By October 18, 2010 0 Comments Read More →

How important is race? Interview with American author Carolyn Vines

Carolyn Vines is a black American woman who married a Dutch man and settled in the Netherlands. The mother of two bi-racial children, she says she spent years of her life trying to shed preconceived “American” notions of what a black women should be. She chronicles her journey in a book Black and (A)broad, Traveling Beyond the Limitations of Identity, which is available from Amazon.

While Carolyn is not part of the adoption community, her thoughts about race are worth considering. Race is such an emotionally-charged topic, especially in the adoption community, that it is difficult to have a rational conversation with opposing viewpoints.

As the adoptive white mother of a brown girl from West Africa, I feel a lot of pressure to make sure my daughter grows up to be a strong, independent, self-assured black woman. And yet after speaking with Carolyn, I wonder if my adding the word black stems from my being American. If she was white, would I say I wanted to raise her to be a strong, independent, self-assured white woman? I don’t think so. I also wonder why I use the word black instead of inserting her country of origin instead. Wouldn’t that make more sense?

Adoptive parents of children of a different race have a lot of pressure to do the right thing when it comes to building their child’s self-esteem and sense of self, and rightfully so. But how much emphasis should we place on race as part of their identity? In the next few months Adopting While Abroad will run a series of stories focusing on the issue of race and identity. We’ll look at the question: How important is race?

Carolyn is the perfect person to begin the dialogue because she speaks from personal experience and has a very different perspective than most.

Carolyn, tell me about your book and why you decided to write it.
The book is about transcending my beginnings as a black woman who grew up in America where race is an obsession. In America, there are a lot of very negative stereotypes about black people in the media, in television sitcoms and especially in the black community. I felt I was defined by what white America thought of me and by what black America thought I should be. I have written about how traveling to various places around the world helped me to understand that the tragedies in my past were not inextricably tied to my blackness.

What do you mean by that?
Well, growing up my mother was head of the household, my parents divorced when I was quite young. We didn’t have a lot of money and my father lived in a different city and I didn’t see him much. It wasn’t until I went to Mexico to study abroad for a semester in college that I realized that it wasn’t only black people who were poor. I lived with a family and many people around us didn’t have a telephone, there were days we couldn’t take a shower. The experience made me understand, for the first time, that poverty and being black weren’t essentially linked. In America, if you see black people on the news, they’re on welfare, they’re poverty stricken so leaving the country helped me to realize that this is a particular situation in America.
I write about how my travels and living abroad helped me to step outside of all the expectations and to find myself.

That’s a sad commentary about the US. Why do you think there are such stereotypes there?
It goes back to the whole slavery issue when racism was used to justify the system. Unfortunately, as America progressed and expanded, so did the racism. But the slavery issue aside, I think that people really don’t talk to one another. It comes from both sides; we live side by side, but we are emotionally segregated. White people don’t dare to talk to black people about ethnicity and black people assume white people have preconceived notions about them. That’s a big part of why the stereotypes are still intact.

Do you think things are different in Europe? Is there less racism here?

I can’t speak for all European countries. In Holland I haven’t run across blatant racism. Of course, even before I left the US I shifted my attitude and decided that I am not going to look for racism. If someone doesn’t speak to me, I choose to decide the person is having a bad day; I’m not going to assume the person is racist.

And I have found here in Holland that people don’t automatically think of me as a black woman first. They first see me as an American. When they see my children, they don’t automatically say or assume that mixed race children will have a hard life. Instead, they comment on how great it is that we are raising them to be bilingual.

Have you addressed the issue of race with your daughters?
My husband and I have talked about this a lot. The one thing I try to do is to not make race or color and issue. My children do notice that I am different and have asked me why I am brown and I explain it from a biological standpoint: that there are people of all different colors. They notice that I do not speak Dutch like everyone else speaks it and they know it’s because I’m American. I think it’s OK because at some point they will realize that it is OK to be different. We don’t politicize race, it will happen at some point in their lives but they are still very young and we don’t make an issue of it now.

My daughter has asked me ‘when will I turn brown’ and I just tell her, ‘I don’t think you are going to be brown, but you are beautiful the way you are.’

That’s interesting, perhaps it is because we are not black, but my husband and I feel a responsibility to help our daughter learn that racism exists so we can help her to fight it.
I deal with talks about racism the same way I deal with the sex talk: I’ll discuss it as they’re ready for it. When they see or experience things that make them uncomfortable, they’ll come to me for an explanation. Then I can explain that if a child doesn’t want to play with them because they’re a different color, then that’s the other child’s loss. I’ll point out all the other children who do want to play with them. I’ll remind them of how beautiful and funny and loveable they are.

I try to make my children feel comfortable with who they are at this young age. We can do this by making time for them and making them feel important and if we can do these things as a parent, then when people start to tell them ‘you don’t matter because you’re skin is black’ then we can point out that they do matter and they are important and they will believe it.

Again, it may be because I am a white woman raising a black child, but I feel a lot of pressure to address race and ethnicity. How important do you think it is that we focus on race and ethnicity with our children?
In terms of adoption, and I’ve thought about this a lot, I do think that African children would be better served with African families than with white families — and I mean no offense by this. I know from experience that parenting one’s biological children is hard. When you throw in adoption and on top of that adopting a child from a different country and race, you’re piling on challenges. Adopting within similar nationalities and ethnicities reduces the challenges to both the children and the parents. But we live in an imperfect world. In a perfect world your daughter would be with her biological parents in her country of origin and would never have to experience racism. She would, however, experience other hardships, and who’s to say that racism is more painful than, let’s say, genocide or famine or extreme poverty, which have been plaguing some African countries.

We live in an imperfect world and if African children are best served by being placed in loving families that happen to be white and they are loved and cared for then that is certainly the best thing for the child.

So, how can an adoptive mother like myself teach my daughter about what it means to be black and how important is it?
I am my daughters’ best example of what it means to be black. I play the music I grew up with, which I still love, and my daughters see me dance to that music. They also see that I’m comfortable in my skin, so to speak, that I’m confident about who I am, so this is something I can give them as a black woman. As they get older, I’ll introduce them to black history and inspiring black leaders, male and female.

How can you do this as a white woman and do this authentically? I don’t think you can. You can, however, bring in music from her country and teach her about the food and history. Put her into contact with other African people. Take her to a beauty shop because it’sa natural environment where she is around black people with hair like hers. Sit with her and get your hair done , too. Maybe you could try braids! But I think the most important thing is to be yourself. Show her who you are and what your culture is and incorporate it into who she is, because she is your daughter.

Ask yourself, what part do you want to hold onto, do you want to focus on the fact that you are different, or do you want to focus on your commonalities? I don’t try to teach my Dutch children how to be Dutch or American. They see differences and comment on them. I cut my food with a fork, and they ask me why I’m doing what I’m doing because Dutch kids learn to eat with a knife and a fork.

And I tell them that in America, we use a fork to cut our food. It’s all about understanding our differences.

Do you think that many of my perceptions about the importance of raising my daughter to be a strong, independent black woman come from my being American and am I (and other adoptive parents), boxing in my daughter by these perceptions?

Yes, I believe they do. In America it is all about race — from a very young age you are conscious of your color. We politicize skin color, and I wish we didn’t.

I think that one of the most beautiful things to see is a parent who has adopted a child and truly doesn’t care what the child looks like or what race he is, they just love the child. Yes, people judge you by what you look like and you need a strong someone to help. But we do not have to succumb to the pressures of what a black woman should be like or look like. Because that pressure is what gives us these identity issues.

Learn more about Carolyn and her book on her website, Black and (A)broad.

Order Black and (A)Broad: Traveling Beyond the Limitations of Identity

US $10
UK £ 9

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