[Book Review] Inside Transracial Adoption

Jana Wolff, part of a transracial family formed through adoption, reviews Inside Transracial Adoption, a comprehensive guide for families that don't match.

Cover of Inside Transracial Adoption

Jessica Kingsley Publishers; 2013

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A reader’s first impression of Inside Transracial Adoption starts even before turning to page one. With a three-page table of contents and over four hundred pages of text between the covers, you get the immediate feeling that there is a vast amount to absorb about the subject of transracial adoption and—gulp—a whole lot to learn.

This ambitious undertaking is sure to become a classic. There has never been a more comprehensive guide for families whose members don’t match. Authors Gail Steinberg and Beth Hall stress the practical over the theoretical, offering specific suggestions and personal advice. They bypass the debate about whether transracial adoption is best for children and move right into strategies for doing a good job.

Transracial adoption is a volatile subject because it touches on issues that are neither easy nor comfortable to discuss—white privilege, colorism, institutionalized racism—each a minefield for controversy and inadvertent offense. Steinberg and Hall take on all these issues (and many more) without flinching and insist that we do the same.

Page after page, example after example, study after study, readers are told in no uncertain terms that a child of color needs to fit in—in both the culture of his adoptive family and in the culture of his origin—and not feel inadequate in either. Since white parents cannot transmit a culture that is not theirs, the authors implore us to do whatever it takes to authentically connect our children with their roots. Steinberg and Hall are unyielding here: Move if you have to; change schools if you need to; confront bias wherever and whenever it occurs, regardless of your own discomfort and fears.

Frankly, it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed by the enormous and, at times, uncomfortable responsibility borne by white parents who have adopted children of color. With its imperative to defy your own racism, Inside Transracial Adoption risks scaring away potential transracial adopters and demoralizing instead of inspiring those who already are parents. It’s only when Steinberg and Hall take off their professional hats as co-directors of Pact, an Adoption Alliance, and share, as mothers, a touching or funny story from their own interracial families that you realize that they, too, have goofed up royally along the way. Most of the time, though, these two women seem blessed with more energy, more wisdom, more good humor and more chutzpah than most other adoptive parents appear to have. The authors also seem to have the most amazing full-sentence dialogues about race with their children.

Inside Transracial Adoption contains six sections, each with an annotated list of suggested reading. Through a combination of personal anecdotes, condensed research findings, quotes by transracially adopted persons, and bite-size narratives, the writing is accessible and sometimes even lighthearted. While the authors make a concerted effort to address issues of special interest to families with Asian, Latino, Native American, and multiracial children (particularly in the section entitled Cultural Specifics), the majority of references apply to white parents of African-American children. Lovely photographs of interracial families enliven the text.

The shortcomings of this book are minor compared with its value but worthy of mention nonetheless. Inside Transracial Adoption could benefit from tighter organization and more careful editing. (There are lots of typographical errors and grammatical gaffes.)

Like the experience it describes, Inside Transracial Adoption is both disturbing and profound, imperfect and rewarding. It is an important book.

Reviewed by Jana Wolff, author of Secret Thoughts of an Adoptive Mother, and part of a transracial family formed through adoption.

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