A Prospective Adoptive Parent Writes:
My husband and I are just starting the process of adoption and are strongly considering Ethiopia. We are both caucasian and have two bio kids, a son age 4 and a daughter 6. We would want to adopt a 2-3 year old boy. I have been doing a lot of research on transracial adoption and have to admit that it scares me. I am not concerned about experiencing prejudice myself or about putting our family in the “spotlight” and dealing with ignorant questions (although I recognize that all these things will happen). I am concerned about doing a disservice to my adopted child (and in turn my bio kids who would surely be affected by that).
I have read as much as I can from adult adoptees from Africa and a more then a few times have seen comments that despite their loving parents, and good childhood, they wish they hadn’t been adopted. One went so far as to say she would have rather stayed in Ethiopia and dealt with war and famine then deal with the feeling of isolation of growing up black in a white family. I would feel absolutely heartbroken if my adult child said that to me, feeling like I failed my child in my decision to remove them from their home country.
I’ll be as upfront as I can with our situation and I would appreciate you advice on if we should and how we might make this work. We live in suburban California. The majority is definitely white, although we are more diverse then many suburbs with many Asian and Hispanic families. However, we only have a few African American families within our housing development and a small percentage overall in our town. We are not able to relocate anytime soon.
My children attend a public charter school which is more diverse then our regular public school but still has only a few African American children in each class. The materials that the school uses though represent incredible diversity. And they spend a lot more time focusing on world history, geography and cultures then many schools. We have no close friendships with African Americans, although we have casual friendships with some (we are friendly at school, they come over for/ we are invited to neighborhood get togethers, kids bday parties, etc). I do have close relationships with Africans in Kenya. But recognize they have not experienced life as an African American and would have many differences from Ethiopians.
I have spent time living as a minority when I did a semester of college in Barbados. My husband spent time living in the Philipines. I don’t know how much value our short term experiences have particularly since we did it as adults not all through our formative years, but we have done it. Our church only has one African American member (60 members, about 40 of them white). We would be willing to attend a predominantly African American church on Sundays and for children’s events but admit it would be hard to be as involved as we are at our current church due to it being about 45 minutes away (makes it hard for mid week gatherings, etc).
We travel internationally (including Africa and the Caribbean and other areas where we are a minority) as much as possible and try to give the kids a global perspective and the realization that there are other things out there, other ways of life, and more ways to approach things then how they see modeled in America. I travel frequently (2x this year) to Kenya working with AIDS orphans and have strong ties there (unfortunately residency requirements preclude us from adopting in Kenya). But we would make an extreme effort to bring our children to Ethiopia on numerous occasions and develop similiar ties there. We have plans to temporarily move to have our children attend high school in Kenya at an international school which has students from all over the world, including Ethiopia. Many, many of the families there are transracial adoptive families. The proximity of actually being in Africa I hope would allow us the ability to more frequently visit Ethiopia during school breaks. And the ability to have friends from transracial adoptive families I hope would really help during the tough teen years.
My desire to adopt comes from us wanting to expand our family (cannot have anymore biological children). I know without a doubt we could provide unconditional love and support to our adopted child, and we really do not feel as if our family is complete yet. From working with orphans in Kenya I see that they (meaning the kids who do not live with their families, who have already found good orphanages, and not the ones who are “street children” without families or any help at all) often do not need to be “rescued.” More food, more medical help, more staff to care for them, yes. They often need much more of the basic physical needs. But I see that they have joy and love often beyond what many in America have experienced with our materialistic focused society and they often have tremendous community support. I have met adults who have grown up in those environments strong, happy, and proud, and into amazingly fantastic people, who have become mentors to me. I also know not every kid is a sucess story (often due to lack of medical supplies and basic physical needs), and that for every kid who does find a home, another one of the thousands of children living alone on the street can be placed into the more supportive environment of the orphanage where they have people to care for them and can recieve an education, and for that reason adoption can be a good thing for kids still in that country.
So I am torn between what is better for the child. And that’s the million dollar question, right? Is it better to stay in an environment with which you are culturally identified, have community support, maybe some connection to your birth family, maybe none, and be living in an orphanage (which can be both very positive or very negative for different kids and depending on the specific environment at that orphanage) in a situation where your health, physical needs and sometimes safety might be in continual jeopardy, or is it better to be living in an area with which you are not culturally identified, with people with whom you are not culturally identified, but having all your most basic physical needs met and then some, and being surrounded by an adoptive family who loves you tremendously but will never fully get everything you’ve been through or your experience as an Ethiopian or as an African American.
John Raible Answers:
It sounds as if you have done a lot of homework already, having traveled to Africa and other places where you have seen how the other half lives, so to speak. I appreciate your insight that life for the other half is not always as bad as it might seem on the surface, especially to western (or white middle class) eyes. I also appreciate your thoughtful approach to the complex issues of transracial adoption. You raise many interesting points, and I hope other parents pay attention to what you have learned so far.
I have been asked the “which is better” question more times than I care to remember. Would I have been better off with my birth mother? Would I have been better off if I had not been adopted at all and left to age out of foster care? Would I have been better off being raised by a black family? Would it have been better to have had more adopted children of color in the family? Would it have been better to have gone to a different kind of school or live in a different neighborhood? Et cetera, et cetera…
All of these hypothetical questions are impossible to answer. One can only speculate. I suspect that the questions themselves provide more insight into and information about the askers than about any supposedly objective answers the askers want to hear. I fear that people who satisfy themselves with easy answers to such questions stop thinking about how complicated the issues really are. It would be terrible if parents fool themselves into thinking that, now that they know the answer, they are done thinking about the issues.
At the recent St. John’s University adoption conference (October 2006), a parent posed a similar question. I felt like we adult adoptees were being asked to compare apples and oranges. I also felt like we were being asked this in order to validate a parent’s decision over which we had no control. I responded by pointing out that regardless of the different variables people care to throw at us, the real point is that racism sucks. Once we get to the understanding that the issue is racism (and not who makes better parents), particularly when raising children of color, then we can start to figure out how parents of any color or culture are going to effectively address issues of racism with their children.
Today I would add that racism sucks– and so does adoption. That is to say that both issues are problematic and pose challenges and hurdles for adopted children and their families. There is no way around this fact. Some adoptees may tell you they never think about their birth families. Other adoptees may tell you that they do not experience racism in their daily lives. That’s wonderful for them, if it’s true… My point is that there are far too many adopted people and family members who ARE struggling to understand race, culture, adoption, and racism in this cold, cruel world. If a few lucky ones never have to deal with the ugly reality, good for them. More power to them. I am much more concerned with the countless adoptees and family members who do not have the luxury of escape, whether through avoidance, denial, or any other means, and who are left to figure this stuff out on their own, with little if any social support.
I sometimes get the feeling that some adoptive parents at conferences are waiting for the Adoptee Messiah to finally appear who is going to take away all their pain and absolve them from whatever guilt they are feeling as parents, as whites, as imperfect beings, or whatever drives their guilt. As a parent myself, I know all too well the guilt of being an imperfect parent, and the paralysis of feeling like I might have failed my kids. But guess what I finally figured out: Staying paralyzed by guilt is not helping my grown kids one bit. I suggest that instead of holding out for that Adoptee Messiah, why not start learning from the real live adult adoptee teachers who are willing to share their experiences? Instead of dealing in hypotheical questions, let’s pay attention to the lived experiences of real adoptees and their families. The book Outsiders Within is a great place to start. As the editors say in their inspirational and moving introduction: “This is what it is like. This is how we turned out.”
All of us who have been touched by race and adoption have a lot of learning to do, a lot of advocacy to take up as our responsibility. All of us need a lot of support. Regardless of color or culture, we are in this together, and we need each other. We can be our own messiahs.