Posted on July 27, 2007

Passing and Privilege

Natasha Sky, My Sky—Multiracial Family Life, June 28, 2007

I have been thinking a lot about passing and the privilege my passing bestows upon me, whether I want it or not. Riding on the airplane alone out to the Loving Conference, I realized how much my family outs me—in a positive way. I don’t like feeling as though I’m hiding who I really am—but short of announcing my racial and sexual identities or whipping out pictures of my kids, the business man sitting next to me cases my wedding ring, my apparent race, my approximate age, my clothing and hairstyle (and thus, my presumed socio-economic status) and has his picture of who I am. And I’m pretty sure it’s wrong.

Privilege of all kinds has had so much influence in my life. I’m self-aware enough at this point to know my family’s societal position and where I am personally in my life is not the sole product of my intellect and how hard I’ve worked. My life and my accomplishments are built in part on the backs of less-privileged people (and often their ancestors) who do not have the same advantages I do, and thus my family does.

My parents were both the first college graduates in their families. In my family, I am the first (and only) college graduate of my generation, although both of my brothers and one of my cousins are of the age to have finished an undergraduate degree. It was not for lack of resources that my brothers have chosen different paths. My husband’s family has been college-educated for 100 years. (I am not exaggerating.) Even the relatively minimal socio-economic and class differences between our two families give us (sometimes dramatically) differing perspectives.

My husband has accused me of being perpetually in favor of the ‘underdog’. All I can say in response is, I recognize that most people in this world have not had the opportunities that he or I have had, and continue to have. Most people do not have the family resources and support we enjoy, and that our children benefit from. And so yes, when push comes to shove, I will root for the person with less privilege, whether it is because they are a person of color, a member of the LGBT community, a recent immigrant, a woman, or from a lower socio-economic class. I have nothing against a straight White male English-speaking U.S. citizen with two advanced degrees; I just figure he has enough going for him already with out my de facto vote. He receives his vote from society every time he steps out of bed in the morning.

I am rarely at a loss for words. Some in my family would argue I talk too much, have strong opinions on too many subjects. I recently met someone friends have been trying to hook me up with for weeks; her family is planning to adopt. She had heard about me, and I must admit I was excited to talk to her—another multiracial family in our community! (I should know better by now.) I asked all the standard questions and, with a sinking heart, received all the standard answers. They chose international adoption because they were told they couldn’t choose gender with a domestic adoption, and they don’t want ongoing contact with birthfamily (although she likes the idea of meeting their child’s birthfamily once). They chose Ethiopia because the children are young and healthy, there are girls available, and the wait for China is getting long (up to 2+ years). They also find “African culture fascinating” although neither parent has travelled to the continent. They do not plan to adopt a second child of color.

She left and I felt something inside of me I was not expecting. I was about to cry. What is surprising about this situation is how it gets me every single time—because this could be the description of more than half the internationally adopting families I know. (Actually, this family has more adult adoptee connections than most adopting families.)

Part of what pushes me to tears is the total frustration I feel. How can I possibly reach this woman? How much White Privilege is at work in the world, in our society, in an individual White family’s life that a couple’s choice to adopt includes considerations of (a) gender, (b) health, (c) amount of time the adoptive family will have to wait, but NOT (d) what it will be like for their child to grow up as the only child of color in their family and one of the few people of color in the community, or (e) what it means to become an inclusive, educated, multiracial family.

As my husband pointed out, no one has to complete a class or fill out a race-awareness form before they become a multiracial family through birth, and I don’t believe they should. What is different about creating a multiracial family biologically is that an adult of color (and usually their extended family) is present in the child’s life—and the White parent first has an intimate relationship with this adult of color. In the case of transracial adoption, White parents do not have to know (or have ever known) anyone who shares their child’s heritage; and suddenly they are head of a multiracial family. If White parents are not fully invested in learning about their child’s heritage and incorporating their child’s culture into the family’s traditions and culture, this responsibility falls to the child. The fact that race does not seem to matter to many transracially adopting parents is the epitome of White Privilege.

White adults can say things like, “Race doesn’t matter to me,” or “I don’t see race.” But I have yet to meet an adult of color in this country whose experience would allow them to say such a thing. It is scientifically true that all people are part of a single human race; however, the societal construct of different races affects us all.

I don’t know if a person can learn about their own unearned privilege until they are ready and open. I didn’t consciously process my multi-level privilege for many years. Nowadays I refuse to be closeted by passing. Periodically my husband threatens to remove the bumper stickers from our car because he is frustrated by all the tailgaters. But he also laughs when he is out with the kids and one of their uncles, and people clearly assume they are a young gay couple with children.

Maybe I should offer this woman some of my stickers.