The Other Side of Privilege

White parents who adopt transracially will often have to confront white privilege as they work to raise their children.

Adoption expert Lois Melina on talking with adopted children about unknown birth family information

When I stop at the mini-mart after midnight, I don’t have to worry about whether the clerk will be suspicious of me. I can tell myself that the reason for the clerk’s nonchalance is that I am a five-foot-four-inches-tall middle-aged woman — no obvious threat. However, the fact that I am white also grants me a presumption of innocence that I have not earned.

I can go to the hardware store after a morning of gardening and not have to worry that my ragged overalls and dirty fingernails will be attributed to anything having to do with race. On the drive home, if I see the flashing lights of a police car behind me, I can feel certain that I must have done something to warrant being legitimately pulled over.

And if I apply to an adoption agency, I will not be asked to comment on the adoption practices of others in my racial group to help them figure out the way people of my race think — so they can step up their recruitment of people like me.

“White privilege is like an invisible, weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools, and blank checks,” writes Peggy McIntosh, Ph.D., associate director of the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women. She points out that most of us have grown up believing that racism shows up as intentional acts against a person because of skin color. White people rarely think of the ways their privilege is institutionalized, bringing them benefits at the expense of those who are not white.

That privilege allows me to move freely throughout our society, without having to filter actions or language though a lens of race. It’s a free pass that affords me access, trust, and comfort. I don’t have to think about the ways in which my skin color entitles me to be treated fairly, politely, or with the benefit of doubt. I have come to expect it, to feel entitled to it.

Our children’s knapsacks

As adoptive parents, we have all been on the other side of a similar kind of privilege. We have had our love for and commitment to our children questioned simply because we did not give birth to them. We have struggled to find children’s books that portray families like ours. We have sometimes been pitied because others feel sad that our children are not “our own.” We are repeatedly reminded that we are not the norm (although the effects of this bias in no way approach the consequences of racism).

White parents who adopt transracially get hard lessons in the ways nonwhite people are treated when their children experience race-based behavior. A school gives application forms for the free lunch program to all the nonwhite students, but not to all the white students. A teacher asks an Asian-American student to write a report on China, while the European-American students in the class are allowed to choose the country they wish to write about.

We white parents who have taken on the physical and emotional development of nonwhite children are responsible for making sure their knapsacks contain the tools, maps, passports, and codebooks they need to negotiate a society that’s not as blind to skin color as their parents are. The short-term solution is to let our children piggyback on our own white, middle-class privileges — sometimes our children are given the kind of free passes white children get as soon as their white parents show up. But that doesn’t prepare them for times when they’re apart from their families, times that will become more frequent as they grow up.

Parents have to talk about race with their children. We may not want to draw our children’s attention to incidents in which they are treated differently because of their skin color. We are reluctant to encourage them to see the world through the lens of race. But it’s part of the package of transracial adoption if we want to raise our children with an honest awareness of the world around them.

Societies everywhere are organized around the concept of the norm. In the United States, for example, our language and terminology show how the norms of the dominant culture become institutionalized, whereas the norms of other groups are treated as modifications: history/black history, basketball/women’s basketball, family/adoptive family.

For nonwhites, women, Muslims, gays, and the poor to participate in institutions of the dominant culture, they must be vigilant. They must constantly filter their experiences to determine whether they have to hide, explain, or defend their world views. Similarly, we adoptive parents must become sensitive to situations in which the highest status is afforded to the biological parent. Our nonprivileged status means that our choices are likely to be judged — and then possibly viewed as inferior.

What’s a white person to do?

We can’t fix institutionalized racism by making a bulleted list of things to do or by feeling guilty at the ways we may have benefited from white privilege. The first step is to become aware of how white privilege shows up in our culture. To do that, we must talk candidly with people of other racial groups, and to do that, we must get to know them well enough to have honest, open conversations.

Then we should examine our own behavior. How are we using the unearned status — the privilege — that we have? Are we using it to call attention to systems that support unearned advantage or to change behaviors? Have we done as much to draw attention to systems that treat nonwhites as second-class citizens as we have to draw attention to systems that treat adoptive families as second-class?

You don’t need to be the white parent of a child of color to understand why these kinds of actions are important. You simply need to have experienced the other side of the norm.


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