Welcome to the third Race Matters advisory column with the wonderful Christine Pride. Today a reader asks about adoption …
In college, I made up my mind if I would ever have children to adopt, and luckily I have a supportive partner who feels the same way. However, over the years I have felt increasingly uncomfortable with the child support system and the question of how disproportionately many BIPOC children are being removed from their homes. I was wondering if it is even right to adopt and if we adopt, if it is wrong to adopt a BIPOC child. We are both white, and I have learned that BIPOC children who grow up in homes with white parents often suffer racial trauma from their adoptive family. I know if we were to adopt a child of a different race we would have to be overly conscious of our community to make sure they grew up with friends, managers, teachers, and hairdressers who are of the same race. You should see that we have meaningful relationships with people who are not white. Despite my best efforts, I’m not sure that it would still be appropriate. At the same time, there are higher rates of BIPOC children in foster families. So is it right to choose a white child over a BIPOC child? Is it right not to adopt because I know the system is flawed even though there are still children in the system who need a home? Should my goal be to fight to change the child welfare system so that families have greater protection – instead of adopting? I understand that these are tough questions with no easy answers, but any insights would be greatly appreciated.
There are few more personal or deeper questions than if and how and how to have children. So I wanted to first acknowledge this fact and then approach your thoughtful question with great humility. There is also no decision that requires more judgment or control, especially if you deviate from the “traditional” path. I speak as someone who is “child free,” a phrase that I don’t particularly love but that gets the job done.
While I’m not approaching your question as a mom myself, I have a relevant perspective as my parents decided to become foster parents when I was in middle school and officially adopted my younger sister from foster care when I was in college was. From my personal experience I understand care and adoption as noble, complicated and challenging tasks. And as with anything, adding races to the mix adds complexity.
Even if it should be theoretically easy, right? If a child needs a home, what is race really?
If a white parent offers a black or tan child the security, care, and attention of a loving parent, isn’t that enough, especially when one imagines terrible alternatives that the child might expect? But in practice this is of course anything but easy, as you confirm in your letter.
You already recognize the most dangerous trap – you believe that a color-blind “love is enough” approach is enough and you naively assume that the child in a white home will have no different experience than in a black home. Granted, this mindset often grows out of the best of intentions, yet it can be confusing – and harmful – for a child to grow up in a world where the color of their skin has tangible (and sometimes painful) effects, but they are Not. I didn’t get any of the tools or assistance, or even basic appreciation for that fact. The result is the kind of trauma and harm that you refer to in your letter that many children of cross-racial adoptions experience.
One of the most important things my black parents did for my siblings and me was to prepare ourselves to navigate a world where we could be considered inferior, stereotyped, or inferior. In addition to the basic requirements of parenting, they had the added burden of building our self-esteem, despite relentless insidious messages that black children like us weren’t as beautiful, smart, or capable. They had to be constantly vigilant when I went to school, attended game appointments, traveled, etc. to make sure I was protected from the ubiquitous specter of racism as emotionally and physically as possible. And through hard-won wisdom, their examples, and a steady supply of family heritage and traditions, they showed me what resistance, resilience, and racial pride look like.
All of this is an intense additional burden that white parents must avoid. You won’t if you have a black kid. Nor can you resort to personal experience or a shared perspective to help your child overcome the unique challenges of being a Black person in America. You need to find a way to convey support and understanding effectively and credibly without having the innate connection of a shared experience. It’s a tough chasm, but not an insurmountable one. You are already one step ahead as your skepticism tells me that you understand how serious and important and difficult this endeavor is, and how much intent and effort it will take. You understand that you must have black people in your child’s life, not as signs or figureheads, but as true and meaningful relationships.
It will also take tremendous amounts of education, intent, and accountability. But more than that, it will require openness. It is imperative that you acknowledge your own humility and provide a platform for the child to share their experiences without diminishing or downplaying them. You must constantly strive to step out of your own experience and see the world from a different perspective: that of your child – even if that perspective is awkward or painful or incoherent.
Ultimately, the very personal decision as to whether you, as a white woman, can and should be the mother of a black child is a matter of soul searching. My goal has been to provide some important considerations as you go through this process, and I encourage you to seek personal stories, wisdom, and additional advice directly from adoptive parents and their children.
While working at Simon and Schuster, I had the great privilege of purchasing and editing Surviving the White Gaze from journalist and cultural critic Rebecca Carroll, who hit shelves this month and which the Boston Globe as “generous, intimate, searching and impressive ”describes their story dug from its core and delivered with fervor and clarity. “In this scorching memoir, Rebecca shares her experience as a black child who grew up in an all-white family and community. And when I say “completely white”, I’m not exaggerating – she didn’t see her first black person until she was six.
Needless to say, Rebecca is well equipped to speak on this subject from deeply personal and hard-earned experience. So let’s hear from her too.
Two-for-one consultation this month!
The part of your question that struck me the most is, “Should my goal be to fight to change the child welfare system so that families have greater protection – instead of adopting?”
Because if these two ideas are mutually exclusive in your head, you may not be ready to adopt a BIPOC child. Being a white parent to a black child, or a child in general, should always involve the struggle to change a wildly unfair child support system. Of course, there is more at stake if your adopted child or potential adoptive child is one of the population groups that are most disproportionately affected.
The other thing, however, is that by setting a “goal” to fight “instead of adopting,” parents feel like a bracket here. Parents, in my opinion, are not about setting goals, although it is very much about fighting – for fairness, empathy, security and clarity in your own family and in the world around us. Setting a goal in this context seems transactional when your child needs a cohesive and fluent family narrative.
This part of the transaction that I found very common, especially with white adoptive parents of black children – think about diversity & inclusion programs for parents: find a black dance teacher or a hair person (hire a black employee), check, find a black doll (the Token Black History Month project), check out, hang a poster of Serena Williams (ambitious pic of our greatest black people), check out.
As Christine said, when you adopt a black child, “you must find a way to effectively and credibly convey support and understanding without having the innate connection of a shared experience.” Christine is perhaps more optimistic than I am that it is not an insurmountable divide. Because given the time it took white America to grasp the deadly depths and inexorable effects of systemic racism in general, and with the benefit of my own experience as a black adopted child of two very loving and clever white adoptive parents who did not . To get it right, there doesn’t seem to be a workable blueprint to bridge this gap.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t create one – or work with other adoptive parents and adoptees (mostly the latter) to figure out how to do this correctly. My advice would be to lead as much with your heart as with your brain. Love as much as you learn and integrate this learning into your love. Don’t read Toni Morrison’s Sula because you “should” as a parent of a black child, but because they are brilliant, insightful and exist outside of the white eye. Don’t follow Black Twitter because you “should” as the parent of a black child, but because it will make you more culturally and racially aware. And so on. You can read all the books on How to Be Anti-Racist, but the real information you need to raise a Black child effectively is and has been out there since we got here. We have always created and shared culture, told stories and made music and art. Don’t just observe or co-opt it, internalize it in a way that changes the way you think … not just about race or parenting or blackness, but about anything at heart.
Thoughts? If you have any questions or feedback, please email Christine at email@example.com. Thank you!
Christine Pride is a writer, book editor, and content consultant. Her debut novel We Are Not Like Them, written with Jo Piazza, will be published by Atria in autumn 2021. She lives in Harlem, New York. She also wrote the Cup of Jo post Five Things I Want To Tell My White Friends. Feel free to email her with your questions at firstname.lastname@example.org or connect with her on Instagram @cpride.
PS Christine addresses other racial issues and how to raise racially conscious children.
(Photo by Christine Han for Cup of Jo.)