I shared my experience as a white father of an adopted black son in a recent Colorlines essay, and the piece has spurred some great conversation.
While the essay focused on parenting from a racial justice perspective, it was also about being an adoptive father since I wrote about my own experience. This stirred up lots of challenging conversation about adoption itself, and especially transracial adoption.
Transracial adoption sits at the nexus of a complex array of dynamics including racial and cultural identity, privilege and power, domination and subordination, to name a few. The mainstream media hinders any constructive understanding of the issues through its portrayals of adoption in reality shows and sensationalized stories–from baby-saving to baby-selling and from celebrities touting their transnational adoptees like fashion accessories to children being returned to their home countries like exhangeable commodities. Common narratives (e.g. “charitable parents giving needy children an opportunity for a better life” and “rescuing orphans from natural disasters”) are still dominated by those with the most power in the equation–adoptive parents and adoption professionals rather than adoptees or their birth parents.
Many, if not most, readers responded positively to the notion of racially conscientious parenting. My hope is that we can continue to explore and share more strategies for raising children in a way that effectively challenges racism and contributes to racial equity. In such a hyper-racialized society, compounded and confounded by creeping colorblindness, that is a conversation that could have value for families of all races.
At the same time, some readers were quick to point out some of the contradictions, from their vantage point, of being racially conscious in a transracially adoptive family, and presenting commentary on racism from the perspective of a white adoptive parent rather than from that of a transracial adoptee of color. Several transracial adoptees contributed to the conversation, offering both ciritical and appreciative comments.
These varied and valid reactions did not surprise me. But they reminded me of just how much the issue of transracial adoption needs continued scrutiny and constructive dialogue if it is to be positively transformed in the foremost interest of the adoptees. And critical to that transformation is the insight of adoptees of color.
Reader Anna Kim asks one of the most explosive questions this issue generates. “Where is the consciousness about white imperialism as it is further implicated in transnational adoption processes?” This critique is seconded by Reader Frederick Cloyd who states, “It’s not that children ‘shouldn’t’ be placed with loving families. It’s just the ignoring of the socio-political along color-ethnicity-race-nation-gender, that is really irritating and oppressive!”
These are important questions, and white imperialism and privilege in transnational adoption cannot be ignored. My experience with the process, which I describe in my response to readers, may offer insight on how would-be parents might be mindful of those issues in practice. I wrote:
Before I became a parent, I was very conscious and critical of the different options, and well aware of the privilege I had to even have options. Each of the options seemed fraught with problems. So it took me years to learn about them and discover one that I felt could be done with integrity. One of the reasons I chose an open and local/domestic adoption–where the birthmother got to meet and select the adoptive family of her choosing–was that it gave her some agency in the decision. And, because she lived in the local area, it also gave her and her child the opportunity for ongoing contact, which has turned out to be mutually desired and beneficial.
Even as a transracially adoptive parent, I continue to have many critiques of both transnational and transracial adoptions, as they are currently and commonly arranged. For this reason, I have been an advocate and supporter of fairness, openness and racial consciousness in adoption practices and policies. I believe transnational and transracial adoptions are not inherently wrong, but they are in serious need of reform, racial consciousness and racial equity.
Reader Laurie Jones Neighbors, an adoptee and an adoptive parent (of white children who were older siblings with “special needs”), states that she:
…rejected transracial adoption for the reasons Anna sites, but I also know the reality of the difference it can make for any child to be adopted in an attentive home rather than to live in a group home environment, and so honestly, while I think that the transracial situation is difficult and damaging and, yep, an act of colonial aggression, I can also understand your perspective. At the level of an individual child, in the system as it currently stands, if the child is not adopted by anyone, the consequences are equally damaging and – we could argue – perhaps even more damaging.
I added this thought about a growing reform movement:
What’s problematic is that so many adoptive families, adoption professionals and policymakers routinely ignore the dynamics of privilege, power, and racism. Or, they are unwilling to do anything useful to change things.
There is, however, a growing community of conscious individuals, families, advocacy groups, research and policy organizations, some adoption agencies and especially adult adoptees of color that are actively working to address issues of racial equity in the realm of adoption and parenting. This community, though still relatively small and disperse, is forcing needed scrutiny and forging new approaches that are showing signs of progress and hope. I believe the collective experience, wisdom, anger and action of those committed to racial justice and human rights can transform things at many levels–including in our homes and communities and eventually at the systemic level–though it’s a very slow process.
Reader Ibn Zayd, who identifies himself as a transracial adoptee, enlarged the critique to all kinds of adoption. He writes that:
I would only say that the main problem is discussing the “interests of children.” This is a phrase that is equally employed by those who, for example, adopt knowing full well that there are relatives willing to adopt, or who try to forestall such a reunion, etc. This needs to be examined on a cultural level–someone kidnapped as a child and found 10 years later would not be “kept” with his or her kidnapper in the “interest” of the child and continuity with the “only family” the child knows; though this is the argument made in similar cases, most recently in the Vaughn adoption case.
My point is that the culture which falls all over itself wanting to help the “children” does not extend this empathy to their families, their class, their communities, or their countries of origin. A truly egalitarian society would naturally take care of its most vulnerable members, not kick them to the curb. Nothing about adoption was ever meant to be about finding children for families; it started as a way to provide indentured servants, and only later became a way to care for children without parents.
The current practice has come very close to returning to its roots, treating children like property, depriving them of their lineage and culture, while maintaining cultural mythologies that can only be mapped onto failed ideologies of colonialism, Orientalism, missionary zealotry, and outright class warfare.
Reader Shannon Gibney shared the sentiment that “adding multiple voices to the mix is the only way to change the public discourse on this important issue.” Gibney writes:
So, while I appreciate the author’s candor, and critical analysis of his experience as a white male adoptive father to his black male son, I would be much more interested to hear the stories of adult adoptees negotiating the experience of [transracial adoption], and challenge the editors to seek this out in the future.
This is absolutely the case. The voices and leadership of transracial adoptees of color must be the most prominent in discussions of transracial adoption if we hope to make things more equitable and humane. Over the years, ColorLines.com has featured a number of essays by transracial adoptees of color. Here are two good ones: “A Son’s Bittersweet Love,” by an anonymous contributor, and “Adoption was no Salvation,” by Sandra White Hawk.
Reader Mixedraceid added to Gibney’s comment, saying:
As a mixed race adult adoptee, I feel a need to keep “healing” myself around the ongoing and unconscious racism that occurred repeatedly in my family of origin. As I was the only person of color, I had no way to integrate my biracial status or develop a positive racial identity. The effects have been long-lasting and even though they have impacted me enough to center my life and career around working to address racism and oppression through all of its insidious effects, there is no endpoint for me in working on these issues. Thank you for speaking to that need and to the invisibility of that experience.
There are no easy answers to the challenges associated with transracial adoption. But the words of another reader, Lisa Miller, a transracial adoptee from Columbia raised by European American parents, give me hope:
You are right — as parents (and children) of a multiracial home — we are “well positioned to be on the frontline of change”. The experience of living in a multiracial family has shaped me in a profound, beautiful way. My upbringing set the precedent for why I work in the not-for-profit sector, love to learn about different cultures, and seek out the stories of others. It has helped illuminate for me that while we are all complex creatures — we all share the same basic needs of food, water, shelter, air, and love. Yes, we are all different and that is fabulous, but our shared humanity is the source of our solidarity.
We have much to learn from each other about our lived experiences as children and parents in different kinds of families. If we are willing to engage constructively and inclusively in the difficult conversations–even ones so intensely political and personal as this one–the more likely our collective insights will point us towards healthy models for raising our children in a more equitable world.