Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Race and Conversion

I recently finished reading Black Baby White Hands by Jaiya John. He is an African-American male who was adopted as an infant by a white couple. He has three white siblings, the biological children of his adoptive parents (one older, two younger) and another African-American adopted brother.

As a child, his family never discussed race. He says that this lack of conversation, the failure to state explicitly what was implicit in the family dynamic, was not "color-blindness" but rather a refusal to acknowledge an important part of him.

I confess that I was troubled by some of what he wrote. I felt often that he was looking for proof that people were racist and therefore finding racism where there was none. Nevertheless, it made me think and challenged my assumptions.

And, to some extent, it challenges a fundamental tenet of Judaism: that once a person has converted, you are not supposed to mention the conversion. Considering conversion metaphorically (that is, not that adoption equals/requires/implies conversion) conversion and adoption are both versions of joining a family). This would indicate that what is significant is one's membership in a family, not the method by which one joined the family. However, John's experience counters this.


  1. I think it is important that the way that John is treated in the world does not change because he is adopted by a white family. To the world he is still a black man, and that experience was something he presumably needed his parents to acknowledge and help him with. That help might have primarily consisted in finding him other mentors/community, but to pretend that it was not an issue at all meant that he was alone in it.

    (I haven't read the book...I'm just responding to the issue in general.)

  2. That's a really good point, and his experience growing up was in a very white world. It also was decades ago (he's about 10 years older than I am) and his experiences, and those of other kids like him, have changed the way race and culture are dealt with in the child welfare world. We know now that it is important to help kids find a broader community with members of their own race; his adoption was one of the first bi-racial adoptions in [whichever state he was adopted in].

  3. I know this post is 2 months old, but I just found your blog (which I'm loving), and wanted to jump in on this one. I actually think your analogy is a good one, in that it demonstrates the difference between what should happen and what actually does. It's true that how one enters a family or religion shouldn't matter, but the fact is that in the real world it does. I have a number of friends who converted to Judaism, and their experiences have been different than those of us who grew up Jewish. It's not that anyone has ever made them unwelcome, but they have a different history. There are conversations about childhood rituals that they can't participate in. There are songs and tunes they didn't learn at Jewish summer camps. Some of them have names that are clearly not of Jewish origin. There are family members who either don't join them for holidays, or who come but are more observers than participants. They have choices to make about how to balance their religion with their past and their family. Will they eat at their parents' house? Visit for Christmas? Maintain some of their own childhood traditions even if they aren't strictly Jewish?

    I guess what I'm saying is that I think John's experience applies to religion as well as race, at least in the broadest sense. I am all in favor of creating inclusive communities and doing everything possible to make people feel welcome, but I'm not sure we are actually doing them a favor by pretending to ignore their past, because I don't think it's possible for any of us to do more than pretend.

  4. Sarsmile, thanks for your thoughts! Your comment resonated for me because, though I was born Jewish, I also never learned the traditional Jewish summer camp songs (and Israeli folk dances), didn't have a bat mitzvah, celebrated Christmas, and face dilemmas with being at my parents' house. Anyway, I don't have a deep response to your comment, but welcome to my blog and please keep commenting!