Learning from Adoptees & Non-Adopted Siblings

A friend recently told me of a disturbing conversation she had with an associate, a gay white man who was in the process of adopting a child domestically. It’s important to the story that you know that my friend is a Native American woman. It’s not as important that the man is gay, in this instance, but it is significant that he is white. This man said to my friend that he was about to tell her something that might make her upset. He then proceeded to describe how his social worker had asked him and his partner if they were willing to adopt children of various racial and cultural backgrounds: would they consider a biracial child? An African American child? A Latino child? This man said that they responded by telling the worker that the only culture they would be willing to consider would be Native American. When my friend asked him why, he said: “With all those other cultures, we’d have to do a lot of work to maintain the child’s culture. But with an Indian child, that wouldn’t be as much of an issue.”

This anecdote is problematic from a number of standpoints. First, that social workers are still posing the “would you be willing to adopt” a child of color question in 2006 is appalling. I would have thought that this practice had gone the way of other outdated child welfare practices that are no longer deemed appropriate, such as not telling the child she is adopted, or maintaining the secrecy of her origins. More to the point, I would have thought that social workers these days would shift the focus of discussion, and center it on the rights and needs of waiting children, not parents. If a waiting child happens to be of color, why not find out, for example, what this couple might have to offer in the way of multicultural resources that could meet the special needs of various children with specific backgrounds and histories? It’s one thing to ask parents to state their preferences; it’s altogether different to inquire as to how parents might meet the needs of child A or child B, both of whom need parents who already grasp the significance of racism and cultural identity issues, among other equally important considerations.

Secondly, my hunch is that the man in the story knew there were problematic implications of his statement, or he would not have prefaced it by warning my friend that he was about to upset her. Perhaps he thought she would be shocked to hear about the social worker’s questions. (She was, and so was I.) In addition, perhaps he intuitively sensed the racist undertones of his take on Native children. What is even more troubling, if this is the case, was that instead of thinking through the problems for himself, he set my friend up to do the thinking for him, anticipating that she would educate him on why his statement might indeed be offensive. In my view, his behavior illustrates the wrong way to go about educating oneself about race and culture.

As lifelong students of race and culture-as I believe all of us must become, if we are going to be active and empowered participants in the ongoing social experiment known as transracial adoption-how we find our teachers and mentors is an important consideration. As we seek to understand the lifelong implications of the experiment on individuals, families, and communities, we can expand the pool of available teachers, listening to and learning from a broader array of teachers. Learning from the overlooked experiences of non-adopted white siblings of transracial adoptees is the topic of my talk, and I’ll have more to say about this shortly.

To finish with the opening anecdote: Of course, this pre-adoptive parent’s assumption that it takes a lot of work to address race and culture in transracial adoption is correct. Thankfully, he didn’t play the naive “love sees no color, therefore I am color-blind” card. Let’s give him credit for that small morsel of awareness. Yet it’s not as if he downplayed the effort it takes to parent an American Indian child because he is already so immersed in social networks with Native people that raising a child alongside them would be a snap. After all, that would be an ideal situation, in the few instances when the Indian Child Welfare Act allows non-Indians to adopt Native kids. That is to say that forming intimate connections to individuals in Native communities and extended families should be a prerequisite for a parent of any race who is seriously committed to raising culturally connected indigenous children. How the man assumes that, in the case of Native children, race and culture do not matter is where his logic breaks down. I can only surmise that, in his mind, Indians are people of the past, part of a “vanished” tribe that was conquered and duly assimilated over a century ago. In order to think like that, that is, in order to mentally disconnect contemporary Native individuals from current issues of race or culture, I have to conclude that he must not know any Indians very well. This is the only way I can imagine that he can conveniently let himself off the hook, and sidestep his obligation to pay attention to race and culture as he imagines himself as a potential white parent for a child of Native heritage.

I hope that his social worker saw the folly of honoring this man’s “preferences” and of placing an Indian child with someone this ignorant about and detached from Native people. I hope, too, that the social worker is astute enough to note that this man might require a lot more preparation before he is allowed to adopt any child. Certainly, a pre-adoptive parent has the right to state his preferences and willingness or unwillingness to take on certain issues. My point is that waiting, adoptable children of color have certain rights, too, rights that must be protected by adoption workers and adoption advocates. Social workers and parents alike must understand that race and culture should be considered “special needs” when it comes to adopting and parenting children of color. Furthermore, such special needs children of color deserve the same respect and attention that children with other special needs are given, and that Native children, at least on paper, receive under the Indian Child Welfare Act.

I open with this story because I believe it illustrates both the urgency and the complexity of the dynamics set in motion when parents begin to consider transracial adoption. Moreover, it is alarming stories like these that motivate me to continue doing what I do, and that is speaking the truth, as I understand it, about transracial adoption. After forty plus years in the experiment, I have come to take a long view, and I hope that participating in ongoing conversations about difficult issues will ultimately improve situations for adoptees, as well as for our families-and by families, I do mean all of them-our birth families and foster families, as well as our adoptive families, and the families we eventually choose and form in adulthood.

Let me state for the record that I am not opposed to transracial adoption, although I look at adoption itself, as more and more scholars do, as presenting an interesting set of contradictions and problems that warrant closer scholarly attention from multiple and interdisciplinary perspectives. Furthermore, I see value in legislation such as the Indian Child Welfare Act, since, as I understand it, it requires social workers to show how transracial adoption might be a viable option for individual Native kids, on a case-by-case basis, but always with the intent of keeping extended families and communities connected.

I also think there is much more to transracial and international adoption than simply rescuing kids who are quote unquote “languishing in foster care,” or rescuing so-called “orphans” from poverty or war-torn nations overseas. Based on my own experience as a participant in the grand social experiment-as an adoptee from the early days of the experiment, and more recently as an adoptive parent and researcher-and based on the growing body of research, I believe there are right ways and wrong ways to go about the business of transracial adoption. (Another time we can talk about the problematic “business” aspects of transracial and international adoption that involve the exchange of money for children.) My recent research with non-adoptive white siblings of adoptees sheds light on how we can use ethical and culturally sensitive lenses through which to view transracial adoption, in order to insure that the unique needs of affected children-adopted and non-adopted alike-are met, and hopefully by families that are fully prepared for the immense responsibilities they are admirably taking on.

I would never claim that my modest study is the last word on the non-adopted sibling experience of transracial family life. Actually, I view it as one of the first academic treatments of the topic, and one that can be built and improved upon by future researchers. As you probably know, most of the early studies of transracial and international adoption focused on adoptees and how we turn out: Is our self-esteem okay? Are our racial identities intact? Are we really any different from non-adopted kids or kids in in-racial adoptions? Moreover, most researchers who have studied transracial adoption have based their findings on interviews and surveys of parents, and with adoptees while they were still quite young. While this is gradually changing as more studies are added to the literature, few studies have focused on the experience of mature adoptees in adulthood. Even more absent from the literature are the voices and experiences of those other unwitting participants in the experiment, the “invisible” brothers and sisters who, due to their parents’ decisions, found themselves sharing parents and childhoods with adopted boys and girls from a different race or culture.

The twelve adult participants in my study ranged in age from twenty-one to forty-nine. They grew up in different parts of the United States. I asked them all the same series of questions during interviews that lasted as long as two hours. My questions were designed to be open-ended, although I did try to make sure they covered such topics as interracial dating and friendships, and whether or not they have considered adopting in adulthood, transracially or otherwise. What this group of non-adopted siblings had to say illuminates many of the issues that we now understand as fundamental to the preparation of families for this tricky albeit worthwhile social experiment. The participants in my study collectively represent the transracial adoptive families that were formed in the 1960s and 1970s, at a time of heightened idealism and optimism for an integrated, harmonious future. All of these siblings have either African American or Korean brothers and sisters. I will share the details of my study in another session at this conference. Suffice it to say that I found that the combined experiences of this group of non-adopted siblings speak to larger issues in transracial adoption as well as international adoption, particularly where the international adoptees are children of color-and who later become, and live the rest of their lives, I must remind you, as adults of color in a still highly race-conscious and racially divided society.

What did these white siblings have to say about their parents’ decision to adopt a child of another race or culture? Most reported in hindsight that they can see that their parents didn’t really know what they were getting themselves into. While two reported that their parents had participated in a group for adoptive families, mostly these families were innocently taking on this tremendous responsibility on their own, with few social supports. Whereas a few families did actually relocate to more diverse, cosmopolitan cities for the sake of the children, most of the participants grew up in predominantly white suburban or rural environments. Some had been raised with a color-blind, “love sees no color” approach, while others realized fairly early on that race and culture still matter, at least to many people outside the family, and sometimes even to various members within the extended family. Almost all of the participants had stories to tell, for example, about insensitive comments from extended family members, and the different ways their parents dealt with them.

As a multicultural educator (and as the brother of a non-adopted white sister and brother) what I found most interesting were the stories that showed instances of personal connection to larger discourses of race and cultural pluralism, and to real people of color outside the family. I was fascinated to hear how some of these siblings took up the discourse of anti-racism, for instance, whereas others tended to avoid or downplay discussions of racism or cultural differences. It became clear that for the few non-adopted siblings who did embark on a serious learning quest to understand race, racism, and the role of cultural differences, there had been help and modeling from their savvy parents early on.

Perhaps more importantly, this subset of sibling participants forged personal connections to people of color outside the family. Such long-term connections came about through their involvement in interracial churches and youth groups, and by becoming friends with people of color at school and at work, and in some cases, through romantic involvements and dating across the color line. Their involvement in long-term relationships of caring with people of color enabled these white adults to develop nuanced and sophisticated understandings of the dynamics of race in our society, and a deeper appreciation for struggles against racism, both in history and in the lives of their adopted siblings, and ultimately, in their own lives. For example, they talked about coming to understand white privilege, and how they felt called on to confront racism as adults. They described the ways they handled questions from curious onlookers, and how they educated others on the use of culturally appropriate and adoption-sensitive language. Rather than denying the existence of racism or trivializing racial incidents as few and far between, these siblings didn’t abandon their adoptive siblings to their own private struggles; instead, they committed to learning about racism and cultural differences as race-conscious, culturally aware, and anti-racist allies. Race, culture, and adoption became their issues. Some have moved to multicultural neighborhoods and chosen diverse work sites. Others have traveled-in some cases, more than once-to Asia or to Africa. To paraphrase one participant, who has an African American sister and a biracial brother, “If it’s an offense against my brother or sister, it’s an offense against me.”

I admit that I found it a bit disheartening (although hardly surprising) that the majority of the siblings I interviewed did not seem overly concerned about or involved with anti-racist struggle or diversity issues. On the flip side, I was often quite moved by the ways that all of the participants described their relationships with their adoptive brothers and sisters in affectionate and compassionate terms. What I am interested in highlighting here is what we can learn from those siblings who did take up anti-racism as their own issue, and how doing so transformed their identities as white adults.

What impressed me most-and from whom I think we can perhaps learn the most-were the four non-adopted siblings who, during our interviews, narrated sophisticated understandings of racial and cultural issues. I refer to the complicated narrative identities enacted by these siblings as examples of transracialized selves. That is, the ways in which these white adults narrated their experiences revealed innovative and creative approaches to whiteness, ways that, I would argue, break from more traditional and predictable ways of “doing” whiteness. It seems to me that these siblings are saying, in so many words, that if their idealistic parents taught them that people are equal regardless of race, and if racial mixing is a good thing within the family, then by extension, racial mixing outside the family should naturally follow as a matter of course. In effect, these siblings stepped up to the plate and attempted to fulfill utopian visions of the integrated beloved community. They have much to teach us about what happened to them in the process.

To begin with, all the non-adopted siblings in my study experienced what I call “sharing the spotlight” with their adoptive brothers and sisters. That is, they reflected on how uncomfortable they often felt when they appeared in public as a family and noticed the curious and sometimes hostile stares from onlookers. In various ways, they talked about how they withstood the scrutiny of being on display as an unusual, racially marked family.

As a group, they also had much to report on the intrusive questions and comments from friends and schoolmates and even from strangers unknown to the family. For example, they fielded questions such as, “Is that your real sister?” “How much did she cost?” “Why are you different colors?” “What happened to her real parents?” and the like. Some of the siblings shared with me how, as adults, they are cautious about “outing” themselves as members of transracial families. They have learned that people-even complete strangers-are not shy about voicing their strong opinions on their parents’ decision to form a family by taking in other people’s children. For example, people are quick to make assumptions about how these siblings must think about race and the whole transracial adoption controversy. The siblings who move in multicultural social circles talked about how they are careful about when to disclose that they have an adopted brother or sister of color. They described how they have learned to anticipate that people frequently have strong reactions (positive and negative) to this news. Nearly all of the participants talked about the racist comments and jokes they are subjected to and privy to; as whites, apparently they are expected to join in or share racist sentiments. Some of them responded by telling the racist commentator that they are offended and that their brother or sister is a member of the group just slandered or ridiculed. Others described how they have become strategic about deciding when to fight back, when to educate, and when to let comments slide.

Perhaps the most telling and poignant comments came from the siblings who had at some point been involved in dating across the color line. One participant, whose parents tended to downplay discussions of racial differences in the family, described how, as a teenager, she had been attracted to a black classmate at school. Yet she felt paralyzed about this, saying that, “I didn’t know what to do with this,” feeling that she had no one to talk to about her confusing emotions. Her parents had done a commendable job instilling democratic values about accepting everyone as equals, yet she sensed intuitively that other people would react to her choice-and she had no one to talk to about this.

Other participants described how frustrating it was for them to be involved romantically with someone of another race. Dealing with the harsh judgments from others, whether in the African American community or the white community, for instance, proved to be emotionally draining and disheartening. Being always on display as half of an interracial couple led one woman to observe that this is precisely why she would never adopt transracially herself. She explained that since she knows firsthand how it feels to be forever in the public eye, she believed that if she herself found it challenging as an adult, it would be far too much of a burden to put on a small child. Interestingly, only one sibling was currently in an interracial romantic relationship; all the others who had been involved previously had pulled back, citing different reasons.

Others who told me why they would never adopt a child of another race attributed their decision to the struggles their families had faced. Seeing brothers in jail, living with the consequences of unaddressed mental health issues, experiencing estrangement and disruptions in the family, and witnessing the ongoing challenges faced by their adoptive siblings of color led a number of participants to voice ambivalence about transracial adoption. A few, on the other hand, expressed optimism about transracial adoption, and explained how they would certainly be open to adopting children of color in the future. One father said he had adopted already, but not a child of color. Another parent was raising several adopted African American children, while another participant was in the process of completing a home study, hoping to adopt a black or biracial child. Several of the participants described ongoing tension between their adopted siblings and their parents, and the heartbreak this has caused for everyone in the family, even as family members have moved into maturity. Another described being at an adoption conference, and becoming uncomfortable with and appalled by some of the dismissive statements uttered by pre- and post-adoptive parents who, in her view, resisted what the adult adoptees and other presenters of color had to teach them.

What the combined voices of this group of non-adopted white siblings say to me is that we have not yet figured out how to effectively integrate families, much less our society. Moreover, we have failed to adequately support the courageous families who have attempted to embody our utopian values by taking on the complexities of race and adoption in their own lived experience. It occurs to me that these families, formed as they were on the waves of post-World War II idealism and futuristic optimism, have now been left rudderless and directionless. Our once idealistic leaders who, for a brief beautiful historic moment, embraced Martin Luther King’s vision of the integrated, beloved community have now retreated from those once lofty ideals. Collectively, we are more conservative, less trusting, and more jaded and divided than we were when the transracial experiment first began. Fifty years after Brown vs. Board of Education, many schools remain as segregated as ever. Too many people still exist in monocultural enclaves where they rarely, if ever, encounter diversity in their daily lives. Too many adoptees end up living in isolation, feeling removed from and abandoned by the very people they should be able to count on for support and sustenance in the face of tough issues pertaining not only to racial and cultural differences, but also to adoption itself.

Yet despite these sobering circumstances, non-adopted siblings who have somehow managed to transracialize their lives point the way forward. Transracialized siblings teach us that the way forward is by no means easy, but the rewards far outweigh the perceived risks. All of the participants in my study remarked at some point on how lucky they feel to be part of their transracial adoptive families. One woman, in articulating how different she feels from other white people, observed, “My experience stands for something. I am part of the transracial adoptive culture, but what does that mean to someone who hasn’t experienced that?” Another described how her life has been enriched in so many ways, and how her current work in an African American community, and her adoption of black children as a parent is a direct outgrowth of her childhood experiences, and what she has learned from her parents, her black adoptive siblings, and her adult friends of color.

Transracialized siblings such as these inspire me to persevere, to cling to the hope that adoptive families can learn to get it right. Moreover, as a society, they symbolize how we all can figure out a way forward through the dismal minefields of racial mistrust. We can and we must, if we are to finally complete the unfinished project of racial integration. If transracialized siblings can do it, then others can, too. Where one has made a way, others can surely follow. Too many of us remain idly on the sidelines of racial discourse and the culture wars, while these courageous individuals have jumped headlong into the fray. In essence, they are living out Dr. King’s dream, with little social support or validation. When more of us follow their lead, we will make headway towards finally completing the unfinished project of integrating not only our own lives; society itself will be strengthened through genuinely integrated families and communities. I am suggesting that we learn from non-adopted white siblings a new approach to integration, a new way to think about race relations. It is imperative that we take up the challenge as individuals, in our own lives, as these siblings have done. The future for a harmonious, beloved community depends on what we each do today and how we choose to live our lives tomorrow.

I have come to believe that transracial adoptive family life can pave the way to that bright future -but only if it is done right. To summarize what I have learned from the non-adopted white siblings of transracial adoptees: (1) A few of us choose to transracialize our lives-while most of us opt not to. Yet it is never too late to make another choice. (2) Whether we do or don’t transracialize has a direct bearing on whether we can transform our society. Finally, (3) not to avoid uncomfortable discussions of adoption, race, and cultural differences within families, but to embrace those issues as our own, and as empathetic and compassionate sisters and brothers-these are the lessons I have learned from listening to the white women and men who stand in loving solidarity with their siblings of color.

Transcript of the Keynote Address to the 4th Biennial Adoption Conference. Presented at St. John’s University, New York October 14, 2006. Reprinted with permission of the Author.

John Raible is an Assistant Professor in Diversity & Curriculum Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

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