Being Black in White Liberal Seattle

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.

 

Zariyah in Seattle

Ethiopian Adoptees Are Also the Diaspora

When we discuss the Ethiopian Diaspora, people typically think of immigrants, refugees, and Ethiopian Americans. Adoptees often times are not acknowledged as part of the diaspora, not purposefully but because people are not aware of us. We are a wave of immigrants through adoption who have been displaced in many ways. Balancing our multiple identities as Ethiopians, Africans, Blacks, and Immigrants is a constant struggle. We never really feel at home in one place.

Although we share many parallels with Ethiopian immigrants and Ethiopian Americans, we often lack cultural confidence and competence. The huge disconnect for us as adoptees is that we in many ways don’t feel Ethiopian enough. Having been raised by white parents has stripped us of our Ethiopian identities and put us at a cultural disadvantage and isolation. For me, creating a community for Ethiopian adoptees was critical. When I established Ethiopian Adoptees of the Diaspora (EAD) with my co-founder Annette Kassaye, our mission was to create a space for adoptees to feel connected and at home. We’ve only been around for 6 months, and already the support and feedback have been amazingly empowering. Our Facebook fan page is at almost 600 likes. We have been contacted by journalists in Canada, the US, and Europe, and we have done interviews for newspapers and radio shows. We have appeared on TV through our involvement with the #flipthescript campaign, thanks to Lost Daughters. We have also spoken at conferences in Boston, NYC, and St. Louis.

Our most exciting venture is our upcoming anthology, Lions Roaring, Far From Home: An Anthology By Ethiopian Adoptees, which aims to tell the stories of Ethiopian adoptees in the diaspora. We have already had submissions from adoptees in Ethiopia, U.S, Canada, UK, France, Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands, and Belgium. It’s very exciting, and the perspectives of our contributors (as we envisioned) have a lot of variety.

The most impactful moment for me has been the support and feedback we’ve received from various Ethiopian communities. Through our work with EAD, the gap and disconnect between us adoptees and the Ethiopian community could possibly be bridged. Most recently, we connected with Ethiopian Diaspora Fellowship (EDF),  whose mission is to promote leadership development, public service, creative storytelling, training, and peer-to peer mentorship. They seek to increase cultural identities and to be a catalyst for growth and change in Ethiopia. Currently, EDF and EAD are working together to see how we could be of service to each other. Ethiopian Diaspora Fellowship has an amazing program to train Ethiopian Americans in the U.S and then send them to Ethiopia to work and volunteer in Ethiopia. This perfectly ties into what we at EAD hope to do some day. While we are a community working on adoption-related issues, one of our missions is to also go back and give back to Ethiopia. Aligning ourselves with organizations like EDF allows us to build our community worldwide. Although EAD’s following is largely by the adoption community, specifically adoptive parents of Ethiopian children, our hope is to expand our network and connect with Ethiopian immigrants, refugees, and all who are a part of the Ethiopian diaspora community.

Connecting with Rediate,the founder and Executive Director of Ethiopian Diaspora Fellowship, made me realize the need for educating the Ethiopian community about the adoptee community. Contrary to what others may believe, adoption in Ethiopia is a taboo, often misunderstood ,and its realities are often poorly communicated. Many Ethiopians understand issues regarding adoption, but the need for transparency with the community is very critical. While educating the Ethiopian community about adoption, I hope to make people more aware of the complexities, and to open doors for other possibilities to help families in need. Our next big step at Ethiopian Adoptees of the Diaspora is to establish ourselves as a non-profit organization, especially as we move toward establishing a presence in Ethiopia for adoptees who are there to visit, live, work, volunteer, search for their Ethiopian family, or learn about their culture. EAD is rapidly growing. Many thanks to those who continue to support us.

Girl's hands holding globe --- Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis
Girl’s hands holding globe — Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

I Am Black History: Ethiopian Adoptees on Race, Identity, and More

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I am Ethiopian, Ethiopian-American, black, African-American, American, and African. I am also an adoptee, an immigrant, and part of the African Diaspora. All these identities and categories have had different impacts in my life. As part of Black History Month, I collaborated on a video with three other Ethiopian adoptees (three of us raised in the US, one in Canada).

You can view it here: I Am Black History.

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My thanks to Rahel Tafere

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To Annettte-Kassaye

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And to Mekdes SOulgarden.

You are all so beautiful, speaking truth to power.

Thank you also to Bryan Tucker of Closure for his incredible patience and talent in editing. My sisters at Lost Daughters have given me so much support and inspiration as we continue to #flipthescript.

Please watch our video, and share it with others. Let us know your thoughts. “Black History” means so much more than a month on the calendar.

A Tee Shirt Is Just a Tee Shirt, Right?

First of all, I want to acknowledge those parents who continue to be amazing advocates for their young adopted children. I know you love them, as my family loves me. That’s why I am writing this post.

Yesterday, on Facebook, there was a fundraising tee shirt posted for Ethiopian adoptions. There were a lot of comments about it, some in support of the shirt and many criticizing it. The post isn’t there any more. I don’t know why it was deleted.

I would have written my comment on the original post, but since it is gone now, I decided to speak out about it.

The shirt said “Adopt Ethiopia,” and  “Love makes a family…changes a life.”

I find a few things problematic about these tee shirts for Ethiopian adoptions. One is the perception that children need to be saved or rescued. This approach is often used for African adoptions and let me tell you: it sickens me. When white adoptive parents fundraise with these shirts, it unfortunately echoes and perpetuates the white savior complex. This shirt is meant for the adoptive parent to wear. It is difficult when seeing this shirt to avoid the immediate conclusion that prospective parents are romantically reaching out to the farthest corners of the globe to save a desperately lost and innocent child, and should be congratulated.

Adoption does change a lot of lives. Too often, people forget that this also means the first/birth families, who have to lose their child for adoption to happen. Too many “orphans” turn out not to be orphans.

As an adoptee who has been in reunion for seven years with my birth family, I consider my perspective to be representative of my first family. I find this shirt offensive because it dismisses the losses that first families go through when a child is placed for adoption.

Although adoption is a gain for adoptive families, it’s a loss both for the first families and the children. We need to do a better job of acknowledging that. Believe me, I understand there are children who still need homes, and there is no question that all children deserve safe and loving families. But with all the fraud and corruption that’s going on in Ethiopia, why are parents still willing to do fundraisers for adoption? We actually need to be fundraising for more resources that work to make adoption more transparent and ethical. We also need fundraisers that promote family reunification and preservation, because that would help many more children at a lot less cost.

Last, but not least, the quote on the shirt suggests that love conquers all, which is a huge misconception that far too many families believe, or at least want to believe. It also suggests that first families didn’t love their children enough. It dismisses the rejection many adoptees feel, from their first families and from their country of origin. I also believe this shirt supports the profitable industry of adoption (I’m sure many agencies would love it,).

I’ve been critical in my comment here, and some of you might view it as anti-adoption, or dismiss me as an unhappy, even angry adoptee. I hope you will view it as pro-ethical standards. I love my adoptive family, and I love my Ethiopian family. The adoption community needs to be more compassionate about first families, which include not just birth parents but also grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings, and more. Please educate yourselves. Talk to other adult adoptees, especially those who have searched and/or reunited with their first families. Many adoptive parents active in Facebook groups have young children, but I hope you reach out to adult adoptees that have walked the walk—and lived the talk.

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