This summer on The Novel Endeavor, I decided to tackle representation and its importance in transracial adoption. Everyday, as my daughter grows, I see just how vital representation is as she wraps her mind around her world and tries to make sense of it.
Previously, I introduced representation and how it can impact transracial adoption. This week, I want to talk stereotypes.
It’s about to get real.
The Southern Stereotype
I grew up in a small rural area of southwest Virginia. A place warm, welcoming, and filled with the fragrances of life—delicious food, comforting wood stoves, and vibrant farms.
My town, and my home state of Virginia, also inherited a history fraught with racism, oppression, and stereotypes. Southern hospitality and slavery. Sweet tea and segregation. With a past like that, ugliness becomes entrenched in the everyday; and that’s how it was for me.
Growing up, I did not see many people that looked different from me. My school was very homogeneous; hence, my friends looked like me, thought like me, and dreamed like me. Their struggles were my struggles.
When I left for college, things didn’t change much. My university was large—over 20,000 students—but, once again, very white. Honestly, my college experience entrenched my stereotypes even further into my brain. The African American student population seemed to be largely concentrated in the sports programs; if I saw a black student crossing the drillfield, it was safe to assume they were a football player. (It was safe, at least, in my mind.)
Confronting My Stereotypes
Fast forward ten years to 2013. My husband and I chose adoption to grow our family. In adoption, families painstakingly develop their “preferences” for the child they are open to, characteristics such as: race, gender, level of physical or mental abilities, drug and alcohol exposure in utero, etc.
I loathe this part.
We wrestled with our preferences and even edited them multiple times during our adoption journey. But, in the end, we chose the possibility of transracial adoption. The possibility of adopting a child from a different race.
We were tempted to feel noble and admirable in choosing this uncommon path. We were proud to jump so far outside of our comfort zones to welcome a non-white child into our family. This is not an easy road to walk.
[This is the part where God intervenes, as he always does, with a wake-up call.]
Thankfully, we realized that adoption is not about us, but about the child joining our family. All of our righteousness needed to come crashing down because we had a lot to learn.
I needed to uncover the stereotypes of my upbringing, the misplaced loyalties in my heart, and the fierce protective spirit of a mama who will do whatever it takes to love her children of another race.
I needed humility, eyes to see injustice and hurt, and the willingness to re-learn everything I thought I knew about people, race, and our culture.
Why Are Stereotypes So Dangerous?
God made people in his image—with value, intelligence, emotions, and dignity. Each person, no matter their race or ethnicity, has likes, dislikes, feelings, and struggles.
Often, we don’t understand groups of people that are different than us; therefore, we remedy the situation by categorizing them into a “box,” a stereotype, so that when we encounter someone like them in the future we know how to deal with them.
Stereotypes fail to recognize the uniqueness of each person, including their past experiences, hurts, victories, obstacles, and personalities. A stereotype says, “This type of person excels at [x] but fails at [y].” They make sweeping statements without considering the broad spectrum of talents, intellect, and dreams within a people group.
How Can We Tear Them Down for Our Children?
Adoptive parents must fight stereotypes, for our children, but for those in their “birth cultures” as well. Their fight becomes our fight. My daughter needs to see black women for who they are—strong, vibrant, and valuable; women seeking to live life well, for themselves and for their families.
Stereotypes are powerful and our children see and hear them everywhere: social media, television, school, advertisements on the radio. Our jobs as parents are to dismantle them by showing them people that break the mold. The anti-stereotypes.
Three ways we seek to break down stereotypes for our daughter are elevating minority role models, immersing ourselves in diverse community, and reading quality books.
This summer, my daughter needed to wear a swim cap in the pool to protect her beautiful cornrows. Of course, she didn’t want to. My mom thought we should show her pictures of Olympic athletes like Michael Phelps that wear swim caps so that she could see just how cool they can be.
I thought, she’s brilliant.
But, instead of Michael Phelps, I wanted Aliana to see Simone Manuel, the first African American woman to win an individual Olympic medal in swimming. Someone that looks like her—breaking barriers and diving into uncharted territories.
When we moved to our new city, I intentionally chose a black woman as Aliana’s pediatrician. The pediatric practice is all white except for this doctor. She shows my daughter that she can be intelligent, hard-working, and successful just like her doctor.
I want my daughter to see black women, like her, doing extraordinary things. In fact, she needs to know that strong women are paving the way for little girls to succeed in a variety of fields that weren’t open to minorities in the past. Simone Manuel, Misty Copeland, Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, doctors, lawyers, teachers, mothers, and sisters—all women worth emulating.
Friends and Community
How do we dismantle stereotypes? Know and interact with people everyday that look different from us. When we moved to our city, we chose our community strategically; we wanted to make friends and build our community based on diversity. I need the experiences of minority women to teach me—their wisdom and knowledge is valuable. My daughter needs it as well, particularly as she grows and matures into a black woman.
I love our neighborhood and our church. Each week, they help me to break down the stereotypes that have walked with me throughout my life. They teach me to see people as individuals, with stories and experiences. People I want to know and learn from.
Books, Of Course
Before I finish, I have to mention books, because I love them so much! Aliana loves books; we read several of them everyday. Now as she’s getting older, I pay attention to the books we pick out at the library. I look for a wide range of representation, but right now especially, I search for little black girls. Recently, I shared a post on four picture books for black girls that we love, which you can find here. If you follow me on Instagram, I try to post other great ones that I come across as well.