transracial adoption isn’t a big deal. until it is.

One of the questions I’m often asked by prospective adoptive parents is . . . how hard is it to raise a child of another race?  This is such a tricky question, because it many ways, it really isn’t hard at all.  Race isn’t something I think about in our day-to-day routine. By and large, parenting my boys is no different than parenting my girls.  I still have the same hopes, dreams, fears, and insecurities as a mom . . . I’m still largely concerned with the day-to-day minutiae that every mom of every race is concerned with.  How are they doing in school?  How are they doing socially?  Are they kind and compassionate?  Should they be in more activities? Are we overscheduled?  How long can I really go without bathing them?  You know . . . typical parenting questions. 

Race is rarely a factor in my daily decision making, but at the same time it’s always something I’m considering.  It’s an undercurrent – an extra layer in the juggling act that is parenting my four kids.  As I’m deciding what sports the boys will play, I’m thinking about timing and schedule and prices, but I’m also considering which neighborhood facility is more likely to have a diverse team so that they aren’t the only children of color.  As I’m signing Jafta up for cub scouts, I’m weighing out if it’s worth the drive and evening out to put him in the troop at the local AME church, or if I should just sign him up for the after-school troop that’s more convenient.  When it’s time for a haircut, I weight out if I can just buzz his hair at home in a few seconds, or if I should take him to the barbershop because the experience of being the majority for an hour is worth the time it takes.  I think about their race in making decisions, but it’s really no different than I think about other considerations for each of my kids.  I’m also always weighing out our gluten-free diet, the fact that India is introverted, the fact that Karis sunburns after two seconds of outdoor play, the fact that Kembe needs structure, the fact that Jafta has sensory processing disorder. . . I’m not saying this to suggest that race is comparable to a special need.  I’m just pointing out that every parent learns to negotiate their own child’s needs in a way that becomes second nature, and race is a part of our family’s daily negotiation.  This isn’t an experience exclusive to transracial adoption, but it is something that most white people have the privilege of skimming over. It’s not a burden or a “challenge” – it’s something I rarely think about and yet something that is always at the back of my mind. 

Sure, at the beginning there was a learning curve.  White people adopting children with kinky, African hair will need to do some research and some serious trial-and-error, but it’s not as if our lack of melanin prohibits us from learning the hair-care skills that we didn’t learn growing up in a black family.  It was a challenge at first but I ended up taking a lot of pride at being good at doing my boy’s hair.  It’s not hard, it’s just different.  Figuring out what lotions work best to prevent ashy skin, and stashing little tubes of Eucerin in the car and the diaper bag quickly became a part of the routine.  Certainly no insurmountable problems there.

There is one aspect of parenting black children that is outside of something I can just learn though trial and error, though – and that’s how to teach my kids how to interact with the world as black men.  The question of how white parents can teach black children “how to be black” is one that is often thrown out by opponents of transracial adoption.  I don’t love this question because it implies that there is one monolithic experience of being black, or one right set of behaviors, attitudes, and experiences that somehow denote a person’s acceptance as a black person. I reject the idea that “being black” is something that my boys need to learn, because they ARE black.  The idea that some would view them as having “lost their black card” by way of having white parents is frustrating to me. 

At the same time, I do think that a part of securing their identity as proud black men involves having them be a part of the black community.  The tragedy of Trayvon Martin illustrates the importance of teaching my young men that the will have to navigate the world differently as black men.  One of the concepts often taught to parents who are adopting transracially is the idea of the Transracial Adoption Paradox.  This refers to the fact that a child will grow up in a family that enjoys the privileges of being a part of the majority race, but then the child will grow up and live without those privileges.  (If you are unclear of what I mean by “privilege”, take a look at this list by Peggy McIntosh on white privilege.  Or go read this post at Jezebel in which people react to the casting of black people in the Hunger Games movie.  Sure, it’s just a reaction to pop culture, but this kind of stereotyping is the perfect illustration of systemic racism.)

This is what I know to be true about raising black boys: it will be imperative for me to teach them that some will look at them with suspicion or stereotype based on their skin color.  I HATE THIS.  I hate that it’s true and I hate that I have to burst their innocence and I hate that it may shift their view of the world.  But it’s a part of our role as their parents, and we can’t do it alone. I don’t share that experience, and so I have to enlist other people to help guide them in this.  It’s why it’s so important to us that our boys have strong black role models.  It’s why it’s important for me to open my eyes to racism, instead of burying my head in the convenient sand of a mythical post-racial world.  It’s why I subscribe to blogs like The Root and My Brown Baby and continually attempt to learn. 

I read a recent article referring to the Trayvon Martin situation, in which Jesse Washington articulates the Black Code that parents of color must teach their children.  He describes it as such:

Always pay close attention to your surroundings, son, especially if you are in an affluent neighborhood where black folks are few. Understand that even though you are not a criminal, some people might assume you are, especially if you are wearing certain clothes.

Never argue with police, but protect your dignity and take pride in humility. When confronted by someone with a badge or a gun, do not flee, fight, or put your hands anywhere other than up.

Please don't assume, son, that all white people view you as a threat. America is better than that. Suspicion and bitterness can imprison you. But as a black male, you must go above and beyond to show strangers what type of person you really are.

I love that I have resources to learn about these concepts.  But I’m also humble enough to admit that while I get it cognitively, I don’t know what it’s like to live this, and I need to provide my boys with relationships with people who do.

I know that some adoptive parents bristle at the idea that they need to outsource a part of their child-rearing.  I understand that.  As adoptive parents, we want to feel like we can give our own kids everything they need.  It can feel like a hit to the pride to realize that in this area, we can’t provide for our kids sufficiently. But this, in my opinion, is the most important consideration in transracial adoption.  This is where transracial adoption is a big deal.  A REALLY BIG DEAL.  Insurmountable?  No, I don’t believe so. But it’s something that every prospective adoptive parent should consider.


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