I wrote in previous posts that I am often asked: “Why did you adopt black children?” The question is phrased in myriad ways. And my responses, depending on the questioner and context vary as well. I’m often tempted to be flip: White babies freak me out with all their wrinkles; I listened to a lot of hip-hop music in high school and thought it would be cool to assemble my own group; I like my children like I like my coffee: black. But that just makes people uncomfortable as they wonder if it is okay to laugh.
The actual answer is much simpler. Karen and I returned from Nepal in February of 1998. We moved into her parents’ basement in Inver Grove Heights, a suburb of St. Paul, MN. I got a job waiting tables in a trendy area of St. Paul. I also volunteered at a small publishing company. After a few months we found a small apartment in the Highland Park neighborhood in St. Paul. We were 24 years old. We started to try to have a family.
First key moment: I was waiting tables and was yelled at for not getting the ketchup to the table on time. I had waited tables on and off for many years. Something about this moment struck me. The following night was Grand Old Days, the biggest night of the year. I chose to go waterskiing rather than to work. I never went back. I had waited my last table. Ever. Later that week I walked down the street to St Thomas, found the chair of the English department, and was accepted into the M.A. program for the fall.
In the winter of that year, a few weeks after losing our first pregnancy, I received a call from Karen’s work. She had a seizure. By the time I arrived at the hospital, Karen was hooked up to the EKG machine. While hooked up (I was in the adjacent room) she had a second seizure. She repeatedly called out my name: Michael. I can still hear it. A short while later after many specialists, we decided to try again; after losing another pregnancy, we decided to begin the adoption process simultaneously.
We did not want to look at adoption as the last alternative; rather, we would proceed with both. What was important to us is simply that we had children. We found an agency, WACAP, which dealt with domestic and international adoption. The agency contacted smaller agencies throughout all fifty states. We did not specify race or gender. The communities in which they dealt with meant a higher chance of bi-racial, Native-American, African-American and Hispanic children.
Several months later we received a call that a mother had chosen us as parents. She was due in a few weeks. We began to prepare and spread the good news. On the day of the birth the situation changed (birth family was not allowing the mother to proceed). We were back to waiting again. We told the agency to not contact us next time until the birth had occurred and the rights had been terminated. During that same time we lost another pregnancy.
Two years after moving into the apartment, I graduated with my M.A. from St Thomas, where I received a fellowship (that paid off my undergraduate loans) and tuition remission. That summer I got a job at Inver Hills Community College as an adjunct (my father-in-law teaching there helped). Unbeknownst to us at the time, in the early fall, Caleb was born. Seven days later we got the call. My mom and my wife drove to Texas to pick him up. I flew down to meet them there (I had just started my first semester teaching, one of my classes at a Maximum Security prison, but that is another story for another day).
I met Caleb at the airport. Huge head of hair. I was a dad. I was a college teacher. My wife was working Labor and Delivery. We got rid of our small dining table and put Caleb’s crib in the Kitchen next to the fridge – it was a tiny tiny place. We had a baby boy. We were becoming actual adults.
Fast-forward a few years: we now lived in AZ where I was in the PhD program at ASU. We started the adoption process again. Concurrently, Karen was once again pregnant (it would be the fourth time). This time we specified African-American, because we thought it made sense for Caleb to have a brother that “looked” like him. During the Spring of 2004, Karen had taken her pregnancy longer than any before. Then she got sick (pre-eclampsia). I brought her to the hospital where they checked her out and then sent her home with Tylenol. A day later I brought her back. Again, they were prepared to send her home. I found the doctor, made a bit of a scene, and demanded that they admit her. That was the first time I almost lost my wife. That was not the last time I exchanged heated words with doctors and hospital employees on my wife’s behalf. And it was the first time I held the tiny body of one of my children. We named him Skye.
I remember holding Skye, surrounded by family. Then alarms went off and I saw blood. Lots of blood. They took Karen into the operating room. I fell apart on my mother-in-law’s shoulder. After what seemed like forever, the doctors stabilized Karen. Later that summer two things occurred: one, a doctor told us that sure, we could still try. He had all sorts of ideas. I looked at him and thought he was crazy, or just reckless. In my mind, he was looking at Karen like a challenge. I could see him thinking I will get this couple to conceive, no matter what it takes, and I will write a paper on it. We never went back. No more pregnancies. Two, we received another call shortly after Julian’s birth, and we jumped on a plane to pick up our second child.
Fast Forward over a decade, and here we are, with another child. Zoey. WACAP no longer does domestic adoption, so we went directly to the two agencies where we got our boys. We knew they were good, reliable, trustworthy places. It never crossed our mind to adopt from anywhere else. And by this point, it would be strange Not to adopt a black child. The only caveat this time: we specified a girl.
So maybe somewhere in that synopsis is an answer to the question: why did we adopt black children. Maybe not. I don’t really care. But there is something that I care deeply about and something that I want to make absolutely clear: we did not “save” our children. We did not scoop them out of a rough situation and provide them with a “better” life. That narrative too closely follows the “white savior” narrative perpetuated by Hollywood in movies such as The Help and The Blind Side. I know that the sentiment, “you have done such a wonderful thing for those children,” is often said with the best of intentions. But consider the implications.
My kids were not “put up for” or “given up for” adoption. What terrible language. All three birth mothers of my three kids made a difficult and amazing and selfless choice that required a great deal of faith. They made a decision. They each decided to choose adoption for their children. And after looking through a book of waiting families, they each chose Karen and I to be mother and father to their birth children. The amount of trust and faith required in this decision amazes and astounds me. We sat down with each birth mother as we picked up our babies. There is really no way to describe the feeling of such a meeting. Profound is the closest word I can think of.
As such, when I am told that I saved these children, I can’t help but feel as though the birth mother is being indicted. Moreover, I can’t help but feel there is an additional element of race insofar as we are somehow raising them in a “better” and “safer” environment. And I know that neither sentiment is always the case, but that is how it can be construed. I don’t mean to call out my friends on words meant with kindness, but rather to clarify what may lie beneath the words.
Karen and I are simply parents. The path we took to parenthood was not necessarily straightforward, but it does not change the fact that we simply wanted to be parents, and like many couples, soon realized that one does not simply Decide to have a child (insert meme of Boromir). It does not work that way. However, we can, and we did, Decide to concurrently pursue both adoption and pregnancy at the same time. And because of that, we have our three children. It was this decision that may truly answer why we adopted the children that we have.
And here is where things get difficult. The past week has seen horrific occurrences that point out the tentative nature of race relations that continue to permeate our nation. Explicit racism is obvious; however, the way in which race infects and informs our daily lives is much more prevalent. Note that I said race, not racism. We are a country that is still healing from the wound of over two centuries of Slavery and Law-Supported inequality. It is why the simple statement, “you saved those children,” is loaded with such baggage. We still are uncomfortable talking about race. And for good reason. I want to be clear that in no way am I calling out someone who spoke those words to me, meaning to be complimentary, as racist. Not at all. But rather, we must consider how our words may be construed.
In my classes, I often try to begin conversations on race. I do so not only in my African American Lit and Blues course, but also in Freshman Comp and even my Sports Rhetoric class (a month on Muhammad Ali is one of the most effective tools in beginning an important and constructive dialogue). One of the aspects that we interrogate in class is the very construction of color, or as James Baldwin sees it: “the invention of color.” My children are black insofar as our culture defines blackness. My nephew, who has a white mother and black birth father, is black. Halle Berry, who has a white mother, is black. And I am white. We are so defined because that is how society currently perceives it.
Of course, if we get into color, I am more of a pinkish orange. My son is more of a dark brown. Forget for a moment that as child I had a Crayola crayon labeled “skin” that matched the color of my skin. The construction of the labels black and white themselves need to be interrogated; but at the same time, they cannot simply be ignored. W.E.B. DuBois prophetically stated that the problem of the 20th century will be the problem of the color line. Note the word choice: the color line. Where is the line drawn and who holds the pen?
I have had well-intentioned friends note that they raise their children to be colorblind. And again, like the statement regarding adoption, it is well meaning. It is also problematic. Until we live in a colorblind society, claiming to be colorblind is akin to sticking one’s head in the sand and ignoring the reality that surrounds you. It would be reckless of me to raise my kids to be colorblind – to not see race. Because when a good deal of society sees them, they do indeed see color.
I look back on this past week, and the killings (murders, executions) of two black men and five police officers. I was discussing this matter with a friend, and I mentioned that soon my oldest son would be driving, and that I have talked with him about the appropriate way to act if pulled over. And my friend noted that he told his white children the same thing. Indeed, it is important for all of us to behave respectfully and carefully when pulled over. And hands on the steering wheel is a good precaution. But here is the difference, when my friend’s white child forgets this, or shows some defiance (as teenagers may do), he will not be shot on site. That is the terrifying difference. It is the same reason I will not allow my boys to have air-soft pistols. Some people, rather than seeing kids playing with a toy gun shooting empty cans, will see an imminent threat.
As we argue over whose lives matter, and as we try to figure out who is to blame, and how we should act, it would behoove (that is such a fun word) us to consider how our words sound to others. We want to hold our youth, in particular, our black youth to a high standard when interacting with police: be respectful, calm, compliant, and deferential. It seems to me that police officers ought to similarly strive to approach these situations with the same level of calmness and respect, so that they earn the compliance and deference that they seek. It is my belief that most police officers are good, well-meaning citizens. I also believe that most teachers are good, well-meaning citizens, but there are bad teachers. The same holds true, I would argue, for nearly every demographic. (The exception that proves the rule may be politicians.) Visit the most crime-ridden poverty stricken neighborhood, and the majority of its inhabitants will be good, well-meaning citizens. The problem, as I see it, is that too often we don’t know how to speak to one-another.
And that leads to the current hashtag war: maybe those who feel offended by #blacklivesmatter may be missing the implied “too” or “also” at the end. Or it may be that such a statement, one that disallows one to be “colorblind,” pries one’s head out of the sand and forces them to confront race. It makes many uncomfortable. As I mentioned, claiming to be “colorblind” is not bad in itself, but it does risk coming off as naïve. The implied reasoning for the #alllivesmatter movement may indeed come from the well-meaning sentiment that we should all be colorblind. But the implied “too” or “also” at the end of #blacklivesmatter implies that for many in the black community, the narrative seems otherwise.
Yes, all lives matter – but if that is the case, then consider the full challenge of such a statement: are those who espouse #alllivesmatter prepared to include those on death row, those who would plan terrorist attacks on American soil, and even those who would molest children? Indeed, if we accept that all lives matter, then is it not imperative that in order for that to hold true that we must identify all those lives that society deems do not matter and seek to understand why and begin to heal?
On campus I organize an event during Black History month wherein we read aloud various texts by black American authors. The event has been well received and attended. Often around that time someone asks the question I am sure many have heard: what about white history month? It is a ridiculous question, of course. But there seems to be a troubling parallel in the seemingly simplistic response of “all lives” to “black lives” matter.
I started this blog on adoption and race and my children. I titled it as such, including #mykidslivesmatter. Now, were I to claim that hashtag on my Facebook feed, would anyone assume that by claiming that my kids’ lives matter, that I am assuming that the lives of other people’s children do not matter? Of course not. It sounds ridiculous. My kids are also black. They will have experiences that I simply will never experience solely based not upon the color of their skin, but based upon the reaction of someone else that stems solely from the individuals perception of what the color of their skin entails. Do you see the difference? Until the entire world is colorblind, claiming to be so is reserved only for those privileged enough not to have to face the possibility of others reacting to them based solely on the color of their skin.
I am a white, middle-class, heterosexual, protestant male. In America, I am pretty much good to go. I have never been told that I do not matter, that I am somehow less than. However, change any one of those labels, and that changes. Race, class, sexuality, religion, and gender.
So the next time you hear #alllivesmatter, ask yourself if it is really a cry for colorblindness. And note that at its heart, the desire to be colorblind is not necessarily a bad thing. But it is naïve. And it is not practical. At least not yet. Because if, indeed, all lives mattered, then there would be no injustice, no poverty, no violence. If all lives mattered, then we would demand that no matter how rude or disrespectful any American citizen may be, he does not deserve to be shot. But that will not happen for a few centuries, and by that time we will have the Federation, and all the injustice, poverty, and violence will just occur on other worlds and with entirely difference species. But even the Klingons eventually see things our way and make peace.
And there goes my move toward humor…I would end with my Cardinals, but it is All-Star break, so not much is happening. So let me end with a serious challenge: #allivesmatter has the potential to be an amazing movement, but it cannot be simply a negative response to #blacklivesmatter. Logic dictates that if all lives matter, then black lives matter; on the contrary, saying black lives matter does not mean that non-black lives do not matter. (Yes, that is a mouthful). Rather, I would suggest that #alllivesmatter not only include and support #blacklivesmatter, but that it take upon the challenge to seek out All lives that would add a “too” or “also” and invite them into the movement so that their lives will matter as well.