Black Kids in White Houses Thu Dec 4, 2008 6:41 pm (PST)
(The extensive comment section at the end of the article on the
website is excellent.)
November 25, 2008
Black Kids in White Houses
On Race, Silence, and the Changing American Family
by JEN GRAVES
I Want to Know More
After all this time, there are still things we don't talk about.
Its a century and a half after Emancipation and a year before the
election of Americas first black president. This is October 2007.
This workshop is called "Race and Transracial Adoption Workshop with
Lisa Marie Rollins." Rollins is the black woman at the front of the
room. She says that a social worker labeled her Mexican, Filipino,
Caucasian because people didn't want black kids. But she looked more
and more black as she grew older. Her parents still said she wasn't
black. She was. Finally, they admitted it too. Then once, as an
visiting home, she found a mammy doll in her mother's kitchen, in
among the other knickknacks. That's the end of the anecdote. She's
still basically speechless about it.
She says it is time to watch a video called "Struggle for Identity."
In the video, people tell their stories, stories like the ones in the
room. A black woman who was adopted by white parents boils it down:
"Don't think you can make black friends after you adopt a black
If you don't already have black friends, you shouldn't be adopting a
black child." Then the lights go up. There are several white people
the room who have said they have already adopted black or Asian or
Guatemalan children, or that they are right now waiting to leave for
Ethiopia to pick up their adopted children. All of those people"the
white people"are crying.
They are crying because they have heard things they did not want to
hear. But there is more to it than that. They are also crying because
they do not know how else to respond to the great, big cultural
silence that has been broken here.
It would be easier for white people if race did not exist. Or if
everyone could agree that race did not matter, that is. According to
the Oxford English Dictionary, the word "transracial" first appeared
publicly in a 1971 Time magazine article. The article introduced
transracial adoption, or adoption across racial boundaries"most
white parents adopting children of color"and reported a strange
phenomenon. According to a study in Britain, some white parents
"tended to 'deny their child's color, or to say he was growing
lighter, or that other people thought he was suntanned and did not
recognize him as colored. Sometimes the reality was fully accepted
the parents] only after the very light child had grown noticeably
darker after being exposed to bright sunlight on holiday.'"
It's such an outrageous finding that it sounds like a joke. Stephen
Colbert's dimwitted white-guy alter ego has a joke like this, when he
says on The Colbert Report, always in the most ridiculous of
situations: "As you know, I don't see color." The joke is funny
because in so many ways it's true. Plenty of white people don't see
color. We refuse to look at it, prefer not to see too much
because difference almost always makes us feel bad by comparison.
Transracial adoption is awkward to discuss at first, because although
it is designed to chart a radically integrated future, on the surface
its structure repeats the segregated past. Just look at the basic
structure of a family and apply race to the equation. The most crude
way to put it: Whites are in charge, children of color are
subordinate, and adults of color are out of the picture. And that's
not even talking about class.
And yet there are more of these families now than ever. The exact
number of transracial adoptees in this country is unknown, but the
practice, which began in earnest in the 1970s, has been on the rise
for at least 10 years. Twenty-six percent of black children adopted
from foster care in 2004â€"about 4,200 kidsâ€"were adopted
transracially, almost all by white parents, according to a New York
Times analysis of data from the National Data Archive on Child Abuse
and Neglect at Cornell University and the Department of Health and
Human Services. That figure is up from 14 percent in 1998 and,
according to adoption experts, it has continued to climb. The 2000
census, the first to collect information on adoptions, counted just
over 16,000 white households with adopted black children. In the last
15 years, Americans have adopted more than 200,000 children from
overseas, but that trend is cooling off, partly because international
adoptions are so expensive.
In spite of all that, a person has to slog through layers of silence
just to meet someone else at the surface for a conversation about the
topic. When Mark Riding, a black father in Baltimore, burst out last
November on an NPR blog with a long narrative he'd clearly been
waiting to tell someoneâ€"about adopting a white daughter, getting
glares on the street, and trying to censor his own family's talk
"white people" at homeâ€"he found himself in a debate with another
commenter, who told him repeatedly to "rise above the race issue" and
talked about "membership in the human race." There's a silencer in
every conversation about race.
But anonymous commenters can be great sources of information, because
they'll write what they'd never say. On The Stranger's blog, I wrote
about the woman at the workshop who said you shouldn't adopt black
children if you don't already have black friends. An adoptive parent
named Teresa took serious offense. Biological parents don't even get
screened, she wrote. "My husband and I are white, and we adopted a 9-
year-old Hispanic boy four years ago. The amount of training and
inspection that we went through was incredible.. .. You don't know
whole story. You can't possibly. You aren't part of those families."
"P.S.," she wrote at the end, "It isn't that hard to get a white
person to cry."
Teresa's comment was long, and it built to a climax before the P.S.
Her point: If you don't silence these disgruntled adopted adults,
adoption policy could become race-conscious, and if adoption policy
becomes race-conscious but white people still mostly aren't, then
white people could be denied the right to adopt, and if that happens,
then children of color are going to go without good, permanent homes.
Don't talk is the ideaâ€"it can't lead to anything good. All it leads
to is shouting, and suing, and then, finally, resilencing.
B arack Obama may as well have been a transracial adoptee.
He grew up with white grandparents, without black role models. His
Kenyan father and his Kansas mother were not constant presences. As
upperclassman in high school, he realized what it meant to be black
a white world and became sick with the particular loneliness of a
transracial adoptee. His grades dropped, he smoked pot, he snorted
coke, he came close to trying heroin with an acquaintance in a meat
locker: In short, he nearly destroyed himself. To his family, he
simply fell silent. "I was trying to raise myself to be a black man
America, and beyond the given of my appearance, no one around me
seemed to know exactly what that meant." So they didn't talk about it.
In the world of transracial adoption, you don't have to look very
to figure out why no one talks about this stuff. Federal adoption
mandate silence. Social workers aren't allowed to talk to families
about whether they already have black friends. They aren't allowed to
tell families they might want to get some. Any of that would be seen,
according to federal law written in 1996, as a violation of the 1964
Civil Rights Act. The 1996 law prohibits the placement of an adoptee
on the basis of race, color, or national origin. Race does not
the law says. The American domestic child-welfare system is
colorblindâ€"or, more to the point, colormute.
There's one exception: The law doesn't apply to Native American
children. A separate 1978 law governs them and says the opposite:
in-race adoptions are preferred. Both laws were written by people who
said they had the best interests of the children in mind. Yet today,
as a report released this past May by the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption
Institute shows, Native American and black kidsâ€"despite being
governed by philosophically opposite lawsâ€"both on average stay in
child-welfare system longer than children of any other race. Why are
these kids still stranded? If one way of helping minority foster
children doesn't work, and the opposite way of helping minority
children doesn't work either, why are we still pretending one is
and one is wrong?
A doption has never been simple for adoptees, and increasingly,
adoptive parents are learning that making life easier for their
children may make it more complicated for them. Today, many parents
acknowledge absent birth parentsâ€"always present to the adopteeâ€"as
presence in their families too. For a transracial adoptee, race is
like another missing parent. In fact, transracial adoptees hunger for
heritage at a younger age than their white counterparts, searching
their parents on average five years earlier (25.8 versus 31.2), and
looking not just for parents but also for a racial identity.
We know this because of a study cited in the 2006 anthology Outsiders
Within, which is the first book ever to be written entirely by
transracial adoptees and to include academic research, scholarly
papers, memoirs, and artworks. It's a landmark book representing a
voice, or an old voice finally speaking up. Why did it take so long?
Gratefulness. Gratefulness is the most powerful silencer in the
adoption world. Even if a transracial adoptee breaks the silence to
make a criticism about his or her experience, the immediate response
always is: Would it have been better if you'd never been adopted?
a rhetorical cul-de-sac, a false runaround that continues to stifle
conversations about more complicated subjects, like what's the
difference between a family that's tolerant and one that's actively
antiracist, or why are there so many children of color adopted in the
That old stifling question is starting to die.
These are the voices that are coming out instead:
"I can't be alone in thinking that being transracially adopted, we
have lost something: lost our languages, traditions, cultures, and
most importantly the subtleties and nuances of those cultures. We
lost something we never had, which we may not have even valued had we
had it, and yet we continue to mourn. Am I alone in this grief?"
That's M. Anderson, writing in Outsiders Within. Here's Rita Simon, a
researcher at American University who has been studying transracial
adoption since 1968 (she's talking on NPR):
"What we find consistently is that the white families cannot raise a
black child as if it was its own birth child. They have to make
changes in their lives. In other words, love is not enough."
And this from the Donaldson report this past May:
"Two principles provide a solid framework for meeting the needs of
black children and youth in foster care: that adoption is a service
for children, and that acknowledgement of race-related
'colorblindness'â€"must help to shape the development of sound
practices." (Emphasis mine.)
The Donaldson report, commissioned by the U.S. Civil Rights
Commission, calls for a change to federal adoption law.
P am LaBorde, a Seattle pediatrician, is in her kitchen making black-
bean burritos for dinner. "My white friends don't really get it when
say this, but I basically have these kids because of poverty," she
Her willingness to talk openly is surprising; I find myself wanting
silence her for her own protection.
Pam and her husband, Bill, both white, adopted two black children,
Theo and Simone, whose mother, Amanda, lives in Texas. Amanda had to
give them up because she's poor and has been dealing with illness in
her immediate family. The semi-open adoptions cost almost $20,000
each. "Some of my white friends think there's something wrong with
birth mother for giving up her kids. Okay, she could have used
contraception, but not everyone I know is perfect in that way either.
There's nothing wrong with her. It's important that my kids know
I've thought before, what if I'd just given that money to her?"
In international adoptions, the poverty of the parents is usually
blamed on corrupt governments or bad political situations, Pam says.
"But when it's domestic, we blame the parents."
The Transracially Adopted Children's Bill of Rights, by adoptee Liza
Steinberg Triggs, includes this rule: "Every child is entitled to
parents who know that if they are white they experience the benefits
of racism because the country's system is organized that way."
Pam is the sort of personâ€"maybe all self-critical parents (people?)
are this way out of necessityâ€"who can't help but believe in
ideas. She and her husband, who studied black history in graduate
school, were interested in adopting black children "from a social-
justice point of view." Both because more black children than white
children need homes, and because the LaBordes believe in the civil-
rights dream of an understanding and connection between different
races of people.
A year ago, they moved from the lily-white Proctor neighborhood in
Tacoma to the racial mix of Columbia City, and Theo, now in
kindergarten, goes to school at John Muir Elementary, where the
LaBordes are hoping to meet and befriend black families. (They want
not only black peers but black role models for their kids.) Their
adoption agency gave them a few tips about respecting black culture
and sent them on their way. "It's not enough," she says. "Honestly,
could have gone and moved to a white gated community in northern
Minnesota, and nobody would have done anything about it."
Some days, Pam does feel like moving to a white neighborhood, not
she would. Several months ago, on a bus in Columbia City, a young
black man asked her whether her kids were adopted. She said yes. He
chanted, "That's fucked up, that's fucked up." Then he told her that
when her son got older, he'd get up in the middle of the night and
kill her, so maybe the man would just kill her now, there on the bus.
Another time, a black woman in a car yelled at Pam and the kids when
they were walking on the street in Columbia City: "How does it feel
steal black babies, you white bitch?"
There are times when black parents or grandparents smile at her
knowingly, or randomly hug her, or give her unsolicited help, but
usually she feels nervous around black parents. "I feel that I need
do it right," she says. "I need to prove that I'm capable of
She gives herself only middling marks. Neither she nor Bill have
black friends yet. And they aren't Christians, so they can't join a
black church. "It's complicated, " she says. "It's only going to get
harder as they get older. I think you have to be willing to talk
it constantly, and over and over."
I 'm a moderate racist.
My personal data "suggest a moderate automatic preference for
Americans compared to African Americans." This data came from
something called the Implicit Association Test, which is hosted on
website of Harvard University. The test, developed in 1998, is
intended to gauge unconscious bias. It measures how long you take to
answer questions (by keyboard) that ask you to associate faces of
different races with good (e.g., "joy") versus bad (e.g., "failure")
This is the test that King County employees of the state's Children's
Administration department are going to be taking, because Washington
has a problem. It's the same problem pretty much everywhere around
country, and not a new problem either: Too many kids of color are
coming into foster care and staying in too long. In King County, the
Children's Administration is writing a plan with five parts, one of
which is "staff development, which begins with self-examination, "
director Joel Odimba. "We're going to train in knowing who we are."
The five-point plan includesâ€"in addition to soul searchingâ€"a
of policies, the formation of an advisory committee, and a possible
Cultural Competency Center.
Those are pretty quiet, bureaucracy- as-usual ideas compared to the
idea that made Seattle famous on this issue. In 1999, Washington's
Department of Social and Health Services launched a pilot project
four years later became the full-blown Office of African-American
Children's Services (OAACS, pronounced "oasis"). It was staffed with
people trained to handle the particular issues of black foster kids,
and most of the county's black kids were routed through
defying the colorblind mandates of federal adoption law. Quickly, it
was the talk of the nation, a test of dealing with race head-on in
public policy, as if it matters. And it was invented out of a sense
desperation not uncommon around the country: In 2004, while black
children made up 7 percent of the population of King County's kids,
they accounted for 30 percent of the kids in King County foster care.
It was a stab, an effort, a start. But it got complaints. Its
management turned over often, and it was criticized by the rest of
department. Last spring, just as OACCS's approach was about to be
validated by new researchâ€"two months later, the Donaldson report
would call for an emphasis on race in the child-welfare
was killed. The federal Office of Civil Rights declared it in
violation, and the state decided to let it go. The state's foster-
administration would no longer deal with race in a direct way.
Meanwhile, the OAACS building would be renamed the Martin Luther King
Jr. officeâ€"an apt linguistic elision. Now it operates like all the
others, taking cases on the basis of where the kids live. You'd never
know that a major experiment on the role of race in families went on
there, and whatever it might have been on its way to learning appears
to have been lost.
T here are not that many movies about domestic transracial adoption.
In one, the 1995 movie Losing Isaiah, Halle Berry stars as a
named Khaila who leaves her baby, Isaiah, in a trash can while she
goes to find some crack. He's discovered, taken to a hospital, and
adopted by Jessica Lange's character, Margaret. When Khaila cleans up
and discovers her son is still alive, she wants him back, and a judge
orders his return. But it is too lateâ€"the toddler is attached to
Margaret, and he doesn't respond to Khaila. Khaila is forced to admit
that Margaret has become her son's mother. The last scene shows
Margaret and Isaiah reunited over some toys, and Khaila playing
alongside them. A title card flashes: "And a little child shall lead
them, Isaiah 11:6."
A little child shall lead them.
That phrase hits me hard. One of the reasons I was at that October
2007 workshop (at Seattle University), and that I'd been looking into
transracial adoption, was to teach racist family members of mine a
lesson. I had other reasons tooâ€"I've been debating whether to
a parent for a whileâ€"but this one was the most embarrassing. In my
fantasy, I hadn't considered how exactly I would protect my child.
child was a means to an end, a healing agent: Want to rid your
of their overt racism? Give them black grandchildren and defy them
to love them! Need to atone for your own covert racism? Adopt a black
child and let him teach you!
Part of the genuine appeal of transracial adoption, it's true, is its
potential to transform our culture. "I often think about transracial
adoption as a grand social experiment," writes John Raible, one of
first mixed-race children adopted to a white family in the 1960s and
something of a spokesperson on the topic.
Even so, children shouldn't be the day laborers on the job, says Chad
Goller-Sojourner. Would you want your children to be the test cases
a grand social experiment?
"What I'd ask parents is, are you willing to be the uncomfortable
one?" Goller-Sojourner says. This is how he'd question a prospective
parent if he were a social worker. "Because somebody's gonna be
uncomfortable, and it seems the burden is on you. You have to be the
He means that if white parents of black children, for instance, don't
live in black neighborhoods, join black churches, have black friends,
and send their children to significantly mixed-race schools, then at
least they should cross the thresholds into black barbershops even
though it's awkward, or drive out of their way to shop at grocery
stores in black neighborhoods. Parents should be careful to raise
their children to live in this world, not the one they wish existed.
"If you're buying a house and you have a dog, don't you spend more
time looking for a big old yard for your dog?" he says. "Love is but
one of many components of parenting. You're raising children to live
in a world that may not be your world. If you go to the pound, they
won't just give you a dog. There are rules. They'll say, 'That dog's
not good for your house, we'll get you another dog.' But when you ask
that question about kids, people freak out."
Goller-Sojourner is a performer. This summer, he put on a one-man
at the Rainier Valley Cultural Center called Sitting in Circles with
Rich White Girls: Memoirs of a Bulimic Black Boy. As a big, gay, dark-
skinned black adoptee of white parents living in white University
Place outside Tacoma, he has had to explain himself many times, from
many different perspectives, to many different kinds of people. He's
developed multiple metaphors: the dog-adoption analogy, one involving
a seven-foot child with five-foot parents ("It's not that one's
better, it's just an acknowledgement of likeness or nonlikeness" ),
one about lions and a gazelle.
"Let's say I was a gazelle adopted by lions," he says. "I pranced
around happy until I got to first grade and all these lions tried to
attack me; it's like they didn't get the memo. The other gazelles,
they smelled the lion on me and didn't trust me, so I stood open."
He can also tell it literally: "The difference between when I got
called nigger and when other black kids got called nigger is that
went home and got love, and I went home and got love from people who
looked just like the people who called me nigger. As a child, you
don't have the ability to bifurcate."
P hebe Jewell is gay. She and her partner, Dawn, adopted a boy named
Isaac. He has the same mother as Bill and Pam LaBorde's two children,
the poor woman from Texas, Amanda, who for the most part finds it too
painful to be in contact with the children she's let go. Isaac, Theo,
and Simone all live in the same neighborhood, and Theo and Isaac go
the same school (Simone is too young). When friends from school come
over, they are often confused about why Isaac, Theo, and Simone don't
live together. But then somebody explains it, and that's that.
Isaac is 6 1/2, the oldest of the three, and he is not a quiet kid.
You can hear him across the aisles at a store. Phebe worries that
people will see him as "dangerous, a thug," but she knows that if he
were quiet, he'd probably get teased as an Oreo. At his school, many
of the kids are black. He comes home talking black, calling her
"girl." It makes her proud, that he's getting black culture, black
cadence. Even though she's white, she knows it herself, having grown
up partly in the South. She jokingly calls him "boy" in return, but
she knows she'll eventually have to stop herself, because of that
word's old association with power and slavery, something Isaac
couldn't know about now.
Isaac does know about slavery. He learned about it a year ago.
Eventually, he used it against his mother when she tried to tell him
what to do. "White people don't own black people anymore, so you
own me," he told her.
Ingenious, she thought. That's my son.
O ver at Theo and Simone's house, they have just finished eating
black-bean burritos, and it's time to put on swimsuits and get in the
car to go for lessons. Lessons are at Medgar Evers Pool, a place
for a man who was intimidated from voting just 62 years ago, who was
on his college debate team, who married a woman named Myrlie, who had
a Molotov cocktail thrown into the carport at their home, who was
nearly run down by a car, who was shot dead in his own drivewayâ€"in
the backâ€"by a Ku Klux Klan fertilizer salesman who was not
of murder until 30 years later. Everything good that happened to
Medgar Evers was because of Medgar Evers. Everything bad that
to him was because he was black and refused to apologize for it.
Theo and Simone are sitting in the backseat of the car. Pam is
explaining how she dresses the children carefully. If they were white
children, she might dress them as "little Goodwill hippies," but she
doesn't want black or white people thinking of them as poor
urchins, so she dresses them up. Theo is wearing a white button-up
polo shirt and glasses. We are driving past Garfield High School,
where on Halloween night, a black teenager was killed in what police
think was a gang shooting. Since then, black teenagers have been
walking around the Central District and riding city buses along
Luther King Jr. Way in sweatshirts that say "RIP Lil Q" for the kid
Theo doesn't know any of this. He doesn't know that he's going to a
pool named for Medgar Evers. He doesn't know that there was a
here at this same place, another shooting of a black man. He doesn't
know that this is my neighborhood, where I live, where I'm learning
about the meaning of race, the moderate racist in the front seat.
He does know about Obama, though. What does he know about Obama? I
him. He puts his fingers to his chest and says, "Black." Then he
"White House." That's all he says.
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