The Unbearable Whiteness of Being
I never even saw him coming. Afterward, my 9-year-old daughter said she had spotted him earlier, looking over at us with a self-satisfied expression. Recently, when I asked her permission to share this story, she interpreted his small smile as: “I’m going to do a good thing now.”
But I need to start at the beginning.
That morning did not begin well. I cannot remember all the details. Frankly, it was not terribly atypical: It was a school day; it was very early, and apparently all four of us had gotten out of the same side of the bed—the wrong side. I am sure that Martha and I were trying our best to hold it together. Conveniently, I cannot recall how successful we were. In fairness, our children, both Korean adoptees, are capable of getting along beautifully. That happens. My 11-year-old son—who can be a benevolent leader and teacher—has been observed tenderly and patiently teaching my daughter origami or craft skills for hours at a time.
But on the morning in question, while I could not fathom the cause, the kids were in an all-out war about … something. You think resolving the Middle Eastern conflict is challenging? On this day, my children’s dance of injury and aggression was an onion without end. Following the hasty, dramatic good-byes to Mommy, their conflict had calcified into cold war by the time we reached the platform for the C-train. When we entered the subway car, they did not sit together. I am not very comfortable with that, but it is a trip we have taken many times, and they both needed space. I was, however, utterly ambivalent about where to place myself relative to my divided family in the semi-crowded NYC subway car.
If, dear reader, you can already grasp the physical dilemma, believe me, the social, familial, and individual psychology at play complicated said dilemma exponentially. When sufficiently provoked, my daughter has an uncanny ability to vaporize you while communicating that she has never met you before. As a technical matter, I still cannot figure out how she does it. My son tends to go the other way, generally opting for contact, be it cuddly or aggressive.
Not surprisingly, the default was to hover closer to my son, who explicitly wanted me nearby. But that did not feel right or fair. I kept looking in my daughter’s direction to both check on her and look for signs of thaw. Awkwardly, I made my son get up and move so that we were at least closer, now sitting directly across from her. That also felt weird. Plus, I could hear my daughter’s voice ringing in my mind’s ear, admonishing me for “always taking his side!” (Ugh, this parenting shit is hard.)
So I explained to my protesting son that we had to sit with his sister instead of simply gazing at her in agitation. (Remember this was not my finest morning either.) We squeezed in beside her. I sat silent. Then I tried to make conversation. Then we sat silent. That is when the white guy approached.
“Hey, c’mon, why don’t you just leave her alone?”
Okay, here is a catalog of everything that went through my mind over the course of a few seconds: First, he is joking. And then, as the micro-seconds stretched into interminable seconds, I briefly thought, Wow, this is some high-wire comedy. Really, how long before he drops the punch line: “I’m kidding man, I’ve got kids, too! Rough morning, eh?” However, that never happened.
Around second four, the rage struck. Almost simultaneously, a voice in my head implored: DO NOTHING to make it worse for the kids! Control yourself. What came out of my mouth was simply: “ARE…YOU…SERIOUS???”
Then, with equal measures of incredulity and finality:
“I’M. HER. FATHER.”
The frustrated white savior quickly retreated to his seat; his smug expression evaporated. Shortly thereafter, he got off at the next station.
Lest any of us forget: I am a trained psychotherapist, and I spend most days awash in high emotion, often of the existential variety. Granted, it is usually not me doing the emoting. Nevertheless, I was excruciatingly conscious throughout this incident that I must not lose my head. If I did anything to make the situation more embarrassing, frightening, even traumatizing for my children, that would be on me, right?
For several long minutes, I intermittently glanced at my lovely children and hugged them both. I did not trust myself to open my mouth. When I finally did speak, I asked them what they thought and how they felt. Concerning my daughter in particular, her immediate response (and in subsequent conversations) gave me hope that we had maintained a controlled burn. Thankfully, checking back with her now, over six months later, her response and assessment is consistent: the guy was creepy; it was a bit weird and scary; and, yes, Daddy, I could tell you were really mad. I find it strangely reassuring that she also recalls why she was angry with her brother.
I want to unpack the incident, although I admit to some dread. What is to be found in there is not at all pretty. Better to stall and lead with the positives.
Did I protect my daughter from the intrusive behavior of that other white guy? Check. Did I protect her from the behavior of this irate white guy? Check-ish. (Could have been a lot worse.) Did I provide opportunity to debrief in the immediate aftermath and later? Double-check. We are all about talking. Did my family recognize and discuss that man’s white savior complex? Check. We certainly did. (Thanks for the teaching moment, asshole.)
Now, the self- and meta-analysis gets more embarrassing. After dropping the kids off at school, I felt shaken. For my own personal debriefing, my first call was to a dear friend who is also a transracial adoptive dad to a teenage son and daughter. I knew he would get it. However, I did not anticipate how instantly he would nail it—and me:
“No way! He took you for a creeper, huh? Whoa! I gotta say that never happened to me!”
God bless my pal. He’s a tremendous communicator and has that talent for going right to the heart of the matter. What was most disturbing for me about the incident, though, was that I did feel like the white creep. I try mightily not to get defensive. I try not to lay any of that on my kids. I try to wear my entitlement to parenthood of these two remarkable people firmly but lightly. I try not to clutch. I try to consider what is best for them as often as I can. In short, I try not to be a creep.
Look, if I were 20 instead of comfortably past 50, an incident like that would have sent me reeling for weeks. With a lot more life under the bridge, mercifully, I have developed some perspective. But, astute reader, can you spot where the seismic faults lie? Thanks to random white guy, a small but vocal part of me was rocked to the core, an insecure fissure cracked open, calling into question my very right to call myself father (much less 아빠, as indicated on my right bicep). This is truly my most primitive and vulnerable concern and, for my sake, as well as my family’s, that bit of soft-shelled narcissism had to be re-armored quickly.
Originally, I intended that this column include a neat clinical explanation of narcissism—in others. It turns out that my little story is a much more apt illustration than any psycho-lecture I could deliver. As a guy who strives to be a good and thoughtful parent to transracial adoptees, I think I can reorganize after such events. Really. I have a reasonable idea of how I should and should not react. Nevertheless, my immediate and visceral response was overly focused on my own self-esteem and perceived injury.
In fact, I need to learn from this. What does the incident teach me about the children and their experiences? How can the event make me a better parent? Understanding privilege is a good place to start. The converse of privilege is that one cannot take for granted, to name a few: access, acceptance, autonomy, and ease. What happened to my daughter that day? As much as I hoped to contain it, she cannot fail to recognize that this would not have happened if she and I looked similar—if we were the same race. If we were, she would have been entitled to be left alone.
Sadly, my daughter lacks the privilege to have a bad day—ignoring or glaring at family members in a huff, taking some space—without a stranger intruding. That is a burden. Similarly, 10-plus years from now, sharing dinner or a stroll with me as a young adult, observers might assume that I am her aged boyfriend, as creepy as that will be. That is a burden. And while I take great pride in the fact that my daughter is already fierce (ask anyone), I suspect that may be a burden, too.
I have my own onion to peel. Perhaps the biggest lesson for me in the subway story is also the most obvious. Stripping away my anger, dread, and hurt feelings, I am left with this simple truth: I am that white guy. Truly, that could have been me. Period. For one, I need to routinely check my own white savior impulses. I cannot be so certain that, were the roles reversed, I would not have made the same presumptive mistake, especially without the benefit of being a transracial adoptive parent.
The truest lesson of all is that my daughter and son, all too soon, may view me as another white guy. I intend to remain a dedicated, essential family member, a primary source of love and security, but I will be that aging white guy nevertheless. I have heard as much from too many transracial adoptees (and parents further along the path, including my friend of “creeper” fame) to assume otherwise.
I am dad, but I am also the other. If I allow my exposed narcissism to interfere with my children’s ability to discern and communicate such truths, I do them a disservice. I imagine it will be challenging enough for them to try to reconcile their strong connectedness to Martha and me with our unmistakable differences.
Okay, so David and I are white.
Our kids know it. They aren’t blind to it, to the way it plays out in the larger world, or to how it manifests in our family.
They talk about it. To us. To each other.
And they’ve given me permission to write about it here.
They work to sort out the implications. They see, in this world, who gets the goodies: who is riding the subways, who is driving the bus, who is hopping in taxis, exiting limousines, or disembarking from helicopters at the heliport across the river.
They notice that living in this extraordinarily diverse yet segregated city that neighborhoods and communities are predominantly organized by race and socioeconomic class. They see what a predominantly black neighborhood looks like, how a “transitional” gentrifying neighborhood works, who lives and works in the Korea and Chinatowns, and how white neighborhoods and business districts function. They see who crosses the invisible borders in both directions. And who doesn’t.
When we leave the city they feel the burden of the curious, confused, approving, or disapproving white gaze that only vicariously includes their white parents.
I once overheard a conversation the two of them had when we were on a trip up the Hudson Valley. One had seen a flyer for a food festival nearby and expressed interest in going.
The other responded: “That is not going to be like one in Brooklyn. Think about it. Everyone there is going to be white.”
“Oh, yeah. You’re right. I didn’t think about that. Never mind.”
“There is another one!” my daughter says every time we spot a person of color on a vacation in a non-urban area. “I’ve seen 17 so far!”
“And how many white people?” I ask.
“Oh mom, you can’t even start counting white people in places like this!”
When I squirm and dare to complain about the lack of diversity somewhere, I am reminded: “You DO know you are white, too, right Mom?”
I’ve learned from my work with white adoptive parents that being called white by their children is commonly experienced as shocking, distressing, or offensive. These same parents will regularly introduce themselves like this: “I’m Jane Smith, and my son John is a Guatemalan (or Korean, Chinese, African-American, Ethiopian, etc.) adoptee.”
Our language choices and ethnic and racial adjectives and descriptors identify transracial adoptees as the ones who must be explained to others. However, it is white adoptive parents who should have to explain and identify themselves and their choices.
In my work, I’ve heard adoptive parents express their fears and agitation when discourse about whiteness emerges in the family for the first time: “But I don’t see my child as a race. I just see them as my child!” “I think she said that just to hurt me!” “I don’t want them to be prejudiced toward white people.”
Kids listen. They hear others (if not ourselves in our more unconscious moments) describe the man in the blue shirt standing next to the black guy near the old Chinese lady sitting on the park bench. Why is it acceptable to describe the skin of one person, the ethnicity of another? Why should the white guy only be identified by the color of his shirt?
Shouldn’t we teach our kids of color to see, name, and identify white and our whiteness, too? Shouldn’t we share in and participate in carrying some part of the explanatory burden?
In college, I briefly studied Marxism with (and had a crush on) a history professor named Norman Cohen, who gave us the following assignment: to trace our family history as far back as we could, while taking note of the socio-economic contexts that surrounded our family narratives and how that context carried through in our own identities and values. It was a simple assignment that made a life-long impression on me and taught me for the first time what I had inherited in terms of beliefs, values, and privileges, as well as the cultural, educational, and financial assets that had been passed on to me as a white woman.
This is some of my whiteness—my Anglo-Saxon, Judeo-Christian, Euro-American whiteness—that is embedded in me, that informs my sense of morality and way of being, that I’m blind to more often than I would like to be: A group of Quakers sailed across the sea, bound for William Penn’s settlement, to escape religious persecution in England. They saw themselves as committed to social equality and pacifism, having rejected and disrupted the class hierarchies of their homeland. They spread across the U.S., asserting their freedom and their manifest destiny, ever deepening the disruptive, violent impingement into Native American lands, riding in covered wagons, homesteading/stealing land that didn’t belong to them. They continued to believe deeply in their own goodness. One ancestor saw himself as more committed to equality and abolition than pacifism and died in the U.S. Civil War as a fighting Quaker, a single lauded ancestor. The rest unremarkably chose their own sense of peacefulness over justice. My great-grandmother ran a farm on her own. My grandmother and her sisters, born around 1900, all graduated from college. My grandparents lived in an entirely white rural farming community and had their stoop marked by “hobos” as being kind enough to be good for a meal, a stay in the barn, and perhaps a day or two of work as a farmhand.
These stories and relationships transmuted and inculcated my cultural values: I learned that I should be entitled, as a white woman, to the same rights and privileges that white men enjoy. I learned that I am allowed and encouraged to take up space and assert my freedoms. I was encouraged to think of myself as morally “good” and “just” even as I hoard resources or co-opt what belongs to others. I was trained to guard my own sense of personal peace even as others suffer injustice. I was taught to be charitable while simultaneously maintaining my sense of entitlement to supposedly hard-earned advantages.
There are values and traditions that I take pride in and continue to cherish and some that are inextricable from my senses of self, no matter what I would prefer to choose. There is also privilege, theft, passive collusion with violence and injustice, and hypocrisy. My inheritance is both light and shadow.
I manifest this shadow by my very access to my deep genetic heritage—a birthright that has been disrupted for my children by my choices as an extension of my socio-economic cultural inheritance in conjunction with other complex social forces.
We can’t change, examine, reorganize, or protect ourselves or others from realities or shadow content that can’t be named. “White” includes all the pride, joy, entitlement, power, assets, shame, fear, and greed that have been granted to me by my deep socioeconomic, racial, ethnic, and religious history.
This is what I pass on as my values as I read my children my favorite British children’s literature (but not only), as I teach them to make my grandmother’s caramels, as I sing the lullabies that were sung to my mother and her mother, and as we sit together silently in our thankfully diverse Brooklyn Quaker meeting.
So we try to name it whenever we are able, so that the light and shadow of this legacy isn’t invisible to them or to us. So that we are not always centering our white selves as the unnamable “universal-normal-in-a-blue-shirt.”
My son asked me recently: “If you had to choose between my being Korean and my being American what would you choose? If you had to pick one, what would you say that I am?”
At first, I tried to beg and clarify the question: “I’d say that it’s not for me to choose, that the whole reality of your life is connected to both Korea and America.”
“But you are in front of a judge who says you HAVE to choose because I TOLD him you HAVE to choose!”
“I’d refuse to answer and go to jail for contempt of court.”
“Well, what do you mean by American? Do you mean white European-American because I could just say that you are Korean-American—that is American, too,” I said as I squirmed and scrambled to try to figure out what was being asked of me and how any answer would translate as it traveled with him across the ages and stages of his development.
“I mean like you. Just tell me what you’d say!”
“Well, I suppose I would say this: Your body and your genes and your DNA and important parts of your family are connected to Korea always, no matter what. And I’d say that in the United States you will be identified as an Asian-American or Korean-American by other people who don’t understand the whole story about your family. But that Daddy and I, whether we mean to or not, and even when we learn about and have friends in other cultural communities, are teaching you values and ways of behaving that we learned from living as white people in the United States. And so I’d say that you are being raised in the perceptions and traditions of white American culture.”
“You are CORRECT!” he said, a game show host congratulating my daily double answer.
I wiped the sweat off of my brow and silently thanked Dr. Norm Cohen, wherever he may be, for helping me to begin to identify the complex legacy that I’m passing forward: a white adoptive parent raising up children of color.
© Copyright. Gazillion Voices. 2014. All rights reserved.
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