“I didn’t want to be curated into whiteness”

One year after Rebecca Carroll’s memoir, the white gaze lingers

A year ago, I published the work I am more proud of than anything I’ve ever written—Surviving the White Gaze, my memoir about growing up as a Black child adopted into a white family, and raised in an all white, rural New Hampshire town. Every memoir writer knows that mining the truth can be a fraught and risky endeavor, and I certainly anticipated some fallout, hurt feelings, differences in remembrance. I could not have imagined, though, how keenly the response from my family would reflect not merely the truth in the book’s pages, but also the truth of America. 

My mom called it a gift, until my dad called it an injustice, and then she agreed with him that they should consider hiring a lawyer to sue me. Their accusation: defamation of character. Their issues were not with me writing about the racism I endured during my youth, which went almost entirely unacknowledged within my family, but rather, with how I wrote about them; their unconventional marriage, my father’s ego. (He was upset that I’d included the fact that earlier in my life, I had misguidedly suggested there had been some blurred lines between us; I was wrong and said so in the book, but he still felt it was damaging to his reputation.)

I had invited my dad to read the book when it was still in manuscript form, when changes could still be made, but he had declined, which I can’t deny hurt my feelings deeply. We were very close when I was growing up—made countless mixtapes for each other, stayed up watching Late Night with David Letterman together, and shared a love for gallows humor, Swiss-German expressionist artist Paul Klee, the swoony crooning of Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music, romance languages, and romance in general. I absolutely worshiped him. 

When I left for college, we maintained a fiercely dedicated written correspondence, dad’s letters characteristically endless in page count, handwritten in his tiny, exquisite penmanship, detailing his findings in the local swamps and wetlands, his sanctuary, where he still spends hours finding and tracking painted and spotted turtles. But as I got older and grew more into myself as a Black woman, the more it became clear that I no longer fit within the narrative he had created for our relationship, and more broadly speaking, for our entire family. 

Like many white male artists with outsized egos, my dad affected a microcosm wherein he, the infallible genius and hopeless romantic, existed at its center, buoyed by the near constant presence and adoration of women. It was a racially segregated space, into which I had been placed through careful, well-intentioned curation. But I didn’t want to be curated into whiteness, idyllic as it may have seemed to my parents and siblings. I wanted to be Black among Blackness. How was this never made available to me? I stopped worshiping and started questioning. And then I started to get angry. Why hadn’t my father tried to connect me with my community? 

And, of course, it wasn’t just my dad. My mom sewed me a Black doll and found me a Black dance teacher. But still—my dance teacher was the first Black person I had ever seen in real life. I was six years old. I didn’t go to a Black hair salon until I was 12 years old. My first real Black friend wasn’t until college. My book grappled with those realities—it expressed my love for my parents, but also my anger. It expressed my reality, as lived and experienced by me. And they were outraged. 

Twitter was making it clear: White parents get to decide how a family is made

It’s an outrage I’ve come to know too well. In December 2021, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments from state attorneys seeking to uphold Mississippi’s 15-week abortion ban. In her remarks, Justice Amy Coney Barrett, herself the white mother of two Black adopted children from Haiti, suggested that abortion isn’t really even necessary when adoption is right there. I found her remarks hideously cavalier, a callous trivialization of the complexities surrounding adoption, particularly transracial adoption, and the responsibility white parents take when they adopt Black children. I launched a thread on Twitter (as one does) saying so. The thread outlined the ways in which I believe transracial adoption can be seen as representative of the foundational dynamic between Black people and white people in America, which is inherently traumatic. It was retweeted thousands of times, but the backlash was swift.

My comments were full of endless fury. One (based on her avi) white woman tweeted: “TRAUMA???? What would the trauma had been if you were still with your birth mother? How the fuck UNGRATEFUL can one person be. Disgusting.” A white guy whose Twitter bio includes “just a dude” wrote: “So the argument is… it’s better for black children to be aborted than adopted by white people? I’m not sure a lot of black children would agree, but, I’m no expert.” 

Perhaps the most egregious responses came from right-wing commentator Dinesh D’Souza, who tweeted: “If it’s ‘enduring trauma’ for you to be adopted by a white family, you might consider that 1. The black patents [sic] that gave birth to you didn’t want you 2. There were evidently no black couples that chose to adopt you. Aren’t you grateful someone did?” 

Twitter was making it clear: White parents get to decide how a family is made. It’s the very essence of America, where white parents, both figurative (the forefathers) and literal (adoptive parents), have set the standard of everything. And if you are a Black child who is lucky enough to be part of that construct—taken in either from foster care or, in my case, by a handshake agreement between your parents and the white teenage girl who was pregnant with you—well, you had better feel grateful. 

Imagine presenting what you consider to be your career-best work, an impassioned plea to be seen, only to have your parents condemn it because of bruised egos. 

Now try to think of one moment throughout history when this same dynamic hasn’t played out similarly, if not exactly, between Black and white America.    

My parents did not sue me—there were no grounds—but ironically, their threat made me feel more Black than I’d ever felt before. It felt like a reminder that in America, if you are white, you can arbitrarily decide what constitutes an injustice, while threatening to bring law and order down upon anyone who says otherwise—in this case, a Black woman who wrote her story into existence. 

If not for the support of the family I made and chose, generous reviews, and the overwhelmingly positive response from readers—of all different backgrounds, but in particular Black and biracial transracial adoptees, and other transracial adoptees of color—I might have thought it was all for naught. But they wrote me, in droves.

“I feel a little taller, less broken, less angry and grateful to be in this black skin,” wrote one of the adoptee DMs and emails I received. “Thank you for this book…from the whole entireness of my heart. I have to go cry now.”

Hard same.



Rebecca Carroll is a writer, cultural critic, and podcast creator/host. She is the author of several books, including her recent memoir, Surviving the White Gaze. Rebecca is Editor at Large for The Meteor.