EDITOR'S NOTE: In the first part of this two-part series, Carol Lloyd and Hank Pellissier contact a public adoption agency with the aim of adopting a black child. Everything is going well until two adoptees -- one black, one Chinese -- denounce their upbringing by white adoptive parents. Hank wants to give up the whole idea of adopting a child of a different race. Carol is devastated.
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Sylvia, in a panic, tried to salvage the training. "I didn't know they would say that," the Adoption Recruitment Coordinator said, smoothing her hair nervously. "None of the other guest adoptees have ever talked like that." But it was too late. They had made their point. If blacks and Latinos didn't want me raising their kids, how could I dismiss their wishes?
In 1972, the National Association of Black Social Workers passed a resolution characterizing transracial adoption as "cultural genocide." The NABSW's claim that any black child "kidnapped and placed in a foreign environment" with a white family would become a "psychological mongrel" with "chronic schizophrenia" resonated deeply with many African-Americans. The NABSW's strong stance successfully spearheaded 25 years of subtle policies and overt regulations discouraging the practice.
Over the decades, the NABSW had lobbied for a federal law forbidding transracial adoption commensurate with the 1973 Indian Child Welfare Act that granted Native American families and tribes preference in adopting Indian children. But with the signing of the Multi-Ethnic Placement Act (MEPA) in 1995 (a federal bill prohibiting all organizations receiving federal funding from "delaying or denying" the placement of a child on the basis of race), the NABSW's official voice of dissent went underground. "We're done with the adoption issue," said NABSW spokesman Howard Babson impatiently. "But our position has not changed." Many African-American adoption leaders I spoke to refused to be interviewed -- as if stating their true opinions might jeopardize their funding.
Jill Jacobs, the executive director of Family Builders by Adoption in Oakland, Calif., cautiously expressed her general skepticism: "There's concern that African-American children are being taken out of their community." When asked to describe an unsuitable white parent for a black child, she did not beat around the bush. "People who say they really want a light-skinned child, but they might be willing to 'settle' for an African-American -- that's a red flag!" Jacobs also asserted that many potential black parents were being discouraged from adoption by the racism and cultural ignorance of the agencies. Her own organization, she says, has greatly increased recruitment of black families by attending to details that demonstrate cultural sensitivity. "We provide food at meetings for potential parents," she explains. "Eating at gatherings is intrinsic to black culture; without this they do not feel welcome."
Jacobs' analysis echoed Julia's exhortation that behind every unwanted child there are many social ills that we could work to heal. "Instead of adopting a black child, you could work to change the racism that prevents blacks from retaining their children within their community, you could do outreach to black communities or help change adoption laws. Then you might be able to save 20 children."
The viewpoint expressed by Jacobs and Julia made absolute sense to me, but Carol remained skeptical. She argued that since blacks make up 12 percent of the U.S. population, but over 40 percent of the adoptable children, that this meant that three and a half times as many blacks would need to adopt as other ethnicities. She cited polls that report that 50 percent of the black community approves of transracial adoption. But the fact that half the African-American population denounced my parenting decision hardly felt reassuring.
I don't want my act of raising a child to be overwhelmed by political controversy. If it's unpleasant for me and confusing for the child, why do it? To satisfy Carol's Ghanaian nostalgia? No way. Isn't using the child's race to make a political statement the worst possible display of liberal selfishness?
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As Hank pored over his stacks of research papers, I realized he was confirming his opinion by compiling statistics on "the black consensus," while I sought the answer I wanted in personal narratives about colorblind love. I put books featuring blond ladies holding black babies on his desk but he barely glanced at the covers. "I don't buy it," he would mutter and return to his number-crunching.
His data can only be defeated by stronger information. Seeking academic wisdom, I telephone the black Harvard Law professor Randall Kennedy, who tells me, "I applaud people who adopt children, and people who adopt across racial lines I give more applause to since our society looks askance at that."
Kennedy even dismisses transracial adoptees who complain about their upbringing: "Almost everyone I know is alienated about their upbringing. What's news about that?" When I ask him how white parents can deal with black-aimed racism, Kennedy replies, "What is the white parent going to do when the child is called 'nigger'? My mother told me: 'Disregard it.' My father said, 'Get a brick and bash their head in.' I listened to two black people with diametrically opposite advice!"
Encouraged by the call, I work up the nerve to schedule an appointment with Julia, the half-Nigerian woman who had so eloquently carved up my heart. When I meet her in her African art-filled Berkeley apartment, she fixes me a cup of proper British tea and launches into her subject.
"Nobody asks what transracial adoptees really feel," she exclaimed. "Instead they analyze our thoughts as if we don't know our own minds. It's very patronizing." Her analysis stems from her own sense of "racial isolation," growing up in an all-white neighborhood, seeing black people only on occasional trips to London. "As you grow older it's difficult to reenter your community of origin," she explains. "You don't feel comfortable around black people -- you've taken in all of these stereotypes from the television. When you meet your birth parents you say, 'God, I can't relate to these people.'"
Julia herself is a successful adoptee. She has good relationships with both adoptive and birth families, a career she's passionate about, a partner who shares her cultural and intellectual interests. But she's aware that for every transracial adoptee like her, there's one who just never makes it -- who kills him or herself or needs long-term psychiatric help. "I get calls from people all the time who are in real pain," she says as I wince. No matter how theoretically justifiable transracial adoption may be, none of it matters if the children are miserable.
She explains that her own relationship to her adoptive parents has evolved since her mother made an effort to educate herself on black issues, but that even now there are racial tensions between them. "We have a close but painful relationship, whereas a lot of adoptees have a distant but not-so-painful relationship. But I don't know anyone who has a close and unpainful relationship."
Evidently Julia has never met Erin, a 27-year-old black visual artist raised by a single white mother in Hawaii. Standing 5-foot-11, with a mane of black dreadlocks, Erin might seem formidable if it weren't for the inner calm emanating from her face. "My mother is a very special person." She laughs, searching for the perfect words. "She's ... very inquisitive, always learning new things. She just got a black belt in aikido." As I try to steer the conversation toward issues of racial isolation, she resists. "It felt normal," she says, describing growing up in a family of three adopted children. "I never thought we were different."
Her mother wasn't perfect. When Erin consistently got beaten up at her white-Hawaiian school, her mother never understood the racial component but instead asked, "What did you do to provoke it?" Still, Erin resists Julia's anti-transracial conclusions. She wants to talk about her mother's views that parenting should have little relationship to physical likeness. "A family is whoever sits down and has a meal together," she says, her husky voice rippling with self-possession. "If someone hands you a child on the street, you can become that child's parent. People who don't get that are somehow lacking."
Before we leave the restaurant she turns to me and smiles. "I think you should go for it."
A chill goes up my spine, followed by weary fatigue. "I want to," I say, "But Hank ... he's only been talking to militants who tell him it can't work. He just wants to be politically correct."
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"Politically correct?!" Hank cries. "You've got me all wrong." It is 3 a.m. We are sleep-deprived, cranky and the notion of long-term domestic bliss seems like a bad joke. "Parenting is about trust and intimacy and fun -- not some bumper-sticker slogans about diversity. Your social utopianism makes me sick!"
"But all parenting is political. People raise their kids to believe in God or science or the Republican Congress. Why not be aware that the kind of parent you become is, in part, a public act? Why does everyone think that your personal life is somehow sullied if it is tainted by enthusiasm about improving the world as a whole?"
"I don't know what you're talking about. You're too cerebral about this. It's a child -- not an essay!"
After the marital melodrama, we make up and wax enthusiastic about what we're learning -- tiptoeing around our underlying differences. We agree that we don't know what the hell we're embarking on but we decide to attend "Dream Weavers: an Adoption Gathering," where we'll meet more children and fewer ideas.
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I feel shy and nervous, like a teenager going to a high school dance as I walk through the door. Real adoptable children. Scary. A lavish buffet is spread out, balloons decorate the room and, best of all, there are toys everywhere: face paint, crayons, bouncing balls and plastic tricycles. Soon I forget about the world of political controversy and hunker down for some naughty fun.
The only white child present, a nervous blond boy, runs up to me and stares intently into my eyes. When I continue playing with the little African-American toddler in my lap, the white boy begins emitting ear-piercing shrieks and destroying things. No matter what color the child, adoption means bargaining with complicated forces. These children have all been through so much -- race is only one piece of the puzzle.
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I sit on a kindergarten chair and watch silently. I know this is the time I am supposed to be falling in love but I remain surprisingly aloof. Children mill around me, consumed with their serious play. Mariana, the black adopted daughter of our black social worker, is painting my face purple. "Where's your husband?" I point to Hank, who is in the center of a large horde of giggling toddlers. He is showing them how to make fart noises with a balloon.
Mariana's jaw drops. "How did a mature woman like yourself get together with a big kid like him?"
"She fell in love," explains Tabitha, a chubby dark-skinned girl leaning on my leg. The two girls inspect each other carefully. Tabitha asks, "Are you adopted like me?"
Mariana nods happily: "Yep."
"By white people?"
"No!" Mariana exclaims. She points across the room at her black adopted mother. "Where's your Mama?" she asks Tabitha. The chubby girl points cautiously toward the buffet table at a middle-aged white woman.
"Ha!" teases Mariana, her face animating in mock horror.
"Don't make fun of me," Tabitha snaps. She pushes herself from my leg and stands on her own. The girls glare at each other over my white lap as if I were a gulf between them.
| C A R O L & H A N K |
We now reside in the no-go zone known as ambivalence. We don't know if we have the gall or the guts (depending on your politics) to adopt transracially. Meanwhile, the 120-page adoption application sits mutely on the shelf awaiting our confessions of no credit and high school drug use. One of these days, when the smoke clears, we will either open the binder and begin writing or throw the entire sheaf in the recycling box.
While we have been contemplating our theoretical child's navel, the world has moved on without us. Our public agency has lost all but one of its social workers. Nationally, the unraveling social safety net has unleashed a flood of children into foster care: over 500,000, a number that has doubled since 1985. More children, less services and potential parents adrift in hesitation.
Thinking about transracial adoption has forced us to confront a basic question: What does the individual owe to society -- and what does she owe to herself?
If we could just move close to one child's face and whisper the question into the whorl of its tiny ear -- What do you need? Who do you want? -- our choice would be so easy. Instead we must argue, guess and act in the face of uncertainty.