Welcome to week two of my Summer Interview Series. Each week I'll post an interview with someone touched by adoption. I hope that you will enjoy learning about them as much as I have. Please let me know if you would like to participate or would like to suggest someone else for me to interview.
This week - children's book author Ola Zuri
1. What is your name/title as you would like it to appear on my blog?
Ola Zuri, Children’s Author, Mentor
2. How has your life been touched by adoption?
When I was two years old, my twin sister and I were adopted transracially out of foster care in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. I also have a sister five years younger, who was born to my adoptive parents. When I was almost seven, I moved to Calgary, Alberta. I had a rough childhood when it came to fitting in, belonging to a group, and being able to relate with anyone. As I looked around me to see what I could find that I could relate to or with, it became apparent that there was not a lot that was out there for me. I have struggled during this life for many years, not knowing who I was or where I belonged. I found, and still find, that many other adoptees that I speak with had similar experiences of not belonging and of feeling lost within their worlds. I am now an author of children’s books that help children with their own healing and journey toward self with positive messages to believe in oneself.
I decided that the children of today needed to have a resource that could help guide them through the issues that so many transracial adoptees appear to go through. Being that the stories stem from personal experiences of my being an adoptee, I believe that the children will be able to feel a connection with my being the author who actually went through the same feelings, questions, emotions, and problems that they will go through. The books that I have to offer to the children are a series that I wish I could have had as I was growing up. Having the opportunity to work through the ups and downs of all the various questions, feelings, and emotions that are explored in these books will help the children as they grow, rather than when they are grown.
3. What is your relationship today with the members of your adoptive family?
My relationship with my adoptive family is fairly minimal - when I first brought up the subject of how I felt growing up with the family I did and the experiences I had with the little, actually no, real support from them, I was more or less banned from being a part of the family. It was a “how dare I act as if my life was so bad when they had adopted me and done the best that they could.” My mom and I had not spoken for years until recently yet when I do something she disapproves of, she gives me the silent treatment all over again and I don’t hear from her. As far a my father, we haven’t spoken for years, at least ten. He seems to have little or no interest in what has been happening with myself and my children and I am unable to provide the extra time out of my busy life to run after him.
4. What is your relationship today with the members of your biological family?
My relationship with my biological family is non existent. My biological mother passed away a few years ago and we had been in an on and off contact situation, via mail, for about four years before that. As for other members of the family, I was in contact at the beginning of having found my biological mother in 1995 and then things kind of stopped and we have not communicated since the death of my biological mother in 2004. I have a half brother whom I expected to continue contact with yet for some reason or another, he was always off doing his own thing and never returned calls or letters so that relationship has not bloomed.
5. Understanding that every child and every situation is different, I'm nevertheless interested in your thoughts about trans-racial adoption in general:
* What do you think are the long-term effects on the child (positive and negative)? On the adoptive parents?
The long term effects on the child are pretty diverse. What I mean is that all people are different and have different views on what happened in their families and within their communities. Having no one to relate to or look like you can be a very difficult thing for a child to have to overcome - seeing the negative attitude towards some races in the media and seeing how the celebrities adopt certain races and the not so positive media attention they receive can be devastating for some - living in small towns without the diversity a large metropolis may have can be hard for some to adjust to - Children who do not have a connection with others who look like them actually can gravitate towards them as they are growing up - there is an uncontrollable need or want, a longing inside of something the child doesn’t have yet somehow realizes is something he/she needs - keeping connections to people of color is extremely beneficial for the child to see who he/she may be able to relate with.
There are positives that can take place for a child in the love and support that the parents put forth with any literature, mentoring groups, hair supports and anything parents are willing to do to help keep a child in contact with their cultural background. The resources parents have today for their child are valuable tools for ensuring the chid has an extra connection to their race, history, and culture.
Adoptive parents can have long term effects in very negative ways where they feel resentment toward the child whom they adopted for not feeling like he/she fit in - for not having the belief that their love should have been enough during the child’s childhood - positive effects parents could be the resources parents are willing to include in the child’s life - from the hair products and salons, the mentoring groups, the same race as the child contacts, the cultural inclusion within the family, the positive literature available to both the parents and the children and the pure enjoyment of being a parent to a child!
* If you were to place a child for adoption what would be your first choice of adoptive family - same race, trans-race, or doesn't matter?
If I were to place a child for adoption, my first choice for an adoptive family would be a same race family. I say this because it was difficult for me to find out things about being a person of color in this world when my parents could not, would not, be able to relate to or understand what it was I was feeling or going through. I would want my child to have a family of the same race who could assist him/her through the issues of race, status, and any other issues because of the simple fact that they would be able to relate to what it was he/she would be going through. Having said that, there are definitely not enough people of color adopting children and the reality is the majority of children available for adoption are children of color and the parents who are available to adopt are generally non color families.
However, I do not believe children should be left in the foster care system because of the fact there are not enough same race families to place them in. All children deserve to have a home and a family and being left in care can be harmful, hurtful, and extremely detrimental in how a child develops a positive self image and positive self esteem. So in the end, if my child were to be adopted by a trans-race family, I would encourage interactions with others who look like my child and finding other outside influences to aid in the development of the child.
* Do you think trans-racial adoptions are more a function of a surplus of Caucasian families or a dearth of families of color?
There are certainly an abundance of families who are not of color than there are of color. Unfortunately, there is such a high demand of children of color in foster care and in international orphanages that are awaiting homes and not enough families to adopt them. That being said, I can see the reason more families not of color are able to adopt transracially.
* Do you know of any Caucasian children who were adopted by families of color?
I know of one family of color who has adopted a child who is not of color. I have not seen nor heard of any others - there may be more yet they are not in the same abundance as the reverse so it is not as prominent in the communities.
* There seems to be a strong interest or need among communities to label people. Which of the labels imposed on you have affected your life more, "female", "adopted", "trans-racial", or "African-American"? Do you think of yourself in terms of any or those labels, other labels, or none at all?
As I was growing up, the pressure that I felt to be “more black” was actually really important to me when I would meet other black people. I didn’t understand the foods that they ate and sometimes the different clothes that they wore or their accents. I remember that most black people that I met had a different attitude towards me when I said that I didn’t know what they were talking about when it came to certain foods or music. Having been raised in a very white, country music city, the exposure to anything black was virtually non-existent and I didn’t have the support of parents who were willing to show me anything that had anything to do with black culture.
As I continued to mature, I found myself drawn more and more towards things that were black - clothes, foods, books, art, music, movies and even starting to collect items for whenever I would have children of my own. I felt it was important to make sure that I had some things that made me feel like I was black, that I “got it.” The labels of being female, adopted, transracial, or African-American have not been the focus on my life as much as the labels “black,” “foreigner,” “minority,” and “ token.” These labels have affected my life because of the derogatory way they have been used to describe me. I have had too many people tell me I didn’t belong or wasn’t accepted because of the label placed on me.
* Similar question - To the best of your knowledge, what labels have affected your parents most, and which labels do they apply to themselves?
My parents have never expressed any discomfort with being called Adoptive Parents - they may have felt it more when I was growing up because of the differences in family dynamics of the era, yet now when we are anywhere in the public eye, the label doesn’t seem to come up at all nor do people seem to question the fact that we are a family anymore. For them as parents, the label of adoptive parent is better now than it was then.
6. How have your thoughts and feelings about adoption changed over time (both with respect to your personal experience and adoption in general.)
My thoughts and feelings about adoption has changed many times over time - when I first started writing essays and term papers on adoption, I was completely for it - race didn’t matter, love did - end of discussion. As time went on and I was discovering who I was, who was inside of me that I didn’t know, as I met others in the community and talked about adoption, transracial adoption and race issues, I came to realize I was not at all at the same crossroads as I was earlier in my life, when it came to supporting adoption, as I had been to begin with.
The disconnect a child feels from not being with the biological family, the loss of a culture, and a community, when a child is adopted transacially and internationally, the confusion a child goes through with regards to identity, the unknown that most adoptees feel as they are growing up and some decide to ignore it and move on with life, while others take everything to heart and work at finding the answers to their healing - as I realized these areas were extremely important to someone who is adopted, I knew my rational feelings and thoughts toward adoption in general was hugely affected.
7. What would you like people to know about being adopted? About being adopted trans-racially?
What I would like people to know about being adopted and about being adopted transracially, is that it all matters! What I mean is everything in an adoptee’s life is not the same as your biological child’s - their background cannot always be traced, the biological family may not be in the picture or may be to start and then al of a sudden stops, - everything from hair, skin, race issues to culture, music, heritage, genes, biological parents and siblings and even extended family members - all of these areas matter and need to be addressed with the adopted person at one, five, twenty, one hundred times throughout a lifetime - the need for connection by adoptive parents to their adopted child is key to ensuring a healthy bond, a healthy connection, a healthy journey for both the parents and especially for the child. After all, it is the child who was adopted into the family, not the other way around. Being told you are special because you were chosen, is not always what an adopted person wants to hear. It is not as special as some people may think.
My parents didn’t put a lot of time or effort into ensuring that I felt okay as an adoptee, let alone a transracial adoptee. I wish my parents had actually acknowledged my race as something I had to deal with. I didn’t realize I would go through the racism problems I had to because my parents never made it an issue or concern for me. There were times when my parents would snap at people with angry comments about my being an adopted child and that embarrassed me more than helped me feel good about one, being adopted, and two, being black. Being that I am black, I think that race is a huge issue for a child to have to all of a sudden deal with on her/his own. Having the support, words of encouragement, and love from my parents would have helped me face the racism and, ultimately, my own identity, a lot easier than I was able to.
Children need whatever kind of love and support that they can get and having an extended family that cares about their well being and development is very important and extremely beneficial. As I was growing up, I did not have the luxury of having grandparents that cared about what happened to me, or about developing any special bonds of love and sense of belonging and being a part of the family. My grandparents on my father’s side, did not like the fact that my sister and I were black and showed it. There was always the attitude of non-acceptance in the air when I remember going over to their house and the children can be seen but not heard when over there. Too many times I remember having to lie on the floor over there and play the game of who can lie still the longest and then I would end up falling asleep because it was always for so long. I never enjoyed going over there.
My mother’s family was a little more welcoming but there was a definite clash between my grandfather and I because he never treated me as if I belonged and that was hurtful because my sister was treated better than I was with him. I think that as long as the children have extended family that are interested in developing bonds with all of the children and show the same love and affection towards them all, the children will benefit a lot by having that extension available.
8. Are there any resources you recommend for birth parents, adoptive parents, adoptees?
The resources that are available today are immense compared to when I was growing up. There is a lot more literature, support groups, counsellors who understand about attachment and belonging who can aid or assist with the child(ren) who feels out of place. There are also support groups in the way of mentoring for children, in the form of multicultural camps or mentoring groups, a place where everyone comes and it is all about them, having fun together and being a part of an experience geared toward the child(ren). These resources are so helpful for the family as a whole because there are many opportunities given for each member to see others who look like them, to have a network of people who have, or may, experience similar things being in the same type of family situation. When I was growing up, I did not have any other families around me who looked the same as my family did - I was never exposed to others who may feel what I felt nor did my parents have any friends in the same situation.
The Believe In Me program I have started and am taking across the country, has been widely accepted already. The overall purpose of the program is to provide positive literature to encourage and empower all children to believe in themselves with determination and faith while discovering and using perseverance for success and overcoming obstacles in life.
Believe In Me gives parents the support needed to raise confidence levels in
children. It provides resources for the educators, support workers and community members while helping children develop to their best level as individuals. This program creates ways for all children, in every part of the country, in building positive self esteem from within. Why Can’t You Look Like Me and Where Do I Belong are the first two of six titles in the program. These books open children up to having to deal with their feelings when they are unsure of how to feel. They offer a distinctly broader view of dealing with situations any child may experience that is on the level of the child. Next, the books emphasize roles to actively teach and encourage the child to believe in what is inside of himself/herself and not on what others may say or want for him/her. The variety of subjects to be included in the series include family, belonging, fitting in, identity, adoption, foster care, and most importantly is building a positive self esteem and a positive self confidence within the children.
9. Anything else you want to say?
So, don’t get me wrong with the answers that I gave. I know that I was very fortunate to have the family that I had when I was growing up. I had a roof over my head, clothes to wear, books to read, gifts and activities to experience. Having said that, I would take it all back in a heartbeat if I could have had a family that had actually wanted me for me, a family that loved me no matter what, and believed in me and what potential I had and could have. My parents thought they did the best that they could and I guess in reality, they did not seek out any resources that there may have been for them and ultimately, for my sister and I.
I personally didn’t think very much of it was the best and now with my own children, I do so many things differently. I do not want my children growing up thinking that I don’t believe in them, love them or want the best for them. The attitude towards them will always be one of pride and confidence in all that they can do because I know that I missed those qualities in my parents when I was growing up. The book series that I have in the works will help all children to believe in themselves, in who they are inside, and to rely on what is right for them not what is going on around them.
Not all children are lucky enough to have parents that care about what is happening in the everyday for their children. By having the books I am writing available in schools and libraries, it will still give all of those children the opportunity to read them when the parents won’t provide them with their own copy at home. A child will develop as he/she is taught and will withdraw into his/her own world when there is no positive resource available though the family network. Let’s hope more families are willing to bend a little and see there is more to adoption than meets the eye and be open to any and all assistance available to them! After all, it’ s for the children!
Last, but not least, is something I would like to express is one word that describes what “belonging” can mean to a child:
Acceptance - acceptance within one’s family, one’s school, one’s community - when a child believes he/she has been completely and totally accepted into their family, the ability to believe in and accept oneself becomes so much easier for a child. what I mean is a child who has a parent(s) that will listen to all of his/her concerns, issues, problems, emotions, worries and will not judge or try to do the quick fix for the child, this child will have gained such a feeling of acceptance from the parent(s) because whatever the issue was, the child will have always had the support from someone who wanted to provide it, not from someone who was obligated to provide it.
Children know when someone is being genuine and when someone is doing something because it has to be done. there is a difference and the parent(s) who can figure it out and can be there 150% without expectation, without judgement, without ridicule or sarcasm, or any negatives, that(those) will be the parent(s) who have children that are more willing to share thoughts, feelings, dreams, problems, and everything life has to bring their way. it is more likely for these children to be open with a support system who has been there throughout the times of confusion and will continue to be there.
Kids go through so many issues in their life and belonging should never have to be one of them - the reaality however, is that all children seem to have to go through some sort of belonging. whether it be in a sports related area, a school function, a school group, a class environment, or even within the family, there is some place in a child’s growing up years where “belonging” is something he/she has to try and do. as a child is growing up, the everyday stressess of wondering what to wear and what to pack in the lunch bag should be the most important things on a child’s mind - not wondering who he/she can sit with in the lunch room, or who is going to play with him/her on the playground, if anyone will play with him/her. worries about what others think about him/her is very unfortunate and has a lot of kids diagnosed with anxiety disorders as a result of not being able to handle the pressures. belonging is a way for others to say “you don’t belong” and then the child deals with how to fit in and where to fit in. when a child is taught from the formative years to believe in who is inside of themself and not on what others say or want for him/her, the child will have inner strength when the “belonging” issues cone up during school or sports and will be stronger for himself/herself in handling the situation with a positive attitude and positive outlook on how he/she can deal with the situation.
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