My daughter attends the performing arts school connected with our much maligned urban public school district. It is a school located in the middle of a low income neighborhood with a high predominance of children of color. While we love this school, we realize it faces many challenges that other schools avoid. One of those challenges is how to understand its “adoption” by a large white suburban church.
Years ago and before I adopted a black daughter, I would have applauded their efforts to provide resources, volunteers and assistance to an urban school. I would have appreciated their acts of charity and their sensitivity to the needs of these children. I wouldn’t have cringed when they described their mission as “service to poor, underprivileged children of color in the inner city.” I wouldn’t have understood how unjust such acts of charity can be.
Today, I understand what it means to adopt someone. To do so is to claim them as your own. Treating your adopted child differently than a birth child is the ugliest of acts. So it offends me when a large group of white people claim they are adopting a large group of children of color. Especially when I know the schools that their children attend are in modern buildings with higher paid teachers using the best technology. Somehow planting flowers and donating coats doesn’t seem equivalent. While I suspect they are using the word “adoption” in the loosest sense, I wish they wouldn’t. It reinforces my suspicion that they don’t fully understand the society in which they live.
I wish they would ask themselves why the children at my daughter’s school are poor. It isn’t God ordained. The poverty of these black and Latino children is systemic and intentional. It has been perpetrated for centuries by the parents, grandparents and great grandparents of the volunteers. There is a terrible irony is “helping” those who we’ve systematically denied the most basic of human resources. I can’t help wondering if these volunteers realize the parents of these children may be serving them their “value meal” at the McDonald’s drive up window or roofing their house for the lowest bid.
These volunteers recognize that these children are “underprivileged,” but I wonder if they connect that with their own privilege. These children and their families aren’t lazy. Many of the parents work two jobs. These children and their families aren’t satisfied. They dream of college and financial security. These children and their families aren’t different from the children and the families of the volunteers except in one very important way. They aren’t white. They do not have the privileges that the volunteers and their families take for granted.
When I read their description of my daughter’s school and their obvious pride in their acts of charity, I sense their ignorance more than their malice. They want so badly to think of themselves as good people. They want to make a real difference in the world. They are doing more than most of their white peers. So I hesitate to criticize. What harm are they doing? Isn’t our school better off with them than without them?
I used to think the answer to that question was an obvious “Yes!” Now I am not so sure. I wonder if their presence simply reinforces the status quo. White people are presented to children of color as “givers” even though historically they have been the opposite. I worry that these volunteers are using my daughter’s school to justify their privilege and escape any deeper accountability for the systemic injustices built into our society and so vividly exemplified by the differences between our schools. A recent mega survey in the state of Pennsylvania found that schools with a majority white population received on average between $3,000-$4,000 more per student in educational resource. The adopted children are being neglected.
Do these volunteers understand this inequity? Do they care? Are they committed to eliminating this gap? Do they realize that this injustice in our education system is simply one manifestation of the injustice of charity? Most of the foundations in the United States are giving away money that was created by white men through the exploitation of people of color. We are the robber barons. What we give in charity is simply what we’ve stolen in the past. This paradox requires the victims of systemic racism to express gratefulness to their oppressors. No wonder we react so badly to people chanting “black lives matter.” We who are white have been conditioned to expect gratitude instead of challenge, appreciation instead of criticism, and adulation instead of censure.
I wish these white volunteers would REALLY adopt our school, that they would commit to treating these children as their own. With their privilege, they could accomplish so much. They could express their outrage in this treatment of their children, demanding their political representatives alter the formulas that determine school funding. They could require an explanation for why some of their children are being treated with so much less regard than others. I know the power of an enraged white parent. Government officials and school administrators fear their wrath. I wish, when these officials explained the need to increase taxes, these white people responded, “These are our children you are talking about. Do whatever is necessary!”
I suppose that is wishful thinking.
The truth is that those of us who have adopted a child of color are rare. We cannot expect those “playing” at adoption to fully understand the ramifications of loving a child of color. It changes you – and how you see our society – completely. Without that, I suppose planting flowers and donating coats might seem sufficient and even charitable.
To me, it just seems unjust.