By RACHEL CHYLEWSKI GARLINGHOUSE
My name is Rachel. And let me start off by telling you that I’m white. Like Polish-Irish white. Hazel eyes and hair that annoyingly turns red no matter how many applications of hair color I put on it.
I grew up in an all-white family. (The only color we got was when my cousins brought home a brown baby boy from Guatemala fourteen years ago.) I grew up in a racially diverse but racially segregated town. White kids sat with white kids, black kids with black kids. There was the occasional “cool black kid” (as the whites often deemed them) who would cross the line in the cafeteria in an American Eagle sweatshirt and join the all-white cheerleading squad. There was a lot of racial tension, including a middle-school shooting between a black kid and a white kid.
Unlike many of my peers, I was somewhat of wanderer. My parents didn’t have extra money, so I couldn’t be in exclusive “clubs” like sports teams which required expensive uniforms and equipment. I couldn’t sing (no choir), I wasn’t very book-smart (no Scholar Bowl), and I wasn’t handy (no joining the shop classes). But two things I could do was befriend just about any other wanderer and write.
When I married my husband and moved from my small, country hometown to the “big city” of St. Louis, I started graduate school and my nine-year university-level teaching career. Then something pretty shitty happened. I came down with a virus that started a year-and-a-half downward spiral. I lost thirty pounds, was chronically hungry and tired, had continuous sinus infections and extremely blurred vision, and got really depressed. I saw five different medical professionals who diagnosed me with vision issues and anorexia and being a hypochondriac. They were all wrong.
In March of 2006, my husband took me to the ER because I could barely breathe. I was down to 97 lbs (at 5’8” tall), I couldn’t quench my thirst, and I was gasping for air. It was on that day that after some torturous blood draws that a doctor burst into my room and announced that I had an incurable, forever, autoimmune disease called type 1 diabetes. I was in DKA, a condition that is very dangerous and potentially deadly, as a result of going so long with sufficient insulin production. I was rushed upstairs to the ICU and hooked up to an insulin drip, heart monitors, IVs, and a blood pressure cuff.
During my hospital stay, I was taught how to count carbohydrates, check my blood sugar, and inject insulin. I was both relieved and really, really pissed off. Having an answer met I had hope, but the glossy diabetes brochures made me angry. This wasn’t fair. I didn’t deserve this. Dammit, I had things to accomplish and diabetes wasn’t part of my life plan.
On day three in the hospital, I had a consultation with a diabetes nurse educator. She asked my husband and me if we planned on having children. We both said “yes” without hesitation. The nurse said that despite the diagnosis, we still could have children, and began to share with us the prospective complications and pregnancy management a type I diabetic might expect when carrying a child. I stopped listening, because a single word popped into my mind: Adoption.
Fast forward seven years. I have three children, all of whom are adopted, and all of whom are black.
I’ve heard it all, been asked it all. Why did we adopt? Why did we adopt transracially? Why didn’t we adopt internationally? Where are the kids’ birth parents? How could they “give away” such cute babies? Were they on drugs? Were they young? Are our kids “real” siblings? How much does adoption cost? Do we “have to” see the kids’ “real” families? It’s nice we are colorblind. Our kids are so lucky to have us as their parents. God bless us.
Rarely does anyone get it right with their questions and comments. We aren’t saviors; we are just two people who wanted to be parents, so we adopted. Our kids’ birth parents are wonderful people with whom we have open relationships. Our kids aren’t lucky to have us; we are lucky to have them. We were open to adopting children of any race; their birth parents chose us, yep, white and all! Yes, our kids are “real” siblings; kids in the same family with the same parents are as “real” as it gets. Personal information about our kids’ birth families is none of your damn business. And no, you cannot touch our kids’ hair! We are not colorblind; we love and appreciate and celebrate our children for exactly who they are.
The thing is, after five years of transracial adoptive parenting, I find that few people really get it. We’re often treated like celebrities, saviors, freaks, or rebels. The comments and questions we receive are sometimes adoptist, racist, or worse, both.
Listen, I’m not black, and I won’t pretend to be black, though we certainly are getting a taste of what it’s like to be a family of color in America. Our blackness plus whiteness has opened our eyes to the challenges, stereotypes, and prejudices that many black Americans face. We walk in this strange world between whiteness and blackness, sometimes more in one place or the other, but mostly, in some purgatory of color notions.
One place I always feel empowered, safe, and affirmed is when I visit places like MyBrownBaby. I come here to listen, to learn, and to apply that education to my family’s daily life. I want to do what’s best for my children and for our family as a whole. I come here to read about hair, colorism, sexism, strong black leaders, discrimination in the media, and much, much more. I come here to feel a sense of belonging that I often don’t encounter in many other places, because my white skin makes me appear to belong in one place when my heart yearns for somewhere and something else.
I’m so many things: diabetic, adoptive mom, white lady, Christian, feminist, wife, teacher, writer. I’m also this person who continues, at times, to feel like my high school self: uncertain, misunderstood, and underestimated. I know that my family’s color differences speak volumes, sometimes making people angry, curious, assuming, or understanding. Despite the doubts, questions, and assuptions, I’m going to stand tall: empowered by God, family and friends, my children’s trust in me, and in the knowledge I’ve gained from strong writers who have had the conviction to speak their truths and touch readers’ lives. I’m going to be the mother my children need, the mother their biological parents had the confidence in me to be.
I’ve got this.
Rachel Garlinghouse is a book author, freelance writer, support group leader, blogger, speaker, and adoption coach. She’s appeared on NPR, MSNBC, and in ESSENCE magazine. But the job she takes the most joy in is parenting her three children. Read more about her family at White Sugar, Brown Sugar