Growing Up 'White,' Transracial Adoptee Learned To Be Black
A couple of weeks ago, Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin spoke to Rachel Garlinghouse, a white adoptive mother of three African-American children. Our conversation on transracial adoption drew a lot of responses, so we decided to follow up with another perspective.
Chad Goller-Sojourner is African-American. In 1972, when he was 13 months old, he was adopted by white parents in Tacoma, Wash. He and his siblings are all different races than their parents.
They lived in a white suburb, but his parents worked hard to expose him to other people who looked like him, and checked out every library book with a black author they could find. They even sent the children to a more diverse school in a different neighborhood.
But Goller-Sojourner, now a writer and solo performer based in Seattle, says there was a limit to what his parents could provide.
"One of the things I think was hardest for me is I didn't have any independent relationships with black people, especially adult black people, till I was an adult," he says. "I was 25 before I saw a black doctor."
As a child, he experienced racism before he had the language to understand it, he says.
"For instance, shopping: I learned pretty early on that when people knew I was with this white lady, that they treated me differently," he says.
As he got older, he realized that if he didn't want to be followed in a store, he'd better make sure people knew he was with her.
"I would hold up some outfit and say, 'Hey, Mom, could I get this?' And she'd be like, 'No!' Which let everybody within earshot know that I was with a white lady, and then suddenly, that privilege came back over me."
Goller-Sojourner says every six months or so, he'd hear a racist insult or some other offense, and his mother would rush to his side. Still, it was confusing.
"My source of love and hate came from the same well," he explains. "My parents looked just like the same people who were calling me a nigger or porch monkey. ... My mother and my parents were in my corner, but it was still difficult to process."
In college he began what he calls a "descent into blackness and out of whiteness." He describes it as a journey, giving up the privileges he claimed as a child of white parents and learning to accept his identity independent of them. He added Sojourner to his name.
"I moved to New York City, where for the first time I found my own reflection pleasing," Goller-Sojourner says. "I learned to fall in love with myself and being black in my mid- to late-20s. And although it was a beautiful experience, it shouldn't have taken 25 years to do that."
On the website for his most recent show, Riding in Cars with Black People & Other Newly Dangerous Acts: A Memoir in Vanishing Whiteness, Goller-Sojourner describes the experience as aging out of "honorary white and suburban privilege and into a world where folklore, statistics and conjecture deem him dangerous until proven otherwise."
He stopped trying to let people know that he came from a white home, that he was somehow entitled to better treatment.
"I used to say that in different ways," he says. "I carried a picture of my family. I tucked it behind my license for years, and wherever the license went, the picture followed. Sometimes whispering, sometimes shouting, 'I'm not the black man you think I am.' I stopped saying that."
He says that while a black home may be best for a black child, he's not opposed to transracial adoption.
"Here's what gets people upset: Part of my story is, I was 13 months old, and according to the social workers in my file, I'd already been passed over by two or three black families because they considered me too dark," he says.
His parents were among the first wave of transracial adopters, and did their best to prepare him for the real world. Parents today can do even better, he says.
"I don't have a checklist," he says, "but if I did, it would sound something like this: If you don't have any close friends or people who look like your kid before you adopt a kid, then why are you adopting that kid? Your child should not be your first black friend."
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
A couple weeks ago, we introduced you to a woman named Rachel Garlinghouse. She's a white, adoptive mother of three African-American children.
RACHEL GARLINGHOUSE: They need to know their history as African-Americans. They are not white and we should not pretend that they are white.
MARTIN: Our conversation with her on transracial adoption drew a lot of response. So today, we're following up with another perspective.
Chad Goller-Sojourner is an African-American man. Forty-two years ago, he was adopted by white parents in Tacoma, Washington. He and his siblings are all adopted and none of them are white. Goller-Sojourner says his parents worked hard to expose their kids to other people who looked like them, even sending them for a time to a more diverse school in another neighborhood. But he says there was a limit to what his parents could provide.
CHAD GOLLER-SOJOURNER: One thing that is kind of unique to my situation - or being transracially adopted - is that my source of love and hate came from the same well. So my parents looked just like the people who were calling me a (bleep) or porch monkey and all this other stuff.
MARTIN: And that was hard to process. How did your parents respond when you went to them with those revelations?
GOLLER-SOJOURNER: So what happened for me is, like every six months to a year, something would happen and I would have a major breakdown and call my mother crying and unable to breathe of sorts, and she would arrive at the school. So I always knew that my mother and my parents were in my corner but it was still difficult to process, because I didn't see myself as they saw me.
I mean all my first experiences were white; my first friend, my family, my church, my faith - don't they know what it along to? And, of course, one of the interesting things about all this is I had the experience before have the language, so now I can talk about it in language. But I experienced it first. You know, for instance, shopping. I learned pretty early on that when people knew I was with this white lady that they treated me differently. So...
MARTIN: Your mom.
GOLLER-SOJOURNER: My mom. If I didn't want to be followed or bothered, I would make a connection with my mom. It kind of played out like this. We have very different tastes - mine are high-end, hers aren't. So I would like hold up some outfit and: Hey, Mom, can I get this? And she'd be like, no. She be like, no...
GOLLER-SOJOURNER: ...which let everybody within earshot know that I was with a white lady. And then suddenly, it was like that privilege came back over me.
MARTIN: Your parents adopted you at a time - in 1972 - the National Association of Black Social Workers declared that transracial adoption, like yours, was tantamount to cultural genocide. And there are still a lot of people out there who feel that the best option for children of a certain race is to be raised by parents who share that race; in particular, for black children to be raised in black families.
What do you think of that?
GOLLER-SOJOURNER: Well, OK. So here's the part that always gets people upset. Part of my story is I was 13 months old. And according to the social workers in my file, I had already been passed over by two or three black families because they considered me too dark and they were worried because, at that point, I was going to be moved to a different foster home for older kids. So, yes, I mean, I agree that perhaps a black home is probably best for a black kid, but, I mean, it wasn't by accident that in 1972 a white couple from Washington state ended up with this black kid from Cleveland. They were not my first visitors. Others had come to visit me before that.
MARTIN: You have had a particular experience, and it sounds like you had a loving relationship with your parents and family and siblings. Would you still recommend transracial adoption today? Do you think it's a good idea?
GOLLER-SOJOURNER: I'm not opposed to it. I think it's tough because, you know, as a parent you want to protect your child but you also have to prepare your child for the world they're entering into. There was some other stuff that they just couldn't prepare, that I had to do on my own. And, you know, they were there for me, you know, in college and when I was going through some issues (unintelligible) and then starting, you know, begin to take this descent into blackness and out of whiteness. It was difficult because I realized all these privileges that I had, I would have to start letting them go.
MARTIN: So, what's the solution? How do you prepare kids?
GOLLER-SOJOURNER: I don't have, like, a checklist, but if I did it would sound something like this: If you don't have any close friends or know people who look like your kid before you adopt a kid, then why are you adopting that kid? So, your child should not be your first black friend, you know. Where are you living - it's interesting, you know, people will cross the country for a job but they won't move two neighborhoods over so that their kids can go to a more diverse school. Somebody's going to have to be uncomfortable. I don't think it should be the parents. One of the things, I think, that was the hardest for me, if I didn't have any independent relationships with black people, especially adult black people, child to an adult. I was 25 before I saw a black doctor. I think there's a lot of things that people do, certainly you can do so that you can do better than my parents did because they only had certain options.
MARTIN: When you were talking about shedding white privilege, you then used the phrase I started descending into blackness. What does that mean, and what did it mean for you?
GOLLER-SOJOURNER: Basically, you know, I began a journey, and for me it began with a new name - I added Sojourner to my name - and I moved to New York City, where for the first time I found my own reflection pleasing. So, for instance, I didn't have to, like, hey, I'm not the black guy you think I am. I used to say that in different ways. You know, I carried a picture of my family and tucked it behind my driver's license for years. And wherever the license went the picture followed. Sometimes there's whispering, sometimes shouting, you know, I'm not the black man you think I am. And I stopped saying that.
MARTIN: How did your parents respond to that when you changed your name and started to assert a stronger black identity?
GOLLER-SOJOURNER: Yeah, there was no, you know, I was smart enough not to drop the Goller. I mean, you know, hey, mom and dad, I changed my name. Could you cut another check for school? You know? But they were very happy with that. And one thing, I'm part of the first wave, the '60s and '70s, and so my parents had every single book in the library by a black author on black people. And so we were highly educated in that realm. But that only takes you so far. You know, as of today, people need to do more than just read books. You need to introduce your kids at a young age. So, you know, I mean, I learned to fall in love with myself and being black in my mid-20s to late-20s. And although it was a beautiful experience, it shouldn't have taken 25 years to do that.
MARTIN: Chad Goller-Sojourner is a writer and performer based in Seattle. His most recent work is called "Riding in Cars with Black People and Other Newly Dangerous Acts: A Memoir in Vanishing Whiteness." Thank you so much for talking with us, Chad.
GOLLER-SOJOURNER: Thank you for having me.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MARTIN: You are listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.