Published on January 22nd, 2014 | by Eve15
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.
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.
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.]