In mid-August, after the killings of Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Renisha McBride, Eric Garner and Michael Brown, a white mother of three children, two of whom are black, went to her computer and, in one furious burst, wrote: “What They Didn’t Teach Us In Adoption Classes About Raising Black Children.”
Paula Fitzgibbons, a former Lutheran pastor living in Southern California, posted her lessons on her own blog, Mommy Means It. From there it went to the much-larger Scary Mommy blog and was then shared more than 58,000 times on Facebook. The post was dissected, congratulated and castigated for various reasons, many having to do with the raging currents of privilege and powerlessness and whose anguish gets heard and whose does not.
In biting tones, she offered 12 hypothetical lessons agencies providing interracial adoptions should add to their curricula. “As I’m talking to you, I am having this inner battle that I am a white parent having this discussion with you,” Fitzgibbons says.
“1. Your black son could be killed just for walking down the street.”
The piece thrust Fitzgibbons into the distinct vantage point that families such as hers can come to occupy: the unwitting, and sometimes unwilling, intermediary in the difficult, awkward, angry conversation well-intended people say they want to have about race, but, you know, not really.
Fitzgibbons and her husband adopted their two oldest children 11 years ago in Haiti. She is acutely aware – and it has been brought to her attention — that what she is now experiencing as a parent of black teens is some fraction of the inherited pain of generations of African Americans. And she has come to believe the gulf exposed between black and white reactions — to the killings, to the justice system’s handling of them and to the protests in response — is not because of a lack of intellectual capacity to understand one another. It is not a matter of sympathy or empathy. It is elemental and visceral and lived down to the bones.
All of this fuels her desire to see that agencies working in interracial adoption discuss the reality that race does matter in U.S. society. White parents who adopt black children should do so understanding that a parent’s love does not mitigate institutional racism, she argues. And preparing a white child to enter the world is a different prospect than preparing a black child to do so.
People – mostly white people, liberal and conservative – really, really don’t like hearing this, she says. Storyline recently spoke with Fitzgibbons about her essay. Read some of our conversation below.
“8. . . .White people will tell you you’re over-reacting. Anonymous people online will tell you you’re imagining it because we are a post-racial America. Also they will tell you to go kill yourself, which will send you back to therapy.”
Tina Griego: Tell me about the writing of this. The tone is almost misleadingly light, but it’s an angry piece.
Paula Fitzgibbons: I was angry. So much of this coincided with my son becoming a teenager, and I was seeing so many comments and posts on Facebook from people I have loved for decades who betrayed their true feelings about racial issues. Many said, ‘As long as your kids stay good, they’re okay.’ And a lot of subtext was, ‘Don’t worry because they are being raised by white parents.’ It struck me that my kids are being raised in a halo of white privilege — when they are with me. But they are not always going to be with me . . . It led to me to understand how ignorant I have been, despite being open-minded and liberal and an activist my whole life. It took this to understand what it means to parent a child who is black.”
Griego: Didn’t you navigate some of this when you were deciding on an interracial adoption?
Fitzgibbons: Yes and no. The issues, they were so theoretical at that point. It’s like when someone tries to explain labor to you, and then you go through labor and, ‘Okay, this is really much more than I expected.’ That’s what was happening. The theories were becoming realities. My children were no longer cute, little cherubic faces; people were seeing them as a threat.”
Griego: So, how do you have these conversations with your own children?
Fitzgibbons: I wish I could say I get all this right with my kids. But I don’t. We’ve had lots of conversations. I’ve said over and over, ‘I would rather pick you up from the police station that the morgue.’ I’ve talked with my son about a lot of things his white friends might do that wouldn’t be safe for him, like tearing through a park, or standing in the street and starting an impromptu race. Every time they go out without us, we have to talk about what their parameters are, and their parameters are different from their friends. Black kids don’t get to be normal kids who make normal mistakes, and teenagers make a lot of mistakes. It’s been hard. It’s been traumatizing for everybody.”
Griego: I think one way of reading the piece is that it’s about a woman who has had her previous world view rocked and the shock of that loss.
Fitzgibbons: I’ve always been skeptical of the system, and we’ve always been exposed to racism with my kids, which is terrible, but never so blatantly and never with such intention. And that’s what’s so awful about how people are responding. The intention is to really put people down, to make sure the black people stay oppressed. It’s the subtext of so many responses. People demanding perfection from my kids and saying that as long as they can fit to these parameters that they are creating for them and the system is creating for them, they’re fine, and the amount of time people spent trying to convince me of these things was shocking to me.
Griego: And how did you respond?
Fitzgibbons: Not well. I had very emotional responses. I was angry at them, and I was sad, and I think I was having labor pains, big time, not just Braxton Hicks. This is such a short period in my life, but this is my children’s entire life. This is other black people’s entire existence. And that is crappy . . . .And I had people respond to the post by saying, ‘Yeah, try having this be your life.’ And I appreciate that because they are absolutely right.
Griego: A lot of this for you is about reforming interracial adoption. The National Association of Black Social Workers speaks directly to this issue, saying agencies have to prepare adoptive parents to understand the powerful influence of race and racism.
Fitzgibbons: And that is spot on. When we adopted our children, agencies in Haiti said it was our job to discourage them from having pride in their culture and their races. We were not to speak their languages. Transracial adoption has really gone backwards, where the focus is on the parent saving children, which should never be the focus of adoption. It’s become about parents making a religious statement, which it should never be about. There was just very little about race. . . . If people like my husband and I, who went into adoption studying everything possible, being really intentional, can be so naive, imagine a person who has little preparation.
Griego: In the last lesson on your list, you seem to question whether, in adopting your children, you acted in their best interest.
Fitzgibbons: We really thought we did as good of a job as we could have, considering all the people involved. But the question does come up. We brought them away from a culture where they were just like everyone else, where they were not judged by the color of the skin, into a culture where they are judged by the color of their skin, where it is really hard to achieve the level of greatness their white counterparts achieve. We wrestle with it not because we want to undo what has been done but because we want to help reform adoption and questions have to be asked. . . .
So often, we leave out our children’s first families when we consider adoption in this country. We leave out the children themselves. We are thinking about what we want, and I think there has to be a shift there.