This talk probes the heart of the transracial adoption controversy, with an eye on adoption by lesbian and gay parents. It asks: What identities could white parents take on (or assume) when they become involved with transracial adoption? In what ways are their capacities to address issues of race and adoption presumed to be in place when the parents happen to be lesbian or gay? What other issues should be considered when matching lesbian and gay parents with adopted children? Whose interests are being served? Whose interests should be served?
I want to start off by telling you about some research I conducted with members of transracial families. When I interviewed white adults who grew up with transracially adopted brothers and sisters, I was very interested to see how they engaged with race. I wanted to investigate the impact of race and adoption on their identities as white people. We know what the research says about racial identity and self-esteem in transracial adoptees. What hadn’t been studied so much to date was the effect on white children in such families.
I wish I had time to present the whole study to you, because what these white non-adopted siblings had to say was quite eye-opening. After all, they didn’t make the decision to adopt; their parents did. So these non-adopted siblings, all of whom have either Korean or African American siblings (including biracial siblings), didn’t have to defend the decision to get involved with the controversy or explain their motivations. Suffice it to say that these siblings’ narratives covered the good, the bad, and the ugly aspects of transracial family life. For example, a few of them reported that they would certainly adopt a child of another race themselves, whereas others said they would never do such a thing. After seeing the heartbreak their parents went through, or the tribulations their siblings of color experienced, these non-adopted siblings had a much less favorable opinion of transracial adoption.
My reason for mentioning my dissertation research today is because of the small group of white individuals in that study who enacted racial identities in creative ways that broke with normative whiteness. These white siblings described feeling different from other white folk, and named their experience in unusual ways. For example, one woman said, “I know that I am Swedish American, and that I have white privilege. But I am so immersed in African American social networks that culturally, I feel as much African American as Swedish American.” Another woman reported, “I feel like part of the transracial adoption culture. But what does that mean to someone who hasn’t experienced it?” Collectively, I refer to this group of white siblings as transracialized (Raible, 2005). This was the group who did pay attention to race, who early on moved beyond color-blindness, who took their heads out of the sand long enough to notice how their siblings of color were being positioned in particular ways, and how they were being racialized. The racialization happening to their siblings had significant effects on their identity development, not to mention on interactions at home.
I have written about how all of us could learn from the experience of these transracialized white siblings. For example, we could all take a lesson on the importance of interracial friendships, which were a common thread that contributed to the process of transracialization. The non-adopted siblings, in effect, took their parents’ word that race-mixing was a good thing in their family, and took it one step further: race-mixing should be a viable option outside the home in the real world. Sadly, what they had to say about their efforts to form cross-racial friendships and about interracial romance was poignant, if not heartbreaking. Yet in getting involved with interracial friendships and other social networks, these white adults developed sophisticated understandings of race and the ways racism operates. Their ability to understand whiteness in new ways enabled them to act as more dependable allies to their Korean and black or biracial brothers and sisters. I came away from this study of the white sibling experience concluding that we need to help more white folk to become transracialized. If white individuals are going to adopt children of color, in my view, they should be transracializing like these courageous and knowledgeable allies.
Turning now to the issue of lesbians and gays and adoption: In observing in the last decade or so increasing numbers of queer folk stepping forward to adopt, it has been interesting to listen to how they talk about the transracial adoption option. It has also been interesting to watch how some agencies have welcomed the emerging visibility of lesbian and gay parents as an untapped potential market. I’ve heard it argued that LGBT parents have an almost innate sensitivity to diversity issues since they are members of an oppressed minority. There’s an appealing logic to the notion that queer adults would be especially sensitive to marginalization, of being positioned as the Other, in families and at school. It makes a certain sense that queer adults, therefore, would make sensitive and compassionate parents to kids of color. Right?
While more and more LGBT folk are adopting—and anecdotally at least, it looks like many of us end up adopting kids of color—a troubling development has emerged, to my way of thinking. In plain terms, it feels as if in the effort to form “gay families” and have those families recognized as legitimate and equal to other families, lesbian and gay parents have privileged their own equality above other concerns.
As a gay parent, it goes without saying that I am all for equality. At the same time, as an anti-racism advocate with a long-standing interest in and commitment to ensuring the rights and welfare of children of color, I am very concerned that the issues of race in adoption may be overlooked and overshadowed in the rush to increase LGBT legitimacy and visibility. As a transracial adoptee activist and educator, I have worked too long—for more than three decades now—to chisel away at the hegemonic white privilege and overarching sense of entitlement that many white adopters bring to their quest to become parents. I have insisted, and will continue to insist, that parents who adopt kids of color must attend to race, and understand its enduring impact on their children’s identities, well-being, and chances of survival.
As a multicultural educator, I use a social justice lens to make sense of race and adoption. I understand why getting white parents, in particular, to take race seriously often feels like an uphill battle. And so I’m always looking for allies, and when I can’t find them handily, I work to convert them. What I have come to understand is that transracially adopted kids need staunch allies who will stand with them against the double whammy of race and adoption, and all the issues that come with those intersecting discourses that work to privilege some and disadvantage others. Transracial adoptees need allies who have got their back, who are on their side, who will roll with them when the proverbial you-know-what hits the fan.
So for me, when considering whether a gay or lesbian parent would be a good match for a kid of color, the first thing I ask is, are they white? And if they are, fine; now tell me how they have transracialized their white identities. How have they demonstrated that they can be true effective allies to their adopted children of color? By the way, that’s the same question I ask of any potential adoptive parents, gay or straight, white or people of color.
As a child, I was adopted by a wonderful family. Even so, I grew up in what I refer to as Whitesville. So I know firsthand the fatigue that sets in from enduring a Whitesville childhood. I won’t take time to break it down for you here. If you want to know more, you can read all about this elsewhere on my blog. The fundamental question for adoptive parents of kids of color is this: When will your child get a break from being the obviously adopted child? This goes to the heart of the race issue. When parents and children don’t racially match, everybody can tell the child was adopted. Furthermore, for a brown child to be plunked down in an overwhelmingly and oppressively racist white environment where that child serves, in effect, as the diversity experience for her family and her neighborhood, for her school and her religious community, is emotionally taxing and psychologically exhausting. For many of us, never-ending racial and cultural isolation took a huge toll over the course of our childhoods, resulting in what I call transracial adoption fatigue.
The issues often boil over during the tumultuous years of adolescence. I see too many families that fail to figure out how to support each other through these challenges. I meet too many adult adoptees and adoptive parents who no longer speak to each other, who have become estranged, and who have given up in sadness and frustration, because the social worlds they inhabit are simply too different—and more importantly, they are at odds with each other. The privileges that white adoptive parents inherit come literally at the expense of their children of color—and in many cases, of their children’s first families and communities of origin. When the privileged and the under-privileged share family ties, sometimes love is simply not enough to hold them together when the going gets rough, and when transracial adoption fatigue sets in.
For white same-sex couples that adopt kids of color, the issues become even more pronounced. It comes down to visibility. Transracial adoptees—and some of their white non-adopted siblings—often talk about feeling hyper-visible, always on display whenever they go out as a family unit. Members of transracial families know that the stares, the curious questions, the offhand remarks that get directed at our families are legion. Many of us as transracial adoptees wanted nothing less than to become invisible, to fade into the woodwork so people would stop staring and asking about why we don’t look like our parents or our siblings. We wanted people to stop quizzing us about where we’re from. My research with white siblings similarly told me that they are tired of having to explain the racial differences between them and their siblings, and having to constantly anticipate questions like “Is that your real sister?”
Contrast the children’s yearning for less visibility in response to the hyper-visibility of transracial families to the desires of lesbian and gay parents, as a community, to become more visible, more legitimate, and more accepted. I’m suggesting that the desire among lesbian and gay adults to be more and more “out” stands in stark contrast to the experience of transracial kids, who live with visibility fatigue, from being forever on display and in the public eye as members of families that don’t racially “match.”
The question we have to ask ourselves is this: Whose interests are being served? Yes, transracial adoption gives many kids a new loving family, and all kids deserve that. But don’t all kids, especially those who have already been wounded through early traumas and the loss of their first family, don’t these vulnerable children deserve to be raised in environments where they can blend in and have some respite from the fatigue and the racialization that affects their development at every step of their journey to adulthood? Again, the fundamental question, from a social justice perspective, is: Who is adoption for– adoptive parents? For birth parents? Or for adopted children?
For me, adoption is always first and foremost about meeting the needs of children. When I adopted my son as a gay man, way back in 1987, and my second son in 1991, I adopted intentionally as a single father. Having grown up on display in Whitesville, I promised neverto do that to my kids. Protecting them from that hyper-visibility meant, for me, that I would adopt as a single dad. Had I adopted as part of a same-sex couple, that added layer of visibility would have felt too selfish and been too much of a burden to load onto my already vulnerable children. In saying that, I’m not trying to judge anybody who has made other choices. I am just sharing my thought process as I set out to meet my own admittedly selfish desires to become a father.
In closing, let me say that the identities I would hope that lesbian and gay parents would assume would be transracialized ones. I would hope that parents would be so immersed in interracial social networks filled with adult friends of color that they would have built-in coaches and allies to turn to as they raised their transracially adopted kids. The capacities that I would look for if I were a social worker deciding whether to place a brown child with queer parents would refer to (1) sensitivities to difference and (2) experience with navigating racism. I would want to know: Does this parent understand that the darker a child is, the less able the parent will be to provide a buffer between racism in the environment and their vulnerable child? When their 14-year-old black son is accosted by the police as he walks home through their own neighborhood after dark, when that young man-child is told to lie face down on the sidewalk and is treated roughly as a dangerous criminal, does this parent understand that telling the officer that his moms are nice white lesbians isn’t going to protect his self-esteem? Nor will it automatically afford him better treatment at the hands of this, or any future, racist cops. It is certainly not going to prevent racial profiling from happening in the first place—or, sadly, from happening again.
My point is simply that the social worlds of white parents and their adopted kids of color vary significantly. As much as we think we are sheltering our children from prejudice and protecting them from bigotry, it still happens to them, and we may not even know about it. They won’t necessarily tell us, even though we have drilled it into their heads that they can tell us anything. When adopted children of color grow to adolescence in Whitesville, they may or may not tell their parents about racist incidents as they happen. Especially if they are met with disbelief or made to feel that they are exaggerating or being “too sensitive,” you can imagine the effect that can have on how they feel. You can also probably imagine the gap that begins to yawn ever wider as teenagers continue to be slammed by racism. In my own case, I recall vividly how it felt to go from being more or less accepted as a cute and cuddly curiosity in my neighborhood to becoming feared as a pubescent, young black male with muscles and a menacing frown, not to mention a mind of my own, intently surveying the racial social landscape.
The capacities social workers should be looking for, then, are competencies in understanding race, the ability to teach brown children about racism, the ability of parents to provide children with mentors and role models who look like them, and the capacity to listen supportively as allies when racial incidents happen. If gay and lesbian folk can do all that, then I see no reason why more of us should not adopt waiting kids of color who need loving families. But please let’s go into transracial adoption with our eyes wide open, and let’s keep the children’s needs front and foremost in our minds, even as we work to fulfill our well-intentioned fantasies to become parents and to build strong, proud, and valued families.