An Interview with Barbara Katz Rothman
Deesha Philyaw: The decision to birth your first two children at home and your related interest in midwifery led to your first book, In Labor, and work on that book led to your second book, The Tentative Pregnancy, about prenatal diagnosis and genetic counseling. In your pre-mothering life, how did you come to academia originally, and to the field of sociology in particular?
Barbara Katz Rothman: I was interested in sociology from the first time I walked into an Intro to Sociology class. I started out thinking I was going to be a Psychology major, but quickly found that the sociological perspective was much closer to the way I saw the world. You can’t really understand the world one person at a time, and psychology is very much about the individual.
DP: How did your study of reproductive technology lead to your decision to adopt?
BKR: I found myself part of the “media circus” surrounding the Baby M case, an early case on “surrogate pregnancy.” I was arguing against the idea of hiring women to be pregnant, because it cheapens the whole idea of pregnancy, of the relationship women have with their bodies and their children. I thought that if women wanted to place babies for adoption, that was fine. But the babies were very much theirs to place.
Spending all that time involved with the surrogacy debates, I found myself sharing a “green room,” the backstage TV area, with adoption advocates, who were also arguing against surrogacy. They were stressing that there were babies in America who needed adoptive homes — but as black babies, were often going unplaced. This was the late 1980s, and once I was convinced that was indeed the situation at the time, I felt it would be a joy to adopt.
DP: There are proponents of color-blind adoption (placement without regard for “matching” race), and on the other end of the spectrum, there is the controversial statement issued by the National Association of Black Social Workers which declared race matching necessary in the face of white racism — black children are placed with white families to the detriment of their healthy development as black people. A black social worker participating with you at a conference on mixed-raced families went even further, calling transracial adoption a form of genocide. How do you respond to his charge, as well as to those on the opposite end of the spectrum from him?
BKR: I think he was, in a weird way, almost right: in some cases, maybe even in most, the babies were placed with white families who were not themselves at all involved in the black community. They could not give their children any cultural competence as black people, any positive images or any meaningful relationships with black people. That is a kind of “genocide,” a loss of cultural identity. On the other hand, if race matching means children do not get to have families, that is clearly tragic.
DP: You use the word “mothering” as opposed to “parenting” to describe the “nurturing work of childrearing,” work which is done by both men and women. Why do you consider “mothering” something that men also do?
BKR: Mothering has been such gendered work. We know just what we mean when saying someone was a mother to someone else. We all know what it means to mother. I’m OK with using that word, and applying it to men who mother, to express the kind of work they do and relationship they have with their children — work and relationships that are not captured by “fathering” a child.
DP: You examined the mothering of black children by white people from a historical perspective, and discovered three types of relationships — relationships in which the children are treated as proteges, pets, or trophies. You observe that such dynamics can also be found within same-race adoptions and within biological families to some degree, but in presenting this historical perspective, what particular ideas or lessons were you hoping to convey to white parents of black children? What might they be able to glean from this perspective that would benefit them as they raise their children?
BKR: Context! You get historical context. We are all coming from somewhere, there is a history that informs what we are doing and — just as important — how it is understood. People who do not know their history are, it has famously been said, doomed to repeat it. I am not sure of that, but I do know that we stumble, that we make mistakes when we don’t understand the context in which we are living.
DP: You undertook this exploration of interracial “adoption” (in its various forms) to find out “how [these black children raised by white people] found their way home, how [they] reentered the black community,” and you also did it in hopes of finding potential “role models” for yourself. What does it take for these adoptees to re-enter the black community, to not be “exiled from their blackness”?
BKR: I guess I am most concerned with finding a way to raise black children so that they are never exiled from their blackness — which means placing the white family in a black community.
DP: In Weaving a Family: Untangling Race and Adoption, you include a chapter entitled, “Motherhood in the Marketplace,” in which you discuss the “commodification” of babies and children, and childrearing in the language of consumption. How do these ideas extend beyond the more obvious application to adoption to characterize contemporary American motherhood in general?
BKR: I have been fascinated by the ways that consumerism is reshaping our lives — changing the ways we think about our selves, our bodies, our families and our communities. There’s a wonderful new edited volume, Consuming Motherhood (Rutgers Univ. Press), that taught me a lot about the many ways in which consumption shapes motherhood.
In the prenatal testing that women more and more routinely undergo these days, we can see the commodification of pregnancy: the testing functions like a form of quality control, encouraging women to produce only “acceptable” babies. We see yet more dramatic forms of commodification in surrogacy, where people hire women to be pregnant as a “service.” And we even see it when we split the daily mothering activities into the ones we think are precious and lovely and want to do ourselves, and the ones we think are boring and dirty and want to hire out — often at minimum wage.
DP: In Weaving a Family: Untangling Race and Adoption, you quote a white adoptive mother of black children who gets “a little bit tired of being held up as a poster child for race relations,” who feels that the interracial nature of her family is irrelevant. You suspect that this mother might be “shockingly ill-prepared” for the parenting journey which lies ahead. Would you elaborate on this? How would you suggest mothers in her position become better equipped, more aware?
BKR: America is a profoundly race-divided society. Race just isn’t “irrelevant” in America — something she will learn through her child’s experiences. I think that we as parents need to lead our children, not send them off or ask them to lead us. If someone is raising a black child, they have, I think, an obligation to take the child into the cultural and social space of “black America.”
DP: You have what is, in my experiences with white people, a not entirely popular view of white-skin privilege. You observed that such privilege can be taken for granted but “adoption, mothering across racial borders . . . give[s] you perspective,” makes you aware of it. It’s easy to see why those benefiting from white-skin privilege can be oblivious to it, but why do you think some people deny or are even hostile to the idea that they enjoy this privilege? And, particularly for white parents raising black children, what is the significance of recognizing such privilege?
BKR: It’s very easy to not notice the privileges we have — people don’t think of themselves as, say sighted, until a blind person enters the room. Then the social privilege of being sighted — the ways that we have organized our social world around assumptions of sight — becomes obvious. If you have a blind friend coming to your home for the first time, or a blind colleague coming to your office for a meeting, the social privileges of sight start becoming clear to you.
This is much the case with the privileges of whiteness — when you are sharing your life with someone who does not have those privileges, you will come to see what they are. When that someone is your child, you had best be one step ahead, seeing what privileges might be denied that child, and working to smooth the way. Sometimes that means becoming politically and socially engaged, but it also means the daily things you will learn.
DP: In the book, you discuss the current “ethnic revival”– celebrations of heritage and diversity, all the ways we strive to make difference acceptable, not just among adoptive families, but across the U.S.. But while you note that ethnic celebration is a step up from color-blind liberalism, you also observe it occurring outside of the context of any real political or social change, that it is more of a marketing phenomenon than anything else. How can we do better than we have in this regard?
BKR: We have to go beyond celebrating ethnic foods and such, and really create a more egalitarian, open society. America has an enormous disparity between its rich people and its poor, and people of color are disproportionately among the poor. As long as we’re dealing with that basic truth — or more accurately, not dealing with it — Kwanza cards next to the Christmas and Chanukah cards, tacos alongside eggrolls, and African kente clothe next to Nottingham lace — is not going to mean all that much.
DP: You describe wonderful Passover seders at your home, multiracial gatherings at which the Haggadah has been read in many languages over the years. Do you consider this celebration a political act as well as time to enjoy family and friends?
BKR: Oh, absolutely! Passover is a wonderful holiday: a celebration of a flight from slavery, and so an opportunity to celebrate all such flights from all kinds of oppression. We use Passover as a moment for reflection on the meaning of human freedom, the ways that we are enslaved and the ways that we enslave others. It’s a lovely holiday, celebrating freedom, springtime and renewal.
DP: In Weaving a Family: Untangling Race and Adoptionyou predict a shift in how race is viewed in this country, from a white/nonwhite paradigm, to a black/non-black paradigm. Specifically, you suggest that Asian transnational adoptees have the option of “choosing” white, modern-day “passing.” You write: “Maybe our Asian children can grow up to be, for all intents and purposes, white, totally assimilated.” This notion seems not only to contradict the existence of white privilege — how is it a privilege unique to whiteness if others can easily attain it? — but it also suggests that blackness is a fixed reality while “Asianness” is more fluid, theoretical. Also, in predicting such a shift, are you stipulating that attaining cultural whiteness is a goal of Asian-born adoptees and/or their white parents?
BKR: I wasn’t talking about a shift in how race is viewed, but rather a shift in the way that we might productively discuss it. “Whiteness” only came into being as a response to “blackness.” The British and the Dutch who settled the new world didn’t see themselves as white, but as parts of two very different, often oppositional cultures, uniting only because of their distancing from the red and black people they conquered — only then making themselves white.
And wave after wave of immigrants to the U.S. have sought to achieve whiteness — it’s been beautifully researched in books and papers on “How the Irish/Jewish/Italians/etc. Became White.” I was suggesting that Asians might now be moving toward whiteness. It was, at some points in American history, just as bizarre to say that the Irish or the Jews or the Italians were white — to our current sensibility, that is hard to imagine, isn’t it? But just think about it: Jews, for a shining example, were most assuredly not thought of as white! But they quickly disassociated from being black, and came to claim whiteness. It is possible in America to be very Jewish and still be white — to be culturally and/or ethnically Jewish or Irish, or Italian and still be white. That, I think, may well be the direction Asians are heading in America. Their Chinese or Korean or Japanese or other ethnicity and culture can be something they celebrate, but they will not be “othered.”
DP: Poet Toi Derricotte (a black woman who looks white) defines her blackness this way: “I am black because the first people who loved me were black.” I have always appreciated this sentiment, but in the context of transracial adoptions, it gives me pause. Would you care to offer a revised definition, or should we not be about the business of such labeling?
BKR: Actually, that’s a lovely sentiment — and in that sense, to the extent that I am “white,” so too are all my children. But I am not simply white — my children are Jewish as a cultural identity because I have that, and “New Yorkers” because I have that, they’re urban people, political . . . etc. One of my children though is also “identifiably” black — other people will see her as black. She needs to have that cultural and social identity. And yes, there are people who have loved her who are themselves black, and helped her to enjoy — in every sense — that part of her identity as well.
DP: I have a confession. Before I received a copy of your book and saw the picture on the cover (white hands braiding black hair), I wondered if there would be a hair chapter, hoped there would be a hair chapter. I suppose I’d set up a white-mama litmus test for you. And then I started reading, saw that you referenced Hettie Jones [Jewish ex-wife of black poet Amiri Baraka/aka Leroi Jones] and thought, “In the interview, I’ll tell her about their daughter Lisa’s book, Bulletproof Diva: Tales of Race, Sex, and Hair.” But lo and behold, the great quote opening your hair chapter is taken from Bulletproof Diva. In becoming the mother of a black child, what have you discovered about the politics of hair?
BKR: I suppose I discovered that there is a politics of hair! Here’s a good place to think about history — when a black woman straightens her hair, it’s really not the same thing in reverse as when a white women curls her hair. Straightening has a long and strange history — and that colors what you see when someone straightens. I think hair is a wonderful thing to play with — dye, cut, perm, shave, braid — enjoy! But those various things you can do with your hair, or your child’s hair, might mean something to others that you don’t understand — you need to know the history.
DP: I like the phrase you coined regarding black hair: “community-standards-appropriate hair care.” It really captures the assumptions and expectations mothers of black children face. I’m a black mother and struggle with the same thing: the crime of my daughters’ hair ever looking unkempt. I had to get help myself from a black mother whose daughter is a few years older than my oldest, and who shared my frustrations and concerns — wanting to be sensitive, not wanting to use chemicals, wanting my child to, as you write, look like “the other black girls in the kindergarten class.” I find this also true with my adopted child who is 16 months old and unwilling to sit still for hair-braiding. She has what people still mired in Eurocentric standards of beauty would call “good hair.” I find myself wanting to explain her unruly curls to other black women, to put a Post-It note on the Easter picture I sent to her birth mother: “I put cute little bows in her hair, really I do, but she keeps pulling them out.” Did you find it difficult to reach out to black women for guidance in doing your daughter’s hair?
BKR: I had friends and neighbors who taught me the basics. There was a great moment when the 16-year-old kid from next door rang my doorbell, and said: “It’s time, Barbara.” My daughter was a year old and I had kept her hair in a lovely soft puff. Her mother had sent her over: she had decided it was high time I learn to do my child’s hair.
And yes, when she was little, I did think/wonder/worry what black women thought about her hair, and thus about me as a mother. Now that she’s 15, I figure her hair and clothes are no longer a reflection on me!
DP: Any do-overs as an adoptive parent, areas where you zigged when in retrospect perhaps you should have zagged?
BKR: I think we can save that for a discussion you can have with my kid in another decade!
DP: Did you watch the Fox reality show “Who’s Your Daddy?” (where they turn an adult adoptee’s search for her birth father into a contest for a cash prize)? If so, what did you think of it?
BKR: Good grief! Another good reason not to watch TV (besides The Simpsons)!
DP: It goes without saying that race, parenting, and adoption are emotionally charged subjects. As Weaving a Family makes its way out into the world, what criticisms or challenges to this work, if any, do you anticipate from readers (colleagues, adult adoptees, adoptive parents, others)?
BKR: The book is written in an informal, personally engaged way that might make some of my sociological colleagues uncomfortable.
More importantly, I hope I have not brought pain to my friends and colleagues who want to paint a rosier picture of adoption. I know that we — those of us who adopt or are adopted or have placed children for adoption — spend a lot of time justifying our families to people who claim that families-by-birth are somehow more real and valued. I am starting with an assumption that our families are just as real, just as valuable, as anyone else’s!
Speaking as an adoptive mother, I know that our children are ours, fully and truly, and we are their parents, fully and truly. But that doesn’t have to end the discussion. There are still questions and concerns about how our families have come into being, about the international and national politics of race and exploitation that we have to be brave enough to confront. And there are still questions about how we prepare our children for the world as-it-is, as well as the world we’d like them to have.
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