Inside Transracial Adoption
From: Adopted Child:Volume 19 Number 9
Book Review: Parents who adopt transracially challenged to immerse selves in diverse communities.
White parents who adopt transracially often make genuine attempts to understand the experiences of people of color, say the authors of a new book on transracial adoption. However, Gail Steinberg and Beth Hall say even that attitude is indicative of how entrenched white privilege? is in American culture.
“The sense that somehow I can use my intuition to imagine my child’s life” is a kind of arrogance typical of people who take their own superiority for granted, Hall says. It says Even though I have never been in your shoes, I am capable of imagining what your life is like Parents don’t acquaint the assumption that they can understand their child’s experience with their being white, but that’s where it comes from.
In fact, says Steinberg, there will always be a gap between a white parent’s consciousness of racial issues and a child’s actual experience with race. “It’s a shock for parents to recognize that I will never get it 100 percent, and that I will never know what it is like to be a person of color in this world.”
Parents are reluctant to admit that they have only limited ability to understand their children’s experience Hall says, because it means they are limited in their ability to help their children cope with those experiences. No parent wants to think she might not be fully competent to meet her child’s needs. But that issue has greater weight for the infertile parent, who has to overcome feelings that maybe she wasn’t meant to be a parent. And it has greater weight for adoptive parents who often feel obliged to prove that they aren’t “as good as”? the child’s biologic parents.
And if race is the factor that makes the child’s biologic parents better able to meet the child’s need, the white parents are programmed to reject that. Either they believe that race could not possibly be that important, or there is an unconscious belief that a white person can certainly be as competent as a person of color.
Parents who adopt transracially are aware that some people of color believe white parents cannot raise a child of color with an adequate sense of racial identity or adequate preparation for the racism the child will inevitably encounter. Rather than admitting that they may not be able to prepare the child as well as they need to be prepared, they oversimplify the task or overcompensate for their inabilities- to the detriment of the child.
“In our great desire to be close to our child and prove the world wrong – that we were meant to be parents — we overidentify with the child’s racial heritage,” Hall says.
The biggest mistake that well meaning adoptive parents make says Hall, “is to take on the child’s experience as though they are the person of color.” These parents, she says talk adamantly and passionately as if from first-hand experience about the kinds of oppression and experiences their child is having. They wear cornrows and dashikis. They have gone beyond trying to emphasize with the issues their children are facing and imply that they have personally experience racism and discrimination, Hall says.
A good clue that this is happening is when parents give up their own ethnic or cultural identity in favor of adopting their child’s– which they cannot do, Steinberg says. There’s a fine line between parents respectfully learning about their child’s racial or ethnic heritage and parents respectfully learning about their child’s racial or ethnic heritage and parents pretending that is their heritage as well. As well intentioned as parents are who do that, it actually diminishes the child’s experience by implying that it is simple enough for a white person to take on Hall says.
Steinberg and Hall say parents are more respectful of their non-white children’s experiences when they acknowledge their own limited frame of reference than when they try to express a level of racial understanding that is impossible for a white person to achieve.
Steinberg and Hall are both adoptive parents to children of different races and ethnic backgrounds. They have also founded Pact, An adoption Alliance, which provides adoption services to children of color. Their forthcoming book, Inside Transracial Adoption, tackles the complicated issues involved in multicultural adoptive families with honesty not always found in discussions of transracial adoption.
They are the first to acknowledge that the desire of white parents to be the best parents other could be to children of color has kept them from talking candidly about how difficult that might be.
Beth Hall was raised in a racially diverse community not far from where she and her husband have raised their own family. Gail Steinberg and her husband moved their family from Ohio to the Bay area of California seeking more diversity. Neither thinks that only integrated community is enough.
“We see more and more families living in more [racially] diverse areas, but not living diverse lives, particularly at an intimate level,” Hall says. For children to grow up surrounded by people who like they do, but who have not been invited into their lives sends a really negative message, she says. On the other hand, Steinberg notes, some families who live in areas of relative racial homogeneity are reaching out and making intimate acquaintances with the few people of color to whom they have access.
What makes a racially diverse community so beneficial is both the accessibility and the diversity within racial groups. “Kids get to see a million ways of being a member of their racial group–not just the one or two that parents might choose. They get to see the goods and the bads. It’s much easier for them to understand there’s not just one way to be black or to be Chinese.”
For parents, the more diverse the community the more likely the will find people of color who share important values, such as religious principles and ideas about education.
“Values that’s the point at which families come to a real turning point,” says Hall. Parents who say they believe in diversity sometimes find themselves questioning whether diversity is “worth”? sacrificing educational standards of other values. The choice between a private school with few students of color but small classroom sizes and a multitude of educational opportunities and a public school with a racially diverse population but less impressive faculty or more disciplinary problems presents serious conflicts for many parents.
Steinberg suggests that when faced with such conflicts, families look at what can be duplicated most easily. Well-educated parents who value learning are likely to be able to provide an academically rich environment for their children regardless of what a school offers. They may not be able to provide other alternative to building strong ties to the child’s culture of origin.
Parents also face a dilemma when the racially or culturally diverse communities they find themselves in advocate ideas contrary to those the parent value, such as the value of a college education.
“All of us can talk about how much we love the art or how much I enjoy eating at that restaurant, but the real grit of the stuff comes up when parents have to find a way to appreciate values that aren’t their own,”Hall says.
First, it’s important for parents to remember that there are diverse values within any culture. Parents who want to expose their children to a racially diverse community while maintaining their family values can probably find that opportunity, but they may have to look at more than one community of look harder within a community.
Furthermore, Steinberg points out people sometimes confuse race with class. There’s nothing wrong with white middle-class educated parents searching out communities made up of African American, middle-class, educated parents with whom they share many values. “Authentic blacks” can be found in places besides the inner city, she says
However, Hall and Steinberg also suggest that it’s important for parents who adopt transracially to allow themselves to question values they’ve taken for granted. If other cultures have different values, it’s because those values have worked for that cultural group for many generations. People cannot know for sure what their values are until they challenge them by considering other values.
“You cannot immerse yourself in another culture and not make concessions to that culture,” Hall says.
Connecting across racial lines
Once diverse communities are found, the work is only beginning, says Hall. “There’s work in living in a diverse area because you have to connect across racial lines and no one in America does this well.”
It isn’t easy for people to communicate when the roles they have played in society are that of oppressor and oppressed. White people who are conscious of these historic roles may fell awkward; worried that their friendship isn’t welcome or that they might unwittingly say something offensive.
Steinberg says it is reasonable for white people to ask for guide into a world that is unfamiliar to them. White people are acting out of a traditional sense of privilege when they just show up and expect to be welcomes at a church or gathering that is traditionally made up of people of another racial group. When they don’t receive the welcome they expect, but are ignored or treated with suspicion, they may justify withdrawing into their more familiar white world.
“It can’t be a one shot deal,” says Hall. “You will try some things that are not profoundly successful. Bummer. Move on.” In addition, parents can recognize their experience may be similar to what their children will experience. There will be places where their children will expect to be welcomed, only to find they are not — because they are children of color or because they are raised by white parents. “Life is filled with people who don’t respond as we want,” Hall says but when it comes to our children being validated and accepted, “the stakes are high.”
Steinberg suggests that parents can increase their chance of being welcomed in other racial groups by making more individual overtures. Rather than just showing up on Sunday at a predominantly Asian American church, parents can cal the minister in advance explain that their children are Asian and that they want to establish some ties in the community. I wonder if you could suggest someone we could get to know who could take us to church the first time and introduce us to other people. If the minister suggests another church might be suitable the parents likely have averted a situation that would be uncomfortable for them, for their children and for the other people at church.
The reality is that among all racial and ethnic groups there are people more accepting than others. The fact that some people color are bigoted or intolerant should be seen as a fact of life, and not used as an excuse for families to withdraw into predominantly white communities–even if those white communities are liberal and tolerant.
Steinberg suggests that some transracially adopted children feel more acceptance among more “marginal” groups e.g. groups of people who identify themselves as mixed race rather than African American. The more the group has experienced not fitting in, the more tolerant they may be of a family that is unlike white families as well as unlike African American families
Getting in the door is only the first step, however. The goal for white parents who adopt transracially is to develop some intimate acquaintances with people of color, not simply to provide their child with “exposure”? to people of color, or opportunities for the child to develop relationships. White parents of children of color need to have friends with whom they are comfortable enough to say anything from What am I doing wrong with her hair? To this is what happened today-how should I respond? “Having those mentors or guides as parents id terrifically useful,” says Hall. White people who adopt transracially are exposed to situations they have never encountered before. “There is a sense that we are reinventing the wheel,”Halls says. “It is profoundly helpful to talk to people who are dealing with it as a community and have a history of dealing with it.”
Furthermore, she says, when children see their parents having relationships with people of color, it normalizes their experience. They are no longer the only person of color that the parents know.
Building relationships with people is easier, Hall says, when it is based on common issues. The same is true when building relationships with people of color. In many cases, the issues that are easiest to share are those around parenting.
People whom parents meet through their children’s school, sports teams, or extracurricular activities are likely to people who share similar issues. From those casual encounters, deeper relationships can form. Usually however, a relationship only progresses to the next level when one person is willing to take the risk of being vulnerable. In an interracial relationship, the relationship is unlikely to progress to a deeper level until the race issue is brought out and discussed. Generally, the white person must take that initiative, says Steinberg.
People of color are not always sure that white people “get it,”? so for them to initiate a discussion of race may not feel safe. “Being able to talk across racial lines about racial issues get initiated best by white person,” Steinberg says, because of the traditional difference in power. “It’s safer for me to say something [about race] than for my friend of color to put it on the table first.”
For the white person to respectfully approach a person of color about racial issues is to risk being vulnerable because the white person is acknowledging she is not the expert. She risks having something she says misinterpreted. She risks looking naive. However, those risks can be the bridge toward a deeper relationship.
“To a person, my closest friends of color are my friends because we talked about race,” Hall says. “Until we did there were questions –either spoken or unspoken.”? Just as adoptive parents aren’t sure whether their way of forming a family is acceptable to someone until adoption has been discussed, friendships across color lines will only be superficial until race is discussed.
Parents who adopt transracially also have to start talking about their experiences honestly with one another, she adds. They have to begin acknowledging that they often do not feel competent with racial issues, and that they have made overtures to people of color that have been rebuffed, so that they can feel supported and learn.
Too often white parents who adopt transracially are aware that some people expect them to fail when it comes to helping their children fit in to communities of color. At the same time, they are aware that some people expect them to be more competent than the average white person in bridging racial gaps. Both expectations may leave parents reluctant to talk about their less successful experiences.
“Transracial adoptive parents are between a rock and a hard place,”? Hall says, even more so than other adoptive parents. They want to acknowledge their children’s issues, be the best parents they can be, and give their children entrance into their cultural communities, but can wind up trying to impress other adoptive parents with their success at this, thereby missing the opportunity for candid communication and support.
“We need to find the balance between acknowledging that the black social worker had some good points and feeling good about ourselves,” Hall says, referring to the 1972 position taken by the National Association of Black Social Worker against transracial adoption.
“It’s hard to believe we haven’t made more progress in developing support groups,” Steinberg says.
Resources for parents
Steinberg and Hall bring a valuable mix of professional expertise and personal experience to the pages of their book. They draw on their own experience to explain how they learned from it –not to suggest they had the answer from the beginning.
Steinberg has four grown children of African American, Native American, Korean, and white ancestry. Hall has two school age children of African American and Latina heritage. Together through pact, An Adoption Alliance, they provide placement services for children of color, as well as lifelong education and support for adoptive families.
Inside Transracial Adoption explores the subtleties and complexities of transracial adoption, while offering families practical information on everything from the development of racial identity in children to the negative reaction to transracial adoption from communities of color and extended family.
It is an honest portrayal of transracial adoption that should be read by every family who adopted or is considering adopting across racial lines.
Loving Across the Color Line , by Sharon Rush, is another book about transracial adoption that challenges readers to move beyond a superficial awareness of racial discrimination to understanding the complexities and pervasiveness of racism. Some readers may disagree with some of the conclusion by Rush, a lawyer and the founder of the Center for the Study of Race and Race Relations at University of Florida. However, her ideas challenge people to think about the experiences of children of color.
Inside Transracial Adoption, by Gail Steinberg and Beth Hall. Perspective Press, 2000. Loving Across the Color Line: A white Adoptive Mother Learns About Race by Sharon Rush, Rowman & Littlefied Publishers Inc, 2000.