The Republic of T.

Black. Gay. Father. Vegetarian. Buddhist. Liberal.

The Color of Adoption

Ever since I wrote a post about adoption and African American children back in 2004, I get occasional emails from people considering adoption — considering cross-racial adoption, especially — asking for information and advice. I’m not an expert, by any stretch of the imagination, but I try to answer them. The interesting thing is that I still get those emails even though I haven’t posted much on the subject since then.

But that post came to mind recently, when I read a New York Times article about race and adoption.

Minority children in foster care are being ill-served by a federal law that plays down race and culture in adoptions, a report released on Tuesday said.

The report, based on an examination of the law’s impact over a decade, said that minority children adopted into white households face special challenges and that white parents need preparation and training for what might lie ahead.

But it found that social workers and state agencies fear litigation and stiff penalties under the law for even discussing race with adopting couples. As a result, families often do not get the counseling they need. It also found that states have ignored an aspect of the law that requires diligent recruitment of black parents.

The report recommends that the law — the Multiethnic Placement Act, which covers agencies receiving federal dollars and promotes a color-blind approach — be amended to permit agencies to consider race and culture as one of many factors when selecting parents for children from foster care.

My feelings on transracial adoption aren’t something I’ve writen about much, though I’ve shared them when anyone who’s ever asked me. Being an African American adoptive parent of two African American children, I do get asked for my thoughts from time to time, sometimes by couples who are considering adopting an African American child. The views expressed in the article actually come pretty close to my opinion; a little from column A and a little from column B.

The report points out that transracial adoption itself does not produce psychological or other social problems in children, but that these children often face major challenges as the only person of color in an all-white environment, trying to cope with being different.

“The idea of being color-blind is great, and we’d all like to get there,” said Adam Pertman, executive director of the Adoption Institute. “But the reality is that we live in a very race-conscious society, and that needs to be addressed. We can’t simply pretend that the problem doesn’t exist and leave it up to the child to cope.”

Many transracial adoptees say they struggle to fit in among their own family members. Shannon Gibney, 33, a writer in Minneapolis who describes herself as biracial, was adopted by a white couple who tried their best by providing things like books by black authors.

“But having books and other things about blacks is no substitute for actual experience,” Ms. Gibney said. “When I had questions about even little things like how to wear my hair, there was no one around to help me with my questions.”

What I tell people is this; there’s nothing wrong with transracial or cross-cutural adoption. But if you’re a white couple or individual considering adopting a non-white child, you need to do so with your eyes open. In fact, doing so might open your eyes to racism where you hadn’t seen it before, and in people you whose racism you hadn’t noticed before. (And you probably wouldn’t have experienced it directly.) You need to ask yourself the questions this Washington Post columnist suggested to a white couple considering adopting and African American child.

While the situation today is better than that of 50 years ago, your child is bound to face some ignorance and bigotry from whites and perhaps from some African Americans, too, whether she was born in Africa or 100 miles down the road.

You can protect her from much of it, but only if you do your homework before you commit. Now is the time to talk with some white parents in South Carolina who have already adopted African American children to find out what it has been like for them and especially for their children. They’ll also tell you how they handle comments from adults and children, which resources are the best — in and out of the state — and how adoption has changed their lives.

The child you adopt will change your lives, too, because you’ll quickly fall in love with her, as parents always do. From then on, a passionate, tigerlike fury will spring up in you if anyone rejects her, mocks her or says mean things about her.

Will you be strong enough to defend her if they do? Can you do it without embarrassing her? And if you can’t, will you be flexible enough to move to an integrated city neighborhood, where people will accept her more easily, or even move to another state?

Will you build your own support group and find your own resources before you adopt, so you won’t feel so alone later on, and will you see that she always has a few role models who look like her, so she won’t feel so alone?

You’ll also need to think about how you’re going to answer your child’s questions about race. But what I tell people is that most of all you have to educate yourself about your child’s culture of origin, regardless of ethnicity. You need to educate yourself in part so that you can educate them, but also so that you can make sure your child has access to and learns about his or her culture of origin.

And, yes, that goes beyond books. If you’re considering adopting an African American child, you need to look at your own life, at where you live and the people in your life. Do you live in a diverse area? Are there African Americans in your neighborhood? Any families? Do any of them have children? Are there any African Americans among your close friends? Are these people a significant part of your life?

Having a child changes your life, but in the case of transracial adoption you may have to change your life before you bring a child into it. Because your child will need to grow up seeing and interacting with people who look like him or her, both in order not to feel isolated by growing up the only person of color in an all-white environment. You may not have had that experience, and it might not occur to you that your child will. But there are still some places in this country where it’s possible to live and work and rarely — if ever — see a black or brown face, unless you count service workers. You may live just such a place.

It’s similar to what gay parents face. I’m on the board of Rainbow Families DC in part because of how important it is for the children of LGBT parents to see families like theirs and make friends with kids who have LGBT parents. They need those connections with people whose experiences are similar to theirs. And I know that as much as I love my sons, there will be times that they will need to share with others about things that — not being a child of gay parents — I might not readily understand. However much I want to be there for them, there will be times they will need others. My job, then, as parent is to make sure that opportunity is available to them.

There’s another side to the coin, though. When I look at the profiles of older children waiting to be adopted, I can’t help noticing how many of them are African American.

Christine M. Calpin, associate commissioner at the Administration for Children and Families at the Department of Health and Human Services, had not seen the report, but she said the law had helped minority children in foster care find permanent homes.

“I have not seen any research which suggests that federal law has not been beneficial to minority children,” Ms. Calpin said. “We have seen what happens when race is allowed to be a consideration. Children are waiting longer in foster care to be adopted.”

…Supporters of the current law say it has led to an increase in transracial adoptions and a decrease in the amount of time minority children spend in foster care before being adopted.

Ultimately, kids need stable, safe homes with good, loving parents. So, ultimately, though transracial adoption holds challenges for aoptive parents — challenges they should be aware of — anything that means fewer children are languishing in the foster care system, and more are finding permanent homes is a good thing.

One Comment

  1. Thank you so much for this article. We are doing all our research on adopting an African American child. Currently we are searching for a support group and I am talking to my neighbor who was adopted into a Caucasian family 26 years ago. She has shared some of her trials and love for what her parents have given her.

    I am hoping that she will be a good support system for my husband and I and the crazy world we live in.

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