Sunday, April 17, 2011

Adoptive Mom and Sociologist Barbara Katz Rothman Visits Pittsburgh: Hair, Race, and Adoption

Recently in Pittsburgh I met Barbara Katz Rothman, sociology professor at CUNY and author of Weaving a Family: Untangling Race and Adoption. Her book is part personal story part sociological study of transracial adoption. She and her husband adopted their African American daughter as an infant.

I had the opportunity to hang out briefly with Barbara one-on-one. Our first interaction happened via e-mail, as I told her I'd be picking her up from the airport.

Me: "My hair will help you recognize me [in the airport]--it's big and curly."

Barbara: "and my hair will help you -- it's grey with a purple streak."

Sure was. She said she dyed it for fun with her daughter years back, then she became fascinated with folks' reactions of shock and wonderment and kept it. "Women with gray hair aren't expected to celebrate it," she said.

True. Rather, it seems to me, they are to pretend there's no gray by dyeing their hair some "fake natural" color. Because women aren't supposed to age, right?

Sponsored by the Pittsburgh Consortium for Adoption Studies, Barbara gave a talk called "What White Adoptive Parents of African American Children Should Know." She also discussed her work at a luncheon in Pitt's Social Work Department, where she revealed some particularly interesting insights about adoption, race, and hair.

She hates how the photo on the cover of her book--depicting a White mother's hands braiding a Black daughter's hair--shows sloppy braiding technique.

"That's not me and and my daughter!" she declared at both events. "I would've had that part straight!"

Following this comment at the luncheon came a discussion about hair, the stereotype of the White mom and her mixed or Black child wearing a wild head of kinky hair.

It's not simply ignorance, Barbara pointed out. Letting the hair be its "big beautiful self" is a well-meaning sentiment from White mothers but the problem is they don't have the historical context to know what that really means. It's one story when an African American woman walks around with her Afro'd child but an entirely different story when a White woman does it. She said she was certain to groom that hair and groom it right because she knew the significance of what she was doing.

I sat quietly during the conversation. One part of me glad that this time I didn't have to be the one to bring it up or the one people think is crazy for making so much out of hair. (I always feel this comfort around African Americans, particularly in the salon.) Perhaps another part of me felt vindicated for my own hair experience. Yet another part of me--the core--was sad that this is still an issue.

One of the soc. professors said that in the field it remains a source of anguish that Black kids are being fostered in White homes. One prof said it was a form of cultural genocide, implying that hair could be a marker of this.

"Genocide" is a strong word. Not sure if I agree. But another word often comes to mind when I think of adoption--especially considering the high rates of cross-race adoption and economic circumstances that typically cause relinquishment in the first place: Colonization. Because, like Barbara went on to point out, adoption always happens from a position of power. Homeless people don't adopt. I've wondered if it's possible to adopt without that colonizing power dynamic. I might-possibly-maybe want to adopt one day, but this troubles me. I don't want to colonize.

But then...really what can you do? Leave the child in foster care because you don't want to participate in that model? Adopt the mother too? This is something Barbara said she'd questioned herself about: "If I'd given the money I spent on my kid to her mother, could I have kept a family intact?" Impossible to answer.

Impossible. Many questions about these subjects elicit this word, as socially constructed issues like race and systemic issues like adoption are nearly impossible to change on an individual level.

Luckily, hair is not. 

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