Friday, March 1, 2013

A Family is…Raceless - Guest-Post by Shannon LC Cate

I've asked several adoption and social work bloggers to share about films that have impacted them, either positively or negatively. Shannon LC Cate, whose work appears in several places including Peter's Cross Station, shares about Rosie O'Donnell's documentary, "A Family is a Family is a Family."

 When Rosie O’Donnell released her documentary “A Family is a Family is a Family,"
it was largely celebrated as a tribute to family diversity and the power of love to triumph over social differences and misunderstandings.

I anticipated the movie hopefully, and in some ways it was a nice affirmation for families like my own. But ultimately, I found it disappointing.

The fact is that although “love makes a family” as the slogan goes, it is also true that “love is not enough” – as another slogan goes

To watch Rosie’s movie, you would think that “love” was a band-aid adequate to cover and cure all kinds of traumas and challenges that families outside the normative, mainstream model face.

For example:

Unless I missed it in three viewings, the film contained not ONE single mention of race.  There were loads of colorful examples of interracial families both by marriage and birth and by adoption, but not one single mention of this or why it might require discussion.  It was the typical White Liberal colorblind approach to the topic of race which–have we not learned by now?–is the wrong approach.

When a film sets itself up as an unwincing account of the beauty of family difference and variety, not mentioning that families can contain people of different races–and discussing that–is a glaring oversight.  The film discusses single-parent, same-sex parent, ART, internationally and domestically adoptive families but not one word is spoken about race.  

If you can ask a little girl to talk about her abandonment, institutionalization and adoption, it seems you can broach the topic of how it feels to be the black child of two white men, right?

Guess not.

But not to talk about it—while everyone can see it—is to send the message that race is a shameful topic, or that racial difference in families doesn’t matter. And it does.

As long as race is a category by which our society (U.S. American society specifically, but many other Western societies too) allots privileges and denies them, it is critical to make race clear and give children who don’t share their parents’ race a voice to explore what this means to them—let alone to give parents who don’t share their children’s race to show their full support of their kids’ struggles (when, as is usually the case, at least one parent is white, while the children are not).

Complicating this problematic silence in the film, is the parroting by children, of grownup explanations of various family forms.  It reminds me of the times I hear other same-sex parents, or adoptive parents talk about how their kids have "no problem at all!" with their family differences; how they willingly volunteer the story of their family to strangers with pride, etc.  

And I think it’s fairly common for young children—under five or six—to willingly accept and repeat whatever they’ve been told about their family and its meaning.  But much older than that, children begin to develop their own complicated feelings about their difference from others—including, often, sad stories about what made them available for adoption. It seems likely that platitudes like, "a family is love!" sends a message that these more complicated feelings are shameful, wrong, or at the very least unacceptable to express.
Sure, a family is love.  But kids still live in a world in which there's a lot more than love–and more than family, for that matter–influencing their daily experiences of life.  A loving family should be a place where it is safe to air the difficulties that arise from being different without fear of upsetting your parents. But when those parents keep declaring that those differences don't matter, it might very well make a kid wonder if they aren’t protesting a bit too much.

The only thing that salvaged the film for me were the musical performances by kids and their families.  My own children loved that aspect of the show and it was cute and well done.  But children in nontraditional families need meat and potatoes, not cotton candy fluff when it comes to negotiating their differences from the mainstream culture, if they are to learn real pride and real spokesmanship for what matters in a family.

Shannon LC Cate has been writing about family, parenting, politics and religion since 2000. Her work has appeared on,, Literary, Lesbian, in Adoptive Families Magazine, Gay Chicago Magazine and elsewhere.  Her debut novel, Jack, is forthcoming from Musa Publishing in September 2013.
She lives in Chicago with her partner, CL Cole and their daughters, Nat and Selina.

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You might also like these other posts:

Review of "Precious" by Social Jerk

Review of "The Blindside" by Lori Holden

Review of "Les Miserables" by Adoption at the Movies

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  1. Thank you for this. I pinned it on my Challenging Children Board.

    As perhaps the most experienced foster parent in the world I have strong feelings that race cannot be denied in a racial society. Stay strong.

  2. Thanks Katherine. I quite agree!

  3. This is a great reminder that equally important to what we DO talk about is what we DON'T talk about. I agree with you that "not to talk about to send the message that race is a shameful topic, or that racial difference in families doesn’t matter."

    This is a very helpful review. Thank you, Shannon.

    1. I think what you said there captures my thoughts on any adoption issue --- "not to talk about it is to send the message that it's a shameful topic, or that it doesn't matter."


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