Until now, our Spotlight on Mixed Race Families series has shared experiences from the perspective of parents. I was really intrigued to hear the perspective of a someone who grew up, white, in a mixed race family in the 70s and 80s. Thank you so much to Jennie Goutet of A Lady in France for sharing her story.
I grew up in Syracuse, New York. My parents had my biological brother and me in rapid succession, and then when I was six, we adopted my Korean sister at four months of age. I think we had a fair amount of exposure to different cultures in Upstate New York, so this didn’t seem like a huge leap for them. When I was ten, we adopted my brother from a nearby city. His mother was white and his father was black, and he was born an addict from his mother’s drug use during pregnancy. The first four years of his life were spent in a foster family.
We’ve never really talked a lot about why my parents adopted, other than the fact that my mom didn’t want to go through childbirth again. But I’m sure my parents were motivated by the needs of orphans and a desire to give where they could.
My siblings and I fought and played together. We were pretty close, and occasionally vulnerable with one another in a family setting that wasn’t particularly emotionally expressive. But the biggest thing that springs to mind when I think about my siblings is how natural it all was. I didn’t think twice about having one sibling who looked like me and two who didn’t. Maybe I was even proud of our diversity?
I truly thought I had no racial prejudice because of my siblings. I thought it meant I had a free ticket to automatic enlightenment where race and prejudice were concerned. It took living in New York City and having a really diverse group of friends for me to understand how deeply rooted my prejudice was – that after all, I was raised in a white, entitled milieu, even if entitlement is not what my parents taught me. And that it’s too bad (to use a massive understatement) that everyone doesn’t have such an easy time as I do getting a job, going through airport security, evoking no suspicion when they leave a store, having the undivided interest of my children’s teachers.
Growing up, we gloried in our unique family, but I think it was to the detriment of our siblings. I remember introducing my younger brother to a friend, and she commented that he looked like me. (He had blond curly hair and blue eyes, so his mixed race came out more in his features than his coloring). I laughed and said, “Well he’s adopted and half-black!” Later in college, I researched a thesis on adopting the older child, and learned in the process that when it comes to adoption, children need to hear how much they are like their adopted family, not how different they are. I often think back to that incident with regret, and I cannot undo it because I lost my brother to suicide when he was nineteen.
Losing my brother somehow drew us together and splintered us apart at the same time. The three of us were the sole survivors, but we isolated ourselves in our grief and never talked about it again with each other. We also live about as far apart as we possibly could – one sibling on the East Coast, one on the West, and me in France.
As for my current family, I always assumed I would adopt, which is not practical for us for reasons too long to go into. Also – several of my crushes were on men of different ethnicities. So it seems strange to me that I ended up with a very white husband, and three very white kids. We also live in a white neighborhood. But fortunately our church is extremely mixed racially, and they are like family to me. In the end, our family is what it is, and we are where we’re meant to be.
I think the issue of race is a delicate balance. It would be wrong to dismiss cultural elements that can come into play, stemming from, say, a black American descended from the time of slavery, compared to a black American whose parents were from the Islands or from Africa (in the same way that white Americans from British or Italian or Irish descent will each have their own cultural peculiarities). My point is, of course, that you can’t lump a group of people based on skin color.
But race is also a total non-issue because all of humanity is equal when it comes to possessing a beating heart, a shimmering soul, a curious mind, a rainbow of emotions. And when we see people, we should see the heart, the soul, the mind, the emotions.
Jennie Goutet is the author of the memoir A Lady in France, and she has a blog under the same name. She also wrote and illustrated the children’s book Happy People Everywhere, and is a contributing author to Sunshine After the Storm and That’s Paris. She was a BlogHer Voice of the Year pick three times, and her writing has appeared in Huffington Post, Queen Latifah’s website, and BlogHer, among other places. She lives just outside of Paris with her husband and three children.