Black, not like me. Questioning transracial adoption.

Posted by in Articles on adoption on 22 April, 2015

Black, not like me. Questioning transracial adoption.
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By Robyn Wolfson Vorster

I saw a beautiful adoption picture this morning.  It was of a mom and dad, each kissing a cheek of a gorgeous baby. The caption read: “When God made her, he had us in mind.” It was compelling. I found myself looking at it for a long time, enjoying the words, and wondering if I should share it on social media before it dawned on me that as lovely as it was, it was an image of adoption that I no longer found familiar—the child in the picture was white, just like her adoptive parents.

 

It wasn’t always true, I still remember my reaction and depth of sadness when, during our adoption screening process, I read an article on adoption and came face to face with a number of images of white families cuddling white adoptive children (which, despite any statistics to the contrary, were still the norm in the media until recently). The emotion, while intense, turned out to be short lived. When our social worker, unexpectedly ended our final session by asking if we would accept a white child, I was able to say with certainty that she should rather place the child with someone desperate for a same race adoption. I still wonder why she asked (our agency doesn’t even place white children). Regardless, it was a defining moment. In that instant, I knew beyond question that transracial adoption was our first choice, not just our only choice.

 

Nonetheless, I still find myself occasionally thinking about that moment and in trying to understand why this issue is so emotive and why so few people adopt transracially, it is a memory that I draw on.   Perhaps in order to understand why people do adopt black children it is helpful to first ask why they don’t.

 

Why are people reluctant to adopt transracially?

I have questioned loads of people and came up with two key reasons why some families avoid transracial adoption:

  • Stigma and identity (the deep seated desire to have a child that looks like them, anxiety about their child’s identity as a teenager and adult, and concerns about the stigma of adoption).
  • Fear and prejudice (sometimes those of the adoptive parents but often from other people in their inner circle).

 

Stigma and identity

Historically, stigma has been a huge factor. Growing up, one of my close friends was adopted and her perception was that she was matched to her adoptive family predominantly on the basis of looks. It was back in the day when the Government prohibited trans-racial adoption and it appears that this obsession with being with people like you extended to adoption. This may have been largely about identity but it also spoke of a deep seated reluctance to bring unrelated children into the family. After years of infertility, my aunt and uncle told my grandparents that they were considering adoption. Their reaction was swift and merciless, that no adopted child would inherit anything from them. Perhaps they would have reconsidered but I suspect that their obsession with “genetic purity” would have stopped them from loving an adopted child. Sadly, my aunt and uncle didn’t find out—they abandoned their plans and remained childless.

 

Careful matching meant that in many cases, children didn’t even know they were adopted. Years ago I watched an episode of the brilliant sitcom “Friends” in which one of the characters inadvertently told a small boy that he was adopted. It made an impression on me both because of the exquisite awkwardness of the situation—it made me squirm—and because my brother and I had apparently done the same thing when we were children. It never occurred to us that our seven year old friend didn’t know he was adopted or that we had been the first to tell him. It is a painful memory, especially now that I understand what his parent’s unwillingness to share his adoptive status must have done to him.

 

I would love to say that the stigma is long gone but sadly, there is still a lot of prejudice about adoption. Many people feel that it is easier to just avoid public acknowledgement. Looking the same goes a long way to helping you avoid the scrutiny of strangers and the need to have the adoption discussion so often and so openly with your child.

 

And, identity goes even deeper. Many families, especially those that have come to adoption via a long hard journey with infertility, are desperate to adopt a child that looks like them. When you speak to people who have given up on fertility treatment, one of their biggest areas of grief is that they will never have a child with their looks, mannerisms and abilities. Some people find it very hard to get over.

 

Fear and prejudice

In a country like South Africa, fear and prejudice is almost self-explanatory. Even families that are comfortable with the thought of adopting a black child are sometimes tormented by concerns about how their family’s and society’s fears will affect an innocent child. The anxieties vary from family to family (everything from grandparents rejecting the child to bullying from people outside the family). And for many, the biggest fear is that they will not be able to love a child that is black. Regardless, the result is usually the same, a reluctance to risk trans-racial adoption. Even families that do go on to adopt black children speak about having to overcome some or all of these fears, prejudices and identity challenges first.

 

How South Africa’s demographics affect adoption

Irrespective of their position, most families determined to adopt will at some point have to come to terms with the way that South Africa’s demographics affect our adoption process. The reality is that there are huge numbers of black children in need of adoption and very few of any other race. The situation is so extreme that if you are looking to adopt a same race baby and are not a black family, there is a strong possibility that you will not even be accepted by an adoption agency for screening. Fewer agencies are trying to place white children and those that do have very long waiting lists. Couples that are older, single parents, and families with existing children looking to grow their family through adoption are particularly unlikely to be accepted. And although some private social workers are still willing and able to place white, coloured and Indian children, many of the families accepted onto a waiting list are told that they may have to wait up to eight years for a child (although even then, the timing is not a certainty). The ones that are eventually matched have little choice about the child they receive. Same race children for families that aren’t black are so rare that it is almost impossible to specify criteria like gender, age or health (something which families adopting transracially are encouraged to do). In the end, given that you cannot adopt internationally if you are South African, the choice to adopt a black child may be the difference between becoming a parent, or not.

 

This scarcity is the reason that many families have changed their minds about adopting transracially mid-adoption process. Looking in from the outside, it may be easy to say that those families are compromising in some way by altering their position. Interestingly, they disagree.   None that I spoke to had any regrets about choosing to parent a black child and many stated how amazing the experience has been. The truth is that we all come to adoption differently and in many cases, the journey we take is essential to prepare us for our lives together.

 

The case for transracial adoption

Increasingly, adopting a black child is the first choice for many families that aren’t black. I asked around and the reasons for adopting transracially were as varied as the families that told the stories. For some, adoption, and specifically the adoption of a black child, had been a lifelong dream. Others said that they just wanted a child, any child—race was not an issue for them. And still others fell in love with a child who just happened to be black. Finally, there are some families (although not as many as people suspect) whose decision to adopt was as much about social justice as about building a family. In all of these cases, transracial adoption was an easy choice.

 

Our story

Our own journey contains many of these elements. For us, years spent battling with infertility meant that we had to fully mourn the loss of a biological child who “looked like us” before we moved on to adoption. By the time our daughter arrived, I was reconciled to having a child that “was like us” instead. Oddly, being a step-parent really helped. I have two beautiful step-daughters who were raised by their mum. They look like me (in the same way that a white adopted baby would—they have the same skin colour) but they don’t share any of my mannerisms, my sense of humour, my inflections, my approach to the world. Astonishingly, at the age of three, my adopted daughter is far more like me in every way than they are. And despite the difference in our skin colour, people say that she looks like me, and our biological son. Actually, they are right, when we are together, we are so obviously a family. Of course, if we had adopted any child of any skin colour our experience would probably have been the same and maybe that is my point—love makes a family and nurture is profound.

 

While I don’t dispute the challenges she may have to face being a black child in a white family, our daughter’s identity has been a source of wonder for us. One of the big myths about transracial adoption is that we love our children despite them being black. An adoptive mom recently described how a friend had said: “well I guess you don’t see her as black any more”. She was dumbfounded and I can relate. I will never think that my daughter as anything other than black, but instead of seeing that as something negative to be overcome, we see the colour of her skin as one of the many things that make her special.

 

At first, my husband wrestled with the fear that he might not be able to protect his daughter from the prejudice of others. But, it was short-lived. The thought of leaving a helpless child to be raised in an institution, without a family, was so appalling that it was inconceivable for him to allow his fears to get in the way of the adoption.

 

And our family was very supportive. Our prejudiced grandparents are long gone and even if they weren’t, we are optimistic that our love for our child, and the delightfulness of our daughter (she has a real talent for engaging with people and making them feel special) would have challenged even the most dearly held intolerances. As far as others are concerned, it seems that all children (not just those adopted transracially) are doomed to being teased and misunderstood at times. After almost three years, we are yet to experience it personally but it may come and if it does, I am hopeful that our child will be secure and loved enough to be able to deal with it.

 

Realistically, even if our family had wanted to adopt a white child, it would have been extremely unlikely. We were older adoptees (40, and over in the case of my husband) with a biological child. We would not have been accepted by an agency and our best option for a same race adoption would have been to find a birth mother who wanted us to raise her baby (something I was terrified of doing because of the prevalence of adoption scams targeting desperate people at their most vulnerable). I am grateful that it wasn’t a desire for us, anecdotal evidence suggests that if it had been, we might still be a one child family.

 

But in the end, none of these factors were pivotal for us. Despite my brief wobble early on, I knew from the start that my daughter would grow in another woman’s womb and that she would be black—that was God’s plan for us. Maybe that is why I find it so hard to explain to others, it wasn’t about the absence of a negative or even pragmatism, we adopted Asha because we knew with a certainty that the daughter meant for us was black. Adopting her was the most natural, most wonderful, most beautiful thing imaginable.

 

In some ways I wish I had more of a persuasive argument, a story of a big heart transformation that I could talk about. I wish for it because in my heart of hearts I want people who are closed to transracial adoption to reconsider—for no other reason than that there are so many children—mostly black—in need of families; and so many families—mostly white, coloured and Indian—in need of children, and I wish that they would find each other. It also breaks my heart that some families will be forced to choose between a same race child and no child at all.

 

Coming full circle, the adoption image

Adopting Asha was perfectly right for us, and she is perfect—perfectly made and perfectly ours. Since meeting my daughter, this image of adoption–as beautiful as it is–doesn’t make me sad anymore:

 

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That is their story.  This, gloriously, is ours…

 

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14 Comments

  1. 23 April, 2015

    Beautiful! Beautiful! Our story is so similar. I want to shout it out from the rooftops, that we have never been happier, than after receiving our daughter through adoption. I encourage every couple struggling with infertility to take my word for it: that an adopted child can fit perfectly into the ‘own child’ sized gap in your heart!

    • 23 April, 2015

      Thanks Lynette! So true, we had years of heartache and disappointment when we were struggling with infertility. So grateful that those days are over. Now my hubby and I often joke that we could not have made one as amazing and perfect as our daughter. Adoption is definitely the best decision that we have ever made.

  2. 23 April, 2015

    Very well said. I also wish that I could make people understand that adoption is an awesome choice and it does not matter at all what race the child is! I also agree with you – my 3 yr old son is very much like me – he has learned some of my mannerisms. But I assume you are either open ro adoption or not…….. For us it was the best choice ever!

    • 23 April, 2015

      For us too Adele. I sincerely hope that more and more people will at least consider adoption. It is hard to express what a blessing our daughter has been to our family. We didn’t even know how sad we were before she came…now our hearts are so full. We truly can’t imagine life without our little treasure.

    • 06 May, 2015

      Hi, I just saw your blog posted on the yahoo group and decided to check it out. Our journey has been similar to yours in that we started with an International adoption signed on to adopt from Ethiopia, but our agency went bankrupt last summer, so we switched to a U.S. adoption. I’m an American, but we live in Canada. Anyway, I just wanted to wish you well on both your international and domestic adoption journeys. I really believe that eventually God will bring each of us the children He has in mind for us. We are currently matched with an expectant mom, due with a baby boy in three weeks. God Bless!Alysia

  3. 23 April, 2015

    Congratulations! On saying everything that is so true and needed to be said. I adopted a baby 9 years ago. This was not something I planned, yearned for or even thought about. She came into my life (your mother passed at birth and was in my employ) I had at the time 3 teenage children and adding a new born to the family never entered my mind. I truly believe this was the working of a higher power. Once the initial shock of what had happened lessened, there was no a moments discussion as I just knew what I had to and wanted to do.

    Mbali has been one of the greatest blessings in my life and continues to bring me Joy, pride and amazing love.

    It was a decision that was “made” for me and I am thankful every day that I was given the opportunity to become her mom.

    Yours sincerely

    Joy Franke

    • 23 April, 2015

      That is so lovely Joy. Thanks so much for sharing your beautiful story 🙂

  4. 24 April, 2015

    Thanks for sharing such an inspirational story.
    Hubby and I would love to adopt and would appreciate contact details of agencies or referrals in the Durban area.

    • 24 April, 2015

      Thanks Naz and wonderful news that you are hoping to adopt.

      I asked around and the best options are to contact Ruth dos Santos or Justin Foxton who run The Adoption Companion: http://babyhouse.org.za/adoption/ They can help you through the process and refer you to the best adoption practitioners in your area.

      Alternatively, you can contact Glenda Munsamy. She is an adoption practitioner who helped one of our adoptive mums with both of her adoptions:
      Tel: 031 304 2916
      Cell: 082 295 0305
      Email: glendafm@telkomsa.net

      Alternatively, you can contact Durban Child Welfare on 031 3129313. Our ladies recommended that you ask for Hannah Green (or Pamela). If you are willing to travel further afield, Pietermaritzburg Child Welfare is also an option (ask for Ziyanda).

      If you are on social media, please also consider joining one (or more) of the excellent facebook adoption groups. I know of three, all of which are really worthwhile (they helped provide this information): Passionate about adoption, Adopt and Foster SA, and Adoption – Transracial in South Africa.

      All the best with this amazing journey and please keep in touch, I would love to hear how things are going 🙂

  5. 24 April, 2015

    I really appreciate this superb article. My wife and I (so-called whites) have two wonderful little (so-called) black children in addition to our three older biological children, but that eleven year journey is not all – we now have a 15 month “black” granddaughter adopted by our “white” daughter and son-in-law and we have a half Korean – half Caucasian granddaughter from our son and Korean daughter-in-law. We consider ourselves hugely blessed by our rainbow family. We are also part of a support circle of mostly transracial adoptive and foster families in our area that numbers over 200 families!

    • 24 April, 2015

      Thank you so much for sharing your story Johan. How wonderful, and what an amazing legacy your family will have. I sincerely hope that “rainbow” families becomes natural and an obvious choice for the generations to come–so precious that your family are already living it.

  6. 03 May, 2015

    Beautifully written ! We also have a biological child, and then decided to adopt. The result is that we have a blond 7-year old daughter, and a 3 year old black boy ! People often tell me how blessed my son is – and look at me strangely when I answer that yes, he is blessed, same as his sister – but we are blessed even more by having him in our lives !
    May I quote parts of your article in a talk on adoption that I am doing at our church in September, please ?
    Regards, Verena

    • 04 May, 2015

      Thanks for your lovely feedback Verena.

      Yes, isn’t it funny, when Asha joined our family, people used to say how blessed she was to have us. But the moment they got to know her, they started to tell us how blessed we are 😉 I am beyond grateful that my children have each other, they needed each other so much, and my husband and I needed them both so much too.

      Please feel free to quote the article in your talk in September and let me know if I can help in any other way. You can contact me on my email address: robyn@becomingamom.co.za or you can find me on Facebook 🙂 .

  7. 15 August, 2015

    Wow, I really needed this right now. My husband and I are in the domestic infant adoption process and are pursuing transracial adoption. I’ve all the sudden started struggling today with fear of “what if I can’t provide all they need for their racial identity?” The question and fear has weighted me down all day but your words have been very encouraging and a reminder that we can face racial identity issues as they come. We don’t have to have it all figured out now. Thanks for your words.

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