Transracial Adoption: It Will Change Your Family Forever

By Carolyn Berger, LCSW

As a white person, my understanding of what it took to bring a black, Latino, or Asian child into my family was straightforward. You either adopted a black or biracial child domestically or you traveled to Guatemala, Colombia, Ethiopia or somewhere in Asia to bring a child of color home. You made sure that your child had role models within her race and you incorporated the holidays and traditions of your child’s family of origin into the life of your family. You joined a support group for people with families like yours so that your child could make friends with others of her race and you could share advice and support.

My early thoughts about transracial adoption barely scratched the surface. Since we live in a country in which racism persists—Condoleezza Rice aptly called racism our nation’s “birthmark”—the process is far more complex. People considering this option should become very familiar with the terrain before proceeding. I will focus on whites adopting children of color in this article–the first in a series on transracial adoption.

Many white pre-adoptive parents believe that they are ready to adopt transracially because they are at ease with people of color. But we must look at life through the children’s eyes. They will be living in a society that is not yet fully comfortable with race nor color blind. People who are black, Latino, or Asian already know this—it’s in the air we all breathe, although the whites among us are often unaware.

Peggy McIntosh, in her article “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” says that whites are taught not to recognize their power and privilege. She says, “I have come to see white privilege as an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks.” Her article, written in 1989, still resonates today. If you are white you need to recognize that your child of color will not come equipped with this knapsack of privilege.

When we talk about transracial adoption by whites we are talking about a significant number of adopted children. In 2004 there were 1.6 million adopted children under the age of 18: 16% were black, 7% were Asian and 2% were American Indian. Of these children 17% were of a different race than their adoptive parents (U.S. Census Bureau). And transracial adoption through foster care is on the rise. In 2004, 26% of black children were adopted transracially, almost always by whites, compared to 14% in 1998 (Clemetson and Nixon, NY Times, 2006).

There are many children of color here in the U.S. and abroad who are in need of families, and many white couples and individuals who want to provide them. The question is not whether we should adopt transracially. Rather, it is how we can do a better job of it. And this can mean turning ourselves and our lifestyles inside out.

John Raible, Ed.D, a black man raised by white parents and an authority on transracial adoption, points to one way we can do this. He uses the term “transracialization” to describe the change people can undergo when they take part in close, long-term relationships with people of other races. Transracialization emerges when people develop a “deep and sophisticated understanding of race and racism.” Adoptive parents can begin this process before they bring a child of another race home by immersing themselves in their child’s culture.

Probably the first and most important step is to make friends among members of your child’s race. Sounds a bit contrived? Maybe so, but don’t you do this when you are entering some other new phase of your life? Like a new job? Or when you marry someone and put forth your best effort to get acquainted with your spouse’s family? Begin to read books about race and by members of your child’s race. Open yourself to discussions about race. You might be startled to discover that you’ve never had such discussions since the subject is taboo: How often did Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton skirt comments about race in their quests to become the Democratic nominee for the upcoming presidential election?

The transracialization of your family will be an ongoing, endless, rewarding, frustrating and exciting experience that will reverberate through future generations. Complete transracialization is not always achieved by white adoptive families—perhaps it never can be– but we need to strive for it if we want our children to develop healthy identities.

In the ideal scenario, a child from a transracialized family will feel connected to, and supported by, his adoptive family and deeply connected to some people of his own race as well. He will live in a city or town that is diverse and where he can find successful role models. White adoptive parents need to have friends who have navigated the shoals of racism in ways they have never had to, and who are willing to guide their child through.

In their book Inside Transracial Adoption (2000), a must-read for people who plan to adopt transracially–Gail Steinberg and Beth Hall tell us, “When you choose to become a family that is different from most, you must be prepared to confront your own biases in both overt and subtle ways…You can expect to find that you carry within yourself both negative and positive internalized attitudes about adoption and race.”

Hold on to those positive attitudes. Confront the negative ones before you adopt! Why? Because these are the same attitudes your child will be brushing up against on a regular basis. How can you help a child cope with something you have not acknowledged to exist?

Your adopted child will need to grow up in a family where issues of race are discussed and where his experiences of racism are confronted and dealt with rather than ignored or glossed over. If you are a white person adopting a male black child, for example, you need to think about how he will fare in the schoolyard and on the street. You will need to teach him to stand up for himself when he hears a racist remark or feels the effects of racism in his everyday life. You will have to teach him how to sidestep racial profiling as he grows into adulthood—or he may never reach adulthood.

Or, let’s say you have adopted a daughter from China. Get ready for the possibility of her coming home from school one day to say she hates her eyes, and that the kids on the playground are teasing her by pulling their own eyes back in a clumsy imitation of what they call “Chink eyes.” You and other Chinese people in her life will be charged with the task of teaching her to appreciate her looks in a culture that already makes it difficult for girls to develop positive self-images.

If you are beginning to wonder whether you are up for the challenges of transracial adoption, this is a good sign—for it means that you are thinking critically about the impact of racism on adoption. And if you can think critically about it, you are already a giant step ahead of most people. Besides loving your child and giving her the family every child deserves, there are many things you can do to stack the deck in her favor.

• Live in a diverse community where there are many people of your child’s race. This is one of the most important things you can do!
• Send your child to a racially diverse school.
• Educate your extended family about your child’s race and culture.
• Find same-race role models and mentors for your child.
• Learn to speak your child’s language of origin.
• Choose vacation spots and camps where your child’s race is well represented.
• Go to social events attended by adults and children of your child’s race.
• Fight racism. Let your child know that you will not tolerate racism whether it’s subtle or overt.
• Incorporate the music, food, and holiday traditions of your child’s race into your family life.

Your overarching goal can be found in “A Transracially Adopted Child’s Bill of Rights,” adapted by Liza Steinberg Triggs* from “A Bill of Rights for Mixed Folks,” by Marilyn Drame: Every child is entitled to find his multiculturalism to be an asset and to conclude, “I’ve got the best of both worlds.”

Carolyn Berger, LCSW, is the Adoption Coordinator of The American Fertility Association. She has a private practice specializing in infertility, adoption and all forms of family building in Larchmont, NY.

White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack

*Note: This article was written in 1989 by Peggy McIntosh. While I think it could use a few updates, it is still very relevant and referred to often. Add to your archives!

White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack
by Peggy McIntosh

Through the work to bring materials from Women’s Studies into the rest of the curriculum, I have often noticed men’s unwillingness to grant that they are over-privileged, even though they may grant that women are disadvantaged. They may say they will work to improve women’s status, in the society, the university, or the curriculum, but they can’t or won’t support the idea of lessening men’s. Denials which amount to taboos surround the subject of advantages which men gain from women’s disadvantages. These denials protect male privilege from being fully acknowledged, lessened or ended.

Thinking through unacknowledged male privilege as a phenomenon, I realized that since hierarchies in our society are interlocking, there was most likely a phenomenon of white privilege which was similarly denied and protected. As a white person, I realized I had been taught about racism as something which puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege, which puts me at an advantage.

I think whites are carefully taught not to recognize white privilege, as males are taught not to recognize male privilege. So I have begun in an untutored way to ask what it is like to have white privilege. I have come to se white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets which I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless backpack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks.

Describing white privilege makes one newly accountable. As we in Women’s Studies work to reveal male privilege and ask men to give up some of their power, so one who writes about having white privilege must ask, “Having described it, what will I do to lessen or end it?”

After I realized the extent to which men work from a base of unacknowledged privilege, I understood that much of their oppressiveness was unconscious. Then I remembered the frequent charges from women of color that white women whom they encounter are oppressive. I began to understand why we are justly seen as oppressive, even when we don’t see ourselves that way. I began to count the ways in which I enjoy unearned skin privilege and have been conditioned into oblivion about its existence.

My schooling gave me no training in seeing myself as an oppressor, as an unfairly advantaged person, or as a participant in a damaged culture. I was taught to see myself as an individual whose moral state depended on her individual moral will. My schooling followed the pattern my colleague Elizabeth Minnich has pointed out: whites are taught to think of their lives as a morally neutral, normative, and average, also ideal, so that when we work to benefit others, this is seen as work which will allow “them” to be more like “us.”

I decided to try to work on myself at least by identifying some of the daily effects of white privilege in my life. I have chosen those conditions which I think in my case attack some what more to skin-color privilege that to class, religion, ethnic status, or geographical location, though of course all these other factors are intricately intertwined. As far as I can see, my African American co-worker, friends and acquaintances with whom I come into daily or frequent contact in this particular time, place, and line of work cannot count on most of these conditions.

1. I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.

2. If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.

3. I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.

4. I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.

5. I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.

6. When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.

7. I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.

8. If I want to, I can be pretty sure of finding a publisher for this piece on white privilege.

9. I can go into a music shop and count on finding the music of my race represented, into a supermarket and find the staple foods which fit with my cultural traditions, into a hairdresser’s shop and find someone who can cut my hair.

10. Whether I use checks, credit cards, or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability.

11. I can arrange to protect my children most of the time from people who might not like them.

12. I can swear, or dress in second hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty, or the illiteracy of my race.

13. I can speak in public to a powerful male group without putting my race on trial.

14. I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.

15. I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.

16. I can remain oblivious of the language and customs of persons of color who constitute the world’s majority without feeling in my culture any penalty for such oblivion.

17. I can criticize our government and talk about how much I fear its policies and behavior without being seen as a cultural outsider.

18. I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to “the person in charge,” I will be facing a person of my race.

19. If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race.

20. I can easily buy posters, postcards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys, and children’s magazine featuring people of my race.

21. I can go home from most meetings of organizations I belong to feeling somewhat tied in, rather than isolated, out-of-place, outnumbered, unheard, held at a distance, or feared.

22. I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having co-workers on the job suspect that I got it because of race.

23. I can choose public accommodation without fearing that people of my race cannot get in or will be mistreated in the places I have chosen.

24. I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help, my race will not work against me.

25. If my day, week, or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether it has racial overtones.

26. I can choose blemish cover or bandages in “flesh” color and have them more or less match my skin.

I repeatedly forgot each of the realization on this list until I wrote it down. For me white privilege has turned out to be an elusive and fugitive subject. The pressure to avoid it is great, for in facing it I must give up the myth of meritocracy. If these things are true, this is not such a free country; one’s life is not what one makes it; many doors open for certain people through no virtues of their own.

In unpacking this invisible backpack of white privilege, I have listed conditions of daily experience which I once took for granted. Nor did I think of any of these perquisites as bad for the holder. I now think that we need a more finely differentiated taxonomy of privilege, for some of these varieties are only what one would want for everyone in a just society, and others give license to be ignorant, oblivious, arrogant and destructive.

I see a pattern running through the matrix of white privilege, a pattern of assumptions which were passed on to me as a white person. There was one main piece of cultural turf; it was my own turf, and I was among those who could control the turf. My skin color was an asset for any move I was educated to want to make. I could think of myself as belonging in major ways, and of making social systems work for me. I could freely disparage, fear, neglect, or be oblivious to anything outside of the dominant cultural forms. Being of the main culture, I could also criticize it fairly free.

In proportion as my racial group was being make confident, comfortable, and oblivious, other groups were likely being made inconfident, uncomfortable, and alienated. Whiteness protected me from many kinds of hostility, distress, and violence, which I was being subtly trained to visit in turn upon people of color.

For this reason, the word “privilege” now seems to me misleading. We usually think of privilege as being a favored state, whether earned or conferred by birth or luck. Yet some of the conditions I have described here work to systematically overempower certain groups. Such privilege simply confers dominance because of one’s race or sex.

I want, then, to distinguish between earned strength and unearned power conferred systematically. Power from unearned privilege can look like strength when it is in fact permission to escape or to dominate. But not all of the privileges on my list are inevitably damaging. Some, like the expectation that neighbors will be decent to you, or that your race will not count against you in court, should be the norm in a just society. Others, like the privilege to ignore less powerful people, distort the humanity of the holders as well as the ignored groups.

We might at least start by distinguishing between positive advantages which we can work to spread, and negative types of advantages which unless rejected will always reinforce our present hierarchies. For example, the feeling that one belongs within the human circle, as Native Americans say, should not be seen as privilege of a few. Ideally it is an unearned advantage and conferred dominance.

I have met very few men who are truly distressed about systemic, unearned male advantage and conferred dominance. And so one question for me and others like is whether we will get truly distressed, even outraged, about unearned race advantage and conferred dominance and it so, what we will do to lessen them. In any case, we need to do more work in identifying how they actually affect our daily lives. Many, perhaps most, of our white students in the US think that racism doesn’t affect them because they are not people of color; they do not see “whiteness” as a racial identity. In addition, since race and sex are not the only advantaging systems at work, we need similarly to examine the daily experience of having age advantage, or ethnic advantage, or physical ability, or advantage related to nationality, religion or sexual orientation.

Difficulties and dangers surrounding the task of finding parallels are many. Since racism, sexism, and heterosexism are not the same, the advantaging associated with them should not be seen as the same. In addition, it is hard to disentangle aspects of unearned advantage which rest more on social class, economic class, race, religion, sex and ethnic identity than on other factors. Still, all of the oppressions are interlocking, as the Combahee River Collective Statement of 1977 continues to remind us eloquently.

One factor seems clear about all of the interlocking oppressions. They take both active forms which we can see and embedded forms which as a member of the dominant group one is taught not to see. In my class and place, I did not see myself as a racist because I was taught to recognize racism only in individual acts of meanness by members of my group, never in invisible systems conferring unsought racial dominance on my group from birth.

Disapproving of the systems won’t be enough to change them. I was taught to think that racism could end if white individuals changed their attitudes. [But] a “white” skin in the United States opens many doors for whites whether or not we approve of the way dominance has been conferred on us. Individual acts can palliate, but cannot end, these problems.

To redesign social systems we need first to acknowledge their colossal unseen dimensions. The silences and denials surrounding privilege are the key political tool here. They keep the thinking about equality or equity incomplete, protecting unearned advantage and conferred dominance by making these taboo subjects. Most talk by whites about equal opportunity seems to me now to be about equal opportunity to try to get into a position of dominance while denying that systems of dominance exist.

It seems to me that obliviousness about white advantage, like obliviousness about male advantage, is kept strongly inculturated in the United States so as to maintain the myth of meritocracy the myth that democratic choice is equally available to all. Keeping most people unaware that freedom of confident action is there for just a small number of people props up those in power, and serves to keep power in the hands of the same groups that have most of it already.

Though systematic change takes many decades, there are pressing questions for me and I imagine for some others like me if we raise our daily consciousness on the perquisites of being light-skinned. What well we do with such knowledge? As we know from watching me, it is an open question whether we will choose to use unearned advantage to weaken hidden systems of advantage, and whether we will use any of our arbitrarily-awarded power to try to reconstruct power systems on a broader base.