I am the product of an interracial adoption. My birth father is Black and my birth mother is white. At the age of eighteen months, I was adopted by a white Jewish family which lived in a predominately white suburb of Buffalo, New York.
My adoptive parents believed that the world should be color blind, so they raised me in the same way as they did their three biological children. My family never addressed the fact that my skin was brown or my hair curly. Nor did they discuss with me social and political issues relating to the African-African community. My parents did not see a need to expose me to Black culture, history, or role models.
This indifference to my race appeared to extend to the larger community in which I was raised. In general, my close friends and neighbors made little reference to my race. I spent much of my life in Buffalo attempting to "fit in" with my white peers which, for the most part, I did. In this contrived state of "color blindness" I excelled. In high school I served as class president, was selected as a first clarinetist in the All-County Band, won a gold medal in volleyball at the Empire State Games, graduated with an "A" average, and was selected as a student speaker at my high school graduation.
However, despite my achievements, I was still exposed to racism. Strangers occasionally hurled racial insults at me, and white parents attempted to prevent their daughters from dating me. Thus, although I was outwardly successful, this period in my life was difficult and confusing. I could not understand how I could be popular at school, an excellent student, live in the same neighborhoods as my classmates, and yet be subject to insults and rejection because of my race.
"What was wrong with me?" I wondered.
There were other uncomfortable moments as well. Occasionally, someone would make a racial slur or a negative generalization about Blacks only to turn to me and say that they did not really consider me to be Black. Oddly enough, I took pride in not being considered Black. I wanted to be accepted by my friends and community and I realized that although I did not understand what "being Black" meant, I knew that being Black was perceived as inferior to being white. Without knowing any Blacks from whom I could draw a positive racial identity, I simply denied my African-American heritage. I longed to be fully white -- not biracial -- and I silently cursed my nose, lips, hair and skin color. Although I had many unanswered questions about my racial identity, I did not want to explore them and risk losing whatever small sense of security I had in feeling that I belonged in the larger white community.
When I enrolled in a small private college in Central New York, I felt even more confused about my racial identity. Fellow students did not know my personal background and I slowly began to realize that I could no longer ignore the color of my skin.
When classmates looked at me, they did not simply see a fellow student, they saw a Black student. I had a difficult time adjusting and did not feel that I could "fit in" as easily as I had during high school. Again, I was confused as to why I should be looked upon differently by my white classmates.
After all, I felt that I had more life experiences in common with the white students than the Black students, yet I was not fully accepted by the white students.
Growing up I worked diligently to ignore the racial differences between myself and my white friends.
In college, however, race took on a significance that I had never previously considered. Racial slurs and negative remarks were more common and the student body was visibly segregated, thus my internal racial tensions were intensified. Although I slowly gained an awareness of the Black community during college, I made every effort to disassociate myself from that community because I did not want to be identified as Black. I accepted the general perception of African-Americans as inferior to whites which I learned in the "color blind" world in which I was raised. Furthermore, I felt that I more readily identified with the white community because until this point, my life experience consisted almost exclusively of interaction with whites, including my adoptive family, neighbors, friends, classmates and teachers. Thus, my college experience led to even more confusion about my racial identity and I developed an intense feeling of not fitting in with either Blacks or whites. People identified me as Black yet I knew nothing about what that identification meant. I had never been exposed to African- American culture or history or to any of the issues facing the Black community.
Although I tried desperately to assimilate into the white community during college, I began to realize that my skin color would prevent me from being fully accepted. I became further confused when people who were supposed to be my friends made racial slurs. Since I had become more aware of racial differences, these comments stung me like never before. I cannot fully describe the feelings of loneliness and shame that I felt while sitting in a room of white students with whom I felt I identified and enduring the silence that follows when someone used the term "nigger" before realizing that I was present. Incidents like these made me realize that I could no longer continue to attempt to be a part of this group, and yet, I felt I had no way of bridging the gap between other Black students and myself.
During these difficult years I gained a greater sense of the separation that exists between Blacks and whites. However, awareness alone was not sufficient to allow me to fully understand my racial identity. Being raised by a family that did not appreciate the significance of racial differences and the importance of developing a positive racial identity in a Black child left me unprepared to face the complexities of being an African- American male in this society.
Because I felt that I did not belong to any group, my confidence eroded. I was ashamed and embarrassed when people discussed race or when they wanted to know about my family. I was confused because I did not understand my biracial background and did not have the support of my natural parents to help me understand my heritage. Instead of believing in myself, my abilities and my intelligence, as I had in high school, I became withdrawn. I did not readily participate in class or take part in extra-curricular activities because of my insecurity and confusion about my racial identity. Although I learned that we simply do not live in a "color blind" world, I felt that I had no one to turn to in order to help me understand what it meant to be an African-American man in our society.
Fortunately, upon graduating from college, I had the opportunity to meet someone who shared my biracial heritage and who helped me begin developing a positive racial identity. For the first time, I developed friendships with other Blacks. I also began to read African-American history and literature -- something to which I had never been exposed. I learned that there are many biracial people like myself, and that I should appreciate my racial identity and my distinctive features which identify me as an African-American.
I have learned to appreciate the sense of community that exists among African-Americans and I realize that I am a welcome and needed member of that community. I also stopped questioning what is wrong with me -- as I did for many years -- and began to ask what is wrong with an individual, a society, and a world filled with racism, prejudice and ignorance. Finally -- and most importantly for the purposes of this Article -- I have learned that all Black children need to develop a positive racial identity in order to value themselves and their identity rather than succumb to racism and prejudice which may lead them to feel inadequate or inferior regardless of their individual accomplishments.