Black Culture—How Black is Black Enough?

As I have already mentioned, Sean has a black uncle and, therefore, four biracial cousins. When the oldest cousin, S~ (whose appearance tends more towards the white genetic influence), was still in high school, she started to go through some rebellion. A conference with the principal was arranged.

On the appointed day, S’s white mother and black father walked into the office of the black school principal. As they sat down, he chuckled.

“Well, that explains it,” the principal said as he looked at S’s father. “We were wondering why she has started trying to act Black.”

Unfortunately, by “act Black” he was not referring to an increased interest in academics (or even sports). No, he was referring to her sudden interest in hoochie clothing, urban slang, and 50 Cent.


Culture: The totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought.

The concept of defining Black culture first became important to me about seven years ago, as I began exploring the idea of transracial adoption. As anyone who has adopted a child of another race can attest, the concept of birth culture is given much emphasis in pre-adoption discussions with social workers.

Certainly, defining the differences in culture are relatively simple when adopting a child from another country. The American experience is vastly different than the Guatemalan experience, the Vietnamese experience, or the Cambodian experience.

But how, exactly, do you define the difference between the American experience and, well, the American experience?

Do not misunderstand—I do not claim that there is not frequently a difference in experience for people of different races in this country. Of course there is also a difference in experience for people of different socio-economic status, or even people from different parts of the country. Yet, I don’t recall anyone impressing on me the importance of developing a twang and participating in pageants if my child came from the South.

But, I was a good little pre-adoptive parent. I attended the classes. I explored my feelings on race. I bought the book, Inside Transracial Adoption. I even read most of it and successfully denied the urge to throw it against a wall on several occasions.

Here’s a little tip: Always know who you’re getting your advice from.

Part-way through the book, one of the authors describes the “small, Midwestern college town” that they lived in, and how they decided that it was too conservative of an area to raise their family in, so they moved to San Francisco. A few pages later, and I realized that I knew the town she was referring to. I grew up near it, and went there often.

My husband, who grew up in northern California, hated that town because it reminded him so much of Berkley. It was that “conservative.” Seriously, the University that she was referring to chose, several years ago, to have their commencement address delivered by a convicted cop killer. That was the kind of area that was “too conservative” for the woman who literally wrote the book on transracial adoption.

What was some of the advice dispensed?

  • If your religion doesn’t have a Black congregation, you may want to consider changing your beliefs.
  • You should consider forgoing the Montessori preschool that your other children attended that was so good at fostering creativity and self-direction so your child can attend the rigid Cambodian preschool and learn the necessary traits to become a good little Communist in a room full of faces like his.
  • While your other kids are off at band and soccer camps, send your adopted daughter to Korean culture camp so that she can be reminded of all of the ways she is different from you.

Instead of focusing on ways to incorporate your child into your family culture, you are encouraged to constantly emphasize the child’s birth culture. And, while birth culture is important (we all need to explore our roots), it frequently turns into a neurotic, academic over-emphasis. There comes a point where it exceeds the well-meaning intention of giving a child a sense of “past” and becomes a constant reminder that “you aren’t like us.” No child needs that.

After research and thoughtful consideration, I came to two conclusions:

  1. A lot of conventional “fact” is crap.
  2. It was important to me that my son see positive, professional examples of people from his (and other) cultures.

I wanted my son to grown up, first and foremost, as part of our family culture. But, someday, if and when he wanted to further explore his birth culture, I didn’t want him to think that the definition of success needed to include a great jump shot or a Wikipedia entry that sported the phrase, “after leaving drug dealing to pursue a rap career…”

In 1972, the National Association of Black Social workers took a “vehement stand against the placement of black children in white homes for any reason.” They justified this by saying (among other things):

The socialization process for every child begins at birth and includes his cultural heritage as an important segment of the process. In our society, the developmental needs of Black children are significantly different from those of white children. Black children are taught, from an early age, highly sophisticated coping techniques to deal with racist practices perpetrated by individuals and institutions. These coping techniques become successfully integrated into ego functions and can be incorporated only through the process of developing positive identification with significant black others. Only a black family can transmit the emotional and sensitive subtleties of perception and reaction essential for a black child’s survival in a racist society. Our society is distinctly black or white and characterized by white racism at every level. We repudiate the fallacious and fantasied reasoning of some that whites adopting black children will alter that basic character.

Looked at from the historical perspective of being written in the early 1970’s, I can almost understand where they are coming from in their assertion that black children needed to learn proper coping techniques.

I am bothered, however, by the fact that the National Association of Black Social Workers has never retracted this statement and, in fact, still stands behind it, claiming that transracial adoption is “cultural genocide.” As far as they are concerned, every child with any black heritage should be placed in a black family. End of story. I am also bothered by the extent to which the adoption community, and even society as a whole, seems to cling to this idea.

In a country where the majority of the voting population just chose Barack Obama (and most of us who didn’t made our decision based on his politics, not his race), you just cannot argue that the same level of racism exists as did previously. However, the fear of racism, and level of distrust because of it, persists.

The National Association of Black Social Workers is right; I can’t teach my child to fear white people and the possibility of racism. And I’m glad for that. He won’t be crippled by an overwhelming distrust of society. Heaven forbid, I may even succeed in sending him out into the world with the belief that he’ll be seen as just as capable as the next guy. What a shame that would be.

When I first mentioned, about a week ago, my discomfort with having the slavery talk with my son, Lilola left an interesting comment on my blog. She stated that, appearances aside, Noah is just as much white as he is black. I have known Lilola for several years and know, as anyone who knows her does, that she is very rarely wrong. This time, however, she is.

The fact is, appearances aside, my son is more white than he is black.

And how do I justify saying that? Because he is the recipient of the most horrid of all Liberal epithets: White Privilege (which, good heavens, gets its own—very long—Wikipedia entry). So many of the things that liberal thinkers blame on “Black disadvantage” are not issues for my son. He has a stable home environment, involved parents, access to a good education, security…heck, we even go on family vacations. As the beneficiary of my “privilege,” he is not having what many define as a “Black” experience.

Now, here’s the kicker. The same is 100% true of our current president.

He was raised by a white mother and white grandmother, with almost no involvement from the black side of his family. He had the experience of international travel. He went to Harvard.

The pervasive attitude that Barack Obama is going to understand the poor and oppressed because he is “black like us,” drives me nuts. Like my son, he didn’t grow up with “Black disadvantage.” He grew up in a white (well, and Indonesian) society with some amazing experiences/privileges. But, because of the color of his skin and, I suppose, the fact that he plays basketball and listens to hip hop, he has been certified as Black enough.

Hmmm…I wonder how the National Association of Black Social Workers feels about that?



Filed under adoption, politics, The Me Behind the Mommy, transracial adoption

4 responses to “Black Culture—How Black is Black Enough?

  1. The fact being that my (very) rare error confirms my (almost) always right reputation, I concede. I was wrong; Noah is more white than black, as is our current president.
    Reading the statement by the National Association of Black Social Workers is a trip! It’s like listening to black “spokesmen” like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. If they conceded that racism was nearly gone, that all men had nearly equal opportunity and that claiming that opportunity would heal most of the problems in our society, they would be Out Of Work! Can’t have that!
    And you are doing a great job raising Noah and all your other children. Congratulations on thinking Pink!

  2. Christina

    It’s a sad thing what an impact that Social Worker’s statement has had on our society – or rather the liberal victimization mindset that led to that statement. When we decided to adopt, my husband flat out refused to consider adopting an African American baby not because of any racism on his part, but because of his fear of the reaction we would get from blacks. He didn’t want to put our family or our child in the position of being hated on just because we chose to open our hearts to a black child. I wonder how many other families are like ours? And meanwhile then blacks (and liberals in general) point to the fact that African American babies have lower adoption fees as *proof* of American’s racism. It’s like a crazy mixed up endless cycle.

    And don’t even get me started on Obama… the fact that America fell for the bill of goods he was selling is just a sad reflection on how far our political process has fallen, IMHO.

    • You know, I lived in a mostly black community when we adopted Noah. The response from my neighbors was really positive. I can’t recall EVER having a black person act in a negative way towards us over the adoption. But, you are right, a lot of people are afraid of that response and let it affect their decisions when adopting.

      Another very sad reality is the fact that there just aren’t enough black families looking to adopt to place these children with even if we DID want to make race a priority in placement. The statement I cited addresses that, too, claiming that the questions in the homestudy are designed to run black families off. Because, you know, they shouldn’t have to prove they have an income and aren’t felons like the rest of us do. I’m not sure why adoption isn’t as common in the Black community, but lowering the standards to push families through the homestudy process is most certainly not the solution.

  3. Nancy

    You said: Looked at from the historical perspective of being written in the early 1970’s, I can almost understand where they are coming from in their assertion that black children needed to learn proper coping techniques.


    At least wrong in the experiences of my youth, where I attended a high school that was about 1/3 black. I don’t remember white on black intimidation or any particular need for coping techniques. I do remember people being judged on achievements, and remember several black friends through the years.

    In fact, I would say that the break down of the black family and culture brought on by the Great Society’s War on Poverty programs has led to more distrust among the races now than there was then. Black kids lived in homes with fathers when I was in school, and they went to school to learn along with everyone else. What a travesty those programs have been.

    Of course, I can only speak from my experiences in one particular northern city; I’m sure it was different in the south. And it was a generational thing – my generation was much more accepting than the one it followed. Just think how accepting everyone could have been by now – Martin Luther King’s ideal of being judged by the quality of your character and not the color of your skin, even.

    Don’t get sucked in by revisionist history.

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