In today’s world, many people still believe the best way to incorporate cultural and racial differences is to ignore that they even exist — a misguided attempt to be a colorblind society. The reality is that color isn’t ignored. We see evidence of this in news stories of violence against people of color and in statistics showing that young men of color make up the majority of our prison populations.
In combating this issue, the goal is not to achieve a colorblind society but rather one that celebrates, instead of victimizes, differences in color. For families of adoption, particularly those who combine racial and cultural differences, it is essential that they engage in transformational dialogue and behavior surrounding these issues. Yet, too often, families are not provided with the right education or challenged in the right way to think meaningfully about differences in race, culture and class, and how these issues will impact their children and family.
As a transracially adopted person and the chief executive at The Donaldson Adoption Institute (DAI), an organization dedicated to adoption reform, I have experienced firsthand the challenges of ignoring these differences. Back in the 1970s, my parents were not encouraged by professionals to acknowledge racial difference. Rather, they were glossed over. The paperwork that accompanied me states, “the child could be of mixed race.” There was no “could” – I am a mixed-race person, and everyone knew it. What my parents did not know how do to and were not encouraged to do was have a practical conversation about it.
This reality made it extremely difficult to know who I was and where I fit in; sometimes it seemed as though this was nowhere and everywhere all at once. It shocks me that today, even with all that we know from research and lived experiences, there are still adoptive families who are simply not addressing these differences in a healthy way – and that is across the board in both adoption from foster care and private adoption.
This reticence to acknowledge the obvious is further complicated by policies like MEPA-IEP (Interethnic Adoption Provisions of 1996) that may have been well-intended yet have often been interpreted in ways that counteract widely accepted best practices. Not impeding an adoption based on a parent’s race is an appropriate goal; however, it should not be translated to mean we shouldn’t engage in transformational conversation surrounding race, class and culture in preparing and supporting transracial adoptive families.
DAI’s research report “Beyond Culture Camp” reveals the notion that race and ethnicity are critical components of identity for transracially adopted persons. Because of this, it’s not a matter of whether transracial adoptive families should be acknowledging these realities—it’s how to best have transformative conversations to ensure healthy identity development for everyone, especially children adopted into a family whose race, class and culture could all be very different from their family of origin.
This transformational dialogue requires us to understand the perceptions of adoption and foster care and how this compares with the reality of the experience. DAI recently commissioned public opinion research, and surveyed 2,000 Americans to garner a better understanding of societal perceptions of aspects of the adoption and foster care adoption experience and system. Among other findings, DAI learned that society holds beliefs regarding the children who get placed for adoption and the children who get adopted that are reflective of racism in our society.
One quarter of Americans believe a child that is an ethnic minority is 10 percent less likely to be adopted. In contrast, people believe that Caucasian children are 51 percent more likely to be adopted. This reality is evident when we see a premium placed on white babies, a practice that continues in some places. At the same time, we know children of color are overrepresented in the foster care system and often wait longer to be adopted.
These perceptions, as well as our dual system of private and public adoption, reflect elements of individual and institutional racism that pervade society. Although a variety of practical and important tools exist to aid transracial adoptive families, such as knowledge of hair and skin care, there is perhaps a greater need to combine the practical with thoughtful conversations that explore racial and cultural differences, their history both domestically and abroad, and how these differences manifest today.
Racial differences have often separated society into very disparate groups, those with regular access to privileges and opportunities, and those without. Children are not blind to this reality and neither should their families be. While this is not the only dialogue transracial families should engage in, shying away from complex discussions in favor of cultural tokenism is a disservice to the entire family and not in the best interest of children.
It’s important not to discount the hope that transracial adoption offers us in expanding families and lessening cultural divides, particularly when families of birth and adoption stay connected over time. Take care, though, to ensure that children of color are not burdened as diversity educators. Adults must take the responsibility to educate themselves and initiate the conversations. It is vital that children can count on honest discussion with their families and rely on them for support and advocacy.
You may not always have the answers, but there’s a lot to be said for creating ample space for the conversation. And this is a conversation that needs to happen within the family and with the larger community. In particular, transformational dialogue is needed with systems that serve children and families, like education, if meaningful change is to occur.
DAI has been working to ignite a new conversation about adoption, foster care adoption, and what it means to be family through our Let’s Adopt Reform national tour that concluded in Chicago last month. We hope to continue to inspire a modern discourse about adoption and foster care, not just during Black History month or on our national tour, but throughout the year.
Every child, whether adopted into a middle-class or wealthy family – or who may be awaiting adoption in foster care, like Laquan McDonald was – truly deserves to be part of a strong family. Strong families build strong communities, and strong communities make a better world for all of us. Together, let’s keep creating spaces to have the transformational dialogue that will be necessary to make sure no one is blind to the many shades that comprise the adoption experience.
April Dinwoodie is chief executive of the Donaldson Adoption Institute. She is also a co-founder and vice president of the board of Fostering Change for Children, a progressive nonprofit that helps drive innovation in the child welfare system.