About US followed up with Carroll, who wrote about her experience in her memoir “Surviving the White Gaze,” about the reaction to her piece.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
In your essay, you mentioned feeling a sense of urgency in writing your piece. What was it about this moment that compelled you to write it now?
Last year or the fall before that, I’m not even quite sure, but I was right in the middle of writing my memoir. And I thought, are we reckoning or are we reckoning? Like, how deeply are we going to reconcile with systemic racism and white supremacy? And I think that transracial Black adoptees are uniquely poised to talk about systemic racism and white supremacy. Obviously, I’m not likening transracial adoption to slavery, but I do believe that it represents in a microcosmic way the dynamic between Black folks and White folks in America. Which is White people setting the tone and the standard and the tenor and making choices and decisions for Black folks who don’t have a voice. And so I just think that’s a perspective that’s really valuable to the national discourse and conversation about systemic racism. What I said in the piece is not new. I’ve been writing and saying these same things for 20 years. But I think it struck a particular nerve because we are really making a solid effort to broaden our scope on these issues.
Can we back up a little bit and can you tell me a little bit about your adoption story?
The nutshell version is that my adoptive parents were young, idealistic artists and naturalists. They are White and had two biological children and decided to adopt another child because they believe in zero-population growth, which was a real thing in the ’60s. So they decided to consider adopting a child of color. And serendipitously, my dad, my adoptive father, who was a high school art teacher, had a student who became pregnant with her Black boyfriend. And he suggested, or offered, rather, this idea of adopting her child. That’s how that came into play. It gets a little bit more convoluted after I was born. But my parents then moved us to a small, rural, all-White town in New Hampshire, which is where I was raised.
What were some challenges you had in shaping your racial identity with White parents in the town that you were living in?
Well, what challenges weren’t there is really more apt. My parents were very loving, but their lovingness did not address or provide tools for any kind of context for me to handle or manage the inevitable racism that I came in contact with pretty quickly. I grew up in the first six years of my life in this country farmhouse on top of a beautiful hill surrounded by nature and gardens and flowers. And it was imaginative and beautiful and all the rest. It was a bubble, it was very much void of outsiders. We didn’t have neighbors. And then we moved to another house. I kind of went from being this free, wild, precocious child to a target of racism. My fifth-grade teacher told me not just that I was pretty for a Black girl, but that most Black girls are ugly. That was the first of many incidents. But that I didn’t think to even bring that anecdote or that experience to my parents speaks volumes to how little that was even something that we entertained as conversation or issue or subject.
Did your parents ever have a conversation with you about racism and discrimination?
No, no, they didn’t. Not just the racism was happening, but there were many other things like my hair and my skin and the way that my body was developing and the way that teachers and peers engaged with me that I brought to them sort of saying, what is this about? And why didn’t you think more about it when you adopted me? And they very much frequently said well, when we adopted you, Martin Luther King was bringing people together and there was this message of hope and so on and so forth. And my response to that was, well, yes. And then he got shot. So that doesn’t really work. You can’t just invoke Martin Luther King and have that be the patchwork or in lieu of your actual parenting.
Being that your parents were artists and probably thought of themselves as open-minded, do you think they overestimated their cultural literacy?
I think overestimating their cultural literacy is such a generous term, and I think that it probably applies to a lot of White adoptive parents. For my parents, I think it was really just they didn't think about it. My mom now often says, and that's been one of the difficulties in having this memoir out in the world, but she said, “We just wanted another kid.” And my response is, yeah, I'm that kid. So to White adoptive parents, if you are unprepared to have a grown Black adult child who calls out systemic racism, then maybe don't adopt a Black child.
And you’ve seen some responses that you’ve gotten to your piece?
I stopped reading comment sections in places where I write op-eds and essays a long time ago, particularly on transracial adoption, because it hits a nerve. And it hits a nerve because it hits so many markers in terms of symbolism and this idea of White saviors. And at a time when we’re talking about white supremacy and systemic racism in a way that we maybe haven’t before, I think people are deeply, deeply defensive and also feeling vulnerable. I will say that the outreach to me on social media has been overwhelmingly positive. I think that that is because it’s a kind of candor that people don’t often associate with not just adoption, but family dynamics. And I want to be sure to note it and for people to understand that in talking about systemic racism in this country, the history of it, but also in our families for adoptees is not airing dirty laundry. It’s actually trying to understand the ways in which we can be loved, but also not seen.
How has your family reacted to the publication of your book and have they read it?
My mom has read it. I believe she is proud of me. My dad has read parts of it and has not received it well. And my brother and sister have not read it and I don’t know about nieces and nephews, because the truth is that before the book came out, things began to unravel. My son was starting to call things out in my family that my family was just not prepared to address. When my son was 7 or 8, he said, why is everybody White in this town where your parents grew up? Why is there no indication in the house that they raised a Black child? Why is there no Black art or Black music or any conversation whatsoever? And I didn’t want him to be around them if they weren’t willing to have those conversations with him in a deeply engaged way. And so it had been strained anyway.
Have you ever considered adopting for yourself?
No, no, I’m not the one. I’m not the one. It’s funny, you know, when my son was much, much younger, probably 5 maybe or 6 and he wanted a sibling, of course, and I had thought I would have more but the years didn’t pan out that way. But he said, ‘Well, maybe you should adopt, you’d be the perfect person to adopt because you could work through your feelings about it.’ And I said that’s not what parents do. You don’t work out our feelings through our children. But I love that you wanted that for me. So, no, I don’t think I’m the person. I have barely, barely made it out of the sort of convoluted situation of my own adoption and birth reunion and the toxic relationship therein, and so the short answer is no, but the longer answer should come through perfectly in the memoir.