An Adoptive Parent Writes:
My husband and I are the blessed parents of two black children, now toddlers. My questions for you both are: Looking back on your childhood years, what do you wish your parents had done differently in raising you – if anything? And, what period of your growing up times was the most difficult for you, and why? How did you and your parents deal with these difficult periods? And, what kind of relationship do you both have with your parents now? What are your fondest childhood memories?
Michelle Johnson Answers:
I don’t feel that my parents made any major mistakes in raising me. Some of this is due to the fact that they had 17 years of experience when I was adopted. They did, however, struggle around racism and prejudice, since they never faced these issues. I think they sometimes gave easy answers, or tried to protect us, when this was not possible.
They realized when I was 5, and I was called the “N” word on the first day of kindergarten, that they were raising African American children, and this was radically different from their three older biological children. They also made the conscious decision to get us to the African American community. Their route was through religion. The entire family (all five children) switched from the wealthy European American church in our city, to an inner city African American church, where my brother and I could interact with children like us, model behaviors and discuss issues that others had faced regarding discrimination. While my brother and I saw this church setting very differently, the point was that my parents recognized we were now a multicultural family, and they needed to incorporate the Black identity into our lives.
As with any child, adolescence was the most difficult time for me. Those years of being a woman-child meant all the same things my European American peers were struggling with (puberty, dating, autonomy from parents, peer pressure, etc..), as well as a host of adoption and ethnic related issues. “Who am I?” takes on a whole new meaning as an adopted child regardless of ethnicity.
But I also had to incorporate a sense of myself as African American into most decisions I made. I had a lousy body image, as I was informed on a daily basis that beauty was often equated with a pale complexion and light features. I didn’t date in either junior or senior high, because the European American classmates I was interested in refused to cross the color line. There were only three African Americans, and they felt I was an “Oreo”, too “White” to associate with on that level, so this left me feeling alone.
My parents were always supportive, yet admittedly did not sometimes have the most helpful answers, because while they saw my pain, they had no experience dealing with it. The did instill in us, from an early age, the belief that we were intelligent, beautiful human beings, who should be afforded the same opportunities as their older children. This sense of self helped in the hard times, until I attended College, where I developed a more diverse and open-minded set of peers.
I am very close to my parents, in many ways their closest child. My father’s a cultural anthropologist, as well as a lawyer, and my mother is a school psychologist, so needless to say, we had very open communication. We conversed about everything, including how things affected us individually, collectively and socially. They were always honest, and placed their children at the center of their lives. They were kind, spiritual and giving people who instilled the right values in all of their children. I wouldn’t exchange them for anyone.
The privileges of ethnicity, education, income and status meant that my brother and I had idyllic childhoods. My fondest memories are of summer vacations camping, or traveling the U. S. and Canada as a family of seven. Also great are memories of us in our church setting, where I felt validated and a different sense of home. Of my parents, it is the sense that they were always there for us, supporting, encouraging and loving us that brings fondness to my heart. I guess that the bottom line is, loving your children takes precedence.
There is also a responsibility that comes with parenting any child in a multicultural world, and that is to celebrate cultures and differences. Specifically for you, it is also your responsibility to raise two strong, emotionally secure African American children who have tools to deal with a racist world. If you accomplish this, you have done your job as parents, and I am an example that this can be accomplished. This is one of the best compliments I can give to my parents and it is one that they are immensely proud of, and richly deserve. I wish you the best of luck, and send prayers and encouragement to you and your family.