The past year has been one of nationwide racial reckoning — a demand for a clear-eyed look at systemic racism and how it impacts every aspect of American society, from policing to education to health care.
In a searing new memoir, "Surviving the White Gaze," author and essayist Rebecca Carroll explores another facet of racial reckoning in the U.S. — the world of interracial adoption. She does so through the lens of her childhood and early adulthood, growing up as the only Black person in her rural New Hampshire community.
Carroll says her well-meaning white adoptive parents said they didn’t see color, and in doing so, neither prepared her for the racism she confronted outside her family bubble nor gave her the tools she needed to become the Black woman she grew to understand she was.
Her “early yearnings” and desires to engage with her Blackness went unnoticed, she says. Through this, she learned how to navigate a white world and to trust her instincts, but it took a massive toll on her journey into adulthood.
“In my 20s, I was just treading water the whole time, trying to get out from under this white gaze,” she says.
She’s written about the experience and how white parents can do better for their Black kids. For instance, she says white parents shouldn’t jump into Black culture for their children.
“It's jumping into it with your children,” she says. “And it's less about drawing attention to Blackness for a white parent's self, it is living amid Blackness as a way of helping to give that and recognize that within their Black children.”
For potential adopters, Carroll says to first ask yourself a few questions, such as if you have Black people in your life.
“If you don't, think about that first,” she says.
Caroll says she’s not discouraging white parents from adopting Black children, but rather asking the parents to “think deeply and engage deeply with Blackness, Black culture, Black history” and make it an “integral part” of their parenting.
On racism from a grade school teacher that she experienced early as a child
“I mean, here's the thing. The cognitive dissonance was enormous because my parents and their sort of white liberal artist friends all thought that I was really beautiful. I was precocious and I loved to dance and to perform and I loved fashion. And so I thought that I was beautiful. And so when my teacher said that I was pretty, what I internalized was what she said afterward, right, was that most Black girls are ugly, very unattractive. I remember distinctly the way she scrunched up her face. The seed had been planted where I was like, wait a minute, something is awry here. My white adoptive parents sort of raised us in this bucolic bubble, beauty and art and fresh flowers and tea. And so when we left that bubble, my brother and sister, who are my parents' biological children, sort of went about their business wherein I within two years of leaving that bubble am suddenly the target of racism.”
On the message parents send when they claim they “don’t see color”
“Because the message they're [sending] is ‘the only way I will love you or find you valuable is if I strip you of something that is so integral to your identity.’ But then it's also saying ‘we're not thinking about the way in which the world is perceiving you and the way that this country has been killing people who look like you.’ ”
On a friend’s father — her history teacher — who wouldn’t allow him to take any prom pictures with her
“... I never had boyfriends because all of the white boys, their parents wouldn't allow them to date me. ...
“He was our history teacher. One day we were talking about slavery and the benefits of slavery to capitalism. And I raised my hand and I said, ‘but is the dehumanization of people really worth it?’ Something along those lines. And he said, ‘well, see, now that's your problem. Black people don't know how to think right.’ Even the sentence was grammatically incorrect. And I just remember being so stunned by that.”
On the belittlement she received from her white birth mother
“I have really tried to decenter her in my brain and in my life, and so what I was able to do and to write about regarding her is on the pages of the memoir. But as I've written, she clearly was unhappy with who I presented myself as. When we reunited at 11, by the way, which was way too young, I just wanted to know her and be in her orbit. She was so beautiful and charismatic but she was also harshly judgmental and, you know, sort of decided that she was the authority on what it meant to be Black and I did not fit that bill. It was a very, very toxic relationship.”
This segment aired on April 13, 2021.