Being adopted into a white family as a black person has its own set of difficulties for everyone involved. The worst part, however, is not being able to talk to your parents about your experiences because they, as white people, have no clue what living as a black person in America is like. For me, this was one of the most alienating things about being transracially adopted. Of course, my family loves me; I never felt like they were racist or that they loved me any less than their biological kids, but I’d be lying if I said there aren’t a lot of things I wish my parents had done better in regards to adopting transracially. Things that would have made me feel more included, equal, closer to all of them. None of us can go back in time to change anything, but I can share some of the key things I wish my parents had understood about growing up black in a white family, so that others may learn from our mistakes and do better.
1. We Are Not White
SURPRISE! We’re not white. We are people of color. In my case, black—a dark skin, blackity-black. We are not white. We don’t look white, we don’t act white, we don’t connect with anything white, we don’t fit in anywhere white, we are not white. I know you think you can be colorblind and just love all your kids equally and then race won’t matter, but that just isn’t realistic. We are people of color living in a racist world, and your pretending that we’re all just one big white family only contributes to erasing us and makes us feel like we don’t belong in this family or this world.
2. Being Colorblind Isn’t Helpful
Building on the previous point, being colorblind, as in, “I don’t see color, I just see people”; “We all bleed red”; or whatever cliché of choice you use, isn’t helpful to anyone. You do see color; you see what color the sky is, you see what color your curtains are, your walls, your dog, your yoga mat—you see color. You see that my skin color is brown and yours is white. I get that you think (think being the key word here) that you’re doing the right thing by “seeing past race” but you’re not. By pretending you don’t see color, you’re saying you don’t see racism and the experiences we, your brown kids, face. You’re saying we are not valid, our struggles are not valid, our lived experiences are not valid, and, furthermore, you erase and demonize our skin color. There isn’t anything wrong with my brown skin. Your erasing it and acting like it’s an issue, however, is exactly why racism persists today.
3. Listen, Don’t Dismiss
We’ve all had that experience—when you’re trying to tell someone something that happened to you, and they immediately brush it off with some condescending comment like, “Oh, I’m sure that isn’t what they meant” or “I think you’re just overreacting.” This is probably the worst thing you can do as a parent to your child of color. When we trust you enough to try and talk to you about whatever racist experience we just faced, and you dismiss it, you’re showing us that our experiences and feelings are not valid. This is why many of us do not feel close to our adoptive families—because you do not allow us to be normal people with normal feelings. So when we try to tell you how uncomfortable it was being the only ____ person in school, or how an old white lady at the store said, “I haven’t seen one of those in a long time” while pointing at you (true story), and how that experience was unsettling and offensive, don’t dismiss it. That tells us that you don’t care about our experiences, and, if you do it enough, eventually we’re just going to stop trusting you.
If you’re not sure what to say or how to handle it, you can still just be quiet and listen. Say, “Wow that was terrible, I’m sorry that happened. That person really was a ______.” Most of the time, we aren’t coming to you asking for you to solve the problem. We are coming to you to get reassurance that we actually do matter to someone. Our parents, I would hope, would be the number one people we could turn to for unconditional love.
4. Representation Matters
I got the American Girl Doll Addy when I was probably around eight or nine. I was in love with her. Never before in my life had I seen toys that felt like any kind of real representation of me. I had all of the Addy books, the paper dolls (remember those?), the family tree; anything that Addy had, I had. Addy was me, or, at least, she was representative of me. Addy was so special to me because I had never gotten to see people who looked like me succeed. I had no one to look up to. If all you see is white people succeeding and all your people at the bottom for years and years, you’re going to assume that your only worth is to be at the bottom. It’s important for any child to have people to look up to, people they can see and identify with and be inspired by. For white kids, and white people in general, there are so many people they can look up to and be inspired by.
People of color also have amazing leaders, both current and historical, but our people are not represented in the same way in the media. This means that you, as parents, will need to work a little harder to make sure that that representation is happening in your family. In school we are taught the basic, washed-down history of “Well, there was some slavery, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rosa Parks happened, and that was the end of racism.” We aren’t taught about Katherine Johnson, who got white folks into space, or Charles Drew, who invented the modern day Blood Banks, or Patricia Bath, who invented the Laserphaco Probe which is what is used in lasik eye surgery today. All these inspirational figures and no one tells us about them. So, as a parent, you need to take the responsibility of making sure you are teaching your children of color about their history and about the great people who look like them. Be encouraging, go out of your way to make sure you have books, toys, media, music, and so on that are representative of them and their culture.
5. The Family Needs to Be Multicultural
My family is of Scottish and Danish heritage…and, man, are they are proud of it. That’s wonderful, truly it is. I loved going over to Grandma and Papa’s house and helping her cook her Swedish meatballs every holiday. We all anticipate the great honor of receiving a brand new, cast iron Ebelskiver pan when you get married (I have yet to accomplish this). Hearing the stories about how their families immigrated over here, faced struggles and success, played bagpipes at their weddings, and all that jazz—I love that they have stayed connected to their culture. However, it is not my culture. I can respect their culture and enjoy celebrating it with them, but what about mine? My black culture and heritage isn’t worth celebrating and being proud of, too?
Growing up, we never celebrated black history month, MLK day, Kwanzaa, Juneteenth, or anything black at all. Language, black history, black contributions, black traditions and values that are the foundation of everything popular in America today—none of this was ever acknowledged, and this was hurtful and alienating. Just imaging looking around your family…FAMILY, the people who are supposed to ride for you, and seeing all the love, laughter, and support for certain people, and then complete erasure of the others who look different. This is why making transracial families multicultural is important. Celebrate everyone’s different cultures. Don’t just include us in your family, treat us like family; become part of our family.
I don’t expect white parents to know everything about race or our experiences, but you have to be willing to listen, learn, and then put in the work to make changes. Simply ignoring us and brushing aside race as if it doesn’t exist will only distance yourself from your children and create a tension within the family. You’re not only a parent, but also an ally; learn to be both. This will truly make the child you decided to adopt feel like you love them unconditionally.