Brandy Butler is mom to three adopted children, including a son born in Ethiopia. When Butler’s son was a toddler, a woman approached her at Target and insinuated that Butler’s son had been kidnapped. "Honey," the woman asked, continuing to prod even after Butler explained that the child was her son. "Is this your mommy? Do you feel safe?"
"As the white mother of a brown boy, I am constantly trying to find a balance between fitting in and standing out, managing my fears with acknowledging real issues," says Butler, who shares that parenting a transracial, adopted son poses challenges that range from big to small. There are days when she struggles to know what to do with her son’s hair and skin care, and there are times that she has to deal with rude, invasive questions.
Many moms agonize over a child's first haircut. For Butler, the issue was much more complicated than simply a few tears over giving up a few baby curls. After being openly criticized by a stranger for letting her son's natural curls grow out, Butler took him for his first haircut. With short hair, he fit in more with the other black boys his age. "It is one more layer to the question of how do I, a white woman, raise this brown boy to understand who he is?"
Back in 1972, the National Association of Black Social Workers (NABSW) formulated a position statement strongly against transracial adoption. The association stated that “black children belong physically, psychologically and culturally in black families in order that they receive a total sense of themselves,” and that transracial adoption of black children by white parents is a “particular form of genocide.” In the 42 years that have passed since its first position statement, the NABSW has not changed its stance to accommodate an exponential increase in the practice of white parents adopting minority children.
Although the NABSW’s stance against transracial adoption is particularly strong, it echoes the sentiment of many people who are opposed to the practice. Common criticism of transracial adoption focuses on the difficulties transracially adopted children may experience when they are removed from their cultures and placed in homes with white families who lack an understanding of discrimination and the child’s originating culture.
Many adoption agencies have accounted for these concerns by courting minority families to adopt minority children rather than placing them in white families without a pause. The contention is that minority parents are better prepared than white parents to teach their children about discrimination, heritage and ethnic differences in personal care. Minority children are also less likely to be singled out or criticized by intrusive strangers when they’re in the custody of a parent who looks like them.
That said, research on the subject of transracial adoption is very clear that the practice does not contribute to cultural genocide or a disintegrated identity of adopted children. Adam Pertman, president of the Donaldson Adoption Institute, reported that transracial adoption is a complex practice but that the outcomes for children and families are very good. “The adjustment and self-esteem of transracially adopted children is at least as good as their peers,” he said. “Additionally, transracial adoption provides the obvious benefit of a permanent home for children in need of a family. The length of time a child has to wait for a permanent home is far more likely to impact his or her adjustment than transracial adoption does.”
Since research clearly backs the practice of transracial adoption, why the controversy? Frankly, the practice remains controversial because not all white parents are equipped to manage the complexities of adopting a minority child. It’s important for prospective parents to be well-schooled on racism, discrimination, insensitivity, identity development and even ethnic personal care. If adoptive parents aren’t prepared to manage the challenges their children will face due to the transracial adoption, then the children may not develop a healthy identity.
"Transracial adoption is kind of like learning to drive a car," says Butler. "It's not until you're behind the wheel that you understand that it's the perfect combination of scary and beautiful."
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