What I learned about family after adopting a child of a different race.
Mash-Up adoptive families face challenges that others don’t.
Neither my white partner, Jill, nor I look like our black son, Shiv, or like each other. And this affects our family on a daily basis — at the grocery store, at Target, on a plane.
If you are considering or already have a transracial adoptive family, here is a compilation of lessons we’ve learned as we’ve made our way as partners, parents, and a family unit as a whole.
1. Check your assumptions.
When we first became Shiv’s parents, I was embarrassed I’d ever had reservations about the possibility of parenting a black child. Now that I am four years into parenting, I see those concerns as spot-on and important; it isn't nothing to parent a child of a different race or ethnic background. This is especially true for white parents of children of color, and we do our children an incredible disservice if we try and pretend that color isn’t a factor in daily life in America.
Becoming Shiv’s parent has pushed me to come to terms with my own prejudice and privilege and to humbly admit how much I didn’t know that I didn’t know about what it’s like to be black in America.
Things that have helped: reading more authors of color, past and present; following activists and authors on Twitter; diversifying my news media input; and paying particular attention to friends and acquaintances of color that I can learn from.
If you aren’t prepared to tackle your own bias and limitations — to admit that your lived experience may have left you with blind spots — then don’t apply to adopt or foster children of color. Or if you’re a person of color, a child from a different race or ethnicity than you. There is no shame in telling the truth. The real shame is when children are brought into families that aren’t prepared to support them in the ways they will need and deserve.
2. Research your adoption agency.
Not all agencies are created equal, and — in some cases — you get what you pay for. Always, always talk to transracial families who have worked with the agency before. If the agency doesn’t provide you with a list of references, that’s a warning sign.
Another warning sign are phrases like "Oh, children don’t see color!" or "Color doesn’t matter!" Any agency worth its salt should be staffed with social workers who can comfortably and knowledgeably discuss the issues transracial families face and can steer you toward resources both before and after the adoption takes place.
More than anything, trust your instincts. Our agency doesn’t have a fancy website, but they do have employees who care deeply about what they do and always treated us — and, even more importantly, the birth mother — like human beings.
3. Talk to other adoptive parents.
Talk to any adoptive parents, but especially reach out to adoptive parents who have kids of color, and a different color than them. Don’t be shy! Most of us are happy to share our experience and be adoption ambassadors. Once you’ve established a connection with adoptive parents, ask the questions that you really have — we’ve been there, we get it, and we can address your concerns.
I was recently asked by a prospective adoptive parent, "Then why do you always hear about adoption taking such a long time, like people waiting for two years and stuff like that?" I had just shared with her the timeline of our own adoption process: just under nine months from filing paperwork to bringing our baby home. My reply: "Because those people are waiting for full-Caucasian newborns, and they’ve probably specified gender. If you check all the boxes, you won’t be waiting nearly as long." This prompted an important conversation about race and the adoption industry, including the fact that babies like my son are considered "difficult to place" because of their color and often cost less to adopt.
4. Decide your deal-breakers ahead of time.
What are the customs that really matter to each branch of the family? Who feels strongly about naming traditions? You may have decided many of these things as a couple, but babies tend to raise the stakes. Your parents may suddenly care about what you’re doing on Christmas Eve, what you’re eating, and the memories you are creating for their grandchildren.
It’s impossible to anticipate every occasion, of course, but some thoughtful questions ahead of time can potentially avoid conflict.
For example, it was/is really important to me that Shiv be raised within an Indian cultural framework, which includes, for my family, Hindu rituals and practice. Jill knew this from the get-go and had no objections, but this approach does ask something of her — to come along on holidays, to eat certain foods on certain days (and not eat certain foods on other days), etc.
5. Pay attention to representation.
As parents, we are deliberate about what brand of blanket to buy; why would we not also be deliberate about the images that surround our children and thereby inform their self-conception? Be conscious about things like books, TV shows, movies, parks and playgrounds, grocery stores, restaurants, and schools.
Shiv got so excited one day when we read Wynton Marsalis’ super-fun book "Squeak, Rumble, Whomp, Whomp, Whomp." The book follows a young black boy as he narrates the sounds he encounters in his everyday life. "That’s me! I in the book!" He was thrilled.
Just today, he pointed to characters in a book we were reading and said "They black," he nodded, "I black, too." He asked, "You black, Mommy?"
"No, baby, Mama’s brown," I said. He put it all together: "I black, you brown, and Gigi white." That's right, I told him. Then we went back to reading our book.
6. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Find groups for adoptive parents, including subcategories like transracial adoptive families or LGBTQ adoptive families, on Facebook and post your questions — or vent your frustrations — there.
"What do you do when someone assumes you’re the nanny?" "How do you respond when someone asks about 'his daddy'?" But remember that it’s not the responsibility of your friends or acquaintances of color to "explain to you" whatever it is you want to know. Don’t hold them responsible for representing their entire race or ethnicity.
Sometimes, a trusted source is closer than you might think. In the wake of an ugly playground incident, when a white boy told Shiv that "no black boys were allowed" in the sandbox, I debriefed with my mom. She is fair-skinned and often had to deal with strangers’ bullshit about me, her darker-skinned daughter. She helped me think about how I would handle the situation differently in the future.
7. Be prepared for relationship surprises — pleasant and unpleasant.
Some connections will be strengthened, but others you may decide to cut loose — these decisions and conversations may be incredibly difficult and disappointing. For LGBTQ and transracial families, this may be even more so the case. Don’t be afraid to communicate particular standards for your family and friends when it comes to what is and isn’t said in the presence of your child. Don’t force your child to advocate for themselves or to give a pass to relatives who aren’t willing to move or bend.
8. Follow your child’s lead.
When it comes to experiences and interests, I am a firm believer in giving children options and letting them choose. (When it comes to what you get to drink with dinner, however, I am a firm believer in water or milk.) While it is important to be sensitive to cultural needs that your child may have, it is equally as important not to force any such experience on your kid. Offer the experiences that you feel may appeal to your child, then support their choice.
For example, I didn’t realize the extent to which the barbershop is a formative experience for many black men — of course I didn’t because I am not a black man. Luckily, some of my students clued me in: "Ms. Mehra, he’s got to go! We’ll take him." Now that he’s old enough, I’ll take them up on the offer; but if Shiv doesn’t enjoy going, I won’t insist that he go in the future.
9. Keep some phrases in your arsenal.
"He doesn’t have to be biological to be 'mine.'"
"Yes, our family was built through adoption."
"That’s a very personal question to ask a stranger."
"Actually, he has two moms."
"If you’d like to learn more about adoption, I’d be happy to point you to some resources."
"Oh, would you like to talk about how you conceived your child?"
10. Think about bridges.
Because I am an English teacher and a word nerd, I often turn to etymology for guidance. The Latin prefix "trans" means "across, on the far side, beyond." As members of transracial families, we are given access to the beyond of another’s experience, but that doesn’t make their experience ours.
To claim that because I have a black son, I know what it means to be black is as ridiculous as saying that because I have a son, I know what it means to be a male. Being Shiv’s parent has created windows — windows through which I can see things that I didn’t before, windows for which I am grateful — but it is essential for me to remember that I don’t have the full view.