Welcome to 30 Adoption Portraits in 30 Days, hosted by Portrait of an Adoption. This series will feature guest posts by people with widely varying adoption experiences and perspectives.
Whiteness protected my parents each time the police were called.
When I first learned about disproportionality in foster care while sitting in a graduate school social work class, it put words to my experience in the most backwards way. I sat reading the word over and over, feeling it take on more meaning each time.
“Disproportionality: The underrepresentation or overrepresentation of a racial or ethnic group compared to its percentage in the total population.”
As I read the word that came to life, I sat in the tension of a life lived in whiteness that both enraged and gutted me in a hundred different ways.
I had always known — even as a young child without the words to describe what was happening — that something about the way my parents presented to the world protected my siblings and me from entering foster care, while it simultaneously protected my parents from the consequences of abusing small children.
In my young mind I didn’t know what this force was that seemed to keep us all in a cloud of secrets, impenetrable by the outside world. At times I thought it was God’s protection, other times I was certain it was Satan himself, sometimes I wondered if my reality was not reality at all.
As much as I wanted to get out of my home and be free of abuse, I also didn’t want the horrors that I had heard would await me in foster care. I stood in that tension, sometimes literally. I’d find myself standing shoeless in white tights on the snowy ground after being locked outside, wanting both to run far away from that place, never to return, and to be let back inside.
The push and pull of it all defined my childhood, wanting both the secret to come out, and to be kept. Wanting to be safe, but also wanting to be with my siblings, even if togetherness meant we wouldn’t be safe.
I wrestled with this inner dilemma constantly, feeling I had the control to pull my parent’s masks off and make them seen for who they were. In reality, I never held that power. It was held by a system bigger than me.
Whiteness protected my parents each time the police were called, every time child protective services got involved, every time one of us had a behavioral reaction to growing up in trauma.
They were always given the benefit of the doubt, always seen as credible, because of course, such nice white parents couldn’t be guilty of abuse. “It all must be a reasonable misunderstanding.”
As I wrestled with the powerlessness of something I couldn’t define or make sense of, I didn’t know where to target my shame, relief, and rage so I held it all in and focused the whole of my being on keeping my siblings safe.
And to be fair, it probably didn’t escalate to the level it could have, because our white community, while willing to overlook signs of abuse, kept us surrounded by resources that protected both us from our parents and our parents from themselves. Even when it was ugly at home – there were many places to harbor, as our neighborhood, our larger community was safe and secure.
While I was largely unaware of anything but the chaos around me and my focus on survival, I took the abundant resources around me for granted. I may not have been as lucky as many of my peers, but I had no idea how lucky I was or how differently this all could have looked had I been a person of color.
As I grew and planned my exit – there were jobs to be had, cars to be borrowed, banks to build savings accounts, credit cards to hold, and top-rated schools to rely upon – and my whiteness allowed for the privilege of getting away on my own terms, pursuing higher education, and finding outlets to finally make my voice heard.
Thanks to an incredible network of resources and people, I was able to leave and reclaim my inner power. I was given an ability to make choices for myself about my safety and security. I was granted ample opportunities to lead and grow. I was free and I felt powerful.
I graduated college with the blissful naive optimism of an American white woman who recently found her nearly limitless power. I spun around with an erratic energy that overtook everyone around me. I wanted to use my newfound voice and power to help other abused and neglected children. I searched for communities I believed needed me, both domestically and abroad, determined to help.
I wanted to be the caseworker, the therapist, the advocate I never had. I wanted to be the hero in everyone’s story, and I found the possibilities for power as a white woman in child welfare were nearly limitless. Judges, lawyers, supervisors looked to me for answers about childrens’ futures. It was both terrifying and further empowering.
As I sought to collect more and more power, under the false pretense of selflessness, so much harm was done.
I didn’t recognize my privilege, the biases I held, or my internalized sense of superiority. I didn’t yet know that as good as your intentions may be, if you don’t face the truth and power of your whiteness, you’re going to unintentionally harm the people and communities you enter.
Because somehow, despite knowing intimately that abuse happens in families of all socioeconomic backgrounds, all races, and cultures, I held firmly to this deeply ingrained mental image of victims of abuse being Black and Brown children. This biased view impacted the decisions and recommendations I made.
It impacted who I silenced, who I determined was “aggressive”, and who I gave second chances. I was contributing to the same disproportionate outcomes I had attempted to break free from. I had so much to learn and unlearn.
The communities I encountered along the way stood in opposition to the narrative I had been taught about people who looked and lived differently than me. I had believed anyone could pull themselves up by their bootstraps and succeed, without ever seeing the impossibility of that task in a resource starved community.
How could anyone “make it” if they lived in a neighborhood without jobs, without grocery stores, without transportation, while attending a resource starved school? These people I had come to ‘help’ were intertwined in deep systemic issues that I was only beginning to grasp.
There were so many eye-opening moments, so many rude awakenings, so many moments of seeing myself and the things whiteness had protected me from. I collected these learnings and processed the information painfully slow.
It took me far too long to realize I was adding to the problem, to see that disproportionate outcomes came from the same biased ideals that I held and operated from.
The more people I met and stories I heard, the more I was struck by my own selfishness. I was forced to reflect that in truth, I was here, not to help, but in the pursuit of more ways to elevate myself. In a selfish attempt to free myself from the powerlessness that I carried as a survivor of abuse, I had inserted myself into the lives of people I unconsciously believed I was superior to and attempted to make myself their hero.
I still have so much to learn, I still have racist ideas that I need to unpack, and I am not alone. This is not a journey where I arrive. I have to intentionally stay humble, willing to grow, and quick to listen. I make mistakes and I acknowledge and apologize and listen more.
It isn’t being a savior that will free me from the shame and trauma I hold close to my chest, it’s my own personal work, the journey of unlearning and setting down my defenses.
Each of us in the foster-adoption world needs to do the work. Every caseworker, lawyer, judge, therapist, foster parent needs to do the work of untangling white supremacy. It’s an important part of ensuring proportionate outcomes for our children.
We each need to dismantle our own bias so we can better fight the racist systems that harm. We all have racism and bias that we need to unlearn. Join me in setting down our defenses; let’s together set a priority to grow and learn, all our children and communities will be safer when we do. A good place to start is this book I recommend: Layla Saad, Me and White Supremacy
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Carrie Goldman is the host of Portrait of an Adoption. She is an award-winning author, speaker, and bullying prevention educator. Follow Carrie’s blog Portrait of an Adoption on Facebook and Twitter