If you are living a life where there seemed to be little choice, little care in how you think or feel; where happiness as a possible pursuit was dashed, I wonder if it is nearly impossible to think of life as privileged based on the color of your skin, your gender or sexual orientation? I do workshops on race and racism with adoptive parents, mostly Caucasian adoptive parents to children who are not. I had a father, Caucasian, who was genuine in his confusion as to how I could possibly label him “privileged.” How dare I – who knows nothing about him, what he has lived or how he has struggled – possibly say he comes from a place of privilege based on his gender and his skin color? He’s right. How dare I? But how could I see it and he can’t/won’t? I am a woman, adopted, Asian American. How would I cross that chasm to bring him to my world? What was I inviting him to see? Will seeing it be worth all the work, resentment, pain and shame? What would it take for him to know what it feels like to be me? Is it just because he has a kid that looks like me? Is that enough of a reason for him to get it? While I don’t think so, it is a beginning. I want him to get it as a human being, not just a father of a child who was born from a Korean person. But for a moment, he was willing to listen because I look like his kid.
It isn’t right for me to want to humble this man into believing that he has walked through life without having to second guess his right to be in a room, in a restaurant, in a store, in a place of higher education, in a neighborhood. If he does know those feelings, does he get that he has far more places to escape to than I do? What is my end goal in getting in touch with these feelings? Compassion for people like me, like his son? Perhaps it is compassion for himself so he can own his privilege and in that owning be open to others who are not.
It got me thinking of how I could convey to this Dad a way of thinking that comes to me pretty regularly based on traveling in this country in places where my face was clearly an apparition, not just the Caucasian world I would add. There are places I don’t go not because I can’t but because I won’t dare. There are some places in this country where it would not fall on my radar of options even if I think myself brave and adventurous; not because of fear or insecurity but because of fear of death.
More subtly and consistently is the knowing what privilege does for anyone. With it, I know eventually I will be accepted if I make one connection. Without it, I feel unwelcome and most definitely waiting for a chance for someone to take the risk in getting acquainted. That simultaneous feeling of unwelcome and waiting is really humiliating.
I think what is slippery for an adopted person of color though is that we live in privilege, see it up close and personal and most often operate from that same sense of knowing as our Caucasian parents do until…. the line gets cut off right behind them in a restaurant leaving you behind, until you are spoken to loudly because the assumption is you don’t speak English, until the dressing attendant passes you by to give your options to the other girl who matches your Mother’s complexion far better than you do. A one off? Could be. An embarrassing moment? For them maybe. Completely understandable? Not totally. Not if you are in my shoes today and every day.
At the same time, I fully suspect there are transracial adoptees who believe themselves to be a version of their Caucasian upbringing and believe that shared history entitles them to the same privilege as their parents. How humiliating when it is not. How disturbing to see such ignorance within our own community. How helpless it feels to see the pain of realization when that changes.
I find myself ruminating about the father who was brave to challenge this notion of privilege. I felt as if he was was listening to a vocabulary that was all new. He was genuine in his non-understanding of it. I think what put me off was the defensive posturing that went along with it. Again, privilege without knowing it. Getting defensive feels like a luxury. Who has time to debate whether racism and privilege exist or not? Yet, time is what I really want. Time to talk, to listen, to challenge and to invite.
What strikes me odd about the conversation of privilege is that I am the one doing the thinking, the inviting, the asking, the educating as if I am the pied piper hoping for followers to hear the music when others don’t. I cannot imagine living in one or two dimensions, homogeneous and passively engaged upon. But I doubt there is a sense of privilege in that either. What is the subtlety I keep twisting in my fingers that have no words? As I see it, it is my privilege to see the differences, the times when inequality happens. I love the music and colors I see in my world of being other. It is my narrative burden and yet I am empowered. I am empowered by the challenges overcome, the pain transformed and the celebration of uniqueness. I want others to see it, to reflect on it. Without it, I would feel so empty. I don’t really think of it as a burden, it is a privilege for me to talk to people about this subject matter.
I always leave workshops hoping to gain more members (allies?) of my world of color. Not confident that I do. After all, I know that that father can walk out of the room and never have to think about this again. He doesn’t absolutely have to get it. He actually will still be loved by his son; he may even be given a pass of forgiveness for not getting it. Privilege. But I fear his world will be absent of a real connection to his child and the legacy of the family he created by adopting him. I know too many adoptees who leave their relationships with their parents behind because this cannot and will not be open for discussion. For them it is not just a matter of privilege, but of life.