Adoption Stories

Published on January 22nd, 2014 | by Eve

15

Eve on Transracial Adoption

Transracial adoption is controversial.  I had no idea that it was until we became a transracial family, but there’s no doubt that it is. But whatever you think about Madonna adopting children from Malawi, let’s remember one thing – the distance between Madonna and impoverished families in Malawi is much further than the distance between the average middle class family who adopts in this country and the impoverished people who choose (or have the choice made for them) to give children up for adoption.  So high profile transracial adoptive families like Madonna’s only serve to exaggerate the feelings that come up for people around transracial adoptive families, or adoptive families in general.  Transracial adoption is really only more controversial than adoption in general because for most of us, we can never choose not to be “out” about being adoptive families.  If I were making an analogy to the queer community, I’d say transracial families are the queeny gay men or the butch lesbians who can’t hide being queer even if they wanted to.

Here’s how we came to be a transracial family: We wanted a family . We tried to get pregnant for five years or so, and after four years we started looking into adoption,  specifically open domestic adoption.  We didn’t want to do international because I didn’t trust that we could find a decent, ethical agency, and no matter how I spin it, it just seems to problematic to remove a child from his home country.  The loss of birth parents inherent in any adoption is enough for a child to deal with, we thought.  And while we looked into foster-to-adopt, there was just something deeply unsettling about the dynamic of “you’re not good enough to parent, but you are.”  Also, the social worker from the Department of Children and Families informed us that they couldn’t work with us while we were still trying to conceive.  She was wrong, but we didn’t know that at the time.  Which is not to say that there aren’t too many kids who need homes to eliminate any one kind of adoption from the mix.  And until we correct the systemic problems (eliminating poverty, improved access to birth control) that make adoption completely unnecessary, the best we can do is hold adoption agencies of all kinds to the highest standard, and proceed.  But we all have choices in this world, and we had some preferences about what sort of adoption story we could best integrate into our lives in an open and honest way.

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So we wound up with an agency that does mostly domestic, mostly open adoptions.  They were thorough and very thoughtful about the whole process.   And when they asked us if we had any exclusions when it came to adopting – as in, who we wouldn’t consider adopting – it just felt wrong to exclude on the basis of race, except for Native Americans, and that’s because of the Indian and Child Welfare Act, which says any child with Indian blood is supposed to be given to the tribe so they can find a home from within that community.  We figured we’d let fate decide which baby found their way to us, after all we’d been trying and waiting long enough.  As it turns out, the wonderful small boy who found his way to us is African-American.  As far as we know, that’s all he is ethnically, though multiple people of different races have wondered otherwise. His birth mom and birth dad are, as far as they know, African-American.

The thing about adoption is that it is easy to understand why some adoptive parents fall into the trap of pretending they don’t have to talk about it with their kids, and think they can avoid the questions, the loss, the story.   Parenting is hard work no matter what, why take on extra work?  And it is extra work – “narrative burden” is the phrase that gets used by some adoptees – for children as well. One of my best friends, Tricia, was adopted to a Mexican-American woman and a white dad, which is close to the racial makeup of her biological parents.  She recently admitted “growing up it was a relief to look like my mom.” Make no mistake about it, it is definitely further damaging to lie to kids about adoption, but it’s easy to see why some parents have fallen into the trap of wanting to do so, if they have the privilege to be able to do so.

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Our son doesn’t have that luxury.  Most transracial adoptees don’t have that luxury.  Our son will grow up with some class privilege, and the privilege of having white parents to help advocate for him, but that won’t help him much when he’s twenty-five and pulled over in east Texas for “driving while black.”  Unless we’re in the car with him.  It won’t help him if he wants to go to Barney’s when he’s a teenager and the security follow him around.  And wouldn’t help him if, God forbid, he’s in Florida and runs into George Zimmerman.

What’s particularly unsettling is to be thinking all this (and in full disclosure, I teach “Power, Privilege, and Oppression” to graduate students at Lesley University, so I think about this quite a lot) while my little guy is only twenty months old.  He doesn’t even have a concept of his own racial identity or gender identity yet, but the imprinting onto him has already begun.  Whether he gets read as a girl or a boy affects what toys people hand him or expect him to want.  The fact that he looks different from us affects whether people look at him funny when he’s in the Jewish bakery saying excitedly “Challah! Challah!” – he doesn’t “look Jewish” to most people. Even though the statistics show that the rates of intermarriage  has changed what Jews look like.  That’s white privilege for you.

It’s exciting watching my son learn.  He knows about fifty words now, and can communicate his needs and opinions about things much of the time.  He finds everything new and fascinating, whether it’s a napkin, a pot lid, or a puzzle.  But I dread the time when he becomes aware of racial prejudice.  I wish there was a way to derail that train entirely.   But there’s not.  The only option is to stay on it with him, and help him navigate the ride as best he can.

[Note: Post has been updated since publication to remove author’s last name, out of respect for her child and family’s privacy.]

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About the Author

Eve

Eve is a poet, fiction writer, and playwright whose work has appeared in LilithPoeticaNew Vilina ReviewConcho River Review, as well as many other literary magazines and several anthologies.   She is also a mother and lives in Boston with her spouse and her son.



15 Responses to Eve on Transracial Adoption

  1. Victoria says:

    How lucky you and your son are to have each other! 🙂 While reading your story I was stunned to realize how little I’ve thought about transracial adoption. To be honest, I am guilty of having the pretty picture in my head of Madonna or Angelina when it is brought up. You make an excellent analogy. With you as a mother though, I’m sure your son will have all of the confidence and support in the world to overcome any unfortunate circumstances he is exposed to due as he grows up.

  2. Belinda Gomez-Maldonaldo says:

    Do you mean inter-racial? Transracial is a Tumblr meme, meaning white people who think they”really” POC.

    • From Merriam-Webster Dictionary: “TRANSRACIAL: “Involving, encompassing, or extending across two or more races (transracial adoption)”

      Per the US Dept. of Health & Human Services: “Transracial or transcultural adoption means placing a child who is of one race or ethnic group with adoptive parents of another race or ethnic group. In the United States these terms usually refer to the placement of children of color or children from another country with Caucasian adoptive parents.” https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubs/f_trans.cfm

      Also see:

      http://www.adoptivefamilies.com/transracial-adoption.php

      And pages more of similar links via google.

      Interesting about the tumblr meme. I’d posit that the use of “transracial” as it relates to adoption predates the existence of tumblr.

  3. Tanisha Adams says:

    I have no problem with white families raising our kids, and it sounds like you are doing a nice job and providing him with a loving home, but I do think that as a bare minimum, you need to learn to do his hair so it is cared for as it would be with Black parents and to protect it from damage. Looking presentable is very important in most sectors of the Black community, and you are raising him to be a Black man. Maybe ask some Black friends to show you how to twist and braid?

    • Eve Eve says:

      I agree learning about caring for African-American hair is essential for any transracial family. We’re doing our best to care for his hair and we’ve learned tons about the best hair care products to manage his beautiful soft Afro, and I think we’re doing a good job so far. Is there a reason you think we’re not?

  4. Tanisha Adams says:

    Well, the norm in most of the Black community is that as soon as it’s about an inch long, when the kid is a few months old, you start doing their hair in protective styles, or you cut it short. Hair that isn’t cut short needs to be in protective styles so it isn’t dry and damaged. In these pictures it looks like the ends are really damaged from being loose and rubbed against things. They need to be snipped off. When we see kids with long hair that isn’t done, most of us have the immediate thought that the child is being cared for by white people. To us it looks like you’ve neglected a basic part of the child’s care, just like if any of us saw a child with a dirty face, ragged nails, or clothes that aren’t appropriate for the weather.

    My apologies if you do usually do his hair, but this does really speak to an aspect of child care that Black people are quick to notice and white people often do not. We all have those days that our kids or ourselves aren’t groomed and dressed and don’t leave the house, but we wouldn’t put up a picture of our kids like that, just like we wouldn’t go out like that (or would put on a cap or something if we had to leave and didn’t have the time to even do something quick). I don’t think you’d take your child outside or post a picture if he was dirty, so why post pictures of him with his hair not done?

  5. Eve Eve says:

    I assure you, we are definitely doing everything we can to make sure his hair is not damaged. We also do our best to keep a wave cap or do-rag on his head to protect it when he’s in the car seat, the crib, etc. Obviously like with any other toddler, this has to be balanced with the fact that toddlers are still learning to sit still and the importance of grooming. We’ve done our research and like I said, I think we’re doing a pretty good job. But I think you’re making a lot of assumptions based on some awkwardly angled photos. If you had the opportunity to meet my son in real life, and still had opinions about his hair, I’d be more inclined to have a dialogue about suggestions you might have. But these photos are from months ago, and none of your suggestions so far are things we don’t know.

    I will also note that I detect some anti-Afro bias in your comments, which is not the first time I’ve heard it. But I am sure you are also aware there are plenty of ways to care for an maintain a healthy Afro.

  6. Transracial Mama says:

    Your son is adorable but you seem very defensive about the hair comments. Please take a moment to consider that there are folks who have more experience in their area than you – Please listen to Tanisha Adams. It’s not a photo angle issue and it’s not “anti-afro bias”. Having unkempt, uncut, unstyled hair does not equal “afro.” One of my kids has an afro – It looks healthy, moisturized, trimmed and well-kempt. With all due respect, your child does not appear to have a healthy and well-kept afro, he has hair that is dry, unkempt and has breakage. Please consider listening to Black folks about this. You are jeopardizing your child’s acceptance and your family’s acceptance in the Black community. Children his age absolutely can sit to have their hair done. They need trims and protective styles and/or intense moisturizing in order for their hair to look good and not have breakage. I would assume that since you adopted transracially that you live in a diverse community and have a good number of Black friends. Please consider talking to them, talking to barbers/stylists, and following some of the cultural norms of the community your son will be part of whether or not you want him to be.

    • Eve says:

      I will repeat what I said earlier: “If you had the opportunity to meet my son in real life, and still had opinions about his hair, I’d be more inclined to have a dialogue about suggestions you might have. But these photos are from months ago, and none of your suggestions so far are things we don’t know. “

  7. KatjaMichelle says:

    Hi it was interesting to read a bit about your transracial adoption experience. As someone who’s been involved in the adoption community (in various ways including as an adoption researcher) for over a decade I do have to support your assertion that transracial has been used in conjunction with adoption since before tumblr existed. However, I also have to agree with a previous commenter that based on the photos you choose your son’s hair does look overly dry and damaged. If an afro is your and his style of choice it should be moisturized and picked out.

    • Eve says:

      I will repeat what I said earlier to you, too: “If you had the opportunity to meet my son in real life, and still had opinions about his hair, I’d be more inclined to have a dialogue about suggestions you might have. But these photos are from months ago, and none of your suggestions so far are things we don’t know.”

  8. J. L. J. L. says:

    Tanisha,

    I am the other mother for the above-pictured cutie. While we are trying to honor African American culture, we are also raising our son Jewish. There is a tradition, upshirin (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Upsherin), that involves not cutting a boy’s hair until his third birthday. We decided unless his hair became tangled, matted or unmanageable, we would let it grow. We have been diligent at keeping his hair free of tangles and moisturized multiple times each day. His hair is soft to the touch, and we love his wild curls. And we are not alone. We have gotten multiple compliments from African-Americans, and met one man who told me that his hair looked like our son’s when he was young, and he liked it. So, I know we aren’t offending all African Americans by our choices. I will note that those who voice approval are usually wearing Afros or natural styles as well.

    I want our son to know his mothers embrace everything about who he is. There is such a long tradition in this country of processing, cutting and hiding African hair to look more European. There is plenty of time for him to chose which social pressures he will resist and which he will follow. When the time comes, we will help him make those decisions and to present himself accordingly. But now, he is our delicious little boy. Now, everything about him is perfect.

    I know you mean well, Tanisha, but our choices about our son’s hair do not come from ignorance about African American culture or about the hows of caring for his hair. I know natural hair is somewhat controversial. I know there is a lot of judgement around hair. I know there are many within African American culture who are trying to broaden the ideas about what hair should look like.

  9. Eve says:

    Well, the fact that I wrote about transracial adoption being controversial has degenerated into a conversation about whether we know how to properly care for my son’s hair (we do, we are very open to feedback from people who meet us in real life, we are very familiar with what it takes to care for an Afro) sort of underscores the point, doesn’t it?

    I’ll quote the children’s book Shades of Black (Sandra Pinkney) here: “All of your hair is good.” There’s no one way to be black. But that doesn’t stop people from having opinions about it.

  10. Mutha Magazine Mutha Magazine says:

    We are closing this post to further comments critical of the author’s child’s photos/appearance. These comments have been heard and the author has responded.

    Generally, and as stated elsewhere, the policy of this site is that while we love comments, feedback and critique, mean or snarky comments will not be published.

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