A few weeks ago, the Internet blew up with the news of two women, a couple, who are suing the Midwest Sperm Bank in Chicago for mixing up their donor sperm. Five months into the pregnancy, the couple learned they’d been given sperm from an African-American donor, not a white man as they’d requested.
The suit prompted backlash ("They’re racist!") after backlash ("No they’re not!") and in the process, stirred up a lot of myths about transracial parenting and unconventional families — myths I know something about. I was adopted into a white family when I was six months old.
November is National Adoption Month, created by Bill Clinton in 1995 as a way to raise awareness and help foster kids connect with parents looking to adopt. And, there are lots of them: According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, in 2013 there were 402,378 children in foster care. Of that number, 55% percent are children of color and 6% are biracial. As of 2013 40% of adoptions were children who were adopted into families from a different cultural background.
To celebrate and highlight National Adoption Month, I’m looking at five of the biggest myths around trans-racial adoption, and why they’re wrong.
Love Conquers All
The mothers in the Ohio lawsuit realized five months into pregnancy that their daughter would be biracial — but not until their child was two years old did they decide to sue. Only when their daughter began to transition from ‘cute infant’ into ‘human being,’ does it seem they realized she’d have different needs and cultural experiences than they did — and that their community was not as accepting as it should be.
There is a myth about the bond that naturally develops between an adopted child and her parents — that the love of welcoming a bundle of joy will override any doubts or fears from the outside world. And, it’d be great if that were an ironclad law. But, in truth, race and racism have permeated our society to a point in where it can even erode those bonds — creating a division between those who have the strength to tackle racism, and those who let it creep in.
All children deserve unconditional love. They deserve parents who will put them before themselves, who will endure inconvenient and sometimes uncomfortable situations to ensure that their child’s emotional and physical needs are met. While I was lucky to be adopted by choice and not to fulfill an emotional need (I have two older siblings who are my parents’ biological children) I’ve known trans-racial adoptees whose parents often reminded them how grateful they should be for inclusion into a family, creating an unhealthy dependency which eventually turns into resentment.
I’ve "adopted" my parents' traits, such as my dad’s passion for travel and politics, and my mother’s common-sense feminism — traits, I might add, that have served me very well in my development from a child into a (somewhat) fully functioning adult. But, making my family understand that how I view and experience the world is different from how they do is an ongoing process that might never be fully complete. Both the child and the parents have to be willing to do some heavy lifting, and they have to realize there are some things that cannot be inherited through love.
Cultural Differences Fade Away
By the time I was seven or eight years old, I knew to hide when I saw my mother coming towards me with a fine-tooth comb in her hand — the same one she used it to comb her bone-straight, waist-length auburn hair. That comb represented agonizing pain, tears, and more importantly, a trigger for my mother’s anger in trying to chase me down.
Tending to textured hair on a child can be challenging for parents from any cultural background, but there is the most cultural significance within the black community. There's the belief that black hair is inherently unruly and also a sign of "unruly" intellectual and personality traits. Yes, some white adoptive parents are learning how to do their children’s hair (YouTube is amazing), but after countless attempts, my mother found a black woman who was willing to do both my older sister's hair and my own in cornrows.
Discomfort around learning and sharing these cultural rituals isn’t just a "white" problem; there is also resistance in black communities. When my mother’s friend tried to untangle my unruly mass of hair, she muttered under her breath, “This is why white people should never adopt black children.” Years later, my father finally took me to a black hair salon to get a chemical relaxer. The black hairdresser said some rather unkind things about my parentage; she left the lye on my head so long that I cried in pain. Later, clumps of my hair fell out. I’ve never told my parents either of these stories because I didn’t want to hurt them.
You might think that nurture wins over nature, but not when it comes to tightly-textured hair and a sensitive scalp. Trust me on this one. Whether it means learning how to do your own child’s hair, getting recommendations for a barber or hairdresser, or simply listening patiently to your child’s stories of how others view her hair, adoptive parents need to learn how to navigate these experiences.
Prejudice Is A Problem Other People Have
While they will never admit it, my parents are hippies who believed in unconditional, all-encompassing love and acceptance of all people. My extended family? Not so much. I could never put my finger on exactly why I never felt comfortable around certain relatives. There was one uncle who, after an argument when I was 13, told me to my face that my parents should have never adopted me (and then told his family not to speak to me again). Even outside of that explicit incident, there was always a sense of unease at family get-togethers. As soon as I was old enough to move away for college, I stopped attending functions unless my parents stressed the importance of me being there.
Just like it’s easy to imagine that unconditional love will automatically blossom the minute an adoption takes place, most of us would like to think that our families are as accepting as we are — deep down inside. But, it’s sadly not the case, and sometimes the most liberal-view-spouting among us show a different side when confronted with diversity closer to home. Obviously, an accepting immediate family is the most important part, but it’s best to discuss with extended family and community members before you adopt, too. Have those frank conversations about race — but also recognize that some people are just not going to change their views. You will have to decide whether it is easier on you and your child if those relatives are not an active part of your life.
We Live In A Post-Racial World
I grew up in a rural area in the 1970s and 80s, where there was little diversity. I was one out of two or three other children of color within my public high school — and I was racially harassed from the age of 5 until 18. That included dealing with neighbors who hurled racist slurs (one in particular would order his dog to chase my siblings when we passed by his house on our bikes) and teachers who, when reading Huckleberry Finn, pointedly looked at me whenever the “N-word” was used. I had classmates whose parents told them not to speak to me. I endured the occasional catcalls, threats of violence, and items thrown by strangers driving past me on the street. My parents' response to “just ignore it” was in some ways reasonable advice, but it did nothing to make me feel better. Instead, it filled me with so much anger and resentment that I would lie in bed and count the days until I could move away.
Raising a child in an a culturally diverse community is imperative for that child's emotional and physical well-being. And, whatever the community you live in, the most important thing to do when adopting trans-racially is to talk. Participate in an online adoption community group. Reach out to adults of your child’s ethnic background and arrange play dates with their children. My parents would approach black people on the street to inquire about educational resources and cultural events that our family — as a unit — could participate in. While the world we live in is still not as socially diverse as it should be, love means putting in the work to make sure that your child’s cultural background is seen as a blessing, not a curse.