On January 29, 2014, my wife and I adopted a little boy. He was 6 months old and had a birth mother who couldn't care for him the way she felt he deserved. He is amazingly happy, has a vibrant personality, loves music, loves to dance, has the most beautiful dark brown skin, and has the fluffiest hair I've ever seen.
Something I learned shortly after becoming the parent if a young black boy is that the color of his skin is almost always the first thing people notice about him. He has so many amazing traits, but it is his appearance that first colors most peoples' opinion of him.
Don't get me wrong, it's not usually negative. People will compliment his appearance, or they will mention how amazingly dark and smooth his skin is. They're not putting him down, but the first thing to their mind is race. 3 years ago, I never would have considered this racist. Now I'm not so sure.
We get other comments that... well, aren't exactly negative. The most common is "where is he from?" This is usually followed by a slightly confused look when we say "here." What they really meant to ask is "what African country is he from?" Again, it's not exactly negative, but there's an underlying assumption. These folks assume that he is from a foreign country because of the color of his skin, when truthfully only 25% of adoptions in America are international. The question is subtle, but it still questions his identity based on the color of his skin. 3 years ago, I never would have considered this racist. Now the line has become blurry.
Some comments are more direct. We had someone visit us just a month after we brought our son home, and we mentioned that he loves music and dances to it all the time. Their response? "Oh, you're going to be a rapper someday!" Not a musician, a singer, a dancer, or a conductor, but a rapper. The stereotype was clear. 3 years ago, I never would have considered this racist. Now I do.
The first thing I have learned about racism since the adoption of my son is that it is everywhere. It may not be obvious, it may not be harmful but it is there. Even the most innocuous comment with the best of intentions can be racist, and as a white male, I didn't see this for most of my life.
We quickly learned to be on guard for race issues. A few days after the adoption, we were going through a big bag of hand-me-down clothes. We had so many that we started a pile of never-going-to-wear-this clothes. Stains, frayed edges, and even bad fashion was cause to fill this stack. When we picked up a set of clothes with monkey imagery, I came face to face with a type of prejudice that still harms black people: comparison to a monkey. We made a decision then and there to shield him from this. We threw out any clothes that contained this imagery and made a rule that any PJ's, bibs, or other small monkey-printed items would only be worn inside our home, and never in public. 3 years ago, I never would have considered this necessary. Now it is my duty as a father.
Months later I was scrolling through Facebook and saw a tasteless joke shared by an old college acquaintance. The joke pictured Darth Vader (voiced by James Earl Jones, and of course wearing an all-black costume) with the caption "Darth Vader: first black guy to admit that he's the father." I became enraged. I didn't care that the original poster was a black humor website, and I didn't care that it was a joke. I thought of my son's birth father, knowing that he misses his son, and I was livid that this was all a joke to someone. I had to take action to stop these types of jokes from spreading. 3 years ago, I never would have considered this necessary. Now it is my duty as a father.
The second lesson I learned about racism since the adoption of my son is that it is harmful. I learned that it's not only the violent racist acts that cause harm, but the everyday degradation brought about by jokes, jeers, and insults. I learned that it doesn't take sticks and stones to hurt someone.
Since the adoption, my wife and I have watched some Oscar nominated and award-winning films about race, including The Butler and 12 Years a Slave. Both were hard enough to watch, due to mistreatment, violence, and rape of slaves. But what made it even worse was the fact that the main characters were not slaves!
In one movie, the main character was a successful violinist who was capture for no reason, sent south, and sold into slavery. He was a free man in the time of slavery, yet he was beaten, overworked, and ignored as much as any unfortunate slave. People he considered friends wouldn't even listen to him when he tried to prove his freedom.
In the other, the main character's parents were respectively raped and killed in the 1920's, 6 decades after the abolition of slavery, then the boy was trained up as a "house n*****." 60 YEARS AFTER THE ABOLITION OF SLAVERY, his entire family was treated as slaves.
The third lesson I learned about racism since the adoption of my son is that it has a long and painful history. Racism isn't harmful simply because of what is said. Insults made today tear us back to a day when the Civil Rights movement fought for shared schools, buses, and restaurants. Even the N word by itself is harmless, but after nearly 300 years of forced slavery, after entrapping an entire nation of black people into lives of violently enforced submission to the furthest extremes, the N word is overflowing with history. It's not just a word. It is a label and a tool to enforce submission in the cruelest ways.
I have begun to worry about how hard it will be to teach these lessons to my son. How hard it will be to look him in the eye and tell him that some people will always look down on him because of his race. To tell him that people will say hurtful things to him because of the color of his skin. To tell him that he carries the cross of black slavery on his back because of the way he looks, and to tell him that people who look the way I look put it there.
I have learned that racism isn't dead, and I'm slowly learning to carry my son's cross on my back until he's strong enough to stand up under it.
Always Moving Forward,