An Interview by Mark Hagland
For the fifth year in a row, Jennifer Griffith Hilzinger will help lead a session for all KAAN attendees on racism and white privilege. She will join Terra Trevor, Stephanie Kripa Cooper-Lewter, and Mark Hagland in initiating a participatory discussion on those topics. Jen and Terra are transracially adoptive parents, while Kripa and Mark are adult adoptees (born in India and South Korea, respectively). Recently, Jen spoke with Mark about this standing session and about what she hopes attendees will get out of it. Below is their interview. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++ Mark Hagland: What has the experience of doing the session been like for you the past four years, and what are your hopes for our racism and white privilege session this year?
Jen Hilzinger: I envision it as being similar to how it’s been in the past four years, with slight changes, and of course, new discussion points. I think it’s interesting to continue the conversation and extend it far beyond just the “checklist” idea.
MH: I sometimes think some transracially adoptive parents would like to have checklists, so that they can “check off” items on a list and feel they’ve “handled” or “resolved” issues, even though in reality, it’s a journey. What do you think?
JH: I think for adoptive parents, we’re really in need of validation, probably even more than is healthy sometimes. And I think having a checklist, having something to reference and check yourself against, gives you the sense that, OK, I’m doing this right, I didn’t make a big mistake, I’m going to be OK and my kids are going to be OK. And the thing is, even most experts working in adoption today don’t do white parents adopting kids of color a service by acting that transracial adoption is going to be all sunshine and rainbows with often literally no support once that last visit is made to the home. As adoptive parents WE need mentors of color and other in-tune adoptive parents who are down the road a little farther and can look back and give us at least the notion that it’s going to be OK as long as you stay honest. Many of us either panic or deny that there is an issue at all. Both not great strategies. It’s true for parenting in general, but when it comes to transracial adoption, especially for white people, raised in white culture with any sort of colorblind notion, we just aren’t well-trained to deal with racial issues at all.
MH: What have been the biggest revelations for you so far along your journey as a transracially adoptive parent?
JH: That I have to stay in the game and stay learning, and never feel that it’s completed, that it’s done; because it’s hard, and it’s like something that sweeps through your whole life. So it’s easy to want to put it down and say, I can’t deal with that; but I really have to stay in the game as best I can, and forgive myself, too.
MH: What should people understand about the tone and environment we’re trying to create with our session?
JH: It’s that it’s a conversation, and that we’re all on the journey together; and there are other people who care about these issues, too.
MH: What should adoptive parents understand about the perspectives adult adoptees might bring to our conversation?
JH: Well, hopefully, they’re going to want some truth; and that everyone’s truth is different. I think that’s one of the pitfalls: we tend to personalize everything that every adult adoptee says, to our own children. And even online, when you don’t have the face-to-face interaction, that whole connection between adoptive parents and adult adoptees can get dysfunctional pretty quickly. I tend to blame the adoptive parents, but I realize it’s a two-way street.
MH: Do you think maybe it’s because parents might project some statements that adult adoptees might make, onto their own children, and their concerns about their children?
JH: Yes, I think that adoptive parents need to be present in the room and step outside of their own family and situation, and hear those statements as people. I remember hearing one adult adoptee in particular speak about adoption, and I remember thinking, wow, she’s so mad! She’s so angry! But I never wanted to “fix” her or change her mind. Since then, I’ve met that adoptee, and I totally get where she’s coming from.
MH: Some may come to our session with apprehension around the topic. Can you address that?
JH: Last year, I talked about my whole concept of “White Club,” which was based on an idea expressed in the recent movie “Fight Club.” I talked about how white people are raised with the idea that talking about race is a taboo. And the analogy I made was this: as some might recall, in the movie “Fight Club,” one of the characters says famously, “The first rule of Fight Club is, you don’t talk about Fight Club.” And that’s why I came up with the idea of “White Club,” to encapsulate the idea that white people in this country were taught growing up that race and racism are just things you don’t talk about; and that’s a barrier we have to break through in order to begin discussing race, racism, and while privilege. In fact, one parent came up to me after the session last year and said to me, “Yes, you were right with that analogy.” We as white people were just not given the right tools for discussing race, so we’ll create our own rules in this community, and one of the rules is, we can talk about things; it’s not rude. It’s only rude if you’re mean or call names. But to talk about it isn’t rude; to mention race isn’t rude.
MH: The fact that we have two adult adoptees and two adoptive parents, and that all four of us have unique and interesting experiences, will be enriching for our session, I think. One of the things that our session should do, hopefully, will be to help attendees/participants see that it is possible to successfully discuss these topics, and even to address very sensitive, complicated issues and questions, right?
JH: Yes, it is possible; it is possible to have these helpful, healing, progressive experiences. And that whole concept of the triad means we’re part of one, from three different communities. And KAAN is the only place I’ve been able to find that, along with, now, our discussion forums online. But it’s not something you’ll “get” in a weekend; it takes time. So it’s important to give yourself space, to stay in it, and to not give up.
MH: Thanks so much for your time and perspectives, Jen. I know I’m looking forward to our session this summer!
JH: Me, too!