A Concerned Relative Writes:
I’m happy to have found your webpage and I’m hoping you can give me some advice or resources.
I am biracial, my mom is white and my father is black. I was raised by my mother in a black neighborhood, went to a mostly white school. My mom’s community was all white, and most of my friends until college were white. I was a Black Studies major in college. That’s where I worked through my issues with identity. I now feel very clear about who I am and what it means to be both biracial (where my people come from) and black (how I am perceived). I identify as both/either, depending on why I’m being asked.
Fast forward to now. My husband is white (though he’s 1/2 Italian, and where we live he is often perceived as Latino, but that’s a whole separate story). My in-laws have three biological children, my husband being the youngest, and four adopted kids. [Jerome], the youngest, is 15 and biracial. His bio-mom is black and his bio-dad is white. He lives in a super white, and mostly conservative environment. Other than myself, there are no black adults in his life. In his school he can pass as white (or at least not as black), his peers don’t believe him when he says he’s half black. As he moves through adolescence it becomes more clear to me that he’s really struggling with his identity. He seems to want to assert his blackness, but the only examples he has of black men are from TV, basketball, and music videos. It’s really disturbing to me to hear his ideas about who black people are and what it means to be a black person.
Jerome seeks me out to talk with about race, and I do what I can, telling him about my experience and asking him questions to help facilitate the development of his own thoughts about race and his identity. It’s becoming clear to me that he really needs something that I can’t give him. My husband and I live three hours away and visit once every three or four months. I also recognize that Jerome’s experience is different from mine in significant ways–he’s adopted, he can pass, he’s male. I know these things complicate (and, someday, I hope, will enrich) his understanding of himself in ways I can’t relate to.
But I do want to help. I will, of course, continue to be available to talk with and to challenge him. I am also happy to advocate on his behalf with his folks. His parents are white liberal hippies and don’t seem to suffer from the guilt that is often prevalent among people of their generation. They want to do the right thing. They’re open to change and I think are thankful that [Jerome] has me to talk to. I think they respect my opinion enough to listen to any criticisms or suggestions I would give them. I’d really like to provide them with some resources, for them and for Jerome. This is where I’m hoping you can help.
John Raible Answers:
Speaking from personal experience as a biracial adoptee, the way I learned to think of myself as black was by being around other black people. Getting to know African Americans from different socioeconomic backgrounds helped me unlearn the stereotypes I had grown up with, such as, that black equals poverty.
Media images had a huge influence on my thinking about blackness, and this was before MTV, BET, cable, and reality television. From watching Good Times, the Jeffersons, and What’s Happening in the 1970s, for example, I gained a skewed sense of black life. I can imagine that for Jerome now, it is even harder to avoid stereotypical thinking if most of what he is learning about black people comes from movies, music videos, and television.
Books and magazines about black life helped me, of course, when I discovered them. And taking black studies courses with black professors helped, too. But the real learning took place once I started hanging out with black people in groups &endash; community organizations, parent groups, places where I was working, the urban neighborhood I moved to, and so on.
It sounds like Jerome is very lucky to have you in his life. I think the best resources you could provide him, to answer your question, would be ways to connect him with others like him. That way he can see for himself that people of African descent come in all colors, some darker and some lighter than he is. If his parents are open to it, they would be smart to use you as a sort of cultural guide and mentor who can steer their son in appropriate directions during his adolescent identity quest.
In your region, perhaps there are camps, after school clubs, youth sports teams, community groups, houses of worship, and the like that would provide safe places for Jerome to hang out and get to know other black and biracial people. This might sound silly, but maybe you can take him for regular haircuts at a black-owned barber shop, another great resource where black men and boys come together as males.
The other thing I would caution you about is trying to find a balance between identity issues, which easily become race issues (in the eyes of transracial adoptees), and adoption issues, which frequently overlook race. Finding a good adoptee support group or a therapist might be worthwhile, especially if you are lucky enough to have access to a counselor who is also a person of color.
Good luck in your search for resources!