I was raised in Wilkinsburg. And my parents are white. I point out their skin color as different than mine often, and it matters. Don't get me wrong. I am a huge fan of interracial relationships of all kinds, but what I have learned is that the depth of all relationships that cross racial lines rely on true love, the flexibility for growth, deep education and mutual respect.
My mom worked in Brazil in the late 1960s; she was in the Peace Corps, helping local women and mothers living in poverty. It might have been then that she knew she would adopt. But it was more than a decade later, after moving back to Pittsburgh and after being married to my father for several years, that my parents agreed it was time. Mom went back to Brazil.
She spoke Portuguese and she was familiar with the history and the culture that made up my identity. This is and was a big deal because people were not really adopting black babies at the time, especially internationally and without an agency. This was before the Hague Adoption Convention, and adoption was a very different process than it is today.
For adoptees, there must be a recognition that they are not like everyone else and that some space must be reserved for us and by us. Parents can't always give their children what they need, but they can help us find what that may be.
At a young age, I decided I hated the word lucky. It felt empty and lacking purpose.
There was a time I would have said that I was lucky that my mom and dad didn't just blindly adopt some black kid from somewhere, that I would be a drug addict or a prostitute if it wasn't for my adoption. Now, I would say I know I was brought into this world to experience loss and deep emotion at a young age. My difference is my destiny to share, own, and be proud of.
At age 32, I now know my survival and very existence is worth more than an orphan story. But people love a good story of a rescued child. Outsiders often determine your past, present and future within moments of laying their eyes upon your exotic face.
When you grow up adopted, especially when you can't hide it racially, life can be full of hurtful assumptions that eventually become your truth.
My parents are special, though. Not only because they were ahead of their time and deeply responsible and loving parents, but also because (though they may not have liked it or understood right away) they let me explore who I am and challenge adoption systems and what a healthy and just relationship is. This is huge and quite rare.
I had challenges addressing my racial identity for a very long time. I felt like this hodge-podge exotic fetishized chameleon. Even my birth certificate says “white.” Talk about confusing.
I believe that until you make a conscious decision to explore your racial identity however you see fit, it's really only going to be what other people decide it to be. This was a very important discovery for me. Taking stock of what was real and what was a false memory of things said in passing for more than 30 years… that is what began to change my life.
A lot of people, particularly adoptive parents, take the ‘color blind’ approach. The idea of being color blind scares me. Imagine erasing a beautiful masterpiece your child just drew using all their favorite colors. The erasure and assimilation is so real, and we feel it young and we never stop until someone sees us. I had not formed my identity until I met people way later in life. Hell, I’m still figuring it out. I typically refer to myself as Afro-Brazilian, but it goes much deeper than that.
I remind my parents and other parents who adopt about how easy it is for a child to be overwhelmed by outside forces telling them who they are. There are hundreds of thousands of people and books and television and radio and advertising that's telling your young person way more than you're ever going to be able to tell them.
That's the hardest thing: How do you address that? That's really what I'm trying to do now in my work as the director of Adopting Identity and The Good Peoples Group. I’m trying to draw attention to how all of us are shaping our identity, not just adopted children. We do this with 4 principals:
- Nurturing awareness: We help nurture the initial awareness of injustice and oppression and encourage analysis of its root causes.
- Fostering compassionate intelligence: We help people understand the past and present causes of systemic oppression and build capacity to be aware of, control, and express one’s emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judicially and empathetically.
- Building systemic compassion: We help build comprehensive intersectional interventions to create a virtuous cycle that sustains and encourages actions stemming from compassionate awareness.
- Supporting reflective discipline and practice: We help people identify the root causes of their actions toward others. This builds emotional resilience to be able to see oneself and others more honestly and compassionately and to act from that place.
Every little interaction is so nuanced, and part of the problem is that we don't ever leave any room for nuanced conversations. Particularly in Pittsburgh, everything's black or white. That's it. You're this or that. There's no possibility for anything else. The world is complex, full of problems and social diseases, and we are of this world. Our identities reflect the complications.
It is my deepest hope that we will all begin a transformative relationship with ourselves. Only then will we start to see a shift in our internalized false beliefs that hurt us all.
Liana Maneese is the director of Adopting Identity and The Good Peoples Group, a community support process with the motto: Confront yourself. Live with Integrity. Disrupt Oppression. Located on Melwood Street in Oakland. Liana can be reached at email@example.com.