In my first memory of us, we are fighting, my brother and I. Of course we are. We fought constantly.
I am four. Billy has seven years, a large amount of physical prowess and serious muscle mass on me. I fight him again and again in the vain hope that God will bless me like David taking on Goliath.
It never happens. Instead, Billy delivers a righteous ass-kicking. He sweeps my legs out from under me. My fall onto the lily pad patterned family room carpet is spectacular. The bright sun shines through the bare trees in Rock Creek Park and spotlights my pale, midair body. In the movie version, my fall would be in slo-mo with the audio slowed down as well, my groan dropping in pitch, my impact reverberating like summer thunder.
Before I hit the ground, Billy leaps on top of me. I pull an arm back to slap him and he pins it. I twist a knee up, and he moves his balls out of the way just in time. He uses his own knees to pin one of my legs and then grabs one of my hands.
“Why’re you hitting yourself?” he asks, smacking my hand against my forehead.
“Are too!” Smack!
“You’re doing it!”
“No,” Smack! “You are. Say you are.”
“Okay, okay.” Smack! “I’m hitting myself.”
Billy leans even harder on me for a moment, just a moment, just long enough.
He lets me go. I bounce up, catching my breath.
And then I start to laugh. I sing over and over again in a sour, taunting voice: “Black face! Black face! Black face!”
How is it that — even at four years old — I knew that I could use my brother’s race to wound him?
BILL: I was in the system, I needed a loving home and I got one. Mom and Dad are my Mom and Dad and that’s all there is to it. I don’t feel any after effects, like a victim. I think things worked out pretty well for me. I can only imagine what my life woulda been like.
My parents adopted my older brother in 1973 in Houston, TX. In a photo commemorating the occasion, my dad holds Billy’s hand, walking him to a new world. They are both smiling. Dad’s hair and beard are hippie-length; Billy’s hair approaches afro and his arm stretches up to meet his new father. In the photo, Dad is younger than I am today by almost a decade, assuming a responsibility that terrifies me. A descendant of slave owners, he seeks to remake the world through love.
And what of my mom, the curly-headed Jewess in the next photo? I like to think that having grown up in Richmond, Virginia in an era when housing codes and country clubs kept Jews excluded from white society, choosing to integrate her family felt like justice.
It turns out neither of these heroic myths — the pioneering father, the righteous mother — are true.
“Oh no,” my mom says when I ask her, laughing. “I’ve never thought about it in those terms. We were twenty-three.” My dad supplies the real reason my brother joined our family: “Zero population growth. But we wanted to have more than two kids.”
When she studied journalism in college, Mom penned a series of articles on “hard to place” adoptions. “Hard to place” meant black or disabled. She started attending meetings of white parents of “hard to place” children. “I thought those people were pretty cool,” she says about it now. “They were young professionals, they seemed like us.” Inspiration struck; my parents dedicated themselves to adopting a child of color.
After moving to Houston for graduate school, they applied to adopt a child. Every week, The Houston Chronicle ran a picture and a short blurb about available children, and every time they featured an infant of color, mom called the hotline number. She told the social worker, “We’re interested in that child, it doesn’t have to be that child, but would you write a note in our file that we would consider that child?” Each time she called she spoke to a different person. Eventually, Mom’s luck turned and she spoke to Sandy.
When my parents talk about Sandy, their voices change. Their words become inflected with light, like she’s an old family friend. I could hear the smiles shift their pitch on the other end of the telephone. Sandy told them to come to a meeting she had organized for couples wanting to adopt. Of the four couples invited, only my parents and one other couple showed up. “The other couple were a strange African American couple,” Dad recalls, “A man in his late 20s and a woman a decade older, an above the knee amputee. And he was her minister’s son.”
During a break, Sandy came up to them in the hall.
“I think we got a kid for you,” she told them. That kid became William Lewis Butler. Billy, eventually Bill. My older brother.
Seven weeks later, my parents met thirteen-month-old Billy for the first time at his foster family’s house where they learned how to change a diaper. A few days later, Sandy drove Billy to my parents’ house in her VW Bug and he walked through their front door. That weekend, my mother called a friend to ask if she should take Billy’s shoes off when he took a nap. The friend responded by coming right over and giving mom a crash course in infant parenting.
Six months and a steep learning curve later, Bill legally became their child. It is this day that the photos commemorate. As far as I know, no photographs exist of my brother’s first six months with my parents. Perhaps they were afraid to commemorate that time, afraid to record this child whom they might not get to call their son.
BILL: [My birth parent’s] lives are their lives, my life is my life. If they wanted to meet me, I would meet with them. I would say, you know, “hello,” or whatever. At this point, I don’t feel a need to go on and carry on a relationship with them in any way. If I was asked to go on a talk show to meet them, I wouldn’t go. I’d say [laughing] absolutely not. I’m not going on Oprah to meet my birth mom or any of that nonsense.
In September of 1972, two months before my parents began the adoption process, the National Association of Black Social Workers (NABSW) released the first of several statements formally opposing trans-racial adoptions. In it, they write that ethnicity is a “meaningful and legitimate societal construct,” and that the lack of black parents willing to adopt is solely caused by difficulties in “maneuver[ing] the obstacle course of the traditional adoption process,” a process whose design intrinsically favors middle-class whites. They additionally claim that white parents lack “an altruistic humane concern” for black children and only engage in trans-racial adoption due to the shortage of available white babies. A statement from later that year calls trans-racial adoption “cultural genocide.”
The second highest ranked person in Houston’s child welfare agency belonged to the NABSW. In a staff meeting a year after Billy met our parents, she raised my brother’s file in her hand and declared, “This will never happen again.”
While the NABSW’s activism did slow white-black adoptions from their peak level in 1970, families continue to practice trans-racial adoption. Fifteen percent of adoptions from foster care in 1998 were trans-racial, and with the fall of the Iron Curtain, the number of international adoptions has tripled. More and more middle class families in the United States have kids with different races from their parents.
Even today, in our supposedly post-racial era, The National Association of Black Social Workers still opposes trans-racial adoption, and they’re not alone. Two months ago, a black friend of mine wrote the following on Facebook:
Too many white woman walking around with brown children, as if there isn’t a race problem in this country! their arrogance will undo them. children are not handbags to match to your outfit.
It is well documented that black kids get taken away from their parents more often than whites, even though abuse statistics don’t vary with race. The NABSW has a point when they observe that family structures in black communities are frequently different, wider and less formal. Even my mother is sympathetic to all of this. “Every white parent of a black kid would agree that it would be best to place black kids with black families,” she told me.
However, those agitating against trans-racial adoption seem to forget the individual children. Until the day comes when child protective services and adoption agencies are less racist, what is supposed to happen to the individual kids languishing in the system? Once children reach five years old, their chances of being adopted drop dramatically. Are we supposed to sacrifice a generation of children of color on the altar of our principles while we wait for change?
“We were told at the time there wasn’t a big long line of African Americans waiting to adopt these kids,” my dad says. Given this, and the shortage of white babies, insisting on a white child struck him as absurd and offensive. “A guy I knew from Houston went all the way to Switzerland just to get a white child! Switzerland!” His voice climbs up to a near-falsetto register, half outraged and half mocking. I can hear in his voice the lingering questions: Which is more racist? Traveling the world to make sure your baby looks like you, or raising a black child as your own?
BILL: Mom and Dad always instilled in us that we were a family, just a little bit different. And I think that took care of the need to talk about it. Mom and Dad always said “you wanna talk about this, we can.” I never wanted to. I never did one of those things in a fight where I said, you know, the classic thing. “You’re not my real parents!” I never did stuff like that.
And then, of course, there’s the issue of what it means to call my brother black.
The only thing we know about Bill’s race is his biological mother’s whiteness. On his birth certificate, his (perhaps in absentia) father’s race reads as “Anglo,” which in Texas, at the time, basically meant “Not Mexican.” Houston is a major port city, deeply entwined with Big Oil. The first pediatrician to examine Bill believed that his father could have been Middle Eastern or North African. Bill’s ex-wife told me she thought he was Samoan.
Bill’s skin looks like what we think of as black, but stare at him for longer and you’ll see how his blackness is different. You can make out the coffee and beech and umber tones, and if you live — as I have twice — in cities with large North and East African populations, you will see how his face resembles theirs more than those of most African Americans. You’ll notice as well that his nose is small and narrow, his lips thin and indistinct, his eyes tiny almonds.
But we live in a one-drop country, and Bill was born in binary times. From the start, he was black.
There are other ways you could say Bill is “not black” as well. He listens to few black recording artists. His favorite movies are Dogma and Return of the King, which have exactly one black major character between the two of them. His passionate cause is atheism, not racial equality. He reads books almost exclusively by white authors (David Eddings and Tom Clancy in particular). When we played World of Warcraft together, his human avatar had white skin. His main cultural claims to blackness are a large number of childhood black friends, the way the world treats him and an ability to recite Chris Rock routines without having to sheepishly mumble any of the words.
Has he been robbed of something?
My mother’s main regret in raising Bill is that she did not do more to expose him to the riches of African American culture. As an audience member to Bill’s upbringing, I watched him move through different identities the way a fickle teenager tries on outfits. He began as a Michael Jackson and Break Dancing enthusiast, visiting my kindergarten class to show off a few moves and a sequined glove. As a teenager, he became a punk rocker. He wore Sex Pistols t-shirts, cut his hair into strange shapes and dyed it.
From there, he became a skater. He marshaled his neighborhood friends (all of them African American) into a construction crew and built a half-pipe ramp in our yard. He watched videos of skaters illegally performing wondrous tricks in public parks. He listened to gangsta rap. He took my parents’ car out joy riding and when it overheated in suburban Maryland, he and his friends got chased by a truck full of white dudes across a field while they waited for my parents to come rescue them.
As a child, he possessed a malleable popularity, able to run with several different crowds at once. He describes it as a “kinda shifting identity that spread [him] across multiple groups but embraced all of them.” In a John Hughes movie, he’d navigate the entire school cafeteria in style, joking with the nerds, performing elaborate hand-shake gymnastics with the athletes, flirting with the girls.
On vacation with our family, he discovered a love of skiing. He transferred to boarding school and joined the ski team, becoming a star athlete, a partier, a ski bum. He partied too hard, dropped out of college, partied some more, wrapped a car or two around a lamp post, went sober and moved to Minneapolis. For a while, he tried on the rich playboy lifestyle, driving a Porsche, wearing power suits and smoking cigars.
Today, after a few years in Minneapolis and a few more in Washington, D.C., Bill is starting over again. This time, however, the costume he wears is an old one: he’s back in Colorado, back in a ski town, back looking for a job. Meanwhile, I acted in professional plays, finished at an elite private high school and went to an elite private college. I did what many seemingly talented, wealthy white men do: I moved to New York City, supplemented my meager arts and temping income with inheritance and tried on the life of a fauxhemian artist.
There are, of course, all sorts of ways to read these parallel plot lines. Perhaps our racial difference shaped our paths. Perhaps our family, despite my parents best efforts, was inherently traumatic, simply because of its make-up. Perhaps Bill’s constant ability to shift identity, so necessary and helpful as a child, left him unmoored as an adult.
BILL: You know, I think the biggest influence — the biggest thing that set me apart from the other black kids was our family’s wealth more than anything else. That was the most determining factor that made me different. Yeah, I like a lot more quote-unquote white music, punk rock, new wave, Grateful Dead, all that sorta stuff. Because that was what I was surrounded by in private school. Had I gone to public school, I woulda gravitated more to what they were into. Most of my friends were white, because I was at a private school. That private school is really what set me apart from my friends.
Here’s another way to look at it.
I went through phases as a child as well. The kind of music I listened to shifted every year, along with my clothes and my extracurricular interests. I’m in the midst of a major career transition. I just moved to a new city. I’m on my second marriage before the age of 35. I’ve been through several years where I was un-or-under-employed. All of these things my brother and I have in common. Despite several outcome studies, little scientific evidence supports the idea that black kids of white parents are positively harmed in either their development or formation of their identities.
When I talk to my brother on the phone, he seems the happiest he’s been in a long time. He loves Colorado. He loves being outdoors again. He lives in a town with a ski-tourism economy, so October is hardly the right time to find a job. What does his race — or the difference between his race and his parent’s race — have to do with any of it? Everyone’s sure it’s something. But what?
BILL: When I filled out forms, I always filled out “black.” Now I fill out “other.” That’s changed because of learning about myself physically… As a kid, I looked like a black kid, and I still do to a good extent, but my hair is far less curly than it used to be. It’s almost wavy and straight without me doing anything to it. I got small lips and small features. I keep running into Middle Easterners, and they keep saying they swear I might be someone they knew back home.
ME: That doesn’t seem to bother you very much.
BILL: Nah. I’ve always been me. I’m a unique individual.
Today, my brother is a quiet person, borderline shy. He has near perfect pitch, but hates singing. I wondered if this is because his race does so much talking for him. So I decided to ask him. As I typed away at our interview, his voice echoing tinny, flat and unemotional over the speakerphone, his answers both disappointed me and brought some relief. I marvel at how he doesn’t think very often about something I’ve spent years obsessing over while feeling grateful that I did not unknowingly hurt him as we grew up simply because of the whiteness of my skin.
And yet. I weaponized my brother’s race at the age of four. This skill lay inside me, intuitive. Like everyone else, I’ve been far more focused on my brother’s race than he is. To Bill, his race is just a thing, a thing he no longer needs to define. Yet to my parents, to me, to the NABSW, to the concierge my grandfather had fired because he sent Bill to a service entrance, to everyone surrounding Bill, his race matters.
From the beginning, when he was a folder held up in a meeting of social workers in Houston, my brother has been a symbol. He doesn’t get to be himself. He only gets to be Black Man Adopted By White Family, even though he might not be black, even though to white southerners my Jewish mom wasn’t even white.
The story of the deracinated mixed-race man needing to find himself in a white world is delicious, seductive. Regardless of the race of the storyteller or the ideology of the listener, we want to hear that story again and again. We want to sing about that story in Show Boat; we want to solve that story’s mystery in Devil in a Blue Dress; we want to elect that story President.
Seeing my brother’s life solely through the lens of loss — loss of culture, say, or loss of community — transforms him into a victim. I am not prepared to do that violence to him. It has the additional side-effect of reading any difficulty in his life as flowing from his blackness, and any success in mine as flowing from my whiteness.
Our whiteness shaped Bill’s life and his blackness shaped mine, even from the start. I was born in Washington, D.C. because my parents wanted to live somewhere with a strong black middle class. I am a progressive because my parents wanted to send us to the first integrated school in the Washington, D.C. area. As an adult, I have defined myself not as a white man, but as the white younger sibling of a black man.
And today, as my brother claims an identity that is not-white and not-black, I wonder what will become of him, and of me, and of us.