ABC Transracial Adoption Story and Internalized Racism

I received an email a little while ago regarding an ABC news story which discussed transracial adoption identity.  I was impressed that ABC made it a priority to go beyond discussing transracial adoption on a superficial level to discuss the racial implications.  Here is my analysis of the article and the issue.

“I just always felt like it would be a really enriching experience for us and for everybody involved, really,” Lisa Scoppa said.

Although Ms. Scoppa might be referring to adoption as an enriching experience I also believe she is referring to transracial adoption as an enriching experience specifically.  I take issue with this statement because it infers an underlying motive for transracial adoption which is the creation of a multicultural family.  Unfortunately, I think the statement itself explains just how much confusion there is about race in this country.  Adopting a child of color should not be looked at as an “enriching experience.”  If that is the sole or primary reason for adopting I would ask you to take a moment to reflect on what it means to think this way about your future child.

Adopting a child of color does not automatically give you the insights of what it means to be a person of color in the United States.  Many transracial adoptees struggle with their identities as people of color because of the very fact that many Caucasian parents do not understand how to adequately explain and educate their children about the complexities of race, and how it may affect them.

Fortunately, the article turned to an adult transracial adoptee who explained the complexities of growing up a person of color parented by Caucasian parents.  He touches on an incredibly important theme, which is this.  Adoptive parents need to step out of their comfort zones to really take on these challenges in a holistic way.

“People don’t like discomfort but when you’re adopting a child from another race, another country, it’s very important that families understand that they are going to put themselves outside of their comfort zone to really understand what their experience is going to be for the child. …Otherwise, the child is going to be neglected plain, and simple,” Bertelsen said.

A Spence-Chapin Adoption Agency worker says this:

“This is what I tell people,” Rita Taddonio, who directs the agency’s Adoption Resource Center, said. “If you look around your table and your guests are all the same color, if you don’t have diversity around your kitchen table then you shouldn’t be adopting a child of a different color.”

There are ways to help your child cope, she said. “We recommend parents connect to the black community, that they make sure they have friends in those areas, that they go to a black church or be part of the community as well,” she said. “Every parent’s job is to help them form an identity, it’s just an additional layer of complexity when your child’s identity has pieces of it that you don’t own.”

Ms. Taddonio’s first quote touches on the notion of racial tokenism.  Which is the idea that simply having people of color around the table will simply solve all racial problems.  Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple.  Far too often, I’ve heard adoptive parents offer “We have a friend who is African American and the family across the street from us are Asian American.”  Simply having those friends does not make you magically understand racism, or racial relations in this country.

I want to touch on one last thing which is this.  It’s not easy.  There is no prescription for this, and it can’t be just something that you attempt to do every once in a while.  It’s as much of a life time commitment as deciding to adopt a child in the first place.  Providing a healthy environment for a child of color to be able to construct his or her own racial identity is so important.  Again, you need to be ready to go outside of your comfort zone.  Don’t just go to Chinatown and eat Dim Sum or send your child to a predominantly African American Church expecting them to get anything more profound out of it than you will.  There has to be mentorship, there has to be education, and there has to be an environment where an adoptee feels ok with exploring their identity.

Sometimes I’ve been asked, “My child doesn’t seem like they want to talk about it or acknowledge that they are a child of color, and we don’t want to push it on them if they don’t want it.”  Take a minute to think about why your child might feel that way.  Perhaps it’s growing up in a predominantly Caucasian community where, although there is no overt racism, your child is taught simply by looking around at their peers, that they do not look the same as them.  Maybe they get teased for it, and maybe, that has made them feel as though they need to distance themselves from that aspect of their identity.  I do anti-racism trainings and we call this Internalized Racism.  What is Internalized Racism?  It is when the ideas and norms are believed by the group(s) and individual(s) that are oppressed.

I think this article was great because it raised a number of issues relating to transracial adoption that are not necessarily teased out in meaningful ways for adoptive parents.  My hope with this post was to really reach out to the adoptive parents who read my blog.  I’m working on an anti racism training curriculum that focuses on transracial adoption, so if you’d like to hear more about it please send me an email.  GS

http://abcnews.go.com/WN/transracial-adoption-america-today/story?id=9914150

Transracial Adoption Can Provide a Loving Family and an Identity Struggle


Black Children in White Families Try to Find Their Place In Society

By RON CLAIBORNE and HANNA SIEGEL

March 3, 2010—

They are images of joy, images of happy endings among so much tragedy.

A few days ago, Duke and Lisa Scoppa adopted two Haitian orphans, 4-year-old Erickson and 4-month old Therline.

“I just always felt like it would be a really enriching experience for us and for everybody involved, really,” Lisa Scoppa said.

Among the things that lie ahead for the Haitian children adopted by white American parents are a better life materially and a chance to grow up in a loving family.

Outside Looking In

But some black children who were adopted by white parents say there’s another side of the story.

“I didn’t feel like I was seen or understood,” said Phil Bertelsen, who was 4 when he was adopted by a white family and then raised in a mostly white New Jersey suburb.

Bertelsen and other black adoptees tell a similar tale: They felt estranged from the people around them who they instinctively knew from an early age were different from them, and yet cut off from their own racial identity and culture.

“In my teens, I became hungry to be a part of some kind of black community, black identity,” Bertelsen said. “What was missed primarily was, you know, strong familiar representations of black life other than the ones I was getting through popular culture and otherwise.”

He grew up to be a documentary filmmaker and made his first movie, “Outside Looking In,” about transracial adoption. In it, he confronts his own parents for the first time.

“Ultimately, I am a part of your family,” he told them in the film. “I use my name with pride. But I am also an African-American in your family and, you know, you have to see me as that.”

In response, his mother said softly, “Maybe we were naive. Maybe we were. I don’t know.”

Bertelsen said in an interview that adoptees “don’t tend to want to shake the tree too much. I call it the gratitude complex. We finally get this family, whomever they are, that we can call our own and so we adjust, we adapt, we learn to go along and get along and that’s what I did.”

Hard Truth for Adoptive Parents

“So in a way, home became a safe haven … but it was a total disconnect from the world outside and so you end up, I ended up, internalizing the questions,” he said.

Through his movie, Bertelsen said, he was able to say what he had always wanted to say: “See me. This is who I am.

“It was a hard truth for my parents,” he said.

“People don’t like discomfort but when you’re adopting a child from another race, another country, it’s very important that families understand that they are going to put themselves outside of their comfort zone to really understand what their experience is going to be for the child. …Otherwise, the child is going to be neglected plain, and simple,” Bertelsen said.

An Identity Struggle

For more than 20 years, starting in 1972, transracial adoptions in the United States all but ended after the National Black Social Workers Association condemned them as cultural genocide.

The group takes a softer line now but it still maintains that it’s better for children when parents are from the same racial or ethnic background.

“You’re only a child once and for a minute,” association president Batiste Roberts said. “And children deserve the right to be with people who look like them, people who understand what they are going through, who understand their culture.”

The Spence-Chapin Adoption Agency in New York City, which facilitates many transracial adoptions, urged white parents who adopt black children to move to an integrated neighborhood, send their child to an integrated school and expose them to other black people.

“This is what I tell people,” Rita Taddonio, who directs the agency’s Adoption Resource Center, said. “If you look around your table and your guests are all the same color, if you don’t have diversity around your kitchen table then you shouldn’t be adopting a child of a different color.”

There are ways to help your child cope, she said. “We recommend parents connect to the black community, that they make sure they have friends in those areas, that they go to a black church or be part of the community as well,” she said. “Every parent’s job is to help them form an identity, it’s just an additional layer of complexity when your child’s identity has pieces of it that you don’t own.”

Transracial Adoption In America

These days, many white families are rushing to adopt Haitian orphans after the earthquake left so many children without parents or families.

The Scoppas said they will make every effort to connect Erickson and Therline to their Haitian and black roots. But they did not apologize for adopting black children.

No Apologies From Adoptive Family

“If there are no black families that want to adopt them and we want to adopt them, and make them part of our lives and give them as much love as possible, then I don’t know why that’s so wrong,” Duke Scoppa said.

Not wrong, say some of those who grew up black in a white family … but not easy, either.

**Video from the “World News” report will be available after 7:30PM at ABCNews.com/wn**

Copyright © 2010 ABC News Internet Ventures

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