Unapologetically Family

Every year I try to host a Friendsgiving, a tradition I started in undergrad. While not all of the same people show up, the purpose of the evening remains; it is meant to be a space to be with those I chose to call my family.

As someone who grew up in foster care, family is fluid. Family is chosen, family is a village. Family is not necessarily being bonded by blood, but being bonded by circumstance, having someone there when you need them the most.

The concept of a traditional nuclear family was especially difficult for me growing up. Growing up in a foster home with a black woman helped me to “pass” as non-foster – I could say she was my grandmother – but people’s entitled sense of curiosity would still force me to discuss why I didn’t live with at least one of my parents. So I lied, and eventually it got difficult to keep up.

I later moved into a space where I resented the fact that I was growing up in foster care. All I wanted to do was fit in. What was clear was at a young age, no one gave me the language to explain my family’s composition; I just had to make it up day-to-day.

Because I struggled with the language, I struggled with wanting to create bonds with adults in my life; I floundered to figure out what to call the various people in my life. I struggled to open up and be vulnerable. I was afraid because my family was not biological and American societal norms taught me that when you are not biologically related, you are not obligated to be in my life forever.

The legitimacy of my family always gets questioned. Partners, mentors, and friends all question my family, for many reasons. I remember a former girlfriend seeing my close relationship with a mentor of mine as inappropriate; I saw this mentor as an auntie, and that’s exactly what she was: family.

Opinion_Feature_ImageMy ex-girlfriend had no reference, no understanding how a mentor could be my auntie, because she never experienced family disruption or sibling separation. She grew up in a household with both parents and her siblings; she was afforded something I would never know. I spent years trying to figure out how to forge healthy relationships with other people in an effort to have family. This incident devastated me; I remember thinking that if our familial relationship is illegitimate, then what does that mean?

This is just one example of many where people would critique how I chose to draw my family tree, as if I asked them for an opinion. People would question how can I have three grandmothers, or why I call a close friend sister or brother, or why is my uncle is Mexican and I am Black. Over time, my auntie gave me language, confidence, and the love I needed to form my family — unapologetically.

Only a small percentage of people will know what it’s like for the state to intervene in their family unit and cut all ties to their kin. In my case, it meant not meeting my biological siblings until I was 24. The trauma, loss and stress that goes along with these experiences is relentless. If we continue to uphold the idea of a traditional nuclear family we will only continue to marginalize other young people trying to form a family.

This idea of the traditional nuclear family is so pervasive and problematic that it even affects non-fosters. While many people desire to have both biological parents in the household (which is ideal), I ask: Is that required? Does it have to come with class elitism and more poignant, heteronormative ideology?

I write this piece for other foster youth and those formerly in foster care to give voice to this unique experience. With that said, it is important for people who have not experienced it to know there is some serious pain associated with the foster care experience and having a lack of family. While sometimes young people don’t always make the best decisions in forming healthy relationships with adults, we must understand it is a steep learning curve for any child.

For the adults in the young person’s life who have opted out of being a part of their village, unwilling to make the necessary sacrifices to participate in their chosen family, but yet have a critique for who they decide to call family, check your family privilege because you, too, become complicit in their plight.

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Kenyon Lee Whitman
About Kenyon Lee Whitman 2 Articles
Kenyon Lee Whitman is currently Program Director of the Office of Foster Youth Support Services at the University of California, Riverside, where he oversees the Guardian Scholars Program. A foster care alumni, Whitman graduated from Fresno State and is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of San Diego where he researches the college-going experiences of foster youth. In his spare time, he enjoys salsa dancing, spoken word poetry, and a good Netflix binge.