Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Race and Adoption: Empowering Black Children (or, Parenting as Micro-Activism)

Two years ago I brought home my two children from Haiti and I dropped out of academia. It did not take me long to realise that I would not engage in any academic activity for a long time. My children needed exclusive attention, not only for their young age (they were almost two years old), but also and especially for the effects of the traumata that they had experienced. So, I stopped being a scholar and became a full-time mother.
My background as a researcher in the humanities has influenced my parenting at least on two levels. In the first place, it has provided resources to investigate into the effects of early deprivation and other forms of traumata and to develop strategies, responses and healing methods on my own, without necessarily having to rely on the minimal help adoptive parents usually get from adoption practitioners. In the second place, my experience as a white scholar in Black Studies has served as a jumping-off point for mothering. Basically, I started off as a mother where I had left off as a scholar.
As a white scholar I had gradually grown uncomfortable with my position. The discomfort came from the fact that I was dealing with race merely at the theoretical level: I was not Black, so there was no direct experience mirroring my reflections on race. Therefore, I gradually progressed from talking about Blackness towards talking about whiteness. I increasingly felt the need to position myself and that is how I started engaging in the practice of ego-criticism, incorporating autobiographical elements into my research. Now, obviously, in our daily life as a family, race is not merely theoretical.
As a white mother I have to be aware of the fact that I am not equipped by experience with the necessary baggage to deal with racial issues and to empower my children. I also have to be aware of the fact that as much as I can try to identify with my children (as much as I try to become Black), the experiences that they will make with regard to race will always be at least partly beyond my reach. (The same, and even more so, can actually be said of the experience of loss on which my children’s life started, but this goes beyond the scope of these reflections.) This implies an extra effort on my part, an added responsibility to the love, nurture and guidance required from any parent.
White parents of Black children growing up in a predominantly white context have to interrogate their shortcomings in what they can provide for their children to become self-confident adults and have to make up for them by engaging in what I see as a form of activism on a micro-level. I call it activism because its primary goals are empowering Black children and raising consciousness among non-Black people. This involvement operates at a micro-level, that is, within the family and its immediate social sphere, and it is largely non confrontational (it does not imply demonstrations and massive protests). It basically consists in putting together an empowerment kit for Black children to thrive.
In the following I am presenting a few bullet points for an empowerment kit meant for parents of pre-school children. It goes without saying that not only the age but also the personality of the child in question and the context in which the child is brought up will determine the relevance of one or the other empowerment tool, and that each family has their own way of dealing with race and adoption and of responding to their children’s needs.

1. Don’t be afraid of naming race
Avoid pretending to be colour blind, because thinking that their colour doesn't matter will not help children find their place in the world (in any case they'll soon discover that colour-blindness is an hypocrisy). Also avoid euphemisms such as brown or dark-skinned, which will only further confuse them. We don't use such euphemisms and diversifications for white people, so what's the use of going chromatic? Children need to know who they are, what they look like and in how far the way they look affects responses from people around them. From a very young age children can learn the political notion of Blackness and find pride in being part of a community. Naming whiteness as much as you name Blackness helps counteracting the assimilation of whiteness as the norm. My children have learned to say such and such person are white, Black or Asian. They rejoice and take pride in seeing themselves reflected in other Black children.

2. Don’t be afraid of naming racism
Whenever you find some attitudes tainted by racism, talk about it explicitly with your children. White obsession with Black hair (touching, intrusive questions) is no innocent curiosity; being taken unwanted pictures is not flattering; comments about Black children's bodily strength and sense of rhythm , even if well meant, are troublesome. Don’t buy into the downplaying of racism. You are not making your children into paranoids, but simply teaching them to recognise implicit meanings and defend themselves. I was very proud of my daughter during a visit at the zoo some time ago. A woman was looking at a monkey and commenting on how sweet it was. Then she looked at my daughter and said: “Oh, you're sweet too!” And she took out her cell phone to take a picture of the child with the monkey in the background, at which my daughter promptly shouted: “Stop! No pictures!” It was the first time I did not have to intervene personally and only smiled with pride from afar at my self-conscious three-year old.

3. Make Blackness present and visible
Black children live in a world dominated by whiteness. It is worth making the effort to make Blackness visible at least in your home, through books, dolls, art, anything in which the children can see themselves reflected. Fill in the gaps with princesses and super heroes and also with adult role models (not only from sports, fashion and music). Bombarding children with positive images of Black people and People of Colour in general will help balance the unequal distribution of prominence on a racial basis.

4. Potentiate the presence of Black people in your children’s life
Provide spaces where your children are not a racial minority (for example playgroups with a large number of Black children); potentiate friendships with Black families; make an effort to find Black teachers or doctors or any adult who can become a reference figure for your children. White socialised Black children need to be connected to other Black children and adults to counteract the alienation of being perceived as a minority.

5. Take care of your children’s hair
Ignorance about Black hair is very widespread. Many white parents do not know how to take care of their children's hair and are also unaware of the significance which Black hair is charged with. In this case, getting informed is a must, as having well-kept hair is fundamental for children (especially for girls) to develop a positive self image. This might seem obvious, yet some white parents have their daughters' hair cut off or left uncombed. Others resort to hairdressers, which is a legitimate way of sparing time. However, I believe that each child has a right to a parent's personal engagement in their personal care, even more so if the child has come to the family through adoption. In our case, weekly braiding my daughter's hair has been crucial in the process of attachment. She has gradually moved from screaming wildly and running away from me to actively asking to have her hair done. Now she shows around her hair styles with pride, makes a point of saying that “mum has done it” and refuses to have it touched by anybody. In fact, her very first complete sentence when she started to speak was: “Do not touch my braids!”

6. Integrate the children's country of origin in the family's identity
It is difficult to find the right balance with regard to how much relevance to accord to the country of origin of adoptive children. On the one hand, one doesn't want the children to feel they belong somewhere else and therefore doesn't want to give too much importance to the birth country. On the other hand, questions on the origins come up almost on a daily basis (it is not uncommon for Black Europeans to be asked where they are really from) and therefore it can be quite disruptive for children if their parents deny or try to ignore that part of their history.
Having a direct knowledge of their birth country and being able to form for themselves a realistic image of it, away from the exoticised or victimised representations they will most likely receive form the outside, will reinforce the children's confidence and sense of belonging. Therefore, it is important for the parents themselves to “adopt” their children's birth country and make it part of their own identity. This, of course, implies making an effort to engage with the country's history, language and culture and making it part of the family's background, but without going to the extreme of appropriating what is actually foreign.
We have made some Haitian Creole songs part of our good night rituals and have integrated some typically Haitian expressions in our family's lexicon. When asked about our children's origins, we have found that differentiating between the children's origins and our owns would only be confusing for the children and have opted for answers which include the whole family rather than any single members, such as: “We are Haitian-Italians from Frankfurt.” Of course it might come a point when the children want to be from only one place, but at that stage that will be their own decision. Our task for the moment is not to restrict their identity, but to provide them instead with a sense of privilege of resorting to multiple backgrounds and of being able to choose between them according to their convenience.

7. Offer a palette of responses to intrusiveness
Are they your own children?” “Is your husband very dark?” “Adopted? Did it cost much?” “Do you know their real parents?” These are only some of the questions which usually come from complete strangers and which put into question the legitimacy of our family on a daily basis. Add to this other forms of intrusiveness (strangers reaching out to touch my children while I'm busy paying at the supermarket cashier, parents taking out their cell phones to take pictures of my children at the playground, teenagers staring in dismay at my children's umbilical hernia at the swimming pool) and you can easily imagine that the life of adoptive mixed-race families in public spaces can become a mixture of discomfort and preventive hostility if such intrusiveness is not dealt with appropriately.
Responding appropriately means finding strategies that put you in control of the situation and not letting your day be spoiled. There isn't of course a unique right strategy: you can can choose to lecture people; you can answer with sarcasm or good-humoured irony; you can turn around and walk away; you can laugh aloud or fight back. In such situations, never forget that the priority are your children. Your task is to protect them and provide them with tools that will make them able to deal with such intrusiveness on their own terms in the future. Therefore it is important that you train yourself into adopting different strategies, according to your moods and the degree of openness you feel it right to concede. In this way you will offer your children a palette of possible responses and you will make it clear to them that they can decide for themselves on how to respond, without feeling obliged to be nice when they are actually feeling uncomfortable or offended.
It is also important, after such incidents, not to overlook the effect it might have had on your children. Talk about it with them, even if only briefly, and explain why you reacted the way you did. (An example: my daughter, who was used to me reacting very strongly whenever a stranger touched her hair, looked at me in confusion the day a Black man rested his hand on her head and I acknowledged his gesture with a smile. I explained to her and her brother afterwards why I find it not right for white strangers to touch their head while I don't feel the same way with Black people. Since then, they've learned to make the difference themselves and, in any case, they've got confident enough to respond the way they want according to the moment.)
Another point I've tried to make clear to my children is that intrusive adults can be put off while other children, especially if small, always deserve an answer or an explanation. This is actually the easiest part. Children usually ask questions such as “Are they from Africa?” or “Did they come out of your belly?”, to which one can answer briefly and effectively: “No, they're from here. And you?” and “No, they came out of my heart. They're very special.”
Finally, it is crucial that, whenever you decide to be open and polite, you provide answers that are empowering for your children (they are watching, they are listening, therefore your response is actually directed to them). A typical comment we get when the issue of adoption is approached is: “Oh, you've done a very good deed. These children must be grateful”. Our answer: “No, we should be grateful. We're very lucky to have them.” To questions and comments about their umbilical hernia we can say: “They've got a bold navel. You have a shy one, don't you?” or “No, we're not planning to have it operated. It is part of their history. They're warriors.” There are many possible ways to empower your children by stressing how special and wonderful they are, while at the same time putting off intrusive strangers.

8. Deal openly with stereotypical and racist representations
From a very young age children absorb stereotypical and denigrating views of People of Colour. If not counteracted, this can result in a diminishing self-image, no matter how much self-confidence you try to instil in your children. I believe the best way to deal with this with young children is making them aware of stereotypes and denigrating images. When someone makes a comment about my children's dancing and singing abilities or physical strength, connecting this to their origins and race, I say to my children things like: “Sure you dance well. But that's because you are very talented and you learn quickly.” Children need to take pride in their uniqueness and personal abilities. Believing that they can dance or sing well because they are Black would only deprive them of the basic need of seeing their personal merit acknowledged.
However, stereotypical and denigrating representations are absorbed by children in more subtle ways (racist images or the sheer absence of positive images of People of Colour in children's books, cartoons and toys). My children love being read to and being shown picture books. Even if at this stage I am the one who chooses books for them, we constantly come across questionable representations, offensive terminology and disturbing generalisations. Needless to say, censoring (giving the book away) doesn't help to protect the children, since they will be exposed to such images in any case, so it is better to work on such issues proactively.
Denigrating images can be shown to children once, explaining to them if possible why you don't find them acceptable, and then glossed over in the following readings, always making clear that you are doing this on purpose, for example by saying: “I'm skipping this page because it's not nice”. Abusive terminology can be substituted. Again, you can name the word once to children by providing explanations and then say: “Here is a word we don't want to hear again. Let's change it.” Generalisations can also be dealt with quite easily with young children, by simply providing details. For example, any time a story is set in Africa without specification of the country, I make a point of saying: “Ok, but Africa is a very big continent. Maybe we can guess the country.” This prompts children to examine the images more closely and to contextualise. Another possibility, whenever you don't feel like dealing with these issues seriously (maybe your children are not in the mood for mini-lectures either), is to dismantle stereotypes in a more playful way. For example, every time we come across representations of Native Americans I substitute the word Indian with Italian. Of course my children, whose entire family is Italian, know very well that Italians don't run around with feathers on their head, so when they hear me saying “And there came an aggressive tribe of Italians” they know it is a joke (for me this is a way of showing to them that one can also defuse the tension of being bombarded with disturbing representations).
My children are now used to seeing me rework the books we read, crossing out words, rewriting entire paragraphs and even glueing together dislikable pages. The point I want to make to them is that you don't need to be a passive receiver, that you can keep and enjoy what you like and gloss over or change what you don't like, that you have a right to your own vision.

9. Respect biological parents and previous minders
Adoptive children have been born twice. They have a previous history from which they will most likely feel cut off, especially if the new parents focus on the family's history as starting from the day the children came to them. Having their previous history acknowledged and respected is one of the basic needs of adoptive children. Especially if adopted at a young age, children don't have access to their memories. It is the task of adoptive parents to collect as much information as possible on the children's origins and experiences prior to adoption and to record and safeguard this memory. In our case (our children came to us when they were not yet two), we made an effort to record the twenty-one months of our children's life before they came home: visiting the places where they were kept before entering the orphanage, taking pictures of the employees of the orphanage and of the other children and writing down their names, taking notes on the typical daily routine at the orphanage, anything that might help provide answers to the children's future questions and fill up the void attached to abandonment and uprooting.
In the best effort to protect their children, many parents do not bring up issues related to the children's experience prior to adoption, in spite of the fact that many adoption practitioners are of a different opinion. By doing so, however, they are protecting themselves rather than their children, and the void in their children's life will only be made larger by absence of information and acknowledgment. Another element to take into consideration is that a child's sense of security comes from resting on stable ground. If children are cut off from their previous history, they might never be able to have this sense of security. We decided, for example, to put in our children's room some pictures of the orphanage and especially of the people who took care of them. We did so because we wanted our children to know that those people did not simply disappear the day we took them home and because we wanted to create a connection between their past and present history.
For parents who are willing to keep for their children the memory of their biological parents and previous minders, it is important to do so without demonising these people but without idealising them either. One should try to be as realistic as one can but always showing empathy and understanding, and trying to stress the positive sides of the otherwise usually tragic circumstances of abandonment, for example: “Your mum left you in the vicinity of a hospital: she really wanted you to be well taken care of.” You cannot fully protect your children from their early history (abandonment, deprivation, possibly mistreatment), but you can use what you know and make your best out of it, because any child needs a rosy picture of life for a healthy start off.

10. Boost your children's self-confidence
This last point resumes all the previous ones, as the final aim of all them is to empower children into becoming self-confident adults. However, there is something to be added to make it all round up. All children need approval and encouragement. Black children, more so if adopted, need extra approval and encouragement, because life is tougher on them and because, for the majority of adopted children, they started off on a rejection. Therefore, don't be afraid of making them into spoiled children by telling them how wonderful and strong and talented they are and how well they deal with difficulties. They need you to stand behind them and they also need you to provide the knowledge about their body, their history, their identity. One way of doing this with young children is to work with them on their biography, which will help them feel special and unique. I do this work mostly with stories, rhymes and songs. I invent stories, I write rhymes or I rewrite the lyrics of famous songs to tell my children about their personal history. It gives children a huge sense of pride to find themselves named in a song, to see themselves reflected in a story or to have their history celebrated in a rhyme. They become heroes, warriors, magic creatures, and they soon start up elaborating their own stories, wording their own views. Telling one's own story is empowering, we all know that, so “My life matters” is the message I want to pass on to my children as the basis of their resilience and their empowerment as Black Europeans.

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