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.
8 thoughts on “Being Black in White Liberal Seattle”
Very insightful words. Thank you. I have 3 boys adopted from Addis. We live overseas (first in China, now in Malaysia) and my kids are in an international, very culturally diverse school and community. We are from Seattle, but my kids have never lived in the States. In 5 years, my oldest son will go to college and he wants to go to Seattle (next to grandparents etc). I am already worried about the culture shock, rude awakening that is going to happen to him. He is such a soft hearted kid, I am worried his spirit will be crushed by racism, whether deliberate or not. Any insight/advice is much appreciated!
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I’m a white adoptive mom of black kids and want to point out that not all white families with black kids live in such white isolation. There are those of us who take transracial parenting very seriously and do everything for our kids that you describe as doing for your black daughter to help them be secure with who they are as black people. I won’t claim that I have experienced life as a black person in white America, but I think I “get it” enough to validate and identify those micro aggressions and racist experiences when they happen. We have deliberately moved to a community where whites are the minority, where our kids aren’t the only black kids on the block or in class, and where community interactions (work, church, school, scouting, neighbors) have created multiple circles of friends that are both black and white, children and adults. I get your point about transracial adoption and the potential for isolation from birth culture, but there are a lot of families who work very hard to raise their kids as whole people.
I’m well aware of that, and I applauded my parents for doing exactly what you’ve done with your children. That said, there are many more whit parents of black children who are living in racial isolation, whether geographically or socially, or both.
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Oh geez… Lesson 1. Do not minimize her pain and experiences by throwing in the #not all phrase. She doesn’t need you to clarify. Best thing you can do for yourself and your kids is to learn and understand about centering your whiteness and fragility. Seems you still have work to do.
A fellow White person
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Reblogged this on theoutrageousintrovert and commented:
THIS is a must read and am hungry to see South African stories emerge to grow, encourage and teach us how to do better…
Thank you so much for this blog. I feel like as a WAP I am often having conversations with people about WHY this matters – my son is my son, but we need to choose to parent differently to the way we were parented for him to grow into the fullness of what it means to be a black man with white parents (something which people aren’t going to know when he walks into a room firstly) and for him to grow up with a healthy sense of who he is (something that as white parents we need to do in community with other people of colour). Your blog post highlights this so well. Thank you thank you thank you. Last night I was asked about this over dinner and then realised that I had been pretty adamant about this – grateful for friends open hearts to hearing why. You affirmed again that this is about his long term future….Want to keep saying thank you!
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A friend shared this blog on fb. I want to say thank you. As a foster mom, in the process of adopting a black baby girl, I am aware my connections are not diverse enough. My town, on the East side of Washington, has an even smaller black community. I worry the best way to give our child the connections she will need, to not feel isolated.
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