I’m a white mom and I adopted 3 black children. My kids are 7, 18, and 28. Quite an age span. I can’t speak for anyone else, but here’s my own experience as a single mother with 3 African American children and how I have navigated the issues of transracial adoption. It’s been a joyful, challenging journey and it’s not over yet.
I adopted my daughter almost 25 years ago, my 2 boys 6 years ago, and here’s what I’ve learned so far:
- Color matters
- You can’t teach your child to be Black
- There is racism in the world, in your town, and probably right next door.
- Love can’t fix everything.
That’s right, color matters. I know, many people like to say, “I don’t care if you are green, yellow or purple, everyone is the same.” Everyone is the same, until we are not. The color differences between my children and I are not just variances in the tone of our skin, they are cultural, societal, and will always be there. Let’s start with a quick history lesson.
Here in the United States we believe in democracy and freedom. People play our patriotic songs and sing I’m proud to be an American where at least I know I’m free. I am free. I cry on the Fourth of July because I actually love that I live where the ideal of a democracy is still there. I am proud to vote. The Founding Fathers wrote that equality is for me.
I have “unalienable rights” bestowed upon me: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I love the concept of that freedom and it makes me proud and grateful to live where I do; however, even in that ideal of democracy the writer of this declaration went back home to his slaves. The slaves were black. Negro. Shipped here. That’s the legacy my freedom was built on, the backs of my children’s ancestors.
My 3 children do not share many of my freedoms and they were not included in those words of our Founding Fathers just because of the color of their skin.
That is the reality. Color matters. So how can a White person adopt a person of color and avoid transracial adoption identity issues? You can’t. You must do all you can to help your child become comfortable in the skin she lives in as well as the forever family she is a part of. You are forever looking to her future.
You can’t teach your child to be black
Langeston Hughes, a prolific author from the Harlem Renaissance created a character named Jesse B. Semple. I discovered him while trying to learn as much as I could about the African American culture prior to my daughter coming home. Jesse never claimed to speak for every Black man.
Jesse liked to make the point that he was an individual and could never be understood fully until a person walked in his shoes. He also liked to point out that nobody fit into his shoes because they were his alone.
That’s how we need to understand our own child’s experience. I am here for them. I see what they go through, but I will never fully understand because I am not Black and haven’t been adopted. I will never be able to walk in their shoes. How can they rise above the adoption identity issues that come with transracial adoption? Here’s what I did. it’s not for everyone.
So how can my Black child learn to be Black?
When I brought my daughter home, I decided that I would find a Black church to attend. Little did I know that once we stepped through those doors, there was no turning back.
It started with my daughter and I attending a service one Sunday morning. After the service, we were invited to join the congregation for lunch. One of the ladies of the church, well-dressed in her pastels and extravagant hat, sat next to us. We introduced ourselves and without missing a beat she said, “Baby girl’s hair needs some help.” I was and am eternally grateful for that one moment changing our lives.
We were sent straight away to make an appointment at the pastor’s and his wife’s hair shop. Over time, I became a member of the church, an alto in the choir, and played guitar in the church band. My daughter sang in the children’s choir, danced on the praise dance team and learned how to be Black. Now, 25 years later, I still lean on the wisdom of our church family and the gift they gave us.
Find a place for you and your children to belong and where you are all accepted. Expand your village and let your walls down. Be open to things that may make you uncomfortable for the good of your children.
When you have that safe space, learn from your African American village about ” the talk.” There is a time in the life of most Black children when their parents have a talk with them. It is a time to try to explain the inequalities of the world and how they must behave in order to stay safe. That’s a real thing, so be prepared for it.
What should I learn about African American culture?
Hair. That’s right. Learn how to do your child’s hair correctly. This is so important for your child’s self-image. Do not discount the unique properties of Black hair and how it must be cared for, loved, and nurtured. If you have a little girl, take the time every day to do her hair.
It is good for both of you to have that time together, good for her to learn that her hair is important to you and she will keep her hair healthy and be proud of it as she grows into an adult. After you learn, don’t be afraid to go help another white adoptive mom and say, “Baby girl’s hair needs some help.”
If you have a boy, learn the latest styles. Buy yourself some clippers and start practicing so he can always feel good about himself. Show him to take the time to keep his hair in good condition so he can learn to care about who he is. Yes, hair is that important. It is part of your Black child’s identity and if you don’t teach them and learn for yourself, this may be at the heart of many transracial adoption issues in the future.
Shoes. Shoes are an extremely significant part of good upbringing for African American kids. You don’t need $150 shoes, but make sure your kids’ shoes are not falling apart and are in good condition. It shows that you care about where your kids are going and where they come from. They aren’t just shoes.
Skin. Lotion your babies up. Don’t let your little boy go around town with “ashy” knees. Ashy knees are when the skin gets dry and gray looking. Keep his skin healthy looking and stay away from ashy. Stay far away from ashy – it’s a cultural and health thing.
There is racism in the world
People categorize other people. Your Black child will be categorized by the color of her skin wherever she goes and when people see you as the parent, she will be categorized into another group by both Black and White people.
How you raise her will be how she manages the transracial and cultural adoption issues that will occur throughout her life. Here are some nuggets of wisdom I have learned.
“Ain’t no use talkin’ to a fool”
Some time ago, I was out with some friends for a well-deserved grown-up evening at a local club and I was sharing pictures of my little girl. A drunk man I did not know called her a pickaninny. This term was used in the old South referring to her as a “coon child.” I was in such shock, I didn’t know how to respond.
Guilt ridden that I didn’t stand up for my child and say something, the next day I asked my African American co-worker what I should have done. She replied with a sassy flip of her hand as if to discount his words and said, “Ain’t no use talkin’ to a fool.”
This is a lesson I have shared with my children for years now. There is a time and a place to make a difference and challenge societal norms. There is no point wasting wisdom and energy on a fool.
“Water off a duck”
The other day, my adult daughter was walking in to work and she overheard an older gentleman turn to his wife and comment, “She’s pretty for a little N…..” Nothing good could have come from her turning around and confronting this elderly couple.
She walked away holding on to “ain’t no use talkin’ to a fool” as well as another lesson we have practiced over the years, “water off a duck.” A duck’s feathers repel water. It lives and thrives while keeping the coldness at bay.
Stand up and fight
So when do you say something? When do you stand up for the rights of your child and teach them when to use their power to stand against inequality and injustice? Sorry, that is not for me to say. Jesse B. Semple would remind you that I am not in your shoes and don’t know your child’s battles.
You must teach your children to choose their own time with wisdom and you must model this throughout their lives.
You decide when to go pick a fight and be angry. When your kids are older, be ready to fight for them and with them.
Love can’t fix everything
No matter how much you love your little Black boy, he still can’t go outside at night wearing a hoodie. No matter how much you support the sass in your little girl, she still needs to be quiet and keep her hands on the steering wheel when a police officer pulls her over. Your love won’t make the challenges of being Black in a White world go away. Your adopted adult child will more than likely have things to work out no matter how much you love him.
My daughter has been the victim of societal prejudice and hate. My teenage son was accused of a violent crime although he was innocent. All I could do for them was support them as they went through it. It is time for me to have the “talk” with my youngest son. Where do we find the joy? Where does love come in?
Love goes deeper than color
Interracial adoption is not for the faint of heart. However, the joy of changing a life is more powerful than whatever the world can throw at us. The richness of my children’s culture now pervades our lives with music, stories, and strength of people who came before us. They stand on the shoulders of generations of power. All you have to do is help them learn to become who they are: they are both Black and White. It’s ok. They will navigate that.
Your unconditional love can go beyond the challenges of the world and go deeper than color. Lay that foundation so you and your children can be ready.