Purple Boots, Silver Stars … and White Parents
The New York Times
Frank Ligtvoet, Founder
Adoptive Families With Children of African Heritage and Their Friends, New York, New York
“WHEN I wear my cap backwards, don’t copy me,” our 8-year-old son says to his 7-year-old sister. “O.K.,” she answers, “I will put it on sideways.”
Recently our African-American daughter, Rosa, had gone with an older black friend to Fulton Mall, a crowded commercial area in our Brooklyn neighborhood, where the shoppers are mostly black. Fulton Mall is not only about shopping, it’s also a place to flirt, talk, laugh and argue, and to listen in passing to gospel, soul, hip-hop and R & B.
Rosa had seen some purple canvas boots with silver stars and lost herself in an all-consuming desire to have them. Immediately. I bought them, a bit later. A day later. And to be “fair,” I bought our son, Joshua, who is also African-American, a pair of black and yellow basketball shorts. Pretty cool as well.
The next day they want to show off their new stuff and, somewhat to my surprise, they decide to do so at Fulton Mall. I am their white adoptive dad, and by now, at their age, they see the racial difference between us clearly and are not always comfortable with it in public. But they know they are too young to go alone to the mall. Before we leave, Rosa, who had always seemed indifferent to fashion, changes into tight jeans and a black short-sleeve T-shirt. Joshua twists his head to see how he looks from behind. He pushes his new shorts a bit lower over his hips, but doesn’t dare to go all the way saggy. And then — after they have their cap conversation — we go.
They walk ahead. I am kept at a distance, a distance that grows as we get closer to the mall. I respect that; I grin and play stranger.
Joshua walks with the wide, tentative yet supple steps he sees black teenage boys make, steps he has practiced at home in the mirror. I realize that this is the first time in their lives they are asserting their blackness in a black environment, maybe not in opposition to but in conscious separation from the whiteness of my male partner and me. And we are a bit proud of their budding racial independence, since it comes after years of their having expressed feelings that ranged from “I don’t want to be black” to “I hate white people.” Being black with us was safe now. Being black at Fulton Mall was sort of a test of how safe it was out there in the world. I take a picture with my phone to catch this moment, which they hate. Of course…
…In the case of transracial adoption, there is the force of horizontal identity, where the child looks for others with the same experience of being adopted, but the vertical identity is complicated as well. When we wake them up in the morning, our kids don’t see parents who look like them. For many young transracial adoptees, every time they look in the mirror it’s a shock to see that they are black or Asian and not white like their parents. (In most transracial families, the parents are white.) The children have to grow out of their internalized whiteness into their own racial identity. Some fail and suffer tremendously…
Read the entire opinion piece here.