Race, Privilege and Family Relationships
This is the second guest blog post in our special Black History Month series by AdoptiveBlackMom (Lisa Greenhill). AdoptiveBlackMom is a diversity professional, social science researcher, writer, blogger, mom and full-time smarty pants living in the Washington, D.C. area. Read her first guest blog post, “How I Got Here.” And follow AdoptiveBlackMom on Twitter@AdoptiveBlackMom and like her Facebook page.
Hope and I are alike but we are also very different.
We are both black. We both have families from the Southeast of the U.S. We both love music but completely different genres. We both are talented but in very different ways. We both wear our hair naturally — in its kinky, coily state. And that’s about it.
Most folks who come into contact with us assume that I birthed her; after all we are a same race adoptive family. Folks assume that because I’m educated, then Hope must love school and do well in school. She hates it. Folks assume that Hope is a young, social justice militant like her mom. She’s not. Folks assume that Hope is and always has been comfortable with being in a middle-class home. She’s not but she’s trying to be.
It’s these differences that spark a bit of conflict in our lives. To sort of quote the late author Bebe Moore Campbell, Hope’s black ain’t like mine. When Hope was placed with me at the age of 12 (she’s now 15), we struggled with many things in the early months. After the difficult adjustment episodes passed, we began to realize that our concept of what it meant to be “black” was vastly different.
I grew up in a stable home with both parents who valued education. My mom stayed home with my siblings and I until we were all in school. We took road trip vacations. My father worked overtime to make it all work. Things were tight but never unstable.
Hope never knew that kind of stability, and she didn’t know many, if any, black folks who did. For her, blackness was associated with class — poverty, some homelessness and just getting back economically. She did take a few trips to visit grandparents and extended family in her early years but that was about it. She attached those experiences with being black rather than being poor so her concept of blackness was much narrower than mine. She was happy to be parented by someone who shared her skin color but our experiences were so vastly different that shared color was undermined by class difference. During our first year, she told me it was like I wasn’t even black.
Shortly after our adoption was finalized, Hope’s extended birth family found us. We embarked on a relationship with them. Hope began to tell me stories of her early childhood visiting her family and the things they used to do. It was something real and tangible, and it wasn’t just a familiar family lens that Hope viewed these memories through. These were her people and they were a version of black she could relate to.
Only it was different now. Hope had traveled a little. She had a passport. She was seeing a bigger broader world. Hope was solidly middle class and she was learning to lean into her economic privilege.
By the time we went to visit Hope’s family, awkwardness settled in. The rush of emotions was overwhelming — grief, joy, happy memories, sad memories and anger. It was a lot to process so the conflict between race and class wasn’t initially clear.
But on the long drive home, it certainly became a point of discussion. Hope shared her observations. Our families were very different but also very similar — supportive, loving and encouraging with mutual core values. But we lived differently. Hope was proud of the things we’re able to do but she questioned if her birth family could do those things too. She questioned her grandmother’s living situation. She wondered what life would have been like if she had experienced a kinship adoption.
She tried to reconcile this race/class thing. It was hard for her; it still is several years later. I kept saying that black folks come from all walks of life; there are still some shared experiences, but yeah, this class thing can make race look and maybe feel different.
Our relationship with Hope’s birth family is awkward. Some of our early “grown folks” conversations about Hope explored fighting the finalized adoption and who would have access. I was sympathetic but I was also clear. I welcomed a relationship, but given Hope’s history with her family of origin, I would bury them in court. I’m somewhat shamed by that threat now. Privilege allowed me to make it. Looking back, I now feel like a snobby jerk.
Transracial families aren’t the only ones who may have to struggle with issues of race. Because class issues can overlap race and racial identity so much, those of us in same-race adoptions may also struggle with healthy racial identity development when our children move from one social class to another.
Hope is at an age where she’s trying to create her own identity. She also chooses to align herself and her friendships with all non-black peers. Certainly, there may be a lot of reasons for that, but the class conflict and how that shapes the way Hope sees herself plays a big role in her relationships, including and especially those with her birth family.
Class and privilege shape as much of Hope and my relationship with her birth family as any of the biological connections. We are all a work in progress. As an adoptive parent, I realize how important it is for Hope to have a relationship with her birth family. It’s important for me too. It’s my goal to make it all accessible for this big family of mine. This means teaching my daughter to learn to be aware of her privilege, how to prevent it from negatively affecting her relationships, and finally, how to use her economic privilege for good. It’s another set of lessons and values on a mess of healing, course corrections and personal and family growth, but important, so like with all the other stuff, we’ll do it.
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