Many years ago, I wrote an article which appeared in Social Work, defending transracial adoption as a solution for homeless black children. I was writing in response to an article by a black sociologist who was highly critical of the practice of placing black children with white adoptive parents.
I still believe that a black child, placed with loving white adoptive parents, is better off than he or she would be in an institution or a foster home, even if the foster parents are black. I also believe that the potential success of a foster home must be judged on an individual basis rather than on the basis of race alone.
However, our family has been through several changes since I wrote that article and in addition, I have a good deal more contact with white couples in the N.Y. metropolitan area who have either already adopted black children, or who are contemplating such an adoption. I must admit that I do now have some concerns about the capacity of a large number of these adoptive parents to help their children learn to deal effectively with the problems that will most probably arise as a result of being black in America. There is no doubt in my mind that the white parents of black children whom I have met, very much love their children and will therefore be able to help them develop a basic sense of worth and identity. They will guide their children toward the fulfillment of their individual potentialities.
The problem is that this is not enough. The family must act as the primary agent of socialization, helping its members to absorb the surrounding culture and providing role models so that children can learn to behave in socially constructive ways. Helping a black child to become a complete human being is a very difficult job because our society (1) arbitrarily defines certain individuals as black (2) segregates such individuals into a separate caste and (3) makes unreasonable and often conflicting demands on them. It becomes the function of the parents to make the basic racial insanity of white society explicit to the black child so that he does not internalize destructive values.
One of the issues which seems to cause tremendous difficulty for white adoptive parents is the definition of their children as black. Social agencies, which prefer to place light skinned or “interracial” children with white couples, often add to the problem. White adoptive parents, often, have not begun to think actively about racial issues or determine what their feelings about race are, until the black child is already in their home and the world outside the home has started to send confusing, unpleasant or absolutely negative messages into the home. Because, like other white Americans, adoptive parents perceive the races as separate entities and identify themsleves as being white, they are quick to capitalize on whatever white ancestry their black child may have, and to emphasize the child’s “white” characteristics as a link between the child and themselves. I have heard parents say that their black children have been mistaken by others as their biological children or that the child is not “just” black because one of his parents or grandparents was white. They miss the point that most black people in America have white ancestry, that here, there is no such thing as a “pure” black child, that if you look at a large number of black people, you will see many with features or characteristics that can be recognized as Caucasian. But always, to white Americans, it is the bit of BLACK ancestry that defines an indiviual and their actions toward him, and feelings about him will be influenced by their perceptions of him. A majority of white Americans are so concious of race, that dark skin, in and of itself, often causes them to define an individual as “black” whether or not he actually has any African ancestry.
This complicated and confusing reality is what we will have to help our black children understand. They need to know that people’s negative responses to them are not caused by something inside them, but by the sickness and fear inside the people who are responding negatively. They also need to learn that it is irrational to first define a person according to his race or skin color and then, only later, to perceive his uniqueness and become aware of his personal characteristics.
Another issue which seems to worry a lot of transracially adopting parents is where they should live. Many opt for an “integrated” neighborhood where, they believe, their interracial family will “fit in” comfortably. Because they identify themselves as white and often have white children as well as black children, they try very hard to find an area with a “good racial balance.” Just like most other white Americans, they mean a neighborhood where there are an equal number of black and white families, preferably, more white families than black families to “approximate the natural racial percentages in America.” They worry about racial balance in the schools their children attend and are concerned if they believe “the races are polarized.” They pride themselves on living in a community “where there are many kinds of people living in harmony.” All of it is a beautiful dream, the dream of naive white Americans who have not had to deal with the realities of being black in America.
Black people know the reality for the nightmare it really is. They know that if more than a few of them move into an area, white people begin to flee. They know that it is close to impossible to maintain a racial balance in schools because once the percentage of black children rises above 20 or 25 percent, white people take their children out of the schools and the percentage of black children rockets to 90 percent as a result. They know that if white people see a large number of black children in a school, then they are sure that the school must, by definition, be bad; that if there is a large percentage of black people living in a neighborhood it is considered by white people to be undesirable. They know that economic and political forces cause the deterioration of neighborhoods, not their black inhabitants, and that they have to fight every inch of the way to keep their neighborhoods safe and the quality of education in their schools high because white society tends to “dump” its problem population into areas where large numbers of black people live.
Some white parents of black children choose to remain in all white communities. Often the choice is dictated by economic pressures or is made because of family ties or other deep roots in the community. But sometimes, the choice is motivated by fear of living in racially integrated communities or reluctance to take on the problems involved in living in such neighborhoods. We do not yet have the results of research to tell us how the lives of adopted black children are affected by such choices on the part of their parents. We can only guess that black children, growing up isolated from other black people, may feel alienated from them because they have not learned the typical modes of verbal and non-verbal communication, and the implicit system of values and knowledge communicated among black people. While white America will define these individuals as black and the will be expected by both blacks and whites to function comfortably within black groups, they will not have the techniques to help them do so. Adoptive parents, who have been hearing about the importance of “black identity”, often try to expose their children to Black History or teach them about “black culture.” The children may then KNOW ABOUT black people but they will not KNOW black people unless they have daily contact with them. Many parents, who normally would have no contact with black adults, try to seek out black friends or find black playmates with their chidlren. There is, of course, an artificiality to these contrived situations, but they are honest attempts on the part of adoptive parents to handle the problem of their children’s isolation.
I believe that the most positive situation for the adopted black child occurs when the adoption is an outgrowth of the parents’ awareness of the reality and implications of race relations and when the adoptive parents have struggled with their own internal attitudes BEFORE the child comes into the home. I certainly would not expect anyone to have completely resolved the problems. Parents of black children function under unbelievable pressure from society and from within themselves. They have to develop a clear and consistent philosophy concerning black/white relations in the U.S., separate from their feelings about their adopted black children. I strongly suspect that part of this new philosophy is relinquishment of the strong identification with whites. It is not that one no longer recognizes that he or she is white but rather, that this racial definition is no longer of prime importance. This is a new way for most white adoptive parents of perceiving people. If they have white children, their attitudes must extend to thtem. There is a corollary to this which may seem contradictory. One must be committed to help in whatever way is possible, in the struggle of black people to attain their rightful place in America. Racism in our society is not only a personal problem–it is institutional. Our own adopted black children will never be completely safe and secure, nor will our adopted or biological white children, until all of the people in our country can look forward to a life of dignity.
By Miriam Vieni. Reprinted with permission of the author.+