“Teaching” Black Culture

A bit ago, I spoke with an AP who was very concerned about his ability to ‘teach’ black culture to his newly adopted son.  He was very vocal that he would not feel comfortable taking his child to black churches or doing things that he knew nothing about. Despite my irritation that he was more concerned about his own discomfort than that of his child’s overall ability to be comfortable in life – I’ve been pondering this question deeply. 

“Its not my culture, so how can i teach it? My culture will be his culture”. Ahhhh the idealistic dream of colorblindness. As Ji-in and others of us have commented, oh yeah, we know white American culture, sometimes white ethnic cultures because we were raised in isolation from any other cultural frameworks. And yeah, sometimes its fun to giggle at show tunes or listen to rock, folk or country music, have memories of barn or square dancing, shoveling manure or to enjoy scarfing down strudel or sauerkraut. (ack)

So the question is: Are you able to teach ‘culture’ even if it is not ‘yours’?

One of the things that many TRA’s vocalize is that we are clear that most AP’s do not have the tools, whether it be experience or basic knowledge about what it means to be a person of color in a white world. So if you do not have people of color in your life when you are considering adopting a black or brown child, how will you be able to navigate the sometimes extraordinary racism your child will encounter?

What about first, admitting that there may be things that you aren’t able to teach your child? The saying “its a black thing,  you wouldn’t understand”, used to piss me off. But there is some truth in this flippant phrase and the truth is – unless you have some experience being a body that is interpreted as a ‘raced other’ (Asian, Chicano, Latin, Black or in global terms – ‘black’) it is going to be extraordinarily difficult for you to ever ‘understand’ what your child is going through.

Also – consider thinking about how race functions – ‘whiteness’ isn’t just a word. It has meaning. The ‘white’ in ‘whiteness’ is similar to the ‘black’ in ‘blackness’. There are particular characteristics that get applied to white folks that don’t apply to white folks globally – right? (except for the privilege part and even whiteness as a concept here trumps class)

I’m not privledging experience over education here, I may be suggesting a few things, one of them – without a multi-racial and multi-cultural immediate community – how can you call yourself concerned with the best interests of your child? Having a child growing up in isolation, no matter how much love and understanding is supposedly there, is simply wrong. Are you prepared when your child comes home devastated, or confused, or angry, or afraid because of something someone has done or said to them?

do you tell them to just ignore those ignorant people?

do you tell them to not be so sensitive and that they may have been imagining the experience?

Yes, it would have helped to have a parent schooled in racial politics, who understood how race functions to position black bodies directly against white bodies, how racalized ideas of blackness make white people afraid of my friends when I bring them to church. Yes it would have helped to have a parent who read African American Literature and who attempted to at least understand something outside their own cultural framework.

Yet, sometimes intent isn’t enough, sometimes love isn’t enough. I needed mentors,  someone to explain to me why people treated me like shit because I was a black girl surrounded by all white people. Why I became the object of all ridicule. Someone to assist me in coping mechanisms when boys told me that no one liked me because they were afraid of getting black on their hands. When people said things about my hair and it was too painful for me to share these things with my mother. When someone called me ‘black’ and made it sound like the most horrible thing to be. When someone told me ‘they don’t see me as black’, when someone told me I was black and ugly.

Removing your child from ‘those people’, distancing your child from ‘that culture’ that ‘I dont understand’ does not help them grow to be comfortable with themselves. Or to understand the diversity, beauty and complexity of it. If you are uncomfortable, they will sense that discomfort and internalize it. You better get comfortable, or at least be willing to struggle with that discomfort.


20 thoughts on ““Teaching” Black Culture

  1. Damn. If that parent doesn’t feel comfortable in “black” situations, (probably because he’s going to be outnumbered and stick out like a sore thumb) he, quite honestly, should have done his kid a favor and adopted from Russia. End of story.

  2. Yaay! I loved this post, Lisa Marie. As I often tell adoptive parents, why place the burden of discomfort on the child – YOU’RE the adult.

  3. {APPLAUSE} I can’t tell you how much I *love* this post. I have no tolerance for those who hem and haw over doing things that are inconvenient or uncomfortable for them. Simply by nature of being adopted by them, their transracially adopted kid has inherited a lifetime of inconveniences and discomfort, to say the least. And then they stand back and say they LOVE their kids and would do anything for them … well, ALMOST anything.

    How is it OK for the transracial adoptee to be forced into uncomfortable, often racist situations over and over, day after day, but it’s not OK for the transracially adopting parent to step up and do something real to help try to lessen that pain for the adoptee?

  4. Yes, thank you!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! This should be in PACT’s newsletter. I don’t know why people are so reluctant, even if they ARE uncomfortable the first ten times, so what?? It’s not going to hurt them to be uncomfortable and by time 20 they won’t be. The child who hears such things with no support is more than uncomfortable. I’m sad to say it sounds like someone who already decided that they are not going to give their child what they need and they are trying to justify it. I hope they read your post.

    As a white AP I was never counseled to attempt to teach my daughter her birth culure, but to bring authentic teachers into her life that she can be close to, and to expose her to information and experiences that are ignored by mainstream education & society. And it is never enough because her birth culture is devalued and distorted by this society.

  5. So well said, there’s nothing I can add except thanks, and my encouragement to any white a-parents who read this to take your words to heart.

  6. Something else — I read a book about a woman here in town who homeschooled her sons in part because of the racism in the schools her sons attended. (Morning by Morning) And I realized that as a white person, a lot of my daughter’s experiences of racism would be invisible to me because my privilege hasn’t given me the tools to call out more subtle forms of racism. This is when it was really driven home to me that my daughter HAS to have mentors and I have to have mentors.

    The only thing I can compare it to is when I know that a man in a social situation is treating me badly because I’m a woman. It’s not something a man — even a very sensitive man — can always pick up on. But I’ve learned that when I feel put down, it’s because I’m being put down. (It took much of my young adulthood to dismiss that old saw: “You feminists just don’t have a sense of humor!”)

    (I feel very fortunate that our adoption is an open one and our very first resource is her first mom.)

  7. Just want you to know after reading this post we were up all night talking & reflecting about what we do and fail to do. Still going on.

  8. Lisa Marie, this is a good post and a solid reminder for transracial adoptive parents like me.

    One thing I’d like to point out is that your AP started at the right place, but went in the wrong direction. He’s right that he cannot ‘teach” black culture to his son. But his conclusion was “oh well, I guess my son will never have exposure to black culture.” Instead he should have said “I guess I need some help. Maybe I can get to know some black people who can be friends, mentors, and role models for my son.” With luck, maybe those same people can help him learn to be more sensitive to racial politics too.

  9. Black culture being so diverse, its codes of behavior and modes of interaction so varied and at times oppositional, presents an entire avenue for the parent -those AP and those native to the soil- to walk down. It is a learning that is lifelong, with nothing in it static except, unfortunately this one thing: the understanding that White people do not want you around. The individual may be made to feel welcome, but that individual will too often find, as Karen Chamberlain wrote years ago, that someone has had to negotiate his/her presence in the circle of friends by negating the Blacknes, in order to accept the individual as a person.

    I think every parent should refer to Jewel Jackson McCabe’s essay in I Dream A World, where she speaks of Blacks as being the only group in American society that is judged by the lowest achieving among us, instead of being judged by the highest achieving among us, as we do other groups. These things are uncomfortable to talk about, but talk we must. We must instill in our children an understanding, both conceptual and concrete, of who they are, and what our expectations of and for them, are. But first we must have a language, a way of asking ourselves disturbing questions, a way of dealing with ourselves when we’ve fallen short.

    The territory is only foreign if we never venture into it.

    Think of the ways in which we discuss art ( shading), good and bad, dirty and clean, etc. In the tiniest of ways we inculcate them to see themselves as within a norm or aberrant, and outside of it. The way a four year old delights upon seeing bubbles spring forth from a well of dishwater in the kitchen sink, the almost palpable joy found in the cheeks and eyes, is a picture of how open the young are to this new, new world. We are desensitized, oblivious to it all, aren’t we…mist on the window, condensation of our breath meeting cold air, saying the t-shirt is filthy and black, remarking at how black the face is when covered with dirt…how fleeting the expression of pain that registers on the young child’s face, how indelible the injury.

    Audre Lorde spoke of an incompetent fear that kept people from daring to step into uncharted, scary waters, full of the dread of reprisal and discomfort. So what, she said. You must do it. We must.

  10. This is just a correction: the writer to whom I referred in my first paragraph is Karen Russell, daughter of basketball great Bill Russell. My apologies, for a whole host of reasons.

  11. Bill Russell – ha!

    Sheila – im so glad my posts move people to discussion. Thanks for sharing that – the whole process is so diffucult on every end – AP, A, BP’s – its nuts all the way around and I think as long as we are willing to try to continue to push.. thats what makes it work.

    d.f- you are right about the AP and where they began. I hope they find a way to balance their fear with their concern for their child.

  12. Great post here. I am one AP who is trying but I still feel it is never enough. I am reading Jaiya John’s book Black Baby, White Hands. He says a lot along the same lines as this post and I highly recommend the book to transracial families.

    Culture doesn’t mean skin color. culture is determinated by gender, plitics, counrtry, region, style of life, family, religion, millions of things!

    What if I am from Brazil and black and adopt a black child from the United States?

    Brazilian culture is quite different from American culture….we all are black! that doesn’t mean this family is going to be ok and is going to fullfill everything for this child. Adoption is not an ideal situation…race is not the problem

    • Thanks for your comment. I think this is part of the point of this discussion and also part of why I wrote THIS post thinking about the difference between Race and Culture, and racial and cultural identity. As a reminder, this post is written about a white parent adopting a black child, and I argue the the combination of racism and white cultural values IS a problem when white parents don’t want to think about differences and pretend they aren’t there. When I talk about ‘same-race’ adoptions the issues definitely move to culture and colorism, you’re right.

    • This is very true. I think what one needs to do is be aware of several things at the same time. 1) Teaching the child’s culture to him/her to the extent that you’re able (attending events, foods, music, history, meeting new friends of the same background culture, day to day practices, holidays, etc. alongside one’s own culture that will likely permeate the child’s life) and 2) recognize that the dominant non-minority American society has certain expectations and reactions to Black people, or Asians, or Native Americans, or…..A person’s identity is not just driven by an internal compass, it is deeply affected by others’ reactions and scripts. Children need to learn how to process negativity as well as the positive. There are subtle slights and exclusions that APs will not always pick up on and if the child might not learn to identify the source early on and just know that somehow they get treated differently and their parents don’t seem to notice. Not a nice feeling. My family is white, but Muslim and Turkish descent. Particularly for me as I wear a headscarf and am easily identified as Muslim, this gives me some insight into what transracially adopted children experience. My kids need to learn to deal with outrageously hurtful and inaccurate comments, awkward silences, watching their parents be treated differently and sometimes badly in airports (once a passenger angrily suggested to the security that I be strip searched–turned out fine, the security guards had their heads on right, they pulled her from the flight). When we foster African American children, we have something unique to offer them that other white parents don’t always have and I’ve seen the difference. I’ve distanced myself from certain friends, pointed out subtle attitudes to family members, switched libraries and grocery stores, etc. It’s been an eye opener for me. One little boy who was about 2 years old, was warmly told by a neighbor that he’ll be a great construction worker or football player, never mind the fact that he was clearly not all that athletic and was fascinated with numbers already, not building things. They said it because he had a strong body (just awkwardly uncoordinated) and had gorgeous dark skin. She realized immediately what she said and the awkward silence hung heavy, but it was already said and kids need to be protected from that nonsense. APs and foster parents need to develop their circle of friends for their children. Good parents in general think about who they spend time with so that their children are exposed to positive social experiences. Transracial families are in a position where they need to work a bit harder to create a thriving environment for their children. It’s just fine to deliberately seek out new family friends who can support the family.

  14. yes, I know what you mean. I think my family have an advantage by living in Louisiana, we are inmerse in African American culture and the majority of the population is black, that gives my son a point of reference for identity. But we also have to see taht the majority of the African American population in Louisiana lives in poverty which it is not good either.

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