If there were ever two topics that were perhaps equally difficult– and important– to talk about, these would have to be adoption and race.

America’s current president made a coarse reference to disadvantaged countries last week. It ironically coincided with an announcement of Ethiopia’s new adoption ban curtailing the export of its children for international adoption. That made both an ominous (but perhaps timely) prelude to MLK Day and African American History Month.

American society has made advanvements in race relations over past decades. Despite growing numbers of transracial adoptions, though, there is still much to be done before we fully achieve Martin Luther King’s famous dream from August 28, 1963:

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Dr. King doesn’t seem to have ever addressed the subject of transracial adoptions, although many assume that he would have supported it.

And perhaps he would have? However, in calling for people not to be judged by their skin color, Martin Luther King, Jr. was not advocating for colorblindness but for race consciousness. He clearly recognized the need for people to take pride in their racial origins and embrace their culture.

So why does race even matter?

Perhaps the answer lies in the word “identity.” Decades ago, social workers presumed that in order for any adoptee to blend well with an adoptive family, skin tones should match as closely as possible. This allowed the adoptive family to hide the truth of the adoption from the adoptee, as well as the neighbors. This led to some disastrous adoption experiences, however. In time, professionals came to realize that several other traits (such as intelligence and temperament) were far-greater indicators of placement compatibility than melatonin levels or hair texture.

Subsequently, a cultural shift in America has given rise to a new wave of cross-racial adoptions. (The plot lines of popular TV shows like “This is Us” and “Modern Family” and “The Fosters” clearly reflect this trend.) And yet, the well-intended urge for adoptive families to claim to be colorblind and deny racial differences  is as misguided as the desire to avoid any diversity in adoptive placements. (One prospective adoptive couple from out-of-state recently went to great lengths to explain to our agency why it would be “impossible” for them to adopt anything other than a “Gerber baby.” They blamed this bias on their community and their homestudy worker– anybody but themselves– while denying that it had anything to do with racism.) When we say “race matters,” it is crucial to consider to whom it does matter and why, and how this may potentially impact the child/ren involved?

When Abrazo’s director, Elizabeth, was three years old, she lived with her parents (a pastor and his wife) and her baby brother in a Chicago suburb. Race relations were a hot topic in the early Sixties, so the Vanderwerf family felt called to do their part and joined in a community effort called Friendly Town. The program’s goal was to give children from the inner city exposure to life beyond the ghetto. This gave middle and upper class families from the suburbs and rural regions the opportunity to foster a disadvantaged child from another culture, enabling all to gain greater understanding of the other.

Elizabeth’s family eventually moved from that Chicago suburb to a small country town in Iowa, and her foster sister came, too. She was, however, the only African-American many of those country folk had ever encountered in real life, and the Vanderwerfs were blissfully naive. They could hardly have realized how trying this experience was for a young black girl from the inner city to spend months in a rural environment where nobody’s face or culture reflected her own. (Adoptee Rebekah Hutson addresses this dilemma beautifully, in her blog entry entitled Growing Up Black in White Families.) The two girls grew up and call each other sisters to this day. Still, Friendly Town was an experience that may have actually had a more lasting impact on the host families than on the children it displaced. Being colorblind (or pretending to be) wasn’t authentic, and likely served nobody’s needs– least of all those of the children involved.

The truth, in black & white

In America, there is a tremendous need for adoptive homes for children of color, whatever the adopting parents’ color may be. Brown and black children wait longer in state foster home for families to be found for them, because the concept of adoption is still primarily an Anglocentric concept, and the majority of adopting parents still hope to adopt a newborn who looks the most like them. (This raises the age-old question of whose best interests truly do come first in this pursuit?) And far too many minority children in state care “age out” of the system having never found an adoptive family (of any race) to call their own, sadly.

Still, simply being willing to adopt outside one’s race and then buying one’s child a culturally-appropriate toy or supporting a cause like an MLK March once a year is not enough, either. Families who adopt transracially need good resources. As Rachel Garlinghouse points out so poignantly: parents who adopt children of color must remember to honor their child’s racial identity (and be sensitive to the related challenges) 24/7… not just on on Cinco de Mayo or during Black History Month. Adopting outside your race means willingly adopting another culture as your own, and becoming not merely a “transracial” family to whom an adoptee must adapt, but wholeheartedly becoming a multiracial-forever-family.

On this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, we urge you to learn more about adoption and race, and to download this Evan B. Donald Adoption Institute Study on this very important subject. Because whether or not you’ve placed or adopted transracially (or ever considered doing so,) learning more about what we can do to ensure that children in America can grow up judged not by their skin but by their character is of undeniable benefit to us all.

Adoption and race are both difficult topics to discuss, true; and yet, both are enormously important to the future of our children and our nation.

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