Touted by many as representative of a “post-racial” society where love transcends racial and cultural barriers, transracial adoption is often shrouded in happy-go-lucky myths. These inaccuracies, when unaddressed, create an unstable and harmful foundation for transracial families. Transracial adoption is hard, but it’s not impossible - it just takes a lot more than love to do it well.
As a transracial adoptee on the long road towards a healthy, unified racial identity, there are a few things I think all prospective White adoptive parents should know before embarking on the life-long journey of transracial adoption. First, if you’re contemplating adopting transracially or have adopted transracially, I hope you’ll take the time to honestly answer the following questions. Second, I hope you use this information as a chance to lovingly educate yourselves and others. Lastly, I encourage you to frequently take your heart for a racial “tune-up,” revisiting old-information, research, insights and knowledge to constantly improve the way you guide and support your children of color through this complex experience of transracial adoption.
1. Do you believe adoption begins in loss? Birthmothers lose the joy of raising a child, adoptive parents struggling with infertility lose the experience of biological children and adoptees lose a fundamental biological maternal bond and, in many cases, lose connections to and knowledge of their family history. Transracial adoptees face an additional loss: loss of racial mirrors in their family and community, loss of consistent and natural exposure to their own culture and, in some for international adoptees, loss of language and national heritage. Recognizing the transracial experience as one shaped by compounded losses will allow white adoptive parents to more readily support their children of color as they navigate the loss of and connection to their racial/ethnic identity.
2. Are you willing to change? Like any meaningful, long-term relationship, parenting a child of color child will inevitably involve ups and downs, heartache and triumph - some of which you’ll be prepared for, most of which you will not. If you are not emotionally mature enough as an individual to accept and integrate constructive criticism that challenges you to change your perspective, beliefs or behavior, you will not be prepared to listen, learn and adapt in the ways your child requires to feel safe, seen and affirmed as a person of color in a white home.
3. Do you believe white privilege exists? If that statement initiated any sort of discomfort or prompted a “but…” response, I suggest saving this article and returning to point number two. Recognizing, admitting and leveraging white privilege is absolutely paramount when it comes to parenting children of color. If you find it difficult to stomach the fact that whiteness brings with it certain tangible and unspoken social and economic benefits you won’t be in a productive position to listen to and receive the inevitable experiences of discrimination and prejudice your child will bring home attached to their skin color. In order to help your child through their racial identity journey you must believe the reality of their racially charged existence. If you’re looking for resources to help you understand white privilege, I recommend the following in this order:
White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack https://www.racialequitytools.org/resourcefiles/mcintosh.pdf
What is White Privilege Really?
Wide Awake: An Honest Look at What it Means to be White
White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism
Me and White Supremacy
4. Do you interact with people outside your race? How white is your inner circle? Pretty white? If the only exposure you have to people of color is through television shows, the occasional “token” minority coworker or through mission trips to third-world countries, you need to consider how you will effectively parent a child of color, day in and day out. Your first meaningful relationship with a person of color should not be your child. If you’re looking to adopt transracially, consider moving to a neighborhood or joining social organizations that naturally cultivate diverse communities before you adopt. When you adopt a child of color, you should not expect them to assimilate to your culture, environment and racial/ethnic community. You should make the necessary changes to assimilate to their racially/ethnically specific needs. If you have already transracially adopted and live in a predominantly white community, are you prepared to make those changes?
5. Are you willing to get uncomfortable in order to create a racially validating environment for your child? Children of color need other people of color in their lives to share in and validate their experience. While it’s important to surround them with literature and material culture that reflects and celebrates their heritage (Children’s Books: http://cynthialeitichsmith.com/lit-resources/read/diversity/multiracial/; My childhood favorite: All the Colors of the Earth: https://www.amazon.com/All-Colors-Earth-Mulberry-Books/dp/0688170625 and a recent find: Happy to Be Nappy: https://www.amazon.com/Happy-Be-Nappy-Jump-Sun/dp/0786804270) it is even more important that they can form in person relationships with people that look like them. Children of color need to see themselves in their hair dresser, their Sunday school teacher, their friends, their role models. If you are not prepared to seriously consider making drastic changes to your personal life like changing zip codes, changing churches or changing school systems to ensure your child is fully validated and celebrated in their racial and/or cultural identity, then you need to rethink adopting a child of color.
6. Are you ready to get political? Right now, it’s not popular to be ‘political.’ Everyone wants to turn off the television during the nightly news, keep dinner-time talk light, and excuse themselves from the Thanksgiving meal when Uncle Bill brings up Black Lives Matter. However, you no longer have the luxury of remaining ignorant to the political interests of your child’s racial/ethnic community. You no longer have the luxury of remaining silent or apathetic. Are you willing to take a colleague aside and explain why her comment at the board meeting was prejudicial? Are you willing to attend workshops on white privilege to learn how to discuss racial issues with friends and family effectively? Are you willing to invest your time, resources, money, words and actions in supporting and celebrating and protecting communities of color? When you brush off the racial justice concerns of a group of people that look like your child, you brush your child’s concerns under the rug too. If you don’t feel confident celebrating, defending, supporting people of color, how can your child be confident you’ll do the same for them?
7. Are you willing to work harder than your child? As my parents work hard to understand my racialized experience, I also work hard to be patient, kind and compassionate as they grow - even when that means sometimes, we both make mistakes. The conversations and experiences surrounding transracial adoption are often volatile, defensive, hurtful, and scared. Sometimes we’re both quick to anger, slow to listen and easily offended. Things can get rough. That being said, when you sign up to be a parent you commit to the trenches, even if you’re there alone. Anyone who is a parent knows a parent-child relationship isn’t 50-50. You sign up to being patient even when your children aren’t. You sign up to show compassion and grace even when your children don’t. All children (but especially those that are adopted) need to know no matter how ugly things get, you’re committed to giving 100%.
8. Are you willing to have your feelings hurt? As a white adoptive parent, you will mostly likely feel bad about being white at some point in your parenting journey (Remember it’s not about feeling bad about being white, it’s about what you do with the advantages of being white! Convert your guilt or shame into CONVICTION and ACTION). But, it is not your child’s job to tip-toe around your feelings, or conceal their hurt. My mom understands she is the adult, she is the parent. While we don’t compromise on respect in our house, she recognizes the importance of making her emotions second to mine. The last thing a child of color should be doing is consoling your white guilt.
9. Are you willing to seek out education and resources for yourself? It is not your child’s job to educate you on racism and white privilege. My mom is diligent in reading, researching, attending workshops and putting herself in uncomfortable positions to learn without unduly burdening me with the task of enlightening her to my experience as a person of color.
10. Are you willing to let your child speak for themselves? The more and more I’m exposed to transracial adoption narratives through online platforms, research and reading lists, the more uncomfortable I get with the ease with which white adoptive parents share their child’s story. The voices of people of color have been historically, systematically minimized, erased or usurped. It’s incredibly important to safeguard your child’s personal intimate story as their own, to share in as much or little detail as they see fit. It’s also deeply important to be cognizant of the ways in which over-sharing your child’s story can cultivate a damaging perception of “white saviorism.” Let your child dictate their narrative.
11. Are you willing to NOT have all the answers? When I call my mom on the phone to tell her about something that happened to me that day - the White man on campus calling people n-ggers, the class where a faculty member asked me, the only person in class, to read a Black History Month article aloud, the student who told me I was race-baiting, the frustration of having no women of color in the Anthropology department - she listens. She cannot and will not understand what it feels like to be me, but her willingness to listen and believe without the need to interrupt, place blame, justify or minimize is a way in which she actively allows my brownness to take up space and be heard.
12. Are you willing to live an imperfect life? Many parents who have adopted transracially ask me how they prevent the grief, loss and pain of this complex experience. Personally, I don’t think it is preventable. You don’t get OVER transracial adoption. You learn to live with it, around it, through it. You might do all the “right” things and find your child still struggles with their racial identity. Rather than focus your energy on preventing likely inevitable, very real and valid emotions in your children, focus your energy on practices that will help them create and sustain positive self-esteem, healthy relationships, and meaningful self-understanding. Develop in them early the tools to deal with the inevitable experiences they will face.
There are a lot of perspectives out there about transracial adoption. Should white parents transracially adopt, should they not? Is the difficulty and loss of cultural identity worth it? What people don’t seem to readily realize is that until we address the disparities in socioeconomic status, eliminate racial inequality, and provide better healthcare and resources to low-income families, transracial adoption (and all adoption) will continue to be a solution to problems that need systematic repair (but that’s a topic for another post). Transracial adoption isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. So the questions I want to be asking are not if it is right or wrong, not if it’s worth it (also another blog post - hint - I think it is) but how it can be made into a healthier, more racially affirming experience. How families can truly manifest their love for their children through the concerted effort they put into cultivating, celebrating and protecting their child’s racial identity. Transracial adoption will always be hard. But it is not impossible. It is done of course with love - but even more so, with love that translates into action, education, and advocacy that is tireless, transparent, open-minded and humble.
Guest Blogger- Victoria DiMartile, a transracial adoptee
IG account- @wreckageandwonder