I’ve often wondered about the experiences of black adoptees raised in an all white environment, where they had very little contact with people of color. Moving from DC area to Seattle has made clear to me how exhausting, isolating, and alienating life can be as a black person in a sea of white liberalism.
About 8 months ago, my daughter and I flew out of Reagan National and landed at SeaTac. Settling into Seattle, WA, the 5th whitest city in America, has been a huge cultural shock in more ways than one. I was raised in a diverse community with people of different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds, which I believe in many ways gave me an extremely balanced perspective on the black experience and a strong black identity. Even so, I don’t think anyone could’ve ever prepared my daughter and me for the challenges and complexities of living amongst well-intended progressive white liberals.
As an outsider, before moving here, I was somewhat blinded and misled by the utopian rhetoric of Seattle and its racial progressiveness. That veneer can at times undermine and silence the injustices that many blacks feel in Seattle. My curiosity began to kick in after I’d been here a while, and I searched the web for black voices in Seattle. I’d hoped they would give me better insight about the experiences of black people in Seattle, but that in itself became challenging: there weren’t many resources out here. I felt deprived and alienated.
I soon started to grapple with the realization of how exhausting it is to be black in a predominately white environment.
The racist incidents here have ranged from small (“What kind of name is that?” “Your hair is nappy.” “Your name is funny.”) to overt, tinged with violence (My daughter was told by a 3rd grade classmate: “My grandfather said he would kill a black person if they ever came to my house.”). I began to see painful parallels between my daughter’s experiences and those of thousands of transracial adoptees who are raised in racial isolation, with no contact with people of color.
The huge difference in her experience is that she has a black mom who can validate those experiences as real and painful. I have found myself engaging in many conversations of self worth and acceptance with my daughter, with the hopes of repairing the damage and preserving the innocence of a compassionate, accepting and loving 9 year old whose world had been turned upside down. I have gone to bat for her at school in handling the racist incidents, and modeled for her how to negotiate a white world that is often shocked to hear about racism in its midst.
The harsh reality of living in a predominately white environment is that your space is violated intentionally and unintentionally more often than you’d like through microagressive comments and other forms of racism. You begin to feel and internalize the weight of racial scrutiny. This is true for my child, and for me, an adult. My world started feeling unfamiliar, more intense, and I began to observe everything that made me different from the people around me: my name, my hair, my blackness. Those differences made me become more conscious than ever of my race and reality. They reminded me that racism is systemic, and that liberal empathy is an insufficient solution.
If I wanted to reclaim my own space and strength, I had to fiercely advocate for my child, and engage and connect with other black people in Seattle, which isn’t easy. Even traditional black spaces are predominately occupied by white people, whether it’s a talk about Blacks in Seattle or panel discussions on Hip Hop as a Form of Activism. The biggest challenge I faced and continue to face is the lack of accountability and recognition of white privilege amongst white liberals, who are undoubtedly misinformed and in denial about racism.
As I continue to find my way in a space that doesn’t quite feel like home, I’m reminded of the strength and resilience of many black people, especially transracial adoptees who manage to remain strong in completely isolated communities. I’m also grateful that my white parents raised me amongst people of color who I can call my best friends, teachers, and mentors. If I had not had that experience, my solidarity with black people wouldn’t feel as validating and powerful and positive as it does. In a racially divided nation, black children’s self worth will be constantly challenged, in the classroom, the neighborhood, the court room, and across social media. What makes those challenges manageable as they grow up is the strong bonds they create with other black people, and the reassurance they gain through meaningful connections and engagement.