What we can learn from Melissa Harris-Perry

Last week, a segment appeared on Melissa Harris-Perry’s show on MSNBC that reviewed the best photos of the year and asked a panel of actors and comedians to give them humorous captions. It was supposed to be a light-hearted look back at the year, but things went awry. One of the photos was of Mitt and Ann Romney surrounded by all of their grandchildren . . . a photo tradition the Romney’s do every year. This year, Mitt was holding his newly adopted African-American grandson, the only person of color amongst over 20 cousins. image Immediately, the child’s racial difference became the focus. Actress Pia Glenn jokingly sang “one of these things is not like the others,” (the song used in Sesame Street segments to help kids identify which object doesn’t belong) and comedian Dean Obeidallah joked that the photo “really sums up the diversity of the Republican Party.” Melissa Harris-Perry wondered what it would be like if Kieran Romney (the child in focus) ended up marrying North West and Mitt found himself with Kanye as an in-law. The segment was brief, but it immediately drew a firestorm from conservatives and adoptive parents alike. Conservatives were upset that they used the photo as an opportunity to take a pot-shot at their political party. Adoptive parents were upset that jokes were made indicating that this grandson didn’t fit n. Both were upset that such jokes were coming at the expense of a child. As I watched the backlash, I found myself ambivalent. I immediately noticed that many people took offense at the fact that his racial difference was even noticed . . . as if seeing the one brown kid in a sea of white faces, and commenting on it, is a racist act. We’ve been taught to see everyone as equal, and while I think it’s valuable to view every person as equally worthy, I also think it’s dangerous to ignore racial differences completely. We are not living in a post-racial America, and no doubt Kieran Romney, as a black male, will have a different experience negotiating the world than his white family members.  Even if his family treats him the same, it’s probable that society will not. The only way to deny this is to deny the voices of black adults who share their own current experiences with racial bias on a regular basis. So I personally wasn’t offended that his race was noticed. I notice it in that photo. I think, if we’re honest, most people do. However, I did find it cringe-worthy that, rather than opening up a dialogue about race and transracial adoption, the commenters went for a quick laugh at an adoptee’s expense. While she didn’t quite get there, most of us know that the lyrics immediately following the refrain Pia Glenn sang are, “One of these things just doesn’t belong.” It is incredibly hurtful for adoptees and adoptive parents to hear an implication that, because of race, an adopted child doesn’t really belong. Like many others, I also found it distasteful that the commenters made a child the brunt of their jokes. I did think that crossed a line. As a politician, Mitt Romney is fair game. But his son and grandson did not sign up for this. So while I found the whole segment in poor taste, I did not think it was racist. While the jokes were in poor taste, the people making them were likely joking as a result of some real concern they feel when they see a child so clearly racially alienated in his own family. I can understand why this gives people pause. I don’t think it’s fair to speculate on how he is being raised from one photograph,since we really have no idea how Mitt’s son Ben’s views transracial parenting, if there are plans to add another black child to the family, if they are seeking diversity in this child’s life, etc. There has been a whole lot of speculation on that based on what we know about Mitt Romney, and I would certainly hope that my aptitude as a transracial parent is not based on the perception of my parents. I truly hope that Kieran’s parents are educating themselves and taking the necessary steps to ensure that their child grows up around other black people who can mirror and affirm his racial identity. Of course, unless those parents choose to speak publicly about their parenting choices, everything else is just public speculation. I’ve watched Melissa Harris-Perry’s show for a long time. I am a big fan of hers. I know her backstory . . . that she was a brown child born into a large, Mormon family. Also, in watching the segment, it was clear that these jokes were coming from the actors/comedians and not from MHP herself. I definitely think the segment went off the rails, and that MHP could have worked harder to reign it back in. But at the same time, I saw the segment as some rather desperate and tasteless attempts at a laugh and not as some kind of statement about transracial adoption. MHP has featured transracial adoptees and parents on her show many times, and I’ve always felt like she has been one of the best journalists to really explore the inherent issues with depth, nuance, and compassion. I didn’t take the segment as a personal affront to my family. I also felt that Melissa Harris-Perry did an exemplary job of issuing a swift apology, first on twitter, and then live on the air the first chance she got. Her twitter apology is as follows:

“I am sorry. Without reservation or qualification. I apologize to the Romney family. I work by guiding principle that those who offend do not have the right to tell those they hurt that they [are] wrong for hurting. Therefore, while I meant no offense, I want to immediately apologize to the Romney family for hurting them. As black child born into large white Mormon family I feel familiarity w/ Romney family pic & never meant to suggest otherwise. I apologize to all families built on loving transracial adoptions who feel I degraded their lives or choices.”

And her on-air apology came the day her show resumed: I felt her apology was sincere and I believe her when she says she is “deeply sorry that we suggested that interracial families are in any way funny or deserving of ridicule.”  I was also impressed that Mitt accepted her apology.  “I recognize people make mistakes. The folks at MSNBC made a big mistake,” Romney said. “I’m going to move on from that.”

I think we all should.

Melissa Harris-Perry is an important voice as it relates to race in America. She is also a black female journalist in a world where white men dominate.  But more than that, she has been a consistent champion of diverse families and anti-racism. I hope that anyone not familiar with her will look at her entire body of journalistic work, and not this one segment that clearly went wrong. But I also think we can all learn from how she handled this incident. When it came time to apologize, she articulated a philosophy that I think can help every relationship:

A blueprint for apologies

Imagine a world where everyone followed this blueprint . . . where instead of arguing over what we meant, we have empathy and compassion for how our words effect others. I think this situation perfectly illustrates the importance of recognizing intent vs. effect. It’s possible that Melissa Harris-Perry and her panel legitimately did not mean to insult transracial families. And it’s possible that transracial families legitimately felt insulted. Both of these things can exist at the same time. I think the world would be a better place if we could all take a cue from Melissa Harris-Perry in being swift to apologize instead of defend when our words have been hurtful, even (and especially) when we didn’t mean them to be. Now someone send this memo to Paula Deen and Phil Robertson

An interview with adult adoptee Angela Tucker and Closure filmmaker Bryan Tucker

Earlier this month Mark and I had the chance to preview a documentary about an adult adoptee’s search for her birthparents. I love documentary movies, and I really appreciate hearing perspectives of adults who were adopted, so I was excited to see tis film.  It was so well done, and the story was honest and moving. Angela Tucker was adopted as a young child, and her search for her birth family takes some unexpected turns. Her husband Bryan is the direcctor of the film, and I’ll let him explain how it came to be:

1. Bryan, what made you decide to make your wife’s search for her adoptive family the focus of a documentary?

Bryan: Initially when we had plans to fly to from Seattle to Chattanooga to find and hopefully meet (who we thought was) Angela’s birth father, Angela asked me to keep the camera rolling as much as possible just to have footage of the incredibly overwhelming moments.  Angela’s fear was that if we found and met all of these people who were potentially her birth relatives, she would be so caught up in emotion and internal chaos that she would miss all the details that she’d traveled so far to experience.  When we revisited a year later in 2011 with the hopes of meeting more birth relatives, I upgraded my camera and purchased a decent microphone, with the hope that I could capture the story cinematically.  I only shared that idea with Angela at the time, since there was a strong possibility I would not pursue that route. After returning home from that trip and reviewing all of the footage I was convinced that there was a story to tell, with compelling footage to back it up.  Thus began an ongoing conversation with Angela in which the main questions was – “Do you want your story to be shared publicly?”  We went back and forth on it for a while.  I knew it was a tough place for her to be in, since she is naturally very private and introverted, but also a supportive wife and knew this was an idea I was excited about.  She’s passionate about educating others about transracial adoption, and so ultimately I think her decision to go forward with the film came from that motivation.   

2. Angela, were you surprised by the way the first meeting went with your birthmom?

Angela: I don’t know that anyone can truly have a realistic expectation of how such a reunion would or should go. It was never my intention to simply show up unannounced, which is why I’d spent years calling random phone numbers hoping that she would pick up on the other end. I sent countless letters in the mail to addresses hoping they would reach her, and sent emails to email addresses I’d found after detective work. I hired a confidential intermediary after being unsuccessful in my attempt to obtain my original birth certificate from the state of Tennessee. When all of these attempts failed, we made the decision to simply drive by her home when the opportunity arose. Everything that happened after that was a surprise to me. I don’t think there is a perfect way to search, which is why I’m glad to see the era of closed adoptions coming to an end.

3. Angela’s adoptive parents seemed very supportive of the search  . . . any advice for family members of adoptees on how best to support them if they search?

Angela: My family was quite supportive in my journey – this does not mean they were without their own fears and reservations of being replaced, but they chose to put these personal fears aside, and think about how life looked through my eyes. My mom has told me that if she were in my position she would have also wanted to know where she came from, how and why she was placed in another family. It is my hope that other adoptive parents can take this approach, while understandably possibly feeling their own feelings of apprehension and nervousness. I feel that it would’ve been more confusing had my family not been supportive, as they’ve supported me in other identity forming ways i.e. hobbies, interests, activities etc., why would this be any different?

4. What were some of the cultural differences in your adoptive family and biological family? How have you navigated those differences?

Angela: There is oftentimes a great difference in terms of socioeconomic status, educational levels, values and beliefs, and unfortunately cultural differences as well between adoptive families and birth families. I’m thankful that my parents were aware of their own white privilege before choosing to adopt children of different races. This allowed all of us to experience our own culture under the acknowledged lens of being raised in a predominately white area. We were aware of other cultures (not just our own biological cultural roots), as they sought to make sure their friendships and communities were those with diversity in their own lives. They worked hard to make sure that our own cultures were represented positively within our own household, though it may not have been well represented outside of our home. I remember my mom searching through catalogs (pre-internet days) trying to find a black cabbage patch doll to go with my collection. She also wrote in to Band-Aid to encourage them to consider brown or clear band aids, as obviously their peach-ish color did not equal “flesh-tone” as the box was labeled.

5. The name of the film is Closure . . . do you think closure is ever possible in adoption?

Angela: I don’t know that closure can ever be gained from any deep and meaningful endeavor. I interpret the title of Closure to represent my goal at the outset of the searching journey. The reality is I’ve been left with more questions and curiosities even though I’ve (almost) completed what I’d set out to do. Closure is an apt, appropriate title for a film, yet personally, it feels largely unattainable.

It’s a dangerous assumption that there can be closure in complicated stories like many adoption stories are.  Each time I watch the film, I’m reminded of how Angela’s story reveals the many complex aspects of adoption: pain, beauty, shame, love.  I’m glad the word closure is never said in the film, but I can’t help but hear it expressed in the language of many characters – the most surprising example being Angela’s birth mother.  Ultimately I hope that when people watch the film, they don’t consider the title a declaration, but instead a question (does she haveclosure?).  Only Angela knows the answer to that question, but now that the story is out there – to each their own opinion

If you are interested in seeing Closure (and if your life or the life of someone you know is touched by adoption in any way, you should be!) you can order a DVD or digital download from this site The digital download of the film is 30% for the month of December with the promo code BIG30.

Davion’s plea for a family (and the 101,000 he represents)

Over the last few weeks, the story of Davion spread like wildfire across social media channels. Davion was a foster youth who had been waiting most of his life for an adoptive family. His desperation led him to visit a local church to plead for someone to adopt him. “I’ll take anyone,” Davion said. “Old or young, dad or mom, black, white, purple. I don’t care. And I would be really appreciative. The best I could be.” Over the last few weeks, the story of Davion spread like wildfire across social media channels. Davion was a foster youth who had been waiting most of his life for an adoptive family. His desperation led him to visit a local church to plead for someone to adopt him. [source] His story tugged at the nation’s heartstrings, and I saw scores of people sharing his story. It even prompted an interview on The View.  His social worker reports that over 10,000 families have inquired about adopting Davion. She feels confident that he will have a permanent family by his next birthday. It’s an incredible ending to a tug-at-the-heartstrings story. But I hope it doesn’t end there. Davion brought his reality to the forefront through his brave plea and the power of his story, but his reality represents thousands of other kids across the country. Over 101,000 kids are waiting for families in the U.S. right now.  For every person who casually commented on the story with, “I would adopt him in a heartbeat”, and for the thousands of people who called on his behalf, I hope the emotional response doesn’t end there. For every Davion, there is a Milanda and a Tonya and a James and a TyronChrista enjoys going to teen night at church. Jazmyne is a ‘people person’ and enjoys the outdoors. Xavier is fun, outgoing and respectful. Tonya is excelling academically and has a quick sense of humor. Keyshaun and Treyshaun are loving, sweet and playful boys who enjoy receiving hugs and praise. They all want a permanent family. There are so many more stories . . . so many more kids waiting. If Davion touched your heart and made you consider adopting a teen, I hope you will follow up and find out more. Older kids need parents, too. In fact, some 18-year-olds have listed themselves on adoption websites not because they need a guardian, but because they want a family as they launch into adulthood. This breaks my heart. Foster children, more than anyone, need a support system as they become adults. The outcomes for foster children who age out without finding a family are not good. And yet, so many of them are just needing support, love, and the promise of a family. Our oldest child is adopted from foster care, and we plan to adopt a teenager from foster care when we are empty-nesters. I’d love to dispel some of the myths about adopting an older child: 1. I’d love to adopt but it’s so expensive. I don’t have that kind of money. Adopting from foster care costs ZERO DOLLARS. All fees are paid by the state. 2. I can’t afford to care for another child. When you adopt from the foster care system, you receive their foster care stipend until they turn 18. This is to incentivize adoption so kids are not stuck in foster limbo. The stipend can range based on where you live, and is increased if there are any medical needs, educational needs (like IEP’s) or psychological issues requiring therapy. 3. I wouldn’t have time to save for their college. In many states, former foster youth are eligible to attend their state university FOR FREE. 4. I am single / I am gay. Most states allow both single people and LGBT people to adopt. 5. The homestudy thing seems to hard and intrusive. It’s less intrusive than pushing a baby out of your vagina with several people in the room, I can promise you that. The personal questions are not meant to intimidate you, it’s a necessary screening process. The social workers WANT to approve you. They want families for these kids, too. If Davion’s story tempted you to respond, I encourage you to check out the myriad of stories of other foster youth. You can learn more about other waiting kids by visiting AdoptUSkids, The Heart Gallery, and the photolisting for your own state. Maybe Davion’s plea will create a bigger change than he ever imagined. Maybe it will prompt our nation to listen to the voices of foster youth who are asking for a family before it’s too late.

An open letter to my professor about China’s one-child policy (GUEST POST)

This post was written by Jenni “Fang” Lee, an adoptee from China, who generously allowed me to republish here. You can watch Jenni’s TEDx talk about her story here. She is also one of the subjects in the incredible documentary Somewhere Between. This letter was written in response to a professor’s insensitivity about girls in China.

Dear Professor:
First of all, please do not talk to us like we are children. Second of all, please do not tell an entire class while laughing and cracking jokes that “people in China flush girls down the river and abandon them because no one wants a girl.” Where do I even begin, Professor? Should I tell you that there are such things as “social pressures and government policies” that force women/families to make critical decisions that they don’t necessarily want to make? Have you ever read your colleague’s book “Wanting a Daughter, Needing a Son”? Did you consider not laughing and making fun of this sensitive topic?

Did you also know that I was one of those “unwanted females who every parent aborted” whom you so kindly speak of? Yes, you did know. How did you know? Because I told you on the first day of class while we all introduced ourselves and you asked us (the students) why we were taking the course. Oh, maybe you didn’t hear me because you weren’t paying attention? Why weren’t you paying attention? Ah, you must have been staring admiringly into the eyes of your favorite Amherst student.

Why did you continue to ignore my raised hand for at least 2 minutes, which a long time in classroom time? Judging from your actions, you must’ve wanted to ignore/silence me because you proceeded to call on the next Amherst student who raised his hand while totally disregarding my blood-drained arm that was still fighting to stay raised the entire time.

Lastly, Professor, if you are going to pull this kind of sh#@ in front of a Chinese adoptee, you should know who that Chinese adoptee is. And if you’re going to mess with a MoHo (Mount Holyoke student), you should know that she isn’t running back to her dorm room to cry about it, she’s going somewhere else – it’s called the Dean’s office.
An Unwanted Female
P.S. I am not one to shame people in public, but sometimes, an unwanted girl’s gotta do what an unwanted girl’s gotta do, right?

Should adoptive parents change their children’s ethnic given names to avoid prejudice later in life?

Several recent news stories have shed light on an unfortunate xenophobia in regards to names and employment. Earlier this year, the Freakonomics podcast report that there is evidence that a name can influence how a child performs in school and even her career opportunities. More recently, a NY Times blogger shared her discovery that typing in traditionally Black-sounding names yielded a google image search of mugshots, which did not repeat when she searched for images related to more traditionally white American names. In a recent piece in The Washington Times, the author explores the bias against names that sound “ethnic.” After the above article was quoted on the Times’ facebook page, a mother commented on her worry that her future son’s race and name alone would leave him marked as a criminal for life. Another commenter shared that he is a hiring manager who routinely passes on “African sounding” names so not to give his existing employers “discomfort” in having to “deal with someone with such a name.” image   The bias against names that sound non-white is steeped in prejudice (as well as ignorance since, as a nation built on immigrants, ANY name held by an American citizen is an American name.) However, we are not living in an ideal world  where this is recognized, and many parents grapple with the potential prejudice a name can carry as they choose what to name their children. This is certainly true in the adoption context, especially for those adopting internationally.  Many adoptive parents struggle with the decision to keep a child’s given name, versus giving them a name that is more common in the culture in which they will live. Some feel that a child’s heritage and birth family connection should be honored above concerns about prejudice. Others feel that an unusual name just ads to the list of ways transracially adopted kids may feel “different”, and may contribute to the narrative burden of having to explain origins every time they meet a new person. This tension . . . between honoring a child’s original culture and helping a child navigate easily in a new culture . . . make naming a difficult decision for adoptive parents. Of course, the age of the child is a consideration as well. I’ve talked with several adoptive parents and adoptees who have a variety of opinions and experiences with names and adoption, and rounded up their thoughts at Babble today. Click here to read them – I’m fascinated by the variance of opinions and how parents who want to do right by their child can come to different conclusions in similar circumstances. READ MORE »