Seemingly Minor Mistakes White Adoptive Parents of Children of Color Often Make

All white parents adopting children of color should know of the big, damaging mistakes we stand to make:

  • not moving to an area where our children will see people that mirror them daily (an adoptee’s experience)
  • not having close friends who mirror our children (an adoptee’s experience)
  • not celebrating and integrating important components of our children’s race and culture (an adoptee’s view)
  • not supporting our children in searching for or maintaining a relationship with their families of origin (an adoptee’s search)

(The tremendous impact of these mistakes should be taught in Transracial Adoption 101. If they somehow weren’t or were not absorbed, parents need to educate themselves—especially by hearing from adult transracial adoptees. Please read the very important links above to learn how adoptees feel about these monumental mistakes. You might also start with Inside Transracial Adoption. There are a few other helpful links below.)

There are also seemingly minor mistakes that we transracial adoptive parents commit regularly. They are often ignored during discussions about raising our adopted children. They are also routinely blatantly disregarded in favor of doing the exact opposite. While we parents might think these are harmless mistakes, they can act as microaggressions that slowly chip away at our children’s identity and self-worth, packing a tremendous emotional punch over time.

Here are 10 seemingly small mistakes we often make that add up over time (in no particular order):

1.  It is a mistake to get the brunt of personal care advice for our children from other white adoptive parents.

I cannot tell you how many blogs, websites, books, and social media groups have been created by white parents to learn how to take care of our black children’s hair and skin. I assume there are plenty of similar resources for other children of color as well. I perused them all in the early years of parenting. Not one single black hair stylist or black friend were using any of the terms I learned from those resources back then—co-washing, yarn extensions, apple cider vinegar rinses. They were foreign terms to every black professional who styled my daughter’s hair.

In the beginning, I usually received a good chuckle, a shake of the head, and advice that I stop getting hair advice from white people. As my daughter aged, I asked black hair-care professionals if they’d heard any of the terms tossed around on white sites. Many had heard them via the internet, but wouldn’t necessarily use them in their daily or professional life.

Though we are responsible for our children’s personal care when they are young, they need to learn how to care for themselves eventually. They will likely go to professionals of color for care when they are adults. We can help them learn the proper terminology and care when they are young to save them from embarrassment and isolation later on.

See #2 for some resources.

2.  It is a mistake to buy hair and skin products from white adoptive parents and white-owned businesses.

Buying personal care products specifically for the race of our children from white adoptive parents and white-owned businesses contributes to some serious columbusing. It is hard enough for any small company to get ahead. Taking business away from small companies that know the ins and outs of personal care for our children from a lifetime of experience is shameful.

It also sends our children the message that, despite all the products out there developed by people who mirror them, we thought the ones created by people who mirror us would be better.

Bonus tip: Go to a farmers market in a diverse area. One can find amazing professionals of color and business owners who have developed incredible products for our children (I have seen products for black and Asian hair at our favorite market).

3.  It is a mistake to follow news sources exclusively run by and for white people.

Even the most well-intentioned and seemingly diverse news sources run by white people favor stories about white people. They are bound to show a bias that excludes and often denigrates people like our children. Furthermore, their stories are centered around white culture and are not likely to include our children’s culture—except as a feature that can otherize or exoticize our children.

News sources that represent our children will keep us informed about our children’s cultures, countries, trends, important people, etc. They will also help to balance the stories we hear on other news sources.

There is plenty of media available that caters to our children’s race/culture. We need to make sure we are getting a good portion of our news from them. When our children are ready, they can get their news from them as well.

4. It is a mistake to focus on multiculturalism and diversity to the exclusion of our children’s culture.

We adoptive parents often talk about how diverse our communities/schools/activities are. We find movies that portray a variety of people. We read books to our children that show children of all colors. These are important parts of raising a child adopted transracially.

Our kids need to be immersed in their own culture as well. A neighborhood whose diversity is made up of Latino, black, and white families is not going to offer a cultural haven for children of Asian decent. Likewise, a multicultural book club that reads one book about a black child per year is not going to offer the same benefits to a black child as a book club specifically for black children.

It is great to embrace all cultures. It is also important to place our children’s cultures at the top of the list, directing more of our energy and resources there than anywhere else.

5.  It is a mistake to continue to swim in the pool of primarily white culture.

As with news sources, it is important that we parents surround ourselves with the culture of our children. Besides helping us learn about our children’s cultures, and thereby equipping us to teach our children, it normalizes our children’s cultures for us. This is vitally important to our children. We are always more sympathetic to people we see as a normal part of our world. This is why it is so difficult for many white people to ascertain the drastic disparities in the treatment of black people vs. white people by the U.S. legal system, as just one example. It is also why we criticize aspects of other cultures that, in context, are not any more bizarre than aspects of white culture (e.g. While a passionate Gospel choir in a black church might feel awkward to many white people, an unemotional, perfectly still choir in a white church might feel awkward to many people raised in black churches).

When we remain steeped in our own culture, it is nearly impossible to appreciate other cultures. It also makes it much easier for us to criticize our children’s cultures without even knowing it. When you roll your eyes and proclaim that the Mexican customer who just came in to the shop where you work needs to learn to speak English, your children hear you criticizing people who speak a language other than your own. When you scrunch up your nose every time someone asks if you tried Kimchi while visiting Korea, your children hear you expressing disdain for an element of their culture.

This is not to say that we have to love everything about our children’s cultures. That’s not genuine. But we can take more time to really experience our children’s cultures and we can be more diplomatic in expressing our opinions.

We should listen to music, watch movies and TV shows, frequent markets and businesses, enjoy comedy, read magazines and books, peruse fashion and entertainment news—all through sources that represent our children’s cultures.

6. It is a mistake to openly criticize and ban harmless trends enjoyed by our children’s cultures.

If we are willing to pick our battles regarding the trends from white culture that our white children want to try, we have to be willing to pick our battles about the trends our children of color wish to try from their cultures. Basically, we can’t let a white son get a surfer hair-cut, but tell a black son he can’t loc his hair. If you don’t have a white child, look at the trends other kids in your life follow and ask yourself if you would be okay with that before you decide what your child of color can and can’t explore.

7. It is a mistake to decorate without considering our children of color.

If we decorate with pictures and paintings of people, our children need to be represented. When we pick a style, we should consider how it fits with our children’s cultures. Our children are not always going to live with us. We want them to grow up feeling as comfortable in themselves and in their cultures as possible. Surrounding them with elements of their cultures contributes to that goal.

This extends to holidays too. For our children’s first Christmas with us, we received a lovely black Santa as a gift. Many years later, my children now teens, it remains their favorite decoration to put out each Christmas. One year, my teens told me that between black Santa and the several black creches we have, they feel like home is a respite from all the white Christmas they see everywhere else.

8. It is a mistake to avoid re-evaluating our political and religious beliefs so that they benefit our children of color.

This is perhaps the most difficult mistake to consider on this list, but also the most important. When we choose to adopt a child transracially, we are choosing to support every bit of them. We cannot go into transracial adoption assuming that our children will mold to us and accept our beliefs (really, we shouldn’t go into any parenting with that assumption). It is our job to create an environment where our children feel safe and loved.

Attending a place of worship that singles out our children, either because they are the only people of color there or by turning them into mascots for diversity or adoption, can make our children feel unsafe, a feeling that should not be associate with worship. Likewise, if the place of worship we attend demonizes families of origin, our children’s cultures, or differences, they will not likely feel safe. Finally, we can damage our children’s identity and sense of security if our place of worship regularly and publicly promotes a “white savior/adopt-to-save” mentality.

The same should be said for political affiliations.  When we agree to adopt a child transracially, we are agreeing to consider how our political beliefs and how we vote will affect our child’s future. Voting for policies that promote racism sends our children a message that our worldview is more important than their dignity and safety. Supporting politicians who spew hatred towards non-white people tells our children that they are less-than, that we care more about the hateful politician than our own children. And we have to think carefully about the way our political choices shape the educational system in this country. It is already stacked against children of color.

When we refuse to re-evaluate our religious and political beliefs, we convey the painful message that our own comfort is far more important to us than that of our children.

If we cannot re-evaluate our religious and political beliefs to provide for our transracially adopted children, we should not adopt outside of our race and religion.

9.  It is a mistake to plan vacations without considering our children of color.

Going to a bunch of civil war re-enactments across the country might be fun for the white members of the family, but will it feel good to our black children? Mt. Rushmore is cool, but pretty white. That Day of the Dead Festival in the square of small-town white America might be colorful, but how will a Latino child feel about the bastardization of a holiday sacred in his country?

How about heading to the non-tourist areas of that Caribbean island you visit every winter? Or take your island vacation to South Carolina’s Gullah Islands, founded by members of the African diaspora, this year? Look into museums that highlight contributions and innovations of your child’s culture. If you need to stay in the U.S., you can go to big cities that are likely to have pockets representing your children’s culture (Think places like Little Haiti in Florida, Chinatown and Devon Avenue’s Southeast Asian neighborhood in Chicago). Spend time in each destination where people of color spend time. We can still see the historical landmarks that interest us, but we should be sure to include the history that is not represented at those sites as well.

Immersing ourselves in the culture, news, and fads of our children’s culture can help tremendously with planning a vacation.

10.  It is a mistake to believe that any one immersion experience is enough to connect our children of color with their cultures.

Adoption culture camps are hugely popular and wildly expensive. They are also largely attended by other transracially adopted children and last a short period of time. They will not magically give our children all the tools they need to feel a part of their culture. Language programs are wonderful for children whose original language is not English, but they don’t provide the whole picture. A meal here and there at a restaurant serving food from our children’s culture does not make up for being raised outside of their cultures. All of things are important contributions to creating a comfortable and safe environment for our trasracially adopted children, but they cannot stand alone.

More importantly, they cannot be done alone. Sending a child to culture camp every year while the rest of the family stays home might send a hearty message that their culture or origin is fine for them, but not for us.

We need to participate. We need to appreciate.

By choosing to adopt a child of another race/country/culture, we agree to become a family of that culture/race. This means that we are required to step out of our own comfort zones in nearly everything we do (and think). Considering how challenging it can be for a child of color to even develop a comfort zone when raised by white parents, this task is not as daunting as it seems.

Here are some links that might prove useful to adoptive parents:

This post was updated on April 18, 2020 to include current links and information.