By Suanne Schafer
Twenty years ago, I adopted an interracial child—I’ll call him M—thinking a mother’s love could overcome all barriers, even racial ones. Twenty years later, I’m not sure I did my son any favors. I’m a white mom trying to figure out how to raise a black child in a hostile—and potentially lethal—environment.
M came up for adoption during my fourth year of medical school, the unwanted love child of a sixteen-year-old white mother and a black seventeen-year-old father. Unable to take her mixed-race baby home to her blue-collar family, the young woman kept her pregnancy secret from everyone except her mother then gave the baby up for adoption.
My family was tickled to have a grandchild, whatever his color.
As a physician I often think about nature versus nurture and have found that, though we’re not genetically related, he’s clearly my son. We’re both a bit shy but share a quirky sense of humor, a fascination with science ranging from dinosaurs to birding to stargazing to medical oddities, a dash of sarcasm, and the joy of using just the right curse word to express our true feelings. We both love science fiction, Star Wars, and exploring international cuisines.
Early on I bought all the appropriate books on black heroes like Rosa Parks, Frederick Douglass, and Martin Luther King and incorporated them into our daily reading ritual, but M was never interested. Unfortunately, Mr. King was not a Tyrannosaurus Rex and therefore didn’t capture M’s attention. I marched in the MLK parade alone.
After completing my residency, I interviewed from New York to California, including a small rural community in which M would have been the second black person. Ultimately I chose to practice in San Antonio, a culturally diverse city where interracial families are common. Thus, M grew up with friends of multiple racial and ethnic groups but seemed to choose his friends based on common interests rather than common skin tone.
Fortunately, we had very few racial incidents as he grew up. Probably the most blatant occurred as we ate dinner at a Chinese restaurant. A white man came to pick up his take-out, saw me sitting with my four-year-old black child, and approached us practically spitting through his teeth, demanding “With all the white kids out there to adopt, why the hell did you adopt a nigger kid?” The Chinese owner of the restaurant, who certainly must have encountered racial barriers himself, apologized profusely then escorted the gentleman to the door and asked him never to return.
When he was sixteen, we went to Tanzania together. Going on safari was on my “bucket list” and M had some desire to find his African roots. There, though no clear-cut incident occurred, he seemed very uncomfortable. He’d never been in a place where blacks significantly outnumbered whites. Because he was clearly interracial and accompanied by an affluent white woman, he was considered an mzungu, a white person, and was treated accordingly.
We live in a predominantly white neighborhood – yet M came inside one day from checking the mail saying, “Mom, these folks in a car watched me until I got inside. Guess they were making sure I wasn’t breaking in.”
About that time, the news exploded with stories of young black men in hoodies being killed. With M’s tendency to take long walks in the evening to blow off steam from raging male hormones, I grew nervous, treading a delicate line between making him fear life and teaching him to use common sense. Teaching him to avoid potentially hostile situations, to never mouth off to a cop, to not wear a hoodie, to keep his hands visible and empty at all times, to back down in a confrontation. I suspect I was more worried than he was.
Last week he hollered questions from the kitchen back to my office. “Mom, how much money did we make last year?” I raised my eyebrows at the “we” but gave him the figure he sought. After few more rather personal questions, I asked what he was doing. “Calculating my privilege,” he said. A few seconds later, “I’m really privileged.”
I asked him to come into my office to review the application he filled out and suggested he give “real” answers, not those based on his white physician mother’s income, education level, etc. The findings: He was an unemployed black male who dropped out of college and therefore—surprise—had no privilege.
A female child in blue-collar family, I too grew up without privilege. My father dropped out of college one semester prior to completing an agricultural degree, left the family homestead, and worked as an itinerant well logger in the oil field. By the time I was twenty-four months old, I’d lived in twenty-two towns across the western United States. Over the years, Dad’s wanderlust abated somewhat, but I still attended three fourth grades, three seventh grades, two ninth grades. I graduated from high school and put myself through college with scholarships and by working full-time and going to school part-time. I picked cotton, worked as an aide in a nursing home, roofed and painted houses, clerked in a bookstore, did piece work in a toy factory. Later I became a secretary and medical transcriptionist, a travel and medical photographer. I continued the wanderlust bred into me and attended four colleges and traveled abroad before deciding to become a physician. By the time I graduated from medical school, my parents had contributed a total of $275 to my college expenses.
Knowing how hard it was to juggle work, school, relationships, and life in general, I wanted M to have an easier life, easier access to an education. As a result, he’s had every economic and educational advantage possible. I realized he was intelligent but having trouble focusing, but the school district refused to believe he had ADHD because he was doing well in school. A private psychologist tested him and verified my diagnosis. ADHD, dysgraphia, and a borderline learning disability in mathematics hampered his ability to learn. Once he was diagnosed, I fought yearly battles with our school district because of their failure to follow the learning plan set out by his psychologist. Medications to tone down the ADHD turned him into the world’s grumpiest kid and completely suppressed his appetite, so for years we’ve teetered between a controlled or uncontrolled attention span.
Coupled with the learning problems, unlike his mother, he’s not a “driven” person. A procrastinator par excellence, he’d rather play video games than anything. I keep telling myself this must be his nature, because he certainly wasn’t nurtured to be lackadaisical.
At this point I am the mother of an unmotivated child, one who despite having a substantial college savings account, doesn’t wish to attend college. He’s also a black child raised in a white family. I’m not sure he grasps what it means to be black in America. I’m equally unsure I can teach him that, or perhaps it’s too late to do so.
M is a good young man, a success in that he graduated from high school at a time when blacks are twice as likely to drop out of high school, when 40% of children expelled from school are black, when 70% of children arrested are black or Latino. He’s sexually active but not promiscuous, doesn’t abuse drugs or alcohol. Except for an occasional outburst of testosterone-related temper, he is caring, even-tempered, and sweet. At some point, he’ll be a good father, but due to the procrastination issue, not necessarily a good husband as he’ll put off doing household chores as long as possible.
I’m coming to terms with the idea that M will have to make his own mistakes. Letting go has been hard. I am getting better at it, learning to offer support, rather than fight his battles for him. I no longer set my alarm to be sure he gets to appointments on time. I let him decide if he needs to take his ADHD medication to get through a job interview or other duties.
Mostly I hope that at some point he can reconcile the duality of his heritage and can integrate his exterior with his interior. I pray that American culture will evolve to the point “white privilege” no longer exists. That a black man can be simply a black man without negative consequences. That a black man can earn what a similarly educated white male does. That black children will have true equality of education. That a black man should not have to be a superman to be equal to an ordinary white man. That every black male has the opportunity to become the best person he can be.
Suanne Schafer’s short works have been featured in BÃªte Noire Magazine, Empty Sink Publishing and two anthologies, Night Lights and Licked. Her debut novel, A Different Kind of Fire, explores the life of a nineteenth century bisexual artist living in West Texas and will be out in 2018. Her current work in progress involves a female physician caught up in the Rwandan genocide. Suanne also serves as fiction editor for Empty Sink Publishing, an online literary magazine.