When I met my current boyfriend on the social app Tinder, I was amazed at how quickly text conversations became long phone calls, then phone calls became wide-eyed gazes over drip coffee, and as the butterflies filled our bellies, our hearts grew fonder.
I could have never guessed that our whirlwind romance would result in an engagement three months into the dating relationship, only for those plans to be postponed because of us not seeing eye-to-eye with his white adoptive parents – WAPs. Our relationship’s foundation of common culture and identity was shook.
My love life up until Matthew was bleak, to say the very least. I never had a boyfriend, barely had what could reasonably be considered a real date. Which is why a lot of the fantasies I had for my first romance were cinematic. Being a transracial adoptee (TRA) has become more than a piece of Matthew’s identity, it has somehow become a fixture in our relationship that requires conscious effort to overcome. Before me, he had never dated a black woman and had even declared to friends and family that he never would because of the tendency for black women to be portrayed as “ghetto” in popular culture. Hearing this burned me.
In her blog “Only Black Girl,” Rebekah Hutson, a transracial adoptee, wrote in her post “Why do so many transracial adoptees end up with white spouses”: “If, as a TRA you are being fed that message from your parents (that black people have no culture), you’re being raised in a white family AND you’re being told by society that you don’t matter and your race is only associated with negative stereotypes, eventually, you’re going to start to believe that.”
I have had many months to sit with the reality of my boyfriend’s self-hate encouraged by being a black man in a white family. I have been present for conversations with his parents that result in Matthew being told that he needs to mask his blackness by any means necessary. For example, by driving around in a shiny new Prius, so as to not draw additional attention from legal authorities.
So, I have begun to question, what could be worse for him than to have a black girlfriend as an added hindrance? Living life and being in love in our black skin had suddenly become suffocating. How am I to proceed in my relationship with Matthew: As an aid in his whitewashing? Or as an ally to him as he becomes more aware of his strength as a black man?
Ann Angel, a WAP and professor of graduate studies in English, said one important aspect of raising a multiracial family is having equal parts grace and candor when approaching these conversations. “It’s tough for my kids to bring it up (things I have done as a white parent that bothered them growing) because they don’t want to hurt us and they don’t want to make us insecure as parents,” Angel said. “They might not be consciously aware of that, but they don’t want to hurt us.”
I wondered about the premise of our relationship; was I promised a version of Matthew that doesn’t exist? Was his identity as a strong black man stifled in the constraints of white privilege? Having white adoptive parents allowed Matthew to cross lines of privilege that I and other young black folk who do not have white adoptive parents cannot – and never will. For example, Matthew has had access to sound financial coaching all his life. He has also been granted the option to earn money that can be invested in stocks and bonds. I’m not sure of anyone else, but within my peer group I have never heard of such a privilege as to earn money in our youth, and even into adulthood that could be exclusively put toward financial wealth. Growing up in my household, to suggest to my single black mother raising five children that I wanted to earn money whilst living under her roof to keep for myself and put toward savings as opposed to, say, groceries for the household, would be next to blaspheme.
I sought the wisdom of Dr. Lynne Woehrle, who is also a WAP, professor of sociology and coordinator of peacebuilding certificate at Mount Mary University. “As a sociologist, I am really aware of the racialized structure in our country,” Woehrle said. “That, to me, speaks to the necessity that we must make ourselves vulnerable and ask for help as parents who are crossing cultures in adopting. The colorblind approach is typical of white privileged people. I’m sure it’s not coming out of some horrible intention, it may be due to being unschooled in the dynamics of race issues. As soon as you adopt, you have to seek supports and be more creative about it.”
Woehrle goes on to say, “An adopted child will always grow up with the question: Why did my parents let me go? And transracial children will question: Why did they choose me?”
I knew I had to get beyond the misunderstanding between myself and Matthew’s WAPs. The posture of my heart had shifted from shame to the need for me to figure out what it takes to help Matthew feel seen. There is so much power in what author Jonathan Friesen would speak about as having someone voice that they see you, and what’s more, that they like what they see. Had Matthew ever had someone come along in his life and say, I see you beyond who you were born to, beyond who chose you, and beyond the stereotypes attached to being an African-American male? I needn’t be a savior to him, but simply a friend.
Postponing our engagement and halting all wedding plans was not something anyone had asked of Matthew or me. It was a decision made because we both knew that we needed to be on better terms with his parents before my induction into the family. Also, I began to evaluate my decision to put space between myself and his parents. I knew that there needed to be some sort of reconciliation. But where to begin in that process? I have chosen to begin with trying to better understand the life and experience of transracial adoptees.
First, I had to understand what his challenges were in being raised in a multiracial home. Hutson said this: “I think just like any relationship, you have to be able to communicate and respect your partner. You can’t do that if you are ignorant to the TRA experience. I would hold a TRA partner to the same standards I would hold a white adoptive parent in terms of learning our experiences. There are many challenges that come with being adopted, and another set with being transracially adopted and a TRA’s partner needs to be aware of these challenges as they will no doubt show up within the relationship. It can be anything from mental health issues to just understanding why a TRA may not be close with their families. You cannot fully support your partner if you do not understand the experiences they are dealing with.” – Rebekah Hutson
One thing was for certain, this journey would not be easy and would likely result in some confrontational conversations that I would rather avoid. Angel helped put into perspective the WAP’s stance on the matter: “Every parent is going to have times when they feel their role as a parent isn’t on steady ground either because they are making difficult choices or they are telling their kids difficult things and are worried that the way they are doing it may not be the right way.”
Both of Matthew’s parents are high-achieving, wildly successful, and fiercely protective of their cubs. I see them lead by example while instructing Matthew and his siblings to have passion and dedication in whatever they take on. I see the sincerity in which they instill love and life into their children. I see the earnest desire to continue a legacy of acclaim of the family name. I truly respect the effort to build a foundation for Matthew that will guide him toward the brightest future possible. He will realize his dreams, and not by my or his parents’ efforts alone. The black women and men of America who conquer the odds, rewrite the sorrow song, scour the bloodied and beaten path to freedom, and who savor the fruits of their labor are ones who seek to profit from the inherent beauty of being in our black skin.
Hutson said, “Before this TRA you got to live your life, not caring about race or racism. Now you have a person of color in your family, and whether you acknowledge it or not, we are experiencing racism on a daily basis. You no longer get to live in your safe, white, carefree bubble. You’re forced to be an ally, take action and speak up. They don’t want to do that. They want to ‘see past color,’ put their heads down and just continue living in this white bubble. They don’t want to do the work.”
I am uncertain of my relationship with Matthew moving forward because I know the importance of a parent’s role in their child’s life. More than anything, I hope to help Matthew in his search for identity as a transracial adoptee. “The work,” as Hutson puts it, for me will be no longer sheltering Matthew from cringe-y situations involving his parents’ white privilege. I hope to bear witness to all of the God-given gifts this fearfully and wonderfully made black man has to offer the world.