I did my best at the time.
As white parents in a white town, we were tasked with giving our multiracial children tools with which to form their identities.
So I bought the diverse books. I made sure our nativity set was ethnically accurate. I read about adoption and race. We drove to the city for MLK day and for Kwanzaa celebrations. We ate at ethnic restaurants. I did my best, but it wasn’t enough. Not by a long shot.
In the end, they have had to do the work themselves. Sacred work, this is, forming an identity, all the more when transracial adoption is factored in.
One child settled in a part of the country where she resembles the dominant culture. She didn’t realize how she stood out as different until she moved to a place where she blended in. Now she has the comfort of no longer being asked to explain her ethnicity.
One child chose to identify with and immerse herself in the violent culture of the streets, returning to the same ghetto that her birth mother sacrificed so much to save her from.
And one child refuses to be defined by, or confined to, any racial label or stereotype. His friends are all races and ethnicities, and his friendships are formed around common interests instead of background or skin color.
Three different responses to the same situation. Three different ways of incorporating their race into their identities. Were they handicapped by the process, or enriched because of it?
Race matters. It is tied to history and culture and ways of understanding and navigating this world. It is much more than a skin color. My children have found that there are certain expectations tied to race as well, both from insiders and from those outside. Transracial adoptees must come to terms with the fact that they were raised in the culture of one race while looking like another, and are thus subject to the expectations of both. To forge an independent identity under those conditions takes a lifetime of courage. It also offers a valuable perspective.
Our country is fracturing along color lines right now. Suddenly we are either white, or a “person of color”. These labels are used to set us in opposition to each other, and thus we are reduced, once again, to the judgement and assumptions tied to our skin color. But children like mine don’t fit into the “us vs. them” paradigm that the world uses to try to keep us safely in our categories.
All of us long to be known and valued for who we are, not what we are.
If we get this wrong, we settle for surface descriptions and labels, judging ourselves for not meeting an arbitrary standard and judging others by our ignorance and prejudice.
If we value the image of God in each other, then we will appreciate all of the things that make us each a unique creation. And if we value the image of God in ourselves, we can find our identity in this beautiful truth – holding this as the essence and foundation of who we actually are – before we don the identifying garments of race, culture and ethnicity.
The labels we wear can help to describe us, but they should never define us.
I did my best at the time. And I am doing my best now, to gain a deeper understanding of race, culture and the reality of the multi-ethnic heaven that I am heading towards, ruled by a dark-skinned, Middle Eastern Jew. The place where we will all finally be fully ourselves and completely at home.