In the mid-1990s I set out to adopt a baby. I made phone calls to adoption agencies, and staff members asked warily if I’d consider a transracial adoption. I said yes. At one agency, the receptionist snapped: “Do you understand what transracial means?” Her tone startled me. “I think so,” I said, parsing syllables, “adoption across races.” Impatient, she said, “You’ll get a black baby!”
I lived in a small town without internet access and had done my research—on adoption laws, policy, advice—at a library twenty miles away. I’d found references to a 1972 position paper issued by the National Association of Black Social Workers that objected to transracial adoption as “cultural genocide,” an understandable position, given the state of race relations in 1972. The few agencies that had been doing black-white adoptions stopped because of the position paper. I didn’t find references to a time when agencies started doing transracial adoptions again because the Metzenbaum Act—passed in 1994 to address the fact that children of color were overrepresented in the child welfare system—had been amended, making “race-matching” as the sole determinant for the placement of a child unambiguously illegal.
Some staff members welcomed the change but weren’t sure if adoptive parents would. Other staff members objected to the change—take the receptionist who’d thought I must not know what transracial meant based on my answer. In the end, I used an agency whose staff members were able to discuss race without anger or recoil.
Had I known that transracial adoption had been so recently taboo, that my daughter and I would seem so unlikely that strangers would love or hate us, that responses would be vociferous and never neutral, that we’d be fielding curious questions from the first moment on, would I have answered the question differently? I doubt it. But I’ll never know. I wanted to raise a child, and I thought I’d be a good mother. If a baby was already born who needed a parent, who was I to say the baby was the wrong color? I understood race would affect our lives, but I didn’t know precisely how. I’d be making this decision for myself, but I’d also be making it for a child. Yet all children are born to parents they don’t select, I thought. Was having a parent who was a different race an especially onerous burden to put on a child? I wasn’t sure. But I couldn’t say no.
By the time I selected my adoption agency, I’d already answered the question about transracial adoption so many times—the first few times carefully, subsequent times ardently, eventually casually—that when the social worker assigned to me asked, I said, “I so don’t give a damn about the child’s race.” Immediately I worried about having cussed while being assessed as a potential mother. But the social worker smiled. “That’s great,” she said. “We don’t get many clients who feel so sure.”
Several weeks later, I’d been approved as healthy, financially stable, likely to nurture, realistic in terms of understanding how motherhood would rock my world, and the agency told me I’d be getting a baby soon. I settled into this tense advent, waiting for a baby gestating somewhere, in someone’s body, but I didn’t know whose or how the pregnancy was faring. My social worker told me that some adoptive parents use the waiting period to do research.
If a baby was already born who needed a parent, who was I to say the baby was the wrong color?
I’d researched the fine points of adoption before I’d contacted the agency. I understood the birth mother would make the final decision about the placement as well as whether the adoption would be open (in which the birth mother and adoptive family have unmediated contact) or semi-open (in which contact between the birth mother and adoptive family is mediated by the agency). I’d read articles about when to tell the child he or she is adopted—irrelevant, because my child would know from the start he or she was adopted because we’d look nothing alike. I could research the care of infants, my social worker said. But tips about colic and vaccinations seemed intangible until the baby arrived.
So I researched the most mystifying aspect of my motherhood: race. I read a lot of books that year, but the one I remember most is I Heard It Through the Grapevine: Rumor in African-American Culture, an analysis of contemporary black folklore that take the form of conspiracy theories: that AIDS was biologically engineered; that illegal drugs are distributed in poor neighborhoods by the CIA; that Church’s Fried Chicken is owned by the KKK. These racially exclusive urban legends are only slightly more outlandish versions of official policies that did exist: systematically unprosecuted lynchings; the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male; voter suppression; J. Edgar Hoover’s well-documented antipathy toward the civil rights movement, including a letter from the FBI urging Martin Luther King, Jr. to commit suicide while he still had the chance. The book concludes that anti-black conspiracy theories are a new scab over old wounds: “an unattractive but vital mechanism by which the cultural body protects itself from subsequent infection.” I read I Heard It Through the Grapevine around the same time OJ. Simpson was tried for murder—when a Gallup Poll found that more black people than white felt he’d been framed. The defense’s argument seemed like a public version of a private story black men experience firsthand: if you’re in the vicinity, you’re a suspect. Confidence in institutions, including the reported news, it seemed, depends on race. That’s a theoretical insight, of course.
Once my baby arrived, my reaction to race as a headline shifted instantly—a minor earthquake in my sense of who I was and where my allegiances lay. My daughter was two weeks old, and I sat on the couch, holding her as I watched the news. Three (white) East Texas men paroled from the state pen had dragged a (black) man to death behind a pickup truck. I had the reaction I’d always had when I heard about hate crimes. What moral bog of a subculture spawns the witch-hunt belief that evil is, in someone else, identifiable by physical traits? I realized with a start I wasn’t in a white family anymore. Hate crimes weren’t an abstract moral conundrum but a personal threat, a wound. I turned the TV off.
When my daughter was ten, we moved from the small conservative town to a city that’s politically liberal, though its African-American population is just 11 percent. We still live here. The neighborhoods are more racially distinct than not. All of them get described in terms of location, “west-central,” “downtown” or “east,” but only a few get described as “urban” or “historically black,” though no neighborhood is described as “historically white.” We moved to a neighborhood with a good elementary school, which is to say a historically white neighborhood. To insure classrooms were as diverse as possible, the school used race and gender in determining the classrooms to which students were assigned. Diversity as an ideal worked well for the white children who had at least one black classmate. My daughter, though, was often the only black child in the room.
I couldn’t worry, though, about my daughter feeling isolated due to race because I’m white. My whole life is predicated on the idea that relationships transcend race.
I couldn’t worry, though, about my daughter feeling isolated due to race because I’m white. My whole life is predicated on the idea that relationships transcend race. How would it have been better, not regressive, if the three black students in fifth grade were all in one room? It was a problem I wouldn’t even have broached in the small town where we lived before because most of the time she was the only black child in the entire school.
I get glimpses of what this distinction—being the only black child, or one of a few black children—means to my daughter. If someone, perhaps a well-meaning mother at an after-school activity, or a child who sits behind my daughter in class and fingers my daughter’s hair, talks about race for too long, saying in one way or another that race doesn’t matter, my daughter changes the subject. If a classmate asks my daughter if she’s related to the one other black child in the room, she rolls her eyes. As her mother—and given where we’ve lived and that I adopted the same year adoption laws changed, I was always the only white mother with a black child—I sometimes lost clarity when she had a bad day.
Let me define bad day.
When we were living in the small town, my daughter was four and enrolled in preschool. Two girls told her that other kids thought she was ugly. My daughter worried aloud about this, and I explained about mean people, that we don’t give them power by trying to please them, and instead surround ourselves with friends who give us love and respect. But I wanted to see how deeply this had cut. “You know you’re pretty,” I said. “People tell you all the time you’re pretty. Do you have any idea why those girls might say this?” The girls had been mean, I thought, but they were also only four years old, their first impressions of life having been instilled in a monoculture, and they were maybe bamboozled by what, to them, was unfamiliar—my daughter’s complicated braids, the color of her skin, her beautifully maximalist mouth. “Hmm,” my daughter said, “maybe my eczema.” Or there was the time when she was five, and a kid called her “blackie” and blocked her from getting on the school bus. Or once a boy refused to be in her math group because, as he told the teacher, his dad told him to stay away from blacks. Or a white boy liked her until his mother met her. Or she got invited to a party, then uninvited, no explanation.
The moments when racism is blatant are rhetorically simple: other people notice it, object to it, and I sit back and let them make painstaking word choices and suggest possible remedies. This happened more often in the conservative small town than in the liberal city. But in both settings, there are moments when racism is tacit, unspoken–the invitation extended then canceled, the taunt that’s cruel but not a “slur.” The most difficult moments occur when I wonder but don’t know for sure if race is the reason a situation plays out poorly. If I think she didn’t get to go to a party because the parents are uneasy with interracial friendships, am I suspicious, obsessed? But if I don’t consider this and monitor her friendship with that child, am I one of those people who sees the glass forever half-full as a way of avoiding unpleasant realities? There’s no easy answer, no readymade politesse, no etiquette for talking about race or—given the fact that perceptions about how American institutions serve us are so segregated—talking across race.
The most difficult moments occur when I wonder but don’t know for sure if race is the reason a situation plays out poorly.
I try to address each situation on its own terms. Sometimes I do this wordlessly; sometimes I speak up. I care about the future of race relations, but I care about my daughter’s next few weeks more. My pre-motherhood reaction to racism was outrage mixed with bemusement at the propensity of humans to factionalize. Now my outrage is tempered with protectiveness and practicality: best possible outcome with least special-request capital spent, in case we need to spend more soon. I’m also modeling for my daughter how to stand up for herself with minimum repercussion. And, because I talk about, or around, the dicey topic of race a dozen or so times a year—careful each time I do, measuring each word for an audience that usually includes people I don’t know well and my daughter too—my most uncensored feelings about race boil over when I read the news. The form to which we’ve grown accustomed now—celebrity scandals mixed with war and politics—feels mythic in a stripped-down way, far-off people simplified into caricatures onto which we project the fear and longings we aren’t allowed to express in life.
When I moved to the city, race was constantly in the headlines because of the 2008 presidential election journalists called “historic.” The Obama presidency extended this focus. Sarah Palin’s assertion that Barack Obama runs a “gangster” White House. The Trump-produced reality TV show in which the big reveal was Obama’s birth certificate. Jokes about how the White House isn’t white. Images of Michelle Obama with an ape face. The Kansas Tea Party calling Obama a skunk: “He’s black and white and stinks.” I also remember a day I was at work and hadn’t cathartically fumed alone when I heard that Henry Louis Gates, Jr. had come home from a trip, had trouble unlocking his door, and a neighbor called the police. A colleague, a white woman, said that it was of course wrong for police to assume Henry Louis Gates, Jr. was breaking into his house, but Henry Louis Gates Jr. seemed—she’s from the South where people use this word more than they do in the North—uppity. I blew up. I was unpersuasive, to say the least.
The Gates arrest and its fallout—the infamous beer summit—have turned out to be a lesson in understanding the concept of partial: partial as in incomplete; partial as in biased. Everyone overreacted. I overreacted because I generalized from personal experience. I’d once been pulled over for failing to dim my lights while leaving a parking lot. The deputy shone a flashlight in my face, then into my daughter’s. She was five, in a booster-seat in the back, crying. He said: “Whose kid is that?” I answered, “Mine.” During the next part of the interrogation, I was out of the car and saying the alphabet backward while touching my nose and walking a straight line. “Are you married?” he asked me. I wasn’t, I said, ceasing my recitation, holding my balance steady. “She’s adopted,” I added. I hated saying this. It meant I wasn’t challenging the stereotype—that if I’d once had sex with a black man, I was likelier to be drunk now. But I wanted to go home. The deputy asked where I worked and lived. He looked at my driver’s license a second time to verify my address. “Do you own or rent?” Once we established I was a professor, a homeowner and taxpayer, my daughter and I were on our way.
Around the same time—my daughter was little, and I took her everywhere—I was searching for a doctor who would diagnose what turned out to be a blood sugar disorder. I was tested for HIV several times in one year. The second time a doctor suggested the test, I said I’d just had the test, and it had come back negative. He said false negatives were common. He pointed at my daughter and asked about her progenitor: “Is the baby’s father sick too?” The next doctor asked if the baby’s father was abusive before she ordered a third HIV test. Another doctor glanced at my daughter and suggested anti-anxiety pills. People assumed I was more likely to be drunk, HIV-positive, in a bad relationship, and clinically anxious because I had a black child. In my experience, people made assumptions about probable deviant behavior based on race. So I’d assumed that Henry Louis Gates Jr. was racially profiled, not uppity. And I knew firsthand that if you’re in the middle of life, unlocking your door after a trip, or driving home with a tired child in the car, or waiting to hear what disease you might have, race is not at the front of your brain, nor is requisite diplomacy on the tip of your tongue. You don’t have your race ambassador personality handy. Your auto-speechwriter is switched off.
A woman standing next to me at a school event recently watched our kids interact and said—congratulating us, congratulating America—that racism is over.
But I can always redirect attention to the fact that I’m white, or to the fact that my daughter’s mother is. A clerk once told my daughter to leave a store because she was loitering. I was nearby, looking at towels. “Is there a problem?” I countered. “I’m her mother.” Even when I was living in the country where people lived less diversely, I had clear advantages, a stable job, advanced training in rhetoric I find useful every time I object. But I think of people who can’t immediately say to the officer or clerk: hey, I’m white here. And how quaint I sound, a white woman who understands racism at last, selfishly, for her daughter’s sake. Yet I don’t understand. I understand only that I used to be clueless: the sense of ease in day-to-day interactions I once took for granted. I’m also not living with ancestral history as trauma: enslavement, violence, segregation. I’m touchy because I’m protecting my daughter. I don’t have an ocean of grief hundreds of years old.
All mothers teach their children to protect themselves, but perhaps not as intently as black mothers must. I didn’t grow up making this flak-jacket for myself, or hearing from my mother how to make it. I’m an amateur, and I realize it most when I have my lonely overreactions to representations of race in the news, surges of repressed emotion. I’ve been having surges for years now, so I’ve reconsidered those astonishingly divergent polls from the 1990s that, I realize, aren’t at all about O.J. Simpson’s guilt or innocence, but about the essential fairness of American life. I have a fraction of an insight into what it might feel like to have a schizophrenic sense of history, a gap between what you know and the public record. A woman standing next to me at a school event recently watched our kids interact and said—congratulating us, congratulating America—that racism is over.
We have a black president, she added, proof that we’re past all that. It’s true that Jim Crow-era slurs are a minor strain in the public discourse, and “racism” is perhaps too loaded a word to describe the slights and assumptions that go undescribed. If I address these slights and assumptions, it’s better if I do so without saying the words “black” or “minority” or “race,” because, at this point, most white people feel these words have been used both honestly and manipulatively. Fear of being called racist has made us all semantically cautious. Yet we don’t have a new vocabulary, a way of talking about not just the overt insults, but unconscious blind spots that, in research conducted by the sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, don’t show up on surveys in which almost everyone describes him or herself as “tolerant,“ but in detailed interviews where respondents generalize in a veiled way, linking terms like “unqualified” or “free ride” with people of color.
Decades ago, when the civil rights movement was nascent, my mother raised me to believe that, in her words, “God made everyone,” and everyone should be treated fairly (except wives in relation to husbands, because she didn’t quite believe that). In spite of her admonitions never to discriminate against people of color—which, where I grew up, meant Native Americans—she one day said she was opposed to interracial marriage. I was an adolescent, and I took her to task. Her eyes softened, and she said: “If people intermarry, their children will be both races, or neither, and they will fit nowhere.” We don’t live in that world. But my perspective fits neither one race nor the other. I speak only for myself. I can’t speak for my daughter, who navigates these issues for herself, though it’s been my job to give her confidence and tactics and a sense of timing to do so well.
But I’ve sacrificed candor. We all have.
We’re not beyond demeaning racial distinctions, even if we’re almost beyond old-fashioned words for demeaning racial distinctions. But we haven’t coined enough words for the tricky present, or decided whether new words—“historically black”—encode old assumptions. As I read and watch the race-as-newsworthy news, I can’t escape my tiny demographic bias: a white woman responding with perplexed detachment but also fierce protectiveness because the well-being of my daughter—the site of my passion and hope for the future—hangs in the balance. I never wanted to be a parent who whispers hush, we’ll talk later, because children are listening, but I don’t often express myself on the topic of race unless it’s imminently necessary: triage. I avoid public debates about the official but folkloric news, the news as a lightning rod, the news as the prompt that forces us to speak the unspeakable. I’ve signed on to the social pact that a nuanced discussion of vestigial racism is too risky or impolite. My reactions to the news are segregated two ways. I react as a white woman and as my daughter’s mother. My reactions are separate but unequal, too, in that I have strong opinions in private, yet publicly—except for that time I excoriated a woman I barely know on behalf of Henry Louis Gates, Jr., whom I don’t know either—I suppress my opinions, because that works best for us. But I think about the rest of the (human) race and wonder if saying nothing is right, or complicit and wrong.