Thursday, July 05, 2007


On adopting minority children

Over at It's a Hardknock Teacher's Life, Miss Profe asks whether it's OK for white families to adopt minority children, and wonders what their motivation really is. Go there and read the whole thing, as well as the essay she links to, so that these quotes aren't out of context for you:

I often wonder what they think, what they feel about being a part of a family which isn't really their family. I worry about their identity development. After all, it is all fabricated, made-up, inauthentic.
I guess my bottom line questions are: What do children of color from other countries really gain by being adopted by majority parents? And, the question that is rarely asked: What is the real motive of majority parents who adopt children of color from other countries?

First let me say that I'm a middle-class, single, childless, white man. And one who's not just childless by circumstance, but by choice, a decision made a long time ago. My thoughts are, therefore, coloured (uh, sorry) by those facts. That said, I do have opinions on this, and if we only thought about and commented on things directly in line with our lives, we'd be remiss.

The thing that strikes me about this question from the start is how it relates to the more general question of whether it's valid for those in the majority to help or teach or care for those in the minority at all. It's a question to which the answers seem somewhat bipolar, a mixture of “You have it and you should be sharing it,” and “We don't need the white man to come here and tell us how we need ‘help’.” And I understand that. It's very easy to fall into a sort of “some of my best friends are black [or other minority]” pit, and it is often true that those of us who've never wanted for anything think we know how to help, but actually don't.

On the other hand, upper- and middle-class American whites may well have the resources, the skills, the ability to teach, to house, to rear... to help... poorer children (and their families). Why shouldn't we all use that to our collective advantage? If I should decide to teach at a university after I retire, and if I should choose, say, Howard University instead of Johns Hopkins, assuming they'd both want me... would people be saying, “Oh, look, another white man thinks he's gonna change the world.”? I hope not.

That gets us into the motives. I see a few:

There's the desire to do good, to make a difference to someone. Let's not be so cynical as to dismiss this — some people just want to help where they can. For some, the help can come in the form of money. Some can give time and work. Some share their skills. And some share their families, a loving, nurturing environment.

With adoption, there's the desire to have a family when one can't otherwise. It's a fact that healthy white babies are far scarcer than minority babies are, and it's a fact that more babies are available for adoption in some other countries than in the United States. If a white family is willing, even eager to adopt such a baby, does that really call their motives into question?

There's the fact that it makes one feel good to help. That's selfish in a way, but, really, it's part of what's behind all help we give, in any context. Whether we give money or time, whether we teach or adopt or just write a check, we do it in part because we feel good about it. That's normal, and it's valid.

Now, looking specifically at adopting children, I'll say again that it's not something I have direct experience with. But I know quite a few middle-class white families who've adopted foreign or minority children, and I've observed what I don't directly know. I'll talk about two cases here, of two people I used to work with:

The first is a family in the DC area. They have two white sons who were born into the family. They have two adopted daughters, one Asian-American and one African-American. When I knew the family, it was one of the closest, most loving, most normal families I'd known. I never asked why they adopted the girls; I didn't think it mattered. A guess might be that they wanted girls, as well as boys, and chose not to leave it to chance. Whatever the reason, the kids all did well in school and seemed, as far as I could tell, to be well adjusted. I never got the sense that they were ill-treated by their peers.

The second is a family here in New York, who adopted two Colombian babies, a girl and a boy. The parents don't have Hispanic backgrounds but do speak Spanish, and chose the country partly for that reason. They gave the children Spanish names and are making every effort to keep them in touch with their birth culture. They've brought them for visits to their home country. No, they can't raise them as Colombian children, and yes, it's fabricated, or at best partial. But how bad is that, really?

Would these lovely children be better off growing up authentically, in an orphanage in Colombia, or with a poor, struggling family there who can't afford to feed and clothe them? Or are they better off with an affluent and loving family here, despite having a different skin shade than their adoptive parents, and despite not getting the full range of the culture of their heritage? Perhaps they'll encounter differences and challenges because they're obviously “not like their parents”; would they have led a charmed life devoid of challenges, of conflict, of any sort of racism in their home country?

I obviously have no idea what Mr Sissay, in the piece that Miss Profe links to, had to deal with as an Ethiopian boy in England, apparently with parents who were not so loving and nurturing. Not all parents provide the same level of love and care; not all environments are welcoming; not everyone's experience is the same. I'm sad to read of Mr Sissay's experience. I'm sorry he's felt lost and confused.

I wonder, though, whether his experience matches those of most others like him. It's true, as he says, that money isn't everything, but the families I know are offering their adoptive children a great deal more than money. When I look at the families of my former co-workers, and at the other families I know that include adopted foreign or minority children, I can't imagine that those children would feel as Mr Sissay does. They might want to find their birth parents. They might want more exposure to their birth cultures. But I know that even with that, they are where they belong now. I can see that in their happiness.


Miss Profe said...

Hi, Barry.

I appreciate your thoughtful and sensitive response to my two questions.

One thing you said, however, did strike me: Who is to say who is "better off" and who isn't? And, what is the motivation of majority parents looking to adopt transracially and transnationally on this premise? This smacks of paternalism to me.

Maggie said...

I know of three couples who adopted children from other countries. One couple I knew in graduate school, and the wife had two tubal pregnancies that were very stressful and upsetting for the couple. They adopted a baby from Colombia. The second couple is my dental hygienist and her husband, and they have one natural son, and then they both had cancer. I don't know, but I'm guessing the treatments that she went through (she actually had cancer twice) destroyed her fertility (perhaps her husband as well, I don't know him personally). They adopted a baby from China. The last couple was a lesbian couple that my mother knew in graduate school, and they adopted from Colombia. My dental hygienist is a wonderful mother -- she's the only one I've known post adoption. But I know that they all adopted because they couldn't have children themselves, and the adoption process is so difficult in the US, they had a better chance of getting a baby from another country. I don't know of any paternalism or any idea of giving somebody a "better life," but I can't believe anybody would argue that statistically orphans have a better life than adopted children. Naturally there will be exceptions.

Perhaps it is my own prejudice that you are who you are, and not what your heritage is. I have a real problem with people basing their pride on their ancestors or what part of the globe they were born in. I understand minority pride as a reaction to majority prejudice, but that doesn't make it any more valid than shame because of heritage, or prejudice against another heritage. It's an inappropriate reaction to inappropriate behavior.

Miss Profe said...

I'm not arguing "minority pride", although I am very proud to be a Black American. In fact, I am not arguing anthing. I am asking as a person of color in an attempt to understand two things: What is the benefit to transracial/transnational adoptees in being adopted by White couples, and the motive(s) of White couples in doing so?

BTW: When referring to so-called "minorities", I would really appreciate it if the term people of color were used.

Barry Leiba said...

I think the benefit is the same as the benefit to any child in being adopted. A child who might not otherwise have a home has one. A family who wants a child has told this child that s/he's wanted.

I think it's a good thing when we stop looking only amongst "our own kind" for children and spouses.

Any more clarification about motives will have to come from someone who's actually done such an adoption. I'll see if I can prompt some of the people I know to weigh in here.

Miss Profe said...

"Any more clarification about motives will have to come from someone who's actually done such an adoption. I'll see if I can prompt some of the people I know to weigh in here."

Barry - that would be fantastic.:)

Re: looking beyond oneself for children and spouses: I think that too many people do this w/o asking the necessary questions, such as the ones I am asking. Love isn't all there is, and I think that one needs to do some mad self-examination before entering into such arrangements. Unfortunately, many do not do so.

Maggie said...

Miss Profe, I'm sorry, I can certainly say "people of color." I don't understand, though, why you're proud to be a Black American. I'm not proud to be a White American, should I be? Should I be proud to be a woman? Proud that I have blue eyes? Proud that my ancestors are from England, home of some of my favorite authors? Proud that my atoms originated in a particular galaxy? Damn, what galaxy???

When I was young I was proud that my ancestors on both sides came over on the Mayflower, and proud I was descended from Roger Williams. Or, maybe not proud, but it was part of my identity. As I grew older, my identity came from the positive impact I could have on the world, and I began to see that former identity as childish. I think of teenage girls who talk endlessly about what they will and won't eat, or what they want to buy, or what kind of tattoo they want. I think everybody needs to have a way to label themselves, but labeling yourself by something over which you have no control strikes me as unhealthy.

I think that most parents have no clue what they're doing when they set out to have children. I'll bet natural parents are worse than adoptive parents in that regard, especially since parenthood can come about accidentally. Natural parents aren't required to go through any kind of screening or education process. They may not get a child whose skin is a different color, but they might get a child with a developmental disability or one who is simply very different from the parents in personality.

Every family is a collection of individuals, hopefully doing the best they can. (But sadly, not always.)

Barry Leiba said...

Maggie, my view of this sort of "pride" has always been that it's a somewhat different meaning than what you might be thinking of. "I'm proud to be an American" and "I'm proud to have accomplished [x]" are not the same thing, not the same kind of "pride". Trying to look at them in the same light is bound to be confusing.

Ethnic "pride" has always been there, ad probably always will be. We think of "white pride" as a bad thing these days, obviously, but "Irish pride" or "Italian pride" are certainly there.

I think it's more than a label, though. It's saying, "This is where I came from, and that's an important part of what I am." You may feel that less than some, but I think most people do feel it. My background is Jewish, and, while I'm vehemently atheist, I certainly see how my Jewish heritage shows up in different ways.

«my atoms originated in a particular galaxy? Damn, what galaxy?»

He-he-he... you read the "colliding galaxies" thing too, hm? He-he-he...

Maggie said...

Barry, isn't ethnic pride a reaction to prejudice? Doesn't it just look better on a t-shirt than "I refuse to be ashamed of being (insert race here)," which is a valid sentiment? Or isn't it prejudice itself?

Am I being politically incorrect? I really don't see it as a positive. I can appreciate that a person is raised a particular way and that has shaped who he or she is, but why choose an ethnicity then as the source of pride? Why not "proud to be the daughter of a newspaper reporter," or "proud to have been raised in a ranch style home?" It's silly.

I remember an English exchange student who stayed with us. She had been partners with an Irish American girl who left notes around her house that said, "Thank God I'm Irish," and "I hate the English." This sort of pride seems like it exists to divide. It's not something you can share with anyone. "I love windsurfing," or "proud to be a windsurfer," is an accomplishment that most people could share with you, or that you can at least see as a choice. "Proud to be Irish" is offensive.

I know some people who are proud of their heritage. It is a huge source of identity for them, as if they were responsible for the accomplishments of others of their heritage. I know one woman who interrupts any story I'm telling to identify the people in the story who share her heritage. She does this with a huge smile, as if somehow it validates her own existence to share her heritage with somebody I've identified as accomplishing something. It seems like a sad substitute for personal identity and accomplishment to me.

Miss Profe said...

Thank you, Barry. I think you explain the pride thing sufficiently.

However, Maggie - if you want my personal take on it, as I don't want to highjack Barry's intelligent and insightful post and to keep the conversation on point, I invite you to visit my blog, where I can respond to your questions more directly.

Barry Leiba said...

Yes, well I seem to have, without thinking about it, blogjacked this from "Hardknock" anyway. This whol discussion should probably have been there. Sorry.

Dr. Momentum said...

Parents want to have a child.

It's right there in the description: "parents want." We can look at that as a somewhat selfish statement, and certainly there are people who think having children at all is a selfish act. Inasmuch as it is the fulfillment of a person's desire, procreation is self-serving.

I can't speak for the precise motivation of the adoptive parent, and those must also vary as much as the motivations of "natural" parents. I assume there are more similarities than differences. I have never seen any evidence to suggest otherwise, or that adoptive parents, as a group, have any motives beyond those that they profess to have. So I assume this isn't a discussion about hidden motives of individuals. Rather, it seems to be about a collective question of race and adoption.

When I read Barry's post, I felt he was talking *not* about the intentional adoption of people of color as part of some intentional or unintentionally skewed phenomenon. I was under the impression that the adoption of such children happens relatively in proportion to the distribution of children who are available. (I may be wrong)

Historically there have been adoptions as part of some organized effort to assimilate a population, with horrific, disastrous and heartbreaking results. See Australia's indigenous population. But this is not what is going on today. If it were, activism would be warranted.

On the question Miss Profe highlights in her first comment: "who is to say who is better off" -- it may be as simple as "whoever is in charge of the child at the time." Entirely paternalistic in the case of the relationship at the center of this discussion. If we place any respect at all in the idea that a parent who is not also a dna-donor can be a complete parent, then we must respect the idea that parents, who overcome challenges of all types with their children, will absorb this as another challenge.

Sure, there are other interesting questions about the specific effect of these adoptions. But there is so much already to worry about as a parent. To highlight this aspect may be an interesting question, but not apparently one that should prohibit any adoptive practices.

I would be interested to know if there is any sort of evidence which shows that adoption is harmful to a child when some attribute of the child does not match the parents.

But even if we were to see such evidence, I see this as one of those boundary areas where individual freedoms and choice are necessarily respected over other considerations.

A race-based approach to deciding who is better with whom (rather than an individual case approach, respecting parents) is what was behind forced relocation and adoption of indigenous Australians in the early 20th century. The crime there was not, I would argue, that children were taken from their parents of the same race, but that they were taken at all. Individuals should have been respected.

(I believe the motivations were wrong as well, if possibly good-intentioned in the collective sense. It's wrong to try to systematically absorb a people and it's certainly wrong to break up families in the process.)

Barry Leiba said...

I'm hoping for a comment or two from friends who are adoptive parents, but I can't promise, of course, that they'll get to it.

Meanwhile, Miss Profe has put her further thoughts over on her blog, so I wanted to point to that here, keeping the comment threads connected.

Anonymous said...

As one of the "adoptive" parents described by Barry in his orginal post let me start by asserting that, in my view, adoption should be an inherently selfish act. It stems from the desire to have a family and the inability to have biological children.

I rest comfortable in my ability to tell my children that I adopted them because I wanted them rather than as an act of charity. I am sure they will also grow up to be more secure individuals as a result. Ultimately adoption fullfills a two-way need. We needed children and our children were in an orphanage and needed parents.

I have actively discouraged folks from, otherwise, adopting reminding them that financial donations will allow them to impact a much larger number of children than a single adoption.

In choosing to adopt our priorities were quite simple. (1) Healthy and (2) infant. We were not prepared to take on issues of poor health nor the psychological trauma often associated with older adoptions. Other adoptive families we have met included race as a third priority not wanting to take on the challenges of transracial adoption. It is a personal choice and not one that I would want to debate. Ultimatley, you must be comfortable with your child.

We chose Colombia because the orphange had a strong record of maintaining health records and having spent part of my life in South America I had an affinity to a Latin American adoption.

We are now a transracial family because we did not stipulate race as a criteria in writing our home study. We were queried extensively by our social worker on the matter and we did express some concerns over the challenges of a transracial adoption ... I believe it was our ability to acknowledge the challenges that caused our social worker to let us leave out the stipulation of race.

Colombia is an ethnically diverse country. Most American's adopting from Colombia do specify a racial preference the fact that we did not led to us becoming a biracial family. Every family must decide what they are comfortable doing. If race is not an issue for us ... I don't see why anyone else should choose to make it so.