You Can’t Counsel Yourself into Belonging

Facebook Red Table Talk, Jada Pinkett Smith, Willow Smith, Gammy, Photographed by Michael Becker

Watching Angela Tucker be invited to the Red Table to address transracial adoption from the perspective of an adult adoptee was possibly a landmark moment for many of us. I‘m thrilled that she had the chance and the courage to speak on a subject that adoptees know creates disruption, and frequently outright hostility.

I waited all day for it to appear watching a back catalogue of episodes including one that I couldn’t bring myself to watch before that day, addressing the question “Should white people adopt black kids?” in which the guest is a white adoptive parent and notably absent are any adult adoptees.

It’s not lost on me that one such episode on white privilege the family discuss the meaning and impact of the quote “Prejudice is the emotional commitment to ignorance”. In another episode on relationships between black women and white women, Jada talks honestly about the difficult feeling she gets around white women, especially blonde white women. Later I will think of this and imagine what she would say if she were asked to fit in with a group of blonde white women the way it seems they expect Angela can do in a black community.

Angela expresses things many adoptees will relate to in one form or another, while others may not. For example, she currently feels more comfortable in white communities and parenting white foster children, and I see a lot of criticism online for that, from both adoptees and non-adoptees.

If there’s one thing we know about being an adoptee it’s that we can hold changing perspectives on our own experience over time and offering others the space to be where they are is to offer it to ourselves. 

One moment that touched me was when Angela said “I’m hoping that I live to see the day where people say, when I say ‘I’m adopted’, they say ‘oh my gosh, did someone try to keep you with your family first?’ instead of celebrating her adoption and expecting gratitude for it. When Jada said “I’ve never thought of it that way before” I exhaled, there’s healing in having your experience seen and acknowledged that way. I’ve felt it lately with friends, who told me “You’re really opening my eyes”. In a world where people actively fight to deny my reality, I’m so healed by having people in my life who can and do shift their perspective. Equally, I can see that those moments have often come over several months in which I share openly and not without misunderstandings. So perhaps it’s a lot to expect a 20 minute show to shift perspectives very far in one day. It will take time and more of our voices to build understanding.

Back at the red table, a tonal shift in the conversation occurs swiftly with Angela’s vulnerable admission that she feels fear in the company of black people, in this moment I sense she lost some of her hosts empathy as Gamma tenses and asks her to explain why she chose the word ‘fear’. The fear of black people is so inextricable with a legacy of discrimination and violence it’s hardly surprising the word fear is alarming, I myself held my breath. But ‘real talk’ is at the centre of the show and to understand transracial adoption is just that, real. Gamma had shown evidence of it herself in an earlier show when she admitted she had found it easier to accept a white man into the family than a white women.

As a fellow adoptee what I know is that the fear I feel around people of my own culture is also an implicit memory of my own relinquishment. Around people who look like those who gave me up and those I’ve lived without, I feel vulnerable, rejectable. Can a non-adoptee ever truly understand that feeling? 

Getting into her stride, Gamma soon advises Angela to ‘counsel yourself’ for questioning how she could teach a black (foster) child to be black, Gamma points out that Angela counsels white couples in transracial adoption. Angela however, doesn’t counsel white people on being black, she doesn’t counsel them on fitting in to black culture, instead she uses her lived experience as a transracial adoptee to educate adoptive parents on the hazards, missing racial mirrors and role models. That’s not the same thing as actually being a black person trying to fit into a black culture they’ve grown up without.

You can’t counsel yourself into belonging.

You can’t learn belonging any more than you can learn to be a peacock. You may learn enough to hang out with peacocks without alarming them but try to fly and you’ll know you’re not peacocky enough pretty quickly. Just so with the iceberg of culture. A myriad of secret handshakes lie beneath, unspoken tests and initiations sit between ourselves and others.

Belonging is at the heart of identity. Those who think it’s enough to decide who you are independently of others beliefs, are underestimating the role that being seen plays in our identity. Self-acceptance in our identity is a small, sometimes inconsequential island, validation of our identity is a continent. For transracial adoptees there can be a lot of sea between our island and that continent.

I think about Angela sitting at that table with three generations of black women, secure in their kinship with each other, bound together by biology and a shared history. Across the table Angela sits between a white couple who raised her, and look nothing like her, and the black women who gave birth to her – who looks like her but is foreign to her. I try to imagine what Angela needed from those women across the table chiding her to counsel herself.

I think there could be healing both for Angela and many adoptees who relate to her if they could have said, “I’m sorry you have to struggle to belong with your own people, I completely understand why you feel that way. We want you to know that for us, you belong right here at this table here with us”.

Angela and all adoptees – you belong at our table, your voice is important to us, thank you!

4 Replies to “You Can’t Counsel Yourself into Belonging”

  1. Brave girl to speak out like this. So hard to explain these deepest of feelings that are complex and vulnerable and receive trite responses.

  2. Wonderful recap. That moment of “counsel” gave me real pause; it was really revealing how misunderstood all of this can be for folks. Angela is a rockstar and I’m so happy she was rightfully invited to the table.

    1. Yes so revealing, and sadly no time to unpack it on the show, so it garnered a fair amount of hostility from viewers. Yes Angela is a rock star! I loved reading her recent blog post about it

Leave a Reply