comment about “choosing the eugenic makeup of one’s baby,” and I know friends of mine have expressed their own struggles with the boxes they had to select and the ways in which they were playing God.
I have had friends who have faced similar struggles in adoption—are they equipped to raise a child with severe developmental disabilities? With significant behavioral issues? With AIDS?
I have friends in the disability rights community who think that prenatal tests for Downs Syndrome and other developmental disabilities are incredibly troubling because they open the door to eliminating children with “undesirable” traits, children who deserve life and who do contribute great gifts to the world.
We have created a world where people get to filter. I have friends, one of whom is API and one of whom is Latina. They have talked about making sure that any children they consider having in utero would be a mixture of those races, because there is something they want to pass on from their heritage. When I toy with adopting a South Asian child, it’s with the same thought in mind. When I mentioned to a former partner I was considering adopting an African American child, he (who is half Black), said, “Are you sure it’s appropriate to do that when you’re not Black?” (We were talking about the possibility of doing it together, so I reminded him that he was Black, and he acknowledged the point. Even still.)
So as we rage at women who seem to love their son but who are raising concerns about having received the wrong model, I think we have to take a big step back and look at the world we have created that allowed them to make those choices in the first place – a world where most people already placed their order pretty much the same way these women did, just with less accountability (or fewer delivery errors). And in many ways, this world scares me a little.
I wonder if we’re actually worried about what it means to navigate being mixed race, or whether we should really just be up front about this really being about our concerns that this case is an example of anti-Blackness
It is hard and complicated to be mixed race. And it’s hard and complicated in different ways for different people. I have a lot of people who think it’s really important for me to identify as a person of color. (And I do.) And I have a lot of people who think it’s really important for me to identify as mixed race. (And I do.) And I have one friend who is urgent that I be honest about the fact that I am experienced as White. (I talk pretty consistently about benefiting from light skinned privilege and hope that’s good enough.)
But I have mixed race friends who identify in lots of different ways, and no matter how we identify, it causes anxiety in folks of the race we don’t identify with, or don’t identify with enough, or do identify with but not in the right ways.
If that’s what we’re worried about with Payton, that’s cool. It’s just that in my experience, most not mixed race people don’t actually care all that much about that particular issue.
And at the same time, I’m the first to admit that my existential issues and the fact that I get frustrated at people imposing on me the identity that makes them comfortable are not the same thing as the outright assault on African American people in this country.
Asian Americans have a history of oppression and a history of being used as pawns against other non-White races in this country that we need to understand so we understand how our history is connected to theirs. And yeah, I’m really grateful when other friends of color lift up those stories. But I get that we are also often used to prop up a history and legacy and foundation built on oppressing Black people.
And if that’s what this story feels like to folks, I really invite you to name that. Name the fact that this is another illustration of how White is normative, because part of the mothers’ distress is not being able to find a barber in their neighborhood and having to go someplace they are not made to feel welcome. Name that this case illustrates a climate of anti-Blackness because part of the mothers’ distress is knowing how much harder their daughter’s life is going to be as a Black girl and then (God willing) a Black woman in a community and nation shaped by White supremacy.
But don’t say it’s about lifting up a mixed race child. It’s about lifting up a Black child. And that matters in and of itself. It’s just different. And I don’t hear you asking mixed race folks how we feel about any of this.
Addition 10/6/14: In discussing this blog post with a friend of mine who has adopted a mixed race African American child, she reminded me that her child’s (African American) therapist included in the child’s files that the child being born of a White mother and Black father was a source of trauma. That’s right. A licensed child therapist believes that being mixed race is traumatic. So let’s be clear — issues of anti-Blackness and issues of hostility towards miscegenation are both real and not necessarily to be conflated.
I mostly feel sad and tired about this story. I already have a glimpse into some of the stuff Payton will deal with, having grown up as a mixed race kid in Ohio, and I know it won’t always be easy. I get the sense she has parents who love her deeply and are in over their heads, and I do feel badly that they’re being made the enemy when they’re just functioning within an incredibly broken world that damns them personally for doing what almost everyone else is doing. And I wonder why more of the conversation isn’t about the strange new world we’ve created where custom-made babies raise some legitimate fears among those fighting a cultural undercurrent of eugenics that is constantly finding new ways to pretend it does not exist.
Most of all, I’m exhausted by the lack of grace, the lack of curiosity and the lack of nuance that people are bringing to their reflections. This is complicated terrain.
And if there’s anything uncomplicated, it’s that in this pretending-to-be-post-racial era, it still takes exceptional parents to raise a child of a different race.
And these mothers’ greatest sin might be that they’re not exceptional.
And too few of us are.