“What I said I would not do, what I so, so do not want to do, is write one more memoir of a white woman discovering race and racism. . . . With all of the black people in America telling us about racism, we don’t need white people to confirm it.”
— Barbara Katz Rothman
Barbara Katz Rothman kept her word. Her latest book, Weaving a Family: Untangling Race and Adoption, is not a white woman’s tale of racial enlightenment. Rothman knows that a white person discovering racism rings as hollow as white people “discovering” America. Instead, Rothman, a CUNY professor of sociology, offers a frank and unsentimental exploration of adoption — the place where race, family, and mothering meet, often uncomfortably and unpredictably. While Rothman does share a few revelations regarding race and racism, she writes with a sincere respect for and keen awareness of the history, culture, and realities of black people in America. Weaving a Family reveals Rothman’s personal journey as the white mother of a black child, but it is also a critical examination of our assumptions about race and family in this country.
As a black mother and an adoptive mother, I approached Rothman’s book with a lot of interest — and even more skepticism. A white woman writing about racism? Would she get it? More often than not, in my experience, white women don’t — and when they don’t, at best you get naive kumbaya attitudes about racism; at worst, you get a denial of any post-civil rights movement racism above the Mason-Dixon line, a denial that borders on hostile. Add mothering to the mix, and things get really sensitive. No mother wants to feel inadequate or uninformed when it comes to preparing her children for the real world.
So would Barbara Katz Rothman get it? Her previous books (In Labor; The Tentative Pregnancy; Recreating Motherhood; The Book of Life) offered little in the way of clues; they were mostly about reproductive technology, midwifery, and genetic counseling. Would she follow a similar mantra to my (white) friend Maryanne’s: “When discussing matters of race, white people should assume a listening posture”? Or would Rothman write in the spirit of my friend Esther, a white adoptive mother of a black child, who talks about race with the freedom of the initiated — and who cornrows hair better than me?
- “Everything I know about American history, I learned from looking at Black people’s hair. . . . It’s all in the hair.” — Lisa Jones, author of Bulletproof Diva: Tales of Race, Sex, and Hair, daughter of a Jewish mother, Hettie Jones, and a black father, poet Amiri Baraka né Leroi Jones
Would Rothman write about hair? About how for black folks, hair isn’t just hair? The cover of Weaving a Family made me hopeful: it featured white hands braiding black hair. I was thrilled to discover an entire chapter devoted to the subject: “Hair: Braiding Together Culture, Identity, and Entitlement.” Rothman explains:
I started this project wanting to do a book about hair, about how white mothers learn — or do not learn — to do hair for their black children, particularly for their black daughters. I wanted to write “The White Mama’s Book of Black Hair. ” Maybe I will someday. . . . In the doing of hair, one does race. Race is constructed, celebrated, despaired of, enjoyed, feared. Hair is a test to be passed or failed, a trial to be endured, an intimate moment to be shared. In memoirs of those raised within the African-American community and those raised by white people, hair and the doing of hair emerges as a focal point for the discussion and for the experience of race. . . . White people — especially but not exclusively those of us raising black children — need to know these stories, need to know the politics and history of hair.
The chapter goes on to read in part like a primer on black hair and black hair care. But Rothman never strays far from her sociological and historical grounding:
It’s only hair when white kids from Liverpool let it get shaggy, when white kids in Boston wear it long and straight, when white kids in New York spike it with gel . . . [but with the advent of the Afro when] Black people (and now I do want that capitalized, now I am talking about a cultural, political movement) refused to straighten their hair, it wasn’t “only hair.” It was about refusing to bring your body into line with a white standard.
Instead of unexamined adherence to white standards of beauty and hair care, Rothman makes the case for community-appropriate standards of hair care for black children. Like many white mothers of black children she loved the “wild curls,” but ultimately she tamed them and made sure her now-teenaged daughter’s hair looked like the other black girls’ hair in the kindergarten class — “the cornrows, the beads, the head of ‘little balls,’ the star-shaped parts . . . the zigzag rows.”
So Rothman’s book passed Phase One of my White-Mama Litmus Test, but I wasn’t among the readership most in need of Rothman’s insightful and challenging discussion of race. While I believe Weaving a Family should be required reading for thoughtful people everywhere, this book should become a dog-eared user’s guide for white parents in transracial adoptive families, particularly well-meaning parents who raise their children to live in the world we all wish we lived in, instead of the one in which we actually live. Parents like the mother Rothman quotes who feels that the racial composition of her family is irrelevant and who is just “a little bit tired of being held up as a poster child for race relations.” Chapters such as “Talking About Race,” “Identity: Pride and Joy,” “Culture: Celebrating Diversity,” and the universally encouraging “Weaving a Way Home” might lessen that mother’s shock when her black child learns from the real world that race is everything and nothing, but it is not irrelevant — not in this country. Weaving a Family is armor for when that mother’s black child gets just a little bit tired of going out to battle unarmed.
- “[The back of a] child . . . should not be a bridge. If we want to conquer the racial divisions of America, we should not be asking little children to lead us. You don’t send children places; you have to take them by the hand. If your child is going to grow up without the privileges of whiteness, you’d best learn what those are.” — Barbara Katz Rothman
So Rothman gets it, and doing so enables her to write with confidence and authority on a subject where some would say — her adoptive daughter notwithstanding — she still has limited credentials. Her firm grounding in the issues helps her avoid the self-congratulatory tone of books like Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed: On Not Getting by in America. Ehrenreich worked a series of minimum wage jobs and wrote about her experience to show how the other half barely lives. Great book, great premise, but Ehrenreich was a bit too self-congratulatory for my taste, putting herself in a class all her own, the only liberal middle-class white person who “gets it.” By contrast, Rothman shares situations in which she took a learning posture when it came to racial issues.
And Rothman has made a lifelong commitment to this foray outside of her own skin. She lives with her family in a neighborhood that guarantees that her adoptive daughter will not be “exiled” from the black community, or from her blackness.
- “It seemed to me we spent so much time talking about kimchee and grits, we forgot to talk about power.” — Danzy Senna, author of the novel, Caucasia, in her essay, “The Mulatto Millenium” in Half and Half: Writers on Growing Up Biracial and Bicultural
In Weaving a Family, Rothman sees beyond black and white. In the chapters devoted to adoption, she considers in some detail the adoption of Chinese and Korean children by white American parents. Rothman writes:
I do think that these Chinese [adopted] girls will grow up to be, will grow up to lead the lives of, white American women. . . . [W]ith the pressure of their middle-class white parents, I believe that the Chinese girls will, like the Koreans before them, become successfully moved into whiteness. Maybe their presence will change our ideas of whiteness a bit more, letting white people look Asian the way white people can now look Irish, or look Jewish, and still be white.
By contrast, Rothman believes “children of African descent cannot cross racial lines. As long as the idea of race continues to exist in America, black children will grow up to be black adults, no matter who raises them or where.”
Reading these passages, I wondered how an Asian adoptee — or a black adoptee who felt culturally white — would react to what I found to be rather provocative statements. I had the opportunity to interview Rothman, and I asked her if she meant to designate blackness as a fixed, biological truth, and “Asianness” as somehow mere ideology, a fluid, erasable existence. Rothman explained that that was not her intention, that her views were based on historical observation, and she cited books written on the subject. To wit, once upon a time it was just as unfathomable to think of an Irish or Jewish person as “white,” and yet over time they “became” white as they sought to distinguish themselves from black people.
- “The children are bit players in the movie of our lives. We star, and some kids are slotted in from central casting somewhere.”
— Barbara Katz Rothman
Racism isn’t the only “ism” of American life Rothman puts under the microscope in Weaving a Family. In the “Motherhood in the Marketplace” chapter, she talks about the ways capitalism shapes motherhood. “Children are priceless,” she writes. “And yet we know they are costly. . . . In a capitalist system, in a fully consumerist world, consumption and the language of consumers is not just an idea, it is the tool that comes to hand.”
As evidence of this “commodification of motherhood,” Rothman cites all the unnecessary baby “stuff” marketed to pregnant women, and particularly the plethora of birth-related services available to women, whether they are “part of the medical mainstream or not.” She goes on to say “Lactation consultants, doulas, even the sonographers are trying to help women, trying to reach out as women to women, with respect and sometimes even awe. Yet each works within a larger system, and ultimately faces corruption by that system.” Rothman herself admits to owning “a nice collection of midwifery and home birth tee shirts.”
For Rothman, the effect of this commodification is the erasure of the mother. For example, reproductive technology such as sonography focuses on the unborn child, the “consumer goods” as it were. Depending on the mindset of the adoptive parents, adoption can make this erasure even more complete with emphasis on The Baby, as if the baby were hatched and not born of a feeling, breathing mother. International adoption exemplifies this dynamic even more so, because “the children appear to come from orphanages, not mothers.” According to Rothman, it is the anonymity of these mothers, as well as the “availability and the almost-whiteness of the children that [draw] Americans to international adoption.” While some adoptive families of Chinese children, for example, seek out birth mothers, most do not. Rothman says they may return to China for “roots” trips — to consume the country itself, “the sanitized ‘ethnicity’ we find so charming. But the reality of a grieving mother, a woman who birthed and bled and lost, is far more than most adoptive parents want.”
Reading Rothman’s lament over the “market forces” at play within the adoption process, I felt alternately guilty and defensive. I remember the queasy “baby shopping” feeling I got as the social worker showed us file after file of waiting children. I kept reading “Motherhood in the Marketplace” hoping Rothman would give a pass for “shopping.” After all, we weren’t choosing based on race or skin color, nor were we looking for a perfect child. However, we did want to be realistic about what, if any, disabilities we could handle. I found some relief in Rothman’s brief acknowledgment that part of this worry by adoptive parents has to do with the high cost of health care in this country; disabilities that require medical care can drain a family’s financial resources.
Still, I was at first surprised that Rothman didn’t disclose more details about the logistics of her own adoption experience in the “Our Story” chapter. But perhaps she sees the specifics of that process as her daughter’s story to tell, not hers.
- “In recent years, white families raising black kids, by birth or by adoption, have been fond of reassuring the children that color doesn’t matter, and reassuring themselves that all you need is love. I don’t actually believe that. And neither do most black folk. Not in America. Color does matter. You need a lot more than love. Where do you find it? So I went up to Harlem to look.” — Barbara Katz Rothman
Rothman devotes several chapters to her time at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture studying the mostly shameful historical record of white people parenting black children (as “pets, protégés, and trophies “). Wrapping up the “What I Learned at the Schomburg” section, she observes:
The real [civil rights] movement people folks, those who continued to work long past the early days of marches and bus boycotts, got past that Benetton, color-blind, all-in-it-together thing pretty quickly. In a racist system, you’re not going to all join your multicolored hands together and sing race away. The work got harder.
This is why, to me, it’s important for white folks to get it. This is why Weaving a Family is so necessary. Because, as Rothman writes, “color-blind liberalism just didn’t work.” It didn’t end job and housing discrimination, racial profiling, redlining by banks, racial violence, police brutality, or inequalities in education (“Savage Inequalities” according to author Jonathan Kozol.)
One noticeable lag in Rothman’s prose occurred in the science-y “Adoption in the Age of Genetics” chapter. Yet, with its discussion of “micro-eugenics” and the hierarchy of adoption (babies of white college-educated women on top, babies of poor women of color on the bottom), this chapter is, nevertheless, integral to the book.
Barbara Katz Rothman’s subtle wit and engaging style transform what could be dry sociological musings into a deeply personal but still scholarly work. And what Weaving a Family just might do is spark dialogue and thought amongst people of all colors. All we need is a willingness to be unflinchingly honest, to remember to talk about power, and do the hard work change demands. Far from being yet another “memoir of a white woman discovering race,” Weaving a Family is Rothman’s gauntlet and guidepost to adoptive parents — and to anyone concerned about race and family.