Racism Within the Transracial Adoption Community

The most blatantly racist people I have personally known are white parents who adopted black children.

Calm down.

This does not mean that every single white parent who has adopted black children is rabidly racist (although I do think every white person, by virtue of equal parts privilege and osmosis alone, needs to examine their inner racist-leaning attitudes and influences ).  It doesn’t even mean most of them are. It means that, in my experience, among the people I have known, on a scale of newborn baby to people who respond to blog posts about how to bake the tallest chocolate cakes with pictures of swastikas, the people I’ve most seen lean towards swastika-people are white parents who have adopted black children — mostly internationally.

The concept of transracial adoption is predicated upon the idea that we (the white adopters, in this case) have something that the parents of the children we are adopting lack. Most often, that thing is resources, a commodity we consider more important for happiness than familial closeness, culture, or community. More common than I’d ever imagined before entering the world of transracial adoption, though, is the belief that the thing white people have over people of color within the adoption triad is superiority in one or more areas: education, lifestyle, values, and the biggie in the community of people adopting from African and black Caribbean countries: salvation.

In both cases, there exists a deprecating tone of white rescue — the new colonialism.

The very belief that we should adopt in order to rescue those who we consider less-than is classist. When we pair that with the assumptions made about people because of the color of their skin, their culture, or what we think we know of their country, we land at the intersection of racism and classism, the epicenter of dysfunctional adoptions (1).

I first experienced such racism within the transracial adoption community while attempting to adopt a child domestically.

Long before we were married, my husband and I had decided that we would adopt our children. Neither of us felt any particular drive to pass on our genes (even before we were told erroneously that we couldn’t anyway), nor were we attached to parenting a child from birth. When we were ready to expand our family and were navigating the dizzying labyrinth that is the adoption process, we decided to favor the situations where there were more children awaiting families than families awaiting children.

After several potential foster-adoptions that did not burgeon (the foster-adoption system is tricky — for good reasons — and not as bountiful as we are led to believe), we switched to an agency that advertised a dire lack of adopting parents.

The head of the agency, one that specialized in transracial adoptions, was herself a transracial adoptive parent. Nonetheless, once a mother (we’ll call her “S”) chose to place her child with us, and once our fees to the agency were paid in full, she began to disparage S.

As is common, we spent time with S. We were planning an open adoption and we wanted to get to know each other. When we relayed our experiences to the director, she warned us about “getting involved in that community” and “trusting a person like S”. The real spine-chiller, though, came when she sent the police to the father of S’s baby to sign the adoption papers, contrary to any procedure we had seen and against S’s clearly communicated wishes.

Because of this, S grew concerned about the agency and understandably chose not to place her child for adoption without a private lawyer (which we could not afford). S sat us down in her apartment to tell us this in person. While we were talking, the director called our cell phone and told us that S had changed her mind about adoption for no reason whatsoever. “It’s better this way, really. I mean, I understand the father has had some trouble with the police,” she concluded.

The short version of the rest of the story is that she called S back and tried to convince her to place her child with a new family, one who would pay higher fees. We confronted the director, with S’s blessing, and she sent us a letter stating that our professional relationship was officially dissolved — with no refund, of course. She also threatened to black-list us from every other adoption agency if we tried to fight back.

We walked away feeling very much like the agency was using black women to amass riches, playing up poverty stereotypes to entice business, and selling their children like puppies.

Then a colleague of mine suggested we adopt from Haiti, where there were about 200-300 (at the time) children adopted yearly from orphanages housing over a half a million children in total (2).

Like an oft repeated nightmare, once we had met and bonded with our children (during various visits) and paid our fees, one of the directors (white and married to the other director, a pastor, with whom she had adopted several children from Haiti) told us Haitian children were generally godless and needed saving. She said that we should not let them speak their native language, that it was our job to “beat the Haitian out of them”, right down to the size of rod we should use and a website with detailed instructions. She warned us that our children might worship Satan. She described the children whose adoptions they were processing as future criminals and sluts — unless we molded them into upstanding, God-fearing, born again, Jesus-loving (3) Americans. She described their parents in the same way, repeatedly calling them liars and beggars.

When we attempted to enlist the support of the other parents adopting from the same orphanage, we became instant outcasts to most of them. Had it not been for our children’s parents (who we located to make sure they were actually planning to make an adoption plan and wanted to place their children with us) and the heroic efforts of people from other orphanages (They moved our children to a safe place and took over the paperwork.), a few American governmental agencies, and our new American adoption agency (4), the adoption would not have happened. Worse, like the other children who were in the orphanage at that time, they might have been thrown out into the streets by the directors upon learning that they were being investigated (5).

We challenged the directors regarding their attitudes about Haitians and treatment of the children, and they reacted by punishing the children, dispensable commerce to them.

Versions of his attitude have followed us since our adoption process, primarily among parents who adopted from Haiti or other African and Caribbean nations. Message boards, yahoo groups, and adoption “camps” we sought for support were fecund with parents discussing the challenges they were having with their children in a way that indicated that those problems were products of their race and culture; not that they might be struggling with issues inherent in adoption and adjusting to a new culture, or that they might be troubled by poor parenting.

Many believed the behavioral issues they saw in their children were present only because they had not yet been fully stripped of their cultural identities.

One father stood next to his Haitian daughter and tried to convince my husband and Haitian son that the earthquake of 2010 was a welcome punishment from God for the evils of the Haitian culture. He hoped it would be a wake-up call for Haitians.

Other parents send their newly adopted children to institutions for reform or “re-home” them when they find they are struggling to assimilate in the particular way their new parents desire.

I’ve frequently read white parents of black adopted children comment online that black people are over-reacting to racism (they are not), that racism is truly not a problem for their black children (it is), that good behavior and godly values on the part of the black child will shield them from danger (it doesn’t), and that people who contradict them are being racist themselves (they are not, at least not in this).

That transracial adoptions have become fodder for prosyltization and attempted, unsolicited reform is perhaps no secret. Further, it might not surprise anyone to learn that many white parents are ill-prepared to raise black children.(6) Even many who were aware of our shortcomings as white parents adopting black children have been surprised by just how much we still needed to learn.

What is perhaps less understood, though, is just how destructive the savior mindset is to adoptions in general, transracial adoptions in particular, and race relations overall.

This pervasive adoptive parenting theme, that one’s child needs saving, erodes both the parent-child bond and the child’s own sense of self. Essentially, albeit simplistically put, a child who already feels confused, different, and often alone is faced with the idea that something is so wrong with herself, her family of origin, and her culture that salvation is required.

Salvation.

Very little is more daunting to a child than the feeling that he is where he is because he needed to be saved. Not that his parents could not parent a child and so made the decision to place him for adoption; not that a family somewhere could parent a child at that time and chose to parent him; but that he was faulty, primarily spiritually, and needed to be saved.

Immediately, from the moment of adoption then, she is confronted with her own ill-perceived inferiority. She is not worthy. Her race and culture, her very life story are less-than.

He then grows up in a household that negates his observations that he is treated differently (to the negative) inside and outside of his home. His parents do not wrestle with how to prepare him for being a black adult in a society that often judges him by the color of his skin. They do not value who he is and from whence he came. They do not celebrate the details of his entry into this world. In fact, they belittle and demonize it, and by doing so, they belittle and demonize him.

If her parents justify their parenting by claiming that they do not see color, they render her invisible. Essentially, they negate the value in her skin, the story it tells of her country, her ancestors, her history, and her culture.

He grows into a black adult who has no voice, a black adult who has no identity, a black adult who believes at his core that he requires a white savior to function. That is to say, one less black adult to stand up against the injustices faced by people of color. One less black adult to fight for racial equality.

It is a cycle that was born out of and feeds into racism.

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(1) There are those who believe that adoption should never occur, that the children without parents who can care for them should be taken care of in other ways. Though I recognize all the weaknesses in the system of adoption, I cannot wrap my head around the idea that it should be eliminated entirely. It seems insulting and accusatory to mothers and fathers who make the choice, for whatever reason, not to parent their child nor place their child in the home of a close family member or relative. It also seems to assume the stereotype that all parents placing their children for adoption are doing so for financial reasons; therefore, some sort of overarching financial support should solve the problem. Many of us who have adopted believe that the best situation for a child is to be with their parents of origin. If their parents cannot care for them, we believe that the next best option is to be placed with a relative. When that is not an option, what else is there besides adoption? An orphanage? Surely not.

(2) These numbers were repeated to us over and over again. We later learned how fuzzy they were. They included children whose parents brought them to the orphanage for medical care, parents who were told the orphanages would take care of their children until they got back on their feet, and children with living relatives, as well as children whose parents were choosing to place them for adoption, and true orphans, with no surviving parents.

(3) This is not meant to criticize Christianity or Christians (a group with which I self-identify). It is meant to call out those who use Christianity to stigmatize people of color and from African and Caribbean nations.

(4) At the time, international adoptions required both an American and an in-country agency.

(5) Though no longer doing adoptions, this couple continues to proselytize in Haiti.

(6) Really, all parents are ill prepared to raise children. We learn as we go. Most of us have to learn to parent outside of our comfort zones, whether it be that our child simply has a different temperament than us, a special need, or a difference that requires understanding a new paradigm.

Final note: I have used the terms to describe race that my own children prefer. I have interchanged male and female pronouns for the sake on inclusiveness.

 


More on this topic:

A post about some of the myths of adoption

A post about the orphanage our kids were at

More about our adoption

 

27 Responses to Racism Within the Transracial Adoption Community

  1. I’ve never actually encountered any of what you’ve stated. I have encountered white prospective adoptive parents or new adoptive parents who realize that they have a lot to learn. I don’t tend to “hang out” in communities of parents who have adopted internationally, because we became a family through newborn domestic adoption. I know that there are parents who look at adoption – specifically international adoption – as saving children, but I have never personally encountered any. I’m sure these people exist, I just wouldn’t say that all, or even most or many, white parents of black children are heinously racist.

    “The concept of transracial adoption is predicated upon the idea that we (the white adopters, in this case) have something that the parents of the children we are adopting lack.”

    You don’t need the word “transracial” in that sentence. Adoption itself is predicated on the idea that the adoptive parents – regardless of color – have something that the biological parents lack. We adopted black children, not because we wanted to save them, nor because we thought we were better than them or their birth parents, but because we wanted to be parents. We decided to be “open” to race the first time we adopted, and we became parents to an “African American/Caucasian” baby boy.

    With regard to your footnotes, I very much disagree with item 1. Biology isn’t necessarily best, and a lot of the most screwed up adoptions I’ve encountered have been kinship adoptions. But that’s another topic entirely.

    • Thanks for posting. I agree. The word “transracial” could have been left out there. Good point.

      I also agree that biology/family isn’t always best. I should clarify that I mean it is best absent of abuse or substance abuse. If the only issue is that of finances, though, for example, I think first families are best.

      • I just re-read some comments now that my brain is no longer under the influence to 3 children in the room (HA!).

        You said “I just wouldn’t say that all, or even most or many, white parents of black children are heinously racist.”

        One of the reasons I wrote this post is that racism — often of the heinous type — is an all-too-often-unknown, terrible component of transracial adoption — and not just when it comes to parents adopting black children. I have seen it in all arenas — but only spoke from my family’s personal experiences.

        As an adoptive parent, I encourage you to scour the resources out there so that you are prepared for it when your child meets other people within the community. It was really hard for my kids when they were excited to make friends whose familyies looked like theirs, only to be gutted by the micro-aggressive racist statements as well as the very overt ones being thrown about.

        Being confronted (by other adopted kids) with the idea of being saved was something so new and frightening for them — and it implanted concepts in their heads that I never wanted them to have.

    • Um yes. There are many racist white parents out there but they are just really good at hiding it. They are manipulative so that they can get what they want don’t take responsibility because white society tells them that they are saints and that any problems the children have is not because of thier parenting but biology. My mom is a white racist and I am a person of color. Trust me, having racist parents is invisible abuse. It truely has been the most damaging relationship in my life

      • I’m sorry, Robyn. I really fear that there is a whole generation being raised by parents not equipped to raise them. I hope that, at the very least, having a community will help with the healing.

  2. Great piece! And don’t give in so easy mommymeansit! To stress race in transracial adoption, shows the importance of race in adoption. Many white parents can’t or don’t want to see their own white privilege and don’t feel the urgency to change. Race relations in the US are pretty bad and if AP’s can’t take the position of the powerless and the marginalized, they better not adopt transracially. And of course is biology best, but if it is not a serious option that kids can stay with their parents, their exptended family or their community, then adoption can become an option. Adoption is a tough call for first parents and adoptees and shouldn’t be seen as a way to create a family, but as a child welfare soilution of last resort.

    • Love this comment, Frank — always love being (respectfully) challenged. I stand by what I said in the post. I just wanted to make sure I was clear (in response to the comment) that when there is an entire family system of abuse of major substance abuse, then first families would do well to step outside of their family system. I had neglected to mention communities, though, and appreciate you bringing that up.

      • Frank, my friend who I am currently online dating (as in, we haven’t yet met in person), and who knows you, agrees with you that I backed down too easily. It’s a good reminder how easy it is for those of us in the position of holding white privilege, something our kids do not have, to demure when it comes to such important issues — even while we are trying to make a point. I thank both you and Aaryn for pointing this out. I’m going to pick my ovaries back up off the floor and keep going head to head with the struggle.

  3. Great article, thanks for writing it. I feel like this is an ongoing journey for me, so much to learn. I realize that I used to read your old (?) blog, Lakeschooling. Great to find your new one.

  4. Robyn C: Of course you have to say transracial adoption because that’s what it is. You can twist and turn it anyway you want, making yourself more comfortable by pretending that race doesn’t matter. Really what you’re doing, though, is underscoring how imperative it is to recognize, label, talk about, and address race, which—if you’ve followed any of the current events lately—is a huge problem in our country. Taking the love-is-enough approach endangers adopted children’s lives and does nothing to prepare them for the world up ahead when they won’t be protected by the magic force field of our white privilege. Furthermore, a person doesn’t have to be “heinously racist,” (really? really?!?) to be racist. I would argue that all racism is heinous, and that yes, most AND many white adopters have some amount of it whether you have seen it or not. I guarantee you have seen it, but you simply haven’t recognized it; it’s right there in front of us all the time sometimes in subtle ways, sometimes in more overt ones. If you’re feeling triggered by what this author wrote, you may want to stop and consider why it is that her words have you unsettled and what it is you might be able to learn from it. She hit it out of the park with this one. Finally, who is to say that a child is better off being adopted than remaining with biological family members? TA blanket “biology isn’t necessarily best” statement is dangerous and revealing. Too often in adoption, this determination, this value judgement is made by those with the power and the money, and the system is set up in favor of us white adopters. While evangelicals seem to have a market share of judgement on who is valuable (those cute little black and brown babies) and who is not (less worthy, less competent, less able black and brown parents), they certainly aren’t alone in this. Breaking up families no matter who is doing it is tragic and has lasting consequences; our adopted children never have a choice in the matter. I personally am not for abolishing adoption, but I am for ethical adoption which does not mean finding children for couples who “wanted to be parents.” Serious efforts to support family preservation should exist alongside adoption. It turns out, this adoption thing is not about what is best for *us*.

    • Aaryn, you said: “most AND many white adopters have some amount of it whether you have seen it or not. I guarantee you have seen it, but you simply haven’t recognized it; it’s right there in front of us all the time sometimes in subtle ways, sometimes in more overt ones.”

      Could you give some examples? None from the post strike me as anything familiar that I have seen or heard. The transracial families I know are certainly not perfect but strive to recognize white privilege and their own blind spots. Thanks!

  5. Thank you for this post. I assume you intentionally did not name the unethical agency you worked with (that lied to you about “S”) – but I am wondering if you would share the name of the agency for the benefit of other potential adoptive parents? Really appreciate reading this perspective as I finish my homestudy and enter the waiting period myself with an agency that I have been super-impressed with so far.

    • Milkweed, I have thought about this over and over for many many years. I have to be honest — the agency was so incredibly nasty and made such horrible threats that part of me still fears them — which is what they want, of course. After all of our struggles at the hands of corrupt agencies, I so wished people had warned us — on message boards or yahoo groups etc. (we didn’t have facebook or twitter). After our ordeals, I understood why more people didn’t warn others — they hold over us this totally irrational fear that they could (STILL!) do something to hurt our children.

      Would you tell? That’s a serious, non-hypothetical question. I’d love to have people weigh in on what they would do.

      In the meantime — while I am working through that, Milkweed, if you are an adoptive parent and choosing an agency and it would help you to know for those purposes, please email me: mommymeansit@gmail.com.

      • There is another way. Fight the whole system. I am Australian and adopted from Australia. In Australia private adoption is illegal and we have no private agencies. To adopt a person/couple needs aproval via the Govt Child welfare dept.
        In most countries outside the US this is the case. Or if there are adoption agencies they are highly regulated by govt.
        I say shut down any unregulated for-profit adoption agency. There is no way to devorce their practice from the commodification of children.
        Dont just go after THAT agency – change the system. It is the system that allows that agency to exist that is at fault.

  6. In Latin America, the dominant cultural values are “mestizos”, mixed-blood, at least in the public education system and dominant media. I always feel that the opposition black/white is directed to the US adoption community. All of us have to examine their potential racist or sexist prejudices. However, the point is too look for the best possible balance between those who idealize adoption (the savior mindset) and those who consider it as a sin (and may prevent children from finding a convenient home)….

  7. I’ve been reading your blog voraciously since a friend shared an article with me this morning. I cannot thank you enough for articulating your thoughts so honestly and being brave enough to lay it all out there. My children are from the next county over, not another country, but I can relate to nearly every word I’ve read so far. As parents, we have our own cultural ‘baggage’ (my husband is a Hindu from India, and I have one Native American parent, and one white parent). I recognize so many of these issues in my own childhood, even though I was not adopted, because my white parent (and extended family) was not respectful of my Native American parent’s culture. My parents divorced when I was very young, and I was “rescued” (at least between my paternal visits for 24 hours, every other weekend) from the savages whose blood ran in my own veins. My husband is a peaceful, laid back person who doesn’t spend his energy on being indignant – after all, it’s still ‘acceptable’ to make fun of him on prime-time television (Appu,from the Simpsons, or the Metro PCS commercials, for example). We have adopted one child who is latino, and two bio siblings who have one black parent and one white parent. The complexities are intricate and a mile thick in our family. I think about it all the time, maybe I’m hyperaware/hypersensitive – I’m often told I am – but today I feel more validated, both as a human being, and as a parent. Thank you.

  8. […] is damaging to tell a child that God called you to adopt her. This sets you up as a God-ordained savior to your child. It tells your child that she needed saving and that God did not choose her family of […]

  9. Thank you for being honest enough to admit a truth that so many deny. They deny because they know it’s true and dare not put themselves at risk of feeling guilt because then, it would be harder to do what they know is wrong. They deny because, inside, they are racist-polite racists like slave owners who claimed they were doing the Black slaves a favor by letting them live with and serve a white person, and also taking all traces of their identity away from them.
    No one cares what the child feels or will go through in life. They only care that the white person gets the baby they want. A baby is not a thing, it is a person.
    If someone truly cares about another, they will do as they would for themselves.
    Imagine what it would be like to be raised as another race and never or rarely see any people of your own race. It is human to want to and be able to have others like yourself to identify with.
    Black children at least have other Black people they can befriend if they are adopted here, they at least get to see their own race, but not many other races, who have NO one.
    Imagine being given a “happy life with an adoptive family” , but in REALITY, only to be insulted and discriminated against your whole life, pretending it never happens.
    Denial is the life of a child adopted by another race and living in a land where they will always be a foreigner, either by color or culture. ANY race.
    Only someone who has lived the life of an adoptee knows the truth and that is a sad truth.The whole life of the child is affected in this way.
    What you said above says so much, but to the child it means so much more.

    “They do not value who he is and from whence he came. They do not celebrate the details of his entry into this world. ”
    “If her parents justify their parenting by claiming that they do not see color, they render her invisible. Essentially, they negate the value in her skin, the story it tells of her country, her ancestors, her history, and her culture.”

  10. Is it ok for black parents to adopt white children?… In this case would the black adoptive parents need to teach their adopted white child that he or she is naturally racist because their white skin?

  11. Agreed! We adopted through foster care. In my area, there is much too much abundance of kids who need homes. We didn’t set out to adopt a child of color, his social worker saw our home study and contacted us because she believed we’d mesh well. Our son also wanted to one day join the military branch my husband is in. We met him and everything clicked. He had been able to be adopted for four years by that point, he was 10 when he came into our lives.

    But I’ve had to stay out of the transracial adoption community due to the racism you describe. It’s disgusting and my heart hurts for those children. I have yet to see it in people who adopt from foster care, but domestic infant adoption, embryo adoption and especially international adoption is lousy with those folks.

  12. Great article! I have lived in countries in Asia and have seen this too.
    I cant stand people who want to “save” a child like that. Who want to adopt a child but cant respect and aprieciate their culture – who cant understand the harm this is doing to their child.

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