The most blatantly racist people I have personally known are white parents who adopted black children.
Stay with me.
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 (they, along with the facilitators, held a prayer meeting to exorcise our demons). 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.
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.
(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.