An Adoptive Parent Writes:
I am a single, white adoptive mother of an 8-year-old African American boy, who was placed with me at age 8 months. While we have had our ups and downs already over the years around race/identify/adoption issues, my son has thus far been able to handle most issues he has faced around his adoption. However, tonight he was very upset because of the things being said to him at school. At first, he told me that the children were just calling him names and being mean to him, but after further discussion, he told me that what really bothers him is when people question him about the differences between the two of us.
He point blank said that he doesn’t want his classmates to know that he is adopted and that he hates when people make comments about me not looking like him. He used to be very proud of being adopted but now he is ashamed of being adopted and how our color differences make him feel different and ridiculed.
I have also faced many comments from the people in the school (which is predominantly African American) and feel very comfortable letting people know that their comments and/or questions are very inappropriate. How do I help my son out and what is an appropriate response for someone his age that will get the correct message across to his classmates without making things worse? He is very nervous about speaking up as he thinks this will only make things worse and that the children “won’t be his friend anymore”. Any guidance and/or suggestions would be much appreciated! Thank you.
John Raible Answers:
It can be challenging and frustrating to have so little control over who knows that we are adopted! Because we do not racially “match” our white parents, transracial adoptees rarely get to decide if and when to disclose what we sometimes wish were a private part of our personal identities.
It might help your son, as he grows older, to know that he is not alone. Not only do other transracial adoptees share his experience, but children who do not “match” their parents for other reasons may feel similarly. Even so, if they were not adopted, they do not have that particular stigma to deal with.
It may be time to redouble your efforts to counter adoption stigma by highlighting adoption pride. There are a number of good children’s books around these days. There are also lists online of famous adoptees. Your son may delight in learning about some powerful and influential people who were adopted, just like him. Whether they were adopted transracially or not, it sounds like your son needs bolstering around the difference of adoption right now, rather than the difference of race.
Michelle Johnson Answers:
I wholeheartedly agree with John that looking different from the rest of your family makes adoption issues even harder. I am so happy to hear that your son is with children who look like him at school each day. More parents should be so bold. Your son is experiencing the more complicated side of transracial life: both children and parents from his birth community who have issues or questions with the practice, if not you specifically.
As for your concerns about making things worse, let them go. Doing whatever you’ve been doing isn’t helping, so change is necessary. If you haven’t already done so, meet with his teachers and share your concerns. Read first, and bring books like Adoption and the Schools, edited by Lansing Wood & Nancy Ng, and Pact’s video, “Visible Differences” (www.pactadopt.org), suggest ways adoption can be brought up in positive ways through curriculum or activities. Talk about how you would like things handled in classroom situations if teachers are overhearing or seeing divisive comments or actions. Also talk with the parents of your son’s closest friends, and see if they are willing to assist their children in being supportive. If they have issues, listen even if you don’t agree, for they are coming from their own experiences and beliefs about interracial adoption, which your family will continue to confront the rest of your lives. While you may never come to agreement, hopefully you can agree to do what’s best for your kids in this situation. Your job is to advocate now when your son is unable or unwilling to. Hopefully over time he will be able to do this for himself, and return to a feeling of pride about his adoption. At the very least you will have role modeled this for him.
I also echo John’s words about your son needing to not feel alone in this. See if either your adoption agency or others in the area have support groups or other programs for adopted children. I work with Harambee here in Minnesota through NACAC and we have three groups in the Twin Cities and two in greater Minnesota, with an annual conference and other special events. If a support group doesn’t exist, consider starting one. Two concerned families is all it takes to get the ball rolling. Best of luck!