Book – On the Outskirts of Normal: Forging a Family Against the Grain
Before I begin talking about an interview with the author of this book I want to make a few points clear. First, I have not yet read this book, and so what I am saying is coming purely from what the author has to say in this particular interview. Second, please don’t misinterpret my words. This is yet again, an attempt to get folks thinking about race, when it is clearly misunderstood and often ignored as something circumstantial. And this of course is not an attempt to “slander” someone else. Honestly folks, this about creating dialogue and I hope the tone will not be misconstrued for anything else.
I want to start off with a few sections I’ve teased out of this particular interview that I’d like to discuss at length.
1) “What led to being your biggest challenge in writing Outskirts? You’ve mentioned that you were told not to make it solely about race, but did you ever sincerely wish to?
No, the opposite was true. I was told to make it overtly about race, and I balked. I was working with an extremely well-connected agent who was talking about huge advances, and both she and an editor had two suggestions, to make the structure more purely chronological, and to emphasize race more. You know what I think about linear structure. As for emphasizing race more, I argued that it was an almost universal story about the leap of faith we all take in loving our children so much, made especially poignant for me because I’d come from such a fractured family. The phrases “the age of Obama” and “post-racial motherhood” and “try to think of yourself as the Everywoman’s Angelina Jolie” kept coming up, again, again. The editor said: “Every time I mention this book to people, what interests them is white woman/black child/Texas town.” I understand that, combined, our races are an attention-grabber. However, race is not the only fact of life. Does anyone think about their race all day every day? I don’t, and my daughter doesn’t give many indications she does. Conversations about race are part of this story, but they are not the story. I didn’t initiate most of the conversations about race. Yet the curiosity of strangers was natural, given the time and place, and it was usually kind. I had to answer the questions tactfully, because my daughter was always listening, and I didn’t want her to associate questions about race with sarcasm or frustration.
So I fought tooth and nail not to make the book solely about race. I walked away from that agent, that advice. Then the economy crashed anyway, and I went to a small press because I knew the editor well, and I knew she was smart enough to respect my intentions and help me find some middle ground between a reader’s curiosity about race, and my own tendency to deemphasize it.”
2) “It’s always interesting to see in a work of nonfiction how the author infuses personal history with an impersonal, perhaps communal or even national history. How do you believe you’ve come to terms with history in writing this book?
Yes, I’ve had to wrestle with national history — the history of race in America. People object to transracial adoption for noble and also not-noble reasons. People object to it as condescension, self-congratulations passed off as philanthropy, appropriation. John Seabrook just wrote about the same moral questions with regard to international adoption. Domestic transracial adoption is more complex. The National Association of Black Social Workers objected to it as “cultural genocide” in 1972 — on the heels of the civil rights movement. Laws against miscegenation had just been declared unconstitutional. Angry white suburbanites were protesting desegregation. Black distrust of white institutions (including social workers and adoption agencies) was high. It wasn’t paranoia. It was fear based on five hundred years: four centuries of slavery, followed by another century of violence for anyone who tried to make good on freedoms promised by the Emancipation Proclamation but rescinded by Jim Crow laws. As I say in the book, about black distrust of transracial adoption, and empathy for this distrust: “No one talks about it, but it’s the specter of history, humans bought and sold.” For hundreds of years, whites owned blacks. White people “interfered” with black families and reproduction: slave owners “raped” or “bred” slaves. (Which word choice you prefer is semantically irrelevant because the slaves had no choice).
So there’s catastrophic history behind the controversy about transracial adoption.
I ask myself in the book if she would have been better off with a black mother. Probably. But if we’re drumming up fantasies of best possible mother, the best possible mother would have been married, stay-at-home, ever-patient, very structured about TV-watching and junk food. And being black would have perhaps helped in practical ways: I would have known how to do her hair. I would have grown up learning how to deal with racism, having made that particular flak jacket for myself. On the other hand, maybe I had a few fresh angles on the subject of how to handle bullies who bring up skin color. Who knows? I did the best I could. My best is of course imperfect. But what else does any of us offer our children?”
3) “And you’ve also labeled the contents of the story ordinary, however when taking a more microscopic look extraordinary may be more apt, given everything you did in the face of where you did it, how you did it and when you did it. This book displays competence. Did you ever second-guess yourself during the time any of this happened?
You’re asking two questions. To begin with the ordinary/extraordinary spectrum, I was a single mother, and there are many. And almost everyone at some point in life will be diagnosed with a chronic illness. And everyone’s parent or parents will die. All the troubles I depict are garden-variety human troubles — which is not to say that, in the course of an individual life, they don’t make for an extraordinarily changed sense of self. We all lead ordinary lives with extraordinary turning points in them. But I spent the last 35 years learning to write — and so I wrote about mine, as opposed to pondered them. The only out-of-the-ordinary fact about the subjects covered by the book is the fact that my daughter is black and I’m not. But anyone who’s read the book knows that race is not the subject: it’s more like a soundtrack that won’t go away. Only two chapters are overtly about race, and one of those is entirely about hair care. The rest of the time it’s about a mother and daughter in one of life’s rough patches and, just when I’m focusing on the rough patch, some stranger says something awkward — sometimes well-meaning and awkward, sometimes boorishly appalling and awkward — about the fact that we’re an interracial family. So race is another worry, another distraction. But it’s not the story per se.”
Ok, let’s dive right in here…
1) There is always something be said about the ways in which writers and artists are expected to “market” their work to fit certain audiences-I get that. But, honestly, race SHOULD be more of a question here. I’m going back to one of the most cited answers I have heard from adoptive parents when it comes to race. “(S)he just does not talk about it, so it doesn’t seem to be all that important.”
How many times have you NOT talked about something because it is so hurtful, so confusing, so insidious, that you don’t have the words for it? This is precisely the case when it comes to how transracial adoptees feel about race. Perhaps it isn’t always self-consuming, but it is an incredibly invisible force that shapes and transforms how we view ourselves in relation to others. When Ms Monroe says “Does anyone think about their race all day every day? I don’t, and my daughter doesn’t give many indications she does,” I think she is yet again proving how misunderstood and how race/racism’s importance can be ignored for by parents. Perhaps it is the fact that she is not the one initiating these conversations to begin with. She actually says this. Children experience race and they experience racism but they don’t necessarily understand it. They don’t have the words, the analyses, the life experience, to define it and to tell their parents “Mom, a kid called me a racial slur today on the play ground and because of it I feel withdrawn, angry, confused all at the same time.” To expect any child to be able to understand these feelings contextually is just ludicrous. It is indeed, the job of the parent to teach their children these things so that they in turn can express these very emotions and feelings.
But back to the quote at hand. “Does anyone think about their race all day every day?” For most folks of color, the unequivocal answer is “yes.” For transracial adoptees, we think about it more than you know. And again, the absence of such conversations should not be used to diminish its importance. I didn’t know what racism meant as a child. I didn’t know how to talk about it with my parents, and they didn’t know how to talk about it with me. But the point is, this statement is so indicative of White privilege. Many folks find this condescending, but the reality is that it exists. Most White folks DON’T have to think about race all day, every day because they are in the majority most of the time. As an adoptee, as a child/person of color growing up in a predominantly White community, I thought about race quite a bit. Why? Because I was not in the majority. I’ve been assumed to have been a delivery boy carrying catering trays to a work function (since I’m Asian). I was even dressed professionally and this occurred. As a child, many boys would tease me about being Asian. They’d pull the corners of their eyes back at me, sing “ching chong” noises at me, and some even made karate chop motions at me. This made me EXTREMELY aware of being Asian, being different, and being a minority. Would a White person encounter these same experiences? Absolutely not. Did I always tell my parents about these instances? No. Did this mean that these racialized experiences were not important to me, or that race didn’t “bother” me as much? Absolutely not!
I don’t want to linger on White privilege too much more because I think this is something that most readers understand. But, I’m happy to provide more examples if they are needed to get the point across.
And of course I’m a bit disturbed by this author’s choice to dissociate race with “frustration.” Excuse me, but race is incredibly frustrating. It’s precisely this attitude that is frustrating to me. Why do we stray away from the hard questions? I understand that parents want to make things easy for their children; they don’t want them to suffer or grapple with questions and topics that are hard to accept or fathom. But, the irony is that NOT talking about these issues will create more frustration and confusion later in life. These situations are ACTUAL examples of how race and racism create interplay between the transracial family and society’s ignorance on the subject of race. And let’s not dismiss these as just “kind” instances here. These seem to be racial microaggressions; in other words they are indeed situations where RACE DOES MATTER. It may not be overt racism where someone is calling someone a racial epithet, but it still shows that race does matter, and that even these “small” brushes with race are imprinting certain messages on her daughter that she as a mother may not understand or see at the time.
2) I’m not going to go into what she means by how some people object to transracial adoption for “noble” and “not noble” reasons. I mean who has the right to call someone’s objections to transracial adoption as being not noble? This in itself could be a book…so let’s not go there…really people.
It’s strange because on one hand, Ms. Monroe rejects notions of “post-racial,” or “Obama-era” racial politics. And yet she later goes on to acknowledge the historical context of the White/Black binary in the U.S., slavery, Jim Crow, and the seemingly valid mistrust of transracial adoption on behalf of the African American community. Yet she ignores these very historical contextual analyses for her own daughter in favor of the very “post-racial,” attitude from her publisher that she sought to avoid. Strange isn’t it?
“I ask myself in the book if she would have been better off with a black mother. Probably. But if we’re drumming up fantasies of best possible mother, the best possible mother would have been married, stay-at-home, ever-patient, very structured about TV-watching and junk food. And being black would have perhaps helped in practical ways: I would have known how to do her hair. I would have grown up learning how to deal with racism, having made that particular flak jacket for myself. On the other hand, maybe I had a few fresh angles on the subject of how to handle bullies who bring up skin color. Who knows? I did the best I could. My best is of course imperfect. But what else does any of us offer our children?”
She comes so close to really hitting the nail on the head, than at the last minute she veers away from the most important landing point here. Usually folks pose this question to me in a sort of condescending tone as if to suggest that I am being ungrateful for what I supposedly have that I wouldn’t have had I remained with my birth family.
She says that the best fantasy of the perfect mother is someone with stability essentially. And that for her, this is indeed what she provides her daughter. I don’t doubt that at all. But I do want to make it clear that the most perfect fantasy that anyone should have if at all, is for a child to be able to remain with his/her birth family. The birth family will provide all the following positive traits, familial stability and love that you will provide. But THAT is the best possible outcome and the ultimate fantasy one should have.
I love my adoptive family more than anyone else in the world. They are my family. But, I think we can all agree that in the end, no child should HAVE to be separated from their biological family.
And I know or hope that she didn’t mean to say that being Black would only help in practical ways, because you must admit that the quote does not come off as being particularly sensitive to the issue at hand. I find it a bit offensive that she attributes the importance of being the same race as her daughter-being Black-as being sporadically utilitarian. But again, I really don’t think/hope this is what she meant.
3) “But anyone who’s read the book knows that race is not the subject: it’s more like a soundtrack that won’t go away.”
You’re right, I didn’t read the book. But anyone who describes race being an annoyance, or a broken record, is completely missing the point. If it’s there, and continuing to rear it’s “ugly” head, it IS perhaps very important. Again, I have not read the book but if it is true that it is consistently lurking in the background, its “low intensity” should not be interpreted as a minor detail. It won’t go away. Especially if you take this particular mindset.
“So race is another worry, another distraction. But it’s not the story per se.”
Wait a second, weren’t we just saying this same thing just a second ago? The answer is, yes. Is it really a distraction or a mere inconvenience? Or is it possible that this thing-this ugly thing that is consistently “nagging” you and your daughter may just be, if not THE story, a major part of the story? It is there, and it is consistent. This isn’t some stage, or puberty-related phase that your child will grow out of. If it is lurking in the background, the chances are that it is more important than you know, or want to acknowledge.
What is the point of looking at interviews with authors who talk about adoption?
What is the point of analyzing common misconceptions about adoption?
What is the point of talking so much about race?
The point is this. We as a nation, as communities, and even as families, refuse to understand race for what it is. We stick our heads in the sand or plug our ears and loudly bellow “lalalalala” when we are confronted with race head on. It’s no easy topic to discuss, and sure, it can feel personal. Let me be clear that the point of these conversations on my blog are not meant to disparage or put down adoptive parents or those with something to say about adoption. It’s about taking a critical stand on an issue that for so long, has been misunderstood, mistaught, and misleading. As transracial adoptees, many of us have straddled the race and class line. Some of us come from class privileged families. We are Asian American, African American, Native American, and Latino; and many of us have White adoptive parents. Our parents may benefit from White privilege, but when we are treated differently many of us seek answers for this perceived contradiction. When we are given the tools to finally understand our lives in a historical and racial context, the nature and impact of race on our lives suddenly moves from on mute, to an ear-piercing reality.
It’s the same learning opportunity we had when we made these connections between race, racism and discrimination as a way to make sense of our upbringing that we are trying to present to other adoptive parents. But more often than not, these analyses are dismantled as emotionally biased, ungrateful, and unimportant in favor of narratives produced by adoptive parents and those with “positive” things to say.
It feels like I’m preaching to the choir since I’ve not only said it a million times before, but most of you have heard it a million times before. And if you have continued to read this post I thank you. But if this is the first time you’ve really considered these things, take a minute to really process this. Don’t just dismiss me because I have something critical to add to the conversation. If Ms. Monroe finds this post, I encourage her to chime in. Because as I mentioned before, this is not about disparagement, this is about an internal adoptee conversation that has been going for decades since transracial adoptions first began. If anything, it points to the significance of race in the lives of transracial adoptees over the course of multiple generations. And this of course is about providing the same insights we found for ourselves to you as well. Please, I hope this conversation can continue.
If you would like to read the full interview with Ms. Monroe please click on this link.
*Her book can be purchased through amazon by click on this link.