Talking to White Parents about Racism

by , on
2021-11-03

This is not a burden that any child should have to carry. As a multiracial adoptee raised by white parents, I sat down to watch Netflix’s latest documentary series with extreme caution. Colin in Black and White is going to lead to a lot of discussion guides for transracially adopted families. I can tell you that right now. Do me a favor and don’t buy one, don’t even read it, unless it was written by a transracial adoptee of color. I’m not writing one, but I do want to talk about how episode 3 shows Colin trying to talk to his white parents about racism. And it is brutal.

Trigger Warning: Racial trauma. Emotional abuse.

The White Saviors

I want to break down a 3 minute section from about the 9:35 minute mark to about the 12:00 minute mark. It’s a lot. I know. The family has arrived in Oroville, California for another Baseball tournament. Colin progressively learns how he is not treated the same as his white parents or teammates throughout this episode. In this particular hotel, the manager singles him out and confronts him.

Of course, she discovers “this man” is actually the adopted son of the two white people she assumed he was “bothering”. Kudos to the actress for bringing to life the super awkward and cringy reaction we are so used to smiling through. I don’t want to dwell on this scene but here are just a few thoughts I simply can’t fail to express.

“I think about getting one all the time.”

Hotel Manager

The manager feels uncomfortable, right? So she shares something totally unnecessary thinking it’s related to this situation right here. Her church has a program for foster youth. Eye roll.

But then that “getting one” line. Wow! She manages to dehumanize and commodify children in half a second. While smiling weirdly at Colin.

I wish his parent’s would’ve looked at her like she had two heads, said “Okay…well, if that’s all, have a nice a day.” and turned away.

Of course she follows it up with the “Where did he come from” question.

“Bless your hearts. You’re doing the Lord’s work.”

Hotel Manager

And that is how white adoptive parents are encouraged by everyone (it seems) to have a white savior mentality, even if they never intended to be white saviors.

Notice how the parent’s react. They saw it as a compliment. Mom thinks she was sweet. They walk away from the interaction feeling like the manager was just providing good customer service.

Colin is visibly bothered. They don’t notice.

Blaming the Black Kid

At about the 11 minute mark, the family is settling into the hotel room. The chronic, “little t” traumas of racial micro-aggressions are getting to him. His dad asks, “What’s wrong with you?”

Colin recounts what happened in the lobby. He feels hurt and for the first time in this story, he is coming to his parents with this. He’s telling them. He is asking them to help him make sense of why he’s being singled out and treated so badly.

What does mom say? “You’re talking about the manager.” She’s already making Colin feel like his perspective is off for questioning an authority figure. She’s already gaslighting him.

Dad’s response?

“She thought you were a vagrant.
I told you you should’ve shaved that thing.” (laughter)

-Colin’s white adoptive dad

So whose fault was it that Colin was treated badly? Colin’s. What was wrong with the situation? How he looked.

When I say transracial adoption encourages internalized racism in children of color, this is what I mean.

His parents are misdiagnosing the situations. The racisms are happening but they are telling him, “No…that’s not what it is. It’s something else. Probably something wrong with you.” This is how a child of color can easily grow up believing that we are to blame for other people’s bad and biased behavior.

Later in the episode, Colin will try to change how he looks. He’ll wear a button-down shirt and tuck it in so he doesn’t look like a vagrant. He’ll try to adapt to the world of his parents, even though it is uncomfortable for him (air conditioning in the car) and even though it puts his life in real danger (interaction with traffic cop).

Later in the episode, Colin learns not to internalize his racial oppression. He meets another team of Black athletes who name the problem for him: anti-Blackness, racism. He learns to externalize the problem (it’s not me, it’s them). And he’ll later give voice to that in the elevator scene. Though his parents will total miss it, snickering at him and thinking he’s the one being “feisty”.

Deflecting by Criticizing

This next part of the scene is not ok. Mom asks if that’s what is really bothering him.

“I don’t know. Sometimes I just feel… uncomfortable?” Colin opens up. He’s trying to articulate something he doesn’t understand. He is coming to his parents to help him find the words.

Mom’s response?

More gaslighting: No is doing that to you. She’s also placing their intent over their impact. If no one is trying to make you feel bad but you still feel bad? Too bad. They didn’t mean so it doesn’t count!

Mom is also starting to get emotional here, isn’t she? When she says, “You have to talk to me” and slaps her hands? Whew! She’s deflecting her discomfort about this conversation. She can sense the implications of this conversation but wants to avoid it because she is not equipped for this.

This moment is well-scripted. While telling Colin that he can talk to her she is showing him that he can’t.


RELATED POST: 4 REASONS I DIDN’T ACKNOWLEDGE ADOPTION LOSS


Instead of confronting her inadequacy as a parent, she puts the responsibility on Colin. She tells him it is his job to know what’s going on and tell her about it. He has to be the adult. He has to be mature enough to figure this out on his own and then make it easy for her to see and understand.

“It meaaaans. You always keep your feelings to yourself, Colin!”

-Colin’s white adoptive mom

Hold on. What?

Is she hurt that her son doesn’t let her in? Upset and blaming him for what? Hurting her feelings?!

In this scene, Colin opens up to his parents about a hurtful interaction regarding race and adoption and he ends up being criticized for keeping his feelings to himself.

Eff that.

I watched this and felt a wave of shame crashing through the screen. Emotional manipulation, much?

This is how you make a child think they’ve hurt you by bringing up this topic.
This is how you center your feelings.
How you teach a child to become your emotional caretaker while you neglect their needs.

I have absolutely no problem calling this emotional abuse.

This entire series shows how Colin’s parents are both supportive and kind in some ways AND also actively contributing to his racial battle fatigue. His parents clearly love him but they also neglect to give him the support he needs and actively perpetuate racism (remember Episode 1 when mom says he looks like a thug?).

This is the nuance white people often fail to understand.
That they can both love BIPOC while causing us great harm.

“Talk to me and know there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for you.”

-colin’s white adoptive mom

2 + 2 = 5

This made my skin crawl. Mom has criticized Colin for not talking to her and making her feel shut out. Even though he was literally opening up to her about his problems.

She effectively ends the conversation though. It was causing her to feel insecure and uncomfortable, after all. She’s returned to a place of feeling good about herself as the parent who would do anything for her son. And, walking away, she tells him so. She tells him to see her as eager to listen and ready to support. Even though she consistently proves that, at least about race, she is the exact opposite.

It’s more than heartbreaking. It’s the lived reality of so many adopted people of color who were raised by good white parents. The reality is, white adoptive parents* who do things like this typically have no clue. Being unaware, they are unlikely to acknowledge and take responsibility for the harm they’ve caused. They literally see themselves as nothing but loving and supportive. If you say anything that threatens this self-perception…well, many of us have see the classic response of Denial and Reversing the Victim and Offender role. AKA: DARVO. Look it up.

*Obviously we know there are white adoptive parents who do have a clue and are teachable, but you are not going to make me say “Not all” are you? I didn’t think so.

Colin’s Confidence Wins

There is something so sinister about the subtle and joking kind of way that his parent’s push aside the harm Colin encounters. Their whole vibe says “it’s not a big deal, son” and yet it really is. I think this episode did a good job of showing us how impossible it can be, how burdensome and exhausting, for transracial adoptees to talk to white adoptive parents about racism. This episode showed a pattern of conversation and behavior that, if not interrupted, can lead to the adult adoptee distancing themselves from their white family.

However, in spite of his parents, Colin is able to cultivate self-confidence and self-love as a biracial Black person. Read that again. In spite of his parents, not because of. This, to me, is remarkable. It’s admirable. It is a testament to his character and personality. I wish this were true for all of us transracially adopted people of color.


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