Interracial adoption: One couple's story

Those who say love is colorblind never considered adopting a baby of a different race.


Carol LloydHank Pellissier
August 4, 1997 8:32PM (UTC)

"Maybe I don't want to raise a black child."

"Well, maybe I do."

"Cultural colonialist."

"Spineless militant."

"Neoliberal."

"People, people," interrupts the therapist. "We're talking about adopting a child here, not a political platform."

We both turn on her. "Says who?" we cry. "Have you read the statistics, the law journals, the autobiographies?"

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The therapist blinks and opens her mouth. Nothing in her family counseling training has prepared her for debating the finer points of race relations and child welfare policies.

Parenting, we are raised to believe, is personal. Learn active listening, emotional expressivity and limit-setting and you are on your way. But when we embarked on the road to public adoption, we stumbled into a political minefield -- only to realize we were fighting on opposite sides of the battle.

| H A N K |

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In college I attended a lecture by Dr. Paul Ehrlich, the proponent of "Zero Population Growth." Terrified by his statistics (human numbers have quadrupled since 1900), I vowed never to add to the dilemma: I would refrain from siring a child.

As an outcast in a family that I am wildly dissimilar to, I know that shared genes do not create intimacy. Besides, I'd feel guilty passing on my dim eyesight, chronic backaches and excessive nostril hair. Also, given my wife's low pain threshold, I have little desire to watch my dearly beloved hemorrhaging on a hospital bed as she expels "the sacred miracle of life."

Adoption, I believed, was the answer. With thousands of orphans yearning to be loved, how could I ignore them? Wasn't it better to make a choice based on the question a lonely toddler's eyes burned into my misanthropic soul: "Will you be my Daddy?"

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Together we ventured into the web of adoption. Cyberspace was our first destination -- we cruised the Worldwide Web for data on international orphans. Children are listed here with photos, biographies and price tags attached -- like used automobiles, except that the cost variation is largely based on color. A paraplegic Bulgarian tot with a cleft palate costs $30,000, whereas a mobile and dentally normal Chinese or Guatemalan urchin runs only $15,000. And black children? Absolutely nothing. Drop in and take a dozen. The Caribbean islands of Martinique, Grenada and Barbados offer free black children to anyone who wants to fly there and pick them up.

Regional markets duplicate this scenario. The price of the few Caucasians available is preposterously steep (up to $50,000), and the bidding is intensely competitive (only one-third of would-be adoptive parents ever receive their white Baby X). Meanwhile, dark-skinned babies and children languish in hospitals and foster homes, often virtually free, but unwanted.
Chief Justice Richard A. Posner of the 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals has argued for experimenting with a less regulated adoption market that would allow agencies to pay mothers not to have abortions. "People have suggested that I'm advocating a system in which people buy babies to harvest their organs," the mild-mannered Posner said from his Chicago office. "But I just think that with a pricing system, we could make the process more efficient by allowing more first-quality children to be born. Moreover, I believe with a little financial incentive, more parents might choose second quality because there would be financial pressures. Now adoption agencies can only appeal to the parents' altruism."

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Posner admits that "racial pricing categories" would naturally evolve with "white babies demanding higher prices than babies of other races." His sterile economic approach to adoption earns him ridicule from liberals and leftists, but the laws of supply and demand have already largely enacted the judge's dystopia. Instead of Posner's harsh term, "second quality," describing unwanted kids, adoption agencies now use the sweetly vague euphemism "special needs." We assumed this meant children had mental or physical handicaps (like those in the Special Olympics), but soon we discovered that all black, Hispanic and Asian children fell into this category, as do all boys and any child over 3 years old. Blackness, maleness and toddlerness get the same assignation as blindness, fatal diseases and pyromania, because they are all "difficult to place." Already adoption works off the human equivalent of the gold standard: the healthy white infant.

We decided that squandering our meager life savings on a white infant was both ludicrous and unethical. Better, we determined, to set up a college fund and adopt a black toddler.

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In the myth of childbirth, the mother and father fall in love with the baby in the womb. The blood ritual of labor is followed by euphoric, sleepless weeks of eye contact, dripping nipples and sweet-smelling feces. In the myth of adoption the parents see the child and feel destiny seize them with the mystic realization: That is our child! A child shouts "Mommy?" across a crowded Burger King, or a screaming baby miraculously falls asleep in your arms at an adoption agency. For me, the idea that strangers could create a family in such unromantic circumstances has always seemed every bit as miraculous as childbirth. If the child and the parent come from different races, so much the greater wonder.

To friends and family I extolled the virtues and societal necessity of adopting children from foster care -- which, given the percentages of non-white children, probably meant raising a child of another race. Secretly I gloated over the notion of having a multiethnic family. Hank sneered that I suffered from "Uhuru bake sale complex" -- referring to the white hippie women who sold "Black Power Cupcakes" and "Nation Time Cornbread" for Uhuru house, a black organization that raises funds through eternal bake sales at the local flea market.

He had a point. Ever since my family moved to Ghana when I was 6, and I began complaining to my mother that the sun did not make me black, I have identified with non-white cultures. After Ghana I grew up in an all-white town where my Uhuru bake sale complex was allowed to fester untainted by real cross-cultural interaction. I played Stevie Wonder's "Love's in Need of Love Today" 15 times a day, scrawling poems about multiethnic utopia in my journal. As ridiculous as it sounds, part of me saw adopting a black or brown child as a way to reconcile myself to a childhood cultural crush I've never really recovered from.

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I began reading everything I could get my hands on, certain that the authority of the written word would quell my lingering doubts. I learned that while transracial adoption is relatively rare, it's a hot topic because it leads to numerous social conundrums. Many of the articles described well-meaning but self-righteous middle-class Caucasians raising black children amid a flurry of opinion. Depictions ranged from tenderhearted confessional essays to remarkably unbalanced reportage -- pro and con. Each side had its own passel of sociological studies "proving" its perspective. Depending on how one stacked the facts, transracial adoption could look like the most miraculous solution in the world or a cure that was worse than the disease.

I tested the waters by talking to friends and family who often struck bizarre, cautionary notes.

"Don't you want to see how your genes combine?" said one close friend of mine, depicting biological reproduction as a do-it-yourself genome project.

"All adoption is cruel to the child!" cried a masseuse. "They'll never know who they are!"

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My political poet friend bit her lip sympathetically, before she interrogated me: "The mothers are in jail because of the war on drugs -- do you really want to support that?"

"Oh no, you've got to have kids!" a suburban mom cried. "White people aren't having babies anymore."

Ironically, my black and Latino friends voiced the loudest support, while my blondest friend argued on behalf of her "friends of color," who she said disapproved of transracial adoption. I fielded questions on the cranial development of crack babies, the possibility of recovering from sexual abuse, the meaning of racial identity. (These were not rabid, racist assumptions, but responses to the fact that the vast majority of the children available through our agency were either drug- or alcohol-exposed and/or abused.) I resented my friends' lack of enthusiasm, but I also knew that it was, in part, this confluence of intimacy and politics that attracted me to adoption. Everything was debatable, nothing given. Becoming an adoptive parent wasn't a move toward nesting in a private wonderland, but a move outward where you were expected to answer to larger societal forces.

| H A N K |

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Our reasons were different, but the consensus that adoption was what we both wanted created harmonious joy between us. United, we took the next step: We contacted a local public adoption agency. After a brief interview, we were accepted into the 30-hour training.

I endured dreary psychological lectures, "role-playing games" and the warm-and-fuzzy confessions of my classmates. The only respite came when Sylvia, the Adoption Recruitment Coordinator, brought out a huge scrapbook, containing photos of smiling adorable children -- available now! Although I didn't coo audibly, I must admit that I was drawn to a bespectacled, huge-toothed 8-year-old who looked remarkably like me at that age, except for his darker skin tone.

The children were mostly black, with a few Latinos, and one exception: a 12-year-old white boy with "mental problems." Everyone in our class accepted this racial ratio, although only five out of the 22 students present were people of color. All of us were eager and willing to adopt a black or brown child, and everything Sylvia told us encouraged us in this quest.

From Denise, our African-American social worker, we gleaned that our area has an especially acute problem finding homes for African-American children. Despite San Francisco's small black population (8 percent), 70 percent of its adoptable children are African-American. Of these children, the ones hardest to place are those with the darkest skin: Not only do many white couples prefer part-white children, many black couples -- regardless of their skin tone -- prefer to adopt light-skinned children as well. When she grilled us about our racial preferences, we said we didn't care, but asked, "What about the child? Will they care?" "They don't care if your skin color is green," said Denise. "As long as you love them and give them a home, they'll be happy."

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The sum total of our instructions for transracial adoption involved educating the child in his cultural heritage. Easy enough, I thought. I'm knowledgeable about African and African-American history, art and literature; Carol is an avid fan of hip-hop music, black cultural studies and Spike Lee. Carol and I live in an "integrated" neighborhood where Hispanic, black, Asian, Arabic, Indian and gay and lesbian subcultures exist in relative harmony. I operate a theater on a predominantly African-American block. We have friends from all ethnic backgrounds, though most of our oldest friends are white. True, there are things I am ignorant about, like how to take care of black skin and black hair, but how difficult can that possibly be?

The final two hours of our training promised some desperately needed excitement. Real adoptees telling real stories about their lives: a welcome change after 28 hours of theory.

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When the three adult adoptees entered the room, I began fantasizing that they were my grown children. Giddiness rushed through me as David, a stunning African-American man working toward his Ph.D. in urban planning, commended us for our altruism. But his adoptive parents turned out to be black, so his happy experience seemed irrelevant.

Then Andrea, an angry 31-year-old Chinese lesbian social worker with numerous piercings and an impressive psychological vocabulary, recounted being raised by Jewish parents in an all-white section of St. Louis. "Let's just say I'm going to be in therapy," she said, her eyes glittering with resentment, "for a long, long time."

Finally a young woman in a gold satin shirt and waterfall of braids began speaking in rapid-fire queen's English. Julia sent my maternal fantasies into overdrive. Here was a woman for the new millennium -- half-Nigerian, half-British -- with kind eyes and a keen mind. With a gentle bow of her head, she asked us to consider some hypothetical situations. How would we feel if our adolescent daughter didn't want to walk with her white father because people thought she was a prostitute? What happens when our child is tormented at school with racial slurs that they're too afraid to tell us about? How would we feel about our daughter bringing home a bunch of black teenage boys in gang attire? What happens if our child moves away to an all-black neighborhood and pretends we don't exist to their friends? What if they resent us for ever adopting them?

"Don't imagine that you're doing a child of color a favor by adopting it, because you're not," Julia said quietly. "The suicide rate of transracial adoptees is higher than the national average. The children grow up alienated from their own race; they're not accepted by blacks, or whites either. If you sincerely want to help parentless African-American children, then work to change the laws so that it's easier for black people to adopt."

When she said that if she could have chosen who raised her, her "wonderful" white adoptive parents would have been third (after her biological parents or an adoptive black family), Hank whispered, "I'd feel betrayed if my child grew up to denounce me in meetings like this."

My response was less coherent. I rushed to the bathroom, where I blubbered loudly in a stall.

I could make more black friends. I could join an African-Methodist Church. I could surround the child with African-American esteem-building objects, relationships and history! I was wracked by a humiliating case of weepy white-girl syndrome. For weeks after that class I found myself in a feverish, imagined dialogue with this woman whom anybody would be proud to have as a daughter, but who had decided her mother was third best because of the color of her skin.


Carol Lloyd

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

MORE FROM Carol Lloyd

Hank Pellissier

Hank Pellissier, aka Hank Hyena, is a columnist for Sfgate.com and a frequent contributor to Gettingit.com.

MORE FROM Hank Pellissier


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