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Black, Not Like Me

In a 2001 issue of Adoptive Families, Sondra Crosby described the adjustment of her two daughters adopted as refugees from Sierra Leone. Three years later, she tells of the racism they face and how it shapes her family’s Sondra S. Crosby, M.D.

It’s been five years since our daughters from Sierra Leone, West Africa, joined our family. Isatu, now nearly 13, and Nanah, now 11, joined Madison, adopted six years ago from China. Now there are two younger brothers, ages 5 and 4, adopted from Kazakhstan. It’s all made for an intense life, with many highs and some lows.

Before adopting our African daughters, we thought we lived fairly multicultural lives and considered ourselves well informed. But we learned that this was not enough. Becoming a family of color has been a social wake-up call. As white parents, we are still sorting through our “invisible knapsack of white privilege,” a term aptly coined by Wellesley College social scientist Peggy McIntosh. We navigate differently in white society than our black daughters do. Our privilege is a social asset that they share peripherally when with us, but can’t own or take with them.

The African-American Experience

Assumptions are made about our daughters because of the color of their skin. Usually these assumptions have a negative tenor—poor academic performance, “attitude,” even a proclivity to future sexual and illegal activity. This is in contrast to the positive assumptions—equally uninformed—made about our Asian child. I am forced to examine my own assumptions about people based on appearance. Biases are so ingrained in our society; they are difficult to shake off.

Our daughters are treated differently when they are with us than when they are on their own. A stark example: Isatu went alone to an orthodontics appointment at a university practice that serves the inner city. I am on faculty at this university. A consultant who was called in to see her treated her so disrespectfully that she was brought to tears. Her regular orthodontist came to her defense, saying, “She’s not like that.” Like what? Are black inner-city kids treated differently from the children of faculty? This incident was not reported to me by my daughter, but by her orthodontist. Even when prompted, Isatu wouldn’t talk about it. I know this is only the tip of the iceberg. It is painful to know I can’t be there to fight her battles, and to know that, even at her age, she knows I can’t fully understand this experience.

Now in middle school, Isatu increasingly feels the racial divide that exists outside of the safety of our home. She no longer socializes with the white kids who were her friends in elementary school, but prefers to hang with a group of black children, who have less in common with her—except the strong bond of race.

Isatu, who speaks impeccable English, shocked us the first time we heard her slip into street jargon, while at the movies with two African-American friends. This is her world right now, and she is struggling to find her place. The usual challenges of adolescence are compounded by a struggle with racial identity.

Media stereotypes are another thing I hadn’t paid much attention to, but my daughters picked them up in a flash. Both television and print news are filled with racial incidents. We sometimes use these as teachable moments to talk about race with the kids: what it means to them, us, and society. It’s not easy to answer questions like “Mom, what does ‘Driving While Black’ mean?” But it is necessary to try. (FYI, it’s the way black drivers are profiled by the police.)

Finding everyday role models of their own race is not easy. Some African-Americans are less than supportive, even outspoken about black children being adopted into white families. I understand their reasons. Nevertheless, our children need to learn the skills to live and succeed in our society. I am constantly looking for opportunities that will help them learn to navigate within black culture.

Practical matters

Learning to be a transracial family has opened our eyes in many ways. For instance, we observe Kwanzaa, a beautiful spiritual celebration. I remember shopping for our kinara, spending hours combing the malls for the special candleholder. I finally asked a colleague at work where to find one, and she laughed as she told me about Afrocentric shops I was totally unaware of.

We now shop in supermarkets that offer more ethnic variety, and plan social outings to reflect racial and ethnic diversity. Several years ago we attended the Boston Holiday Pops, and although I hadn’t noticed, virtually the entire audience was white. Nanah asked, “Mom, where are all the black people?” We have since tuned into urban cultural events and have joined local list-serves to make this easier. We found a dance school that is predominately African-American, and our Asian daughter attends this school as well. Diversity of every flavor is good, so we attend Tibetan, Latin American, Chinese, and Caribbean events, as well.

Hair. Yes, I bought the book, It’s All Good Hair, and tried my best. One Saturday we spent the whole day combing, washing, conditioning, oiling, and styling into twists. I will never forget my daughter, not wanting to hurt my feelings, sneaking out of the house wearing a do-rag to church the next morning. We now take the girls to salons run by West Africans, so it is also a cultural connection for them. They spend the better part of a Saturday there, talking about Africa and playing with the other kids.

Picking the right pediatrician was important—someone knowledgeable about black skin and hair, as well as developmental norms and medical problems. Demons from the girls’ war-ravaged past have not yet disappeared (although are more distant), so connection with a refugee trauma center continues to be an important part of the healing process in our lives.

Life Moves On

We are just beginning to face the challenges that come with adolescence, when racial identity typically unfolds. Helping the girls resist stereotypes and develop positive self-image is our immediate task—a daunting one to white parents who don’t always see the racism they face. They understand that life is not colorblind, despite what so many white friends and family have told them.

I will never understand what it is like to be a young black woman in our society, and my acknowledgement of this fact is critical. The adoption of black children into white homes can be successful, but it demands careful self-education, consideration of the environment, and planning. I also think it has been crucial to their success that both of them share the same experience. All this being said, the challenges we face are far outweighed by the immense love and joy our family shares.

Race matters, in a very significant way, even though we’d like to believe it doesn’t—and in a perfect world, it shouldn’t.

Dr. Sondra S. Crosby is an internist specializing in refugee health and human rights. She lives with her family in Boston.

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