I'm a white mama with the absolute privilege and honor and blessing of raising a biracial son. I am treading on shaky waters here, as I do my best to share just a small bit of my experience so far as a transracial family, particularly pertaining to race and racial slurs and even more particular to monkeys. This is sacred ground I am daring to walk on. I recognize that I am very white, I grew up in a very white small agricultural town with (I think) one black friend, Gifty, who was adopted from Liberia. She was one of my best friends growing up, but besides her, there weren't many people of color in my life.
I realize that I may be stepping on toes here, admittedlyextremely ignorant myself, but I am doing my best to navigate what it means to be a transracial adoptive mama and part of that for me comes in the form of educating when possible and shedding light on some dark and unknown areas. I am 7 weeks into this transracial adoptive family, thing. So I ask for grace and patience as I share parts of it so far.
My son was two weeks old the first time I heard him referred to with a racial slur: nigglet. (Nigger + piglet into one; it's even in a list for Black Racial Slurs).
The intent was not out of evil or hurt; this clearly white person thought it was a funny joke as well as permissible: he knew a family with black kids. I am not really sure what that is supposed to mean, or how that makes it permissible. It was in those raw moments that I realized on a much more realistic level that racism is still very real, whether subtle or overt. It was after that conversation that I went home and cried while dancing with my infant-son with worship music blasting, praying over his sweet soul that I will know how to navigate the trenchy waters of being a mama. An adoptive mama. A white mama to a bi-racial son. His mama.
My son, now just 7 weeks old, has been referred to as a thug, oreo, baller, bro, and monkey on multiple occasions.What is wrong with these terms/references you may be thinking? Glad you thought it.Many of them have been made in quick passing and by people who love him more than life. Their intentions aren't evil or hurtful, they're playful, and I know each of these people are simply so excited that we were able to adopt transracially. But I cannot tell you how many times he has been told he looks like a monkey and how many times it makes my heart squirm; I usually post photos or introduce him to new people with the fear of the comment "he looks like a monkey." I don't worry about much as a new mama; I have been told multiple times that I need to worry more and be more stressed out. But when it comes to my son and his race, I want to protect him from racism (intentional or not) with every part of me. Today the neighbor lady literally said to him after she asked me "what he was", "You look like a monkey, but that's okay, you'll probably grow out of it." As though she knew it was a racial slur - she may not have known, but a few minutes later she told me she is racist so... She also told me how awkward its going to be for him to grow up with us because, well let's be honest, we are white parents and he is clearly not ours. Shaking my head. Rubbing my temples. And now..moving on.
So what's the deal with monkeys? Many people call their kids little monkeys - they climb all over everything. Diapers have monkeys on them. Carters puts monkeys on nearly every clothing article. But to us, when our son is told he looks like a monkey or is called a little monkey, it speaks something a lot deeper than sweet endearment. My heart squirms and I always ask Jesus for grace and bravery while I navigate informing said-person we are not using that as a way to describe him, or as a nick-name. We have read article after blog after article (and working through the book Inside Transracial Adoption) about being a transracial family, about race, about the white privilege that I didn't even realize I had. We decided: no monkeys. We exchange, re-gift, or give away all clothes with monkeys. We first decided this after reading:
"Please. Do not. ever. ever. ever. call someone’s little black baby a “monkey”. [I] know some parents use it as a term of endearment. But we black parents don’t. We do not like it. It makes us uncomfortable. I think for some folks, the history of how this work [sic] was used against black people is getting forgotten. But not for the black folks. So, just a PSA. Call him a little bunny, a little spider, puppy, no problem! [B]ut please stay away from the primate classifications."
“I was totally shocked the first time it happened because, to me, from my upbringing, that word is a huge no-no,” Leah said. “You don’t say it about any black child. Because it’s sadly really still alive and well as a racial slur.”
And then there is horrible like this. This image makes my gut drop, but I'm sharing it because its a real thing that exists today, whether or not you notice it:
In a conversation I had with someone about monkeys and people of color, their thoughts were: thats not still a thing (racism); we are only perpetuating racism and the slur by not having monkeys around; and we (me particularly) are too sensitive. To these things I say: this shouts our white privilege. Also, I have a lot thicker skin than you would guess - I have to. The other day an article was titled something to the extent of "Beyonce and her dancing primates." When Obama was inaugurated, there was an article title about how we had our first primate president. I posted in my transracial adoption group asking how other families go about the whole monkey-African American slur, and one mama shared how an entire web page was designated to her transracial family that was titled "(her name) and her webfooted nigglets," as well as an entire website called chimpmania that has brought on many tears and a world of hurt. The other racial slurs I learned during this conversation were things pertaining to: coons, alligators, and watermelon. Racism is very real, friends.
Some people may be completely shocked when they learn these things. Some may be in disbelief and literally not believe me. Others may know very well these things.
So, 7 weeks in as a transracial adoptive family, the thing I have grown unexpectedly sensitive to is the primate comparison. There may be black parents of black children deciding to put their children in an outfit with monkeys on it, knowing the nuances - and in my ignorant white person opinion, I think that is 100% fine. (Not that anyone needs my permission). But for me as a white parent raising a biracial son, I do not and cannot possibly understand the full weight of cultural implications because I have not lived that experience. For me to say, "Racism is dead, people of color are no longer compared to primates," is extremely white privilege thinking - how could I possibly know if I have never truly experienced living as a person of color? It feels unwise and hurtful to make any claims on any area being past certain racial slurs/aggressions - I am white. I won't experience it first hand and I won't always know when my child/children experience it.
I recognize I cannot protect my son from racism. That will be something he navigates as he grows and hopefully Loren and I will do a good job celebrating his race, affirming his identity in Christ, being open to talking about adoption and race, being available as his safe people; his parents. But if I learn of something that could potentially create an open door for people to make a racist comment, why would I not avoid that? Even subtle forms of racism. Its like swimming against the ocean's tide but here I am, Sage's mama and I will do my best to protect, educate, and talk about it. There is no sitting by when you become Mama Bear. One of my fellow adoptive mamas made a great point: the average white person won't be calling a black person the N-word. But as we have experienced, they may think its cute to call a black baby a little thug, a baller, an oreo, a monkey, etc. Our children will hear those things, little comments that seem meaningless to us as white people, internalizing those thoughts about themselves, working them into their identity, simply because of their race and color and wonder if they are less than.
In fifteen years, my heart would be crushed if my precious son asked me, "why did you let me wear this/let people call me this if you knew how it might be perceived/meant?"
Friends. I by no means am claiming to know all or even 10% of what it means to be a transracial adoptive family. But I am hoping to shed light on realities that I am learning and experiencing for the first real time. My eyes are being opened in so many ways. My hope and prayer is that you'll join me in navigating this life and that you work hard to watch your words as I work hard to watch mine. There are some built in habits that we must work to erase, if we want to truly see, to deeply love. To me, loving is the greatest privilege. Love values.
PS. Being a transracial adoptive family is beautiful. I cannot tell you the immense and absolute honor it is to live this life and have this journey. I am perpetually blown away by the goodness of it all.
Sources to read: ADVICE FROM AN AFRICAN AMERICAN MOM: DON'T CALL MY TODDLER A MONKEY