On the Importance of Recognizing the Politics of the Family
For Transracial Adoptees, This is Often the Hardest Part of Our Experience
by Shannon Gibney
At what point does being the only Black person in a white family become less fraught?
I’ve had the opportunity to ask myself this question many times this year, as the pandemic exploded and my children and I retreated to my parent’s home in the woods outside of Ann Arbor, Michigan to give mutual support; as the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police enraged our Minneapolis community and set off both nationwide protests and white supremacist violence; and as our political future hangs in the balance of the ballot box this election season. What are the paths of relative liberation and engagement with the complexities of the moment that are available to a middle-aged, mixed Black transracial adoptee who is raising two Black children on her own, within a liberal, loving, white Midwestern family?
Is there a time and a space where I will ever be seen and felt as Black within whiteness, but not viewed as Other, or a liability? And what about feeling Black enough within Black spaces -- When and how does that happen?
As a parent of Black children myself now, how do I share the brutal truth of our racist past, which is also our present, in a way that highlights my children’s brilliance and ability to resist, rather than simply beats them down and makes them feel that they are powerless to change things? (And is this even possible? That is a real question that I, and Black parents everywhere ask themselves every day.) My son ran downstairs this morning, carrying his copy of the latest Babysitter’s Club graphic novel. “Mom!” he said breathlessly. “They added a bunch of characters of color in book eight. So, it’s just the earlier books that have more of the whiter ones.”
This was the continuation of a discussion we had had months ago, when he first encountered the series, and we were both struck by its whiteness. I told him I was glad the writer and illustrator had made the adjustment; that they probably realized the earlier books did not reflect the racial and ethnic diversity of the young people reading them. My son nodded, and ran off to get on to the next thing. It was a point of conversation, but not an issue, as it would have been if I had raised it with my own parents as a tween in the late-80s. My 72 year-old parents, whose kitchen we were standing in, and who had eagerly agreed to form a family pod with us in June to weather the pandemic, simply looked on. I did not know what they were thinking -- if they were as proud as I was of my son in that moment. If they felt like, with all my ordinary failings as a parent, in this one moment I had perhaps done something right in continuously noting the importance of characters who looked and acted like him in the books and media he consumes.
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I think what has struck me most about being in this particular family these past 45 years is how it has made me always, sometimes painfully, aware of how deeply political the institution of family is. How it is essentially invented every day, and then recast as natural in so many tiny interactions. That its constructedness --- and thus all too often, its absurdity -- becomes invisible to everyone except to self-conscious interlopers like us adoptees. Right-wing comments by a (white) cousin become racially coded insults, and I find myself unable to stifle a response. This cousin leaves the discussion. Another (white) cousin follows up in the exchange, saying that the virtual space created was not intended to be a political one, but rather as a space for us cousins to connect during the madness of the pandemic. Here is a situation so familiar to BIPOC folks with white family, friends, and colleagues everywhere:
How does one become un-Black in order to make everyone else more comfortable and quell discomfort, while at the same time holding up a healthy sense of oneself as a Black person? Of course, it is an impossible conundrum -- one that can’t be solved. And if we asked the (white) loved ones in our lives why they persisted in pushing us into these tenuous and painful positions, they would deny that that was ever their intention. Yet, our experience remains.
For the duration of U.S. history, being a Black woman has always been a political position relative to whiteness -- one that whites found threatening. I am old enough now, and I am me, and I told these cousins that I loved them, that I was glad they were in my life, but that I had made my blackness smaller for them at various points in my life and I was not going to do that again, and I got off the group thread. Various caring cousins followed up with me individually after, expressing their support for me, the only Black woman in the family in an especially racially-charged moment in our nation’s history. And I still felt prickly and exposed...but also better. Most of us have such feelings in our families at times, but we hardly ever experience them alone, or must process them with the very people who have caused us racial harm (white people). Because of my experience, I understand white people better than they understand themselves, in many ways. But I don’t know if this is something I would have chosen for myself, if I had had a choice.
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I write in order to discover what I think and feel about things. And in this case, perhaps what I have discovered is that being the only Black person in a white family is so fraught simply because the rest of the white family -- and really, the rest of America -- pretends that the family is natural. And that everything is okay within families, no matter what. And that families have differences, but the unit of family essentially gets rid of them. But all families have differences that cleave them open. And everything is not always just fine within families, as much as we wish it were. Families are sites of beautiful material and spiritual sustenance, but they are also places of everyday evil and violation -- in addition to the neutral and ordinary.
And we should never, ever forget that all families are deeply, powerfully, political.
Shannon Gibney is a writer, educator, activist, and the author of See No Color (Carolrhoda Lab, 2015), and Dream Country (Dutton, 2018) young adult novels that won Minnesota Book Awards in 2016 and 2019. Gibney is faculty in English at Minneapolis College, where she teaches writing. A Bush Artist and McKnight Writing Fellow, her new novel, Botched, explores themes of transracial adoption through speculative memoir (Dutton, 2022).
Photo by Kristine Hyekants