Colorblindness and Transracial Adoption

A Facebook video led me to Melissa Guida-Richards who is an author, adoptee and mom. I think I had encountered her before in one of the many articles she has written. Then I found one in People that starts off with her story. Though I understand enough about how problematic transracial adoptions are, I also accept that they have happened and will continue to happen in our current society.

On November 18 2021, hers was the lead story in a People magazine article on – Why ‘Colorblindness’ Doesn’t Work for Transracial Adoptions — and How to Get It Right. Melissa is what is referred to as a late-discovery adoptee. Someone who didn’t know they were adopted until well into maturity.

Melissa Guida-Richards grew up in an extended family that cherished their culture and heritage as Italian and Portuguese immigrants. So as a child, she was confused when outsiders would ask her if she was Latina or “something else.” In first grade a girl told her “you’re Black. You can’t play with me.” “I’d tell them I was Italian,” Guida-Richards, 28, says. “But I would be confused. I’d come home and ask my parents and they’re like ‘You’re Italian. You’re one of us. Just ignore people.” 

She believed her parents, who also had dark hair and eyes, that her dark skin came from some past Italian origins. Then, at 19, she found documents proving not only was she adopted, but so was her brother. They were both born in Colombia – and not biological siblings. 

For years, parents who adopted children of other races might have thought the “right” thing to do was to pretend like they “didn’t see color,” and not acknowledge their children’s differences. But disregarding their children’s race could have far-reaching impact, and is the subject of her recently released book “What White Parents Should Know About Transracial Adoption.”   Guida-Richards and others, like author and international speaker on transracial adoption Rhonda Roorda, assert a colorblind attitude does not serve transracial adoptees in a world where color often defines you. 

“Many adopted children of color struggle with their identities and white parents who cling to this narrative [of “colorblindness”] are doing their children a disservice,” Guida-Richards says. “What is important for adoptive parents to realize is that their privilege will not protect their children of color as they face discrimination and racism. They need to prepare their children for a world that does see color.” 

About one-third of all adoptions between 2017 and 2019 were transracial, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.  White megastars from Madonna to Angelina Jolie have adopted children of color, their photos gracing the covers of magazines. And the hit NBC series “This is Us” has put the adoption of a Black child into a white family – and his subsequent struggles impacting him into adulthood — front and center in an honest portrayal of the very real issues facing people of color in America compared to their white counterparts. 

“I think that because love was married to a colorblind policy saying we don’t see color. It has devastated many adoptees … we want to be seen,” Rhonda Roorda says. “I remember wanting to be white and dying to fit in, dying to please my parents, dying to understand the rules and the policies and the culture. It didn’t work. … We’re not seeing all of our children, we are not seeing the richness that they bring to the table.”

Guida-Richards was raised in a solidly white middle class New York suburb with limited diversity. Her father, who came to the United States from Italy at 13, told her the first Black person he ever saw was a student at his high school. “At first, they refused to even acknowledge I was Colombian, that I was a woman of color. They didn’t see me as the daughter they adopted from Colombia. They saw me as their daughter,” Guida-Richards says. “I understood that, but it left a big piece of my identity out.” Her family often emphasized that family and heritage matters, but they discouraged her from looking further into her own cultural background.

“I sat down with them and said, we need to talk about race. We need to talk about how I’m treated and how this has affected me,” Guida-Richards says. “It’s been 9 years and thankfully we are in a very good place.” While her late father came around fairly quickly, it took longer for her mom. Guida-Richards married a man whose mother was Colombian. When she became pregnant in 2016 with the first of their two children, her mom started opening up about her struggle with infertility and the decision to adopt. And she told her daughter that she was afraid that people, and even members of their family, would treat her differently if they knew she was Latina. 

“We did have prejudices that I experienced growing up in a white family who made fun of Latinos,” Guida-Richards says. “So when I found out I was Latina, I was like, how could you love me and say those things? They just wanted me to ignore that I was a woman of color and unfortunately, it’s not as easy they make it out to be.” Guida-Richards was honest with her mom about how she felt like “this big ugly secret” that her mom could only love as long as she fit into the mold. And she reminded her mother that she would soon be the grandmother to Latinos. “It took a lot of hard conversations until she understood,” Guida-Richards says. 

To help her understand her own feeling about being denied her heritage, Guida-Richards started reaching out to other adoptees, finding Facebook groups just for transracial adoption and adoptees from Colombia. “I realized that I wasn’t alone,” Guida-Richards says. “Race wasn’t addressed [growing up], so we struggled with our identity. We struggled with how to deal with racism because we weren’t prepared.” Guida-Richards eventually connected with her birth mother and her Colombian culture through both her birth mom’s family and her in-laws. “I knew a lot of Italian, I knew how to act Italian, but I had no idea what it is like to walk in the shoes of a Latina,” she says. “I just started to integrate a little bit at a time. Since my father was a chef who owned restaurants, food played a large part in my upbringing so I started with that.” 

As she started integrating the Colombian with the Italian traditions, she discovered that both her cultures tended to have a lot in common. “I’ve gotten to a place where I’m happy to be part of my adoptive family, but I’m also very happy that I have my birth family back in my life,” she says.

Believing in Colorblindness is a Privilege

Colin Kaepernick with his parents, Teresa Kaepernick, Rick Kaepernick and girlfriend, Nessa Diab

Read the link to Colin’s story at the end of this blog to understand more completely why his photo is here.

Articles that mention adoption always catch my attention. Today, I saw one in the Huffington Post – Like Colin Kaepernick, I Wish My Adoptive Family Had Talked About Race by Melissa Guida-Richards. She was adopted from Colombia in 1993 and her adoptive parents were one of many that believed in the colorblind ideology. Her adoptive parents believed that giving a child a loving home was all that was necessary. 

For most of her life, the family didn’t talk about her race and ethnicity. Actually, she was not aware of her true racial identity until she was 19 and found her adoption paperwork. Her parents had believed that if they raised her as Latina, she would be treated differently than the rest of the family. However, people often questioned her about where she was from ― particularly when her adoptive family wasn’t around. When she was out in public with her white parents, she found that she was included under their umbrella of privilege. But the moment she was out on her own, people treated her differently.

Many BIPOC adoptees eventually learn that the world is divided into how they are perceived with their adoptive families versus when they are alone. And this is especially true in today’s climate where an Asian adoptee shopping for groceries can be attacked, a Black adoptee pulled over by police is potentially in danger, or a Latina adoptee walking in their town is told to go back to their own country. Adoptive families can think that it will never happen to their child, but for most transracial adoptees, it does. It’s just part of the reality of being a person of color.

Transracial adoptees do not have the privilege of believing in colorblindness. It can be fatal for a Black adoptee to “forget” that they are Black. If that adoptee approaches a police officer the same way their white parents do, they could find themselves in danger. When adoptive parents do not properly prepare their transracial adoptee for a racialized world, they are left playing a game of catch-up that they hopefully can win before it costs them their very life.

Current policies disallow considering race when placing children in adoptive homes. This is due to laws like the Multiethnic Placement Act (MEPA), which prevents child welfare agencies that receive federal funding from denying or delaying a child’s placement based on race. MEPA was amended in 1996 to establish that states could be fined for using race in placement decisions. While MEPA also requires agencies to “diligently recruit families that reflect the racial diversity of the children in need of homes,” it does not fine states that fail to do so.

Currently over 70% of adoptive parents are white and over half of adopted children are of a different race than their adoptive parents. One key issue with MEPA was that, while it made it significantly easier for white middle-class adoptive parents to adopt children of other races, it neglected to require anti-racism and transracial adoption education before or after placement.

The adoption industry perpetuates the idea that adoption ends in a beautiful happily ever after. When we think of adoption as an ending, we forget that it has a lasting, constant impact throughout the adopted person’s life, not just their childhood. Race should not be an afterthought in adoption. Adoptees are often pressured to be grateful and simply be happy that they have a family, to forget all of the challenges and trauma they experience.

When you are a person of color, you know how the world sees and treats you, and when your family refuses to be open to simple conversations about ethnicity and race, you start to wonder what’s so negative about acknowledging your identity. It impacts how you see yourself and how you believe your family sees you.

The author found that her adoptive family avoiding conversations of racial differences led to her having feelings of rejection and shame. She struggled to understand how her parents and relatives could love all of her, when they refused to acknowledge a big piece of her identity. Adoptive parents need to get comfortable having uncomfortable conversations about race. Race may be a construct but its ramifications are very real.

At the beginning of her essay, the author also mentions Kaepernick’s interview in Ebony magazine. Worth the quick read.

The Truth About Louis Armstrong’s Adoption Story

I saw this story –

A Jewish family named Karnofsky, who immigrated from Lithuania to the United States, took pity on a 7-year-old boy and brought him to their home. There he stayed and spent the night in this Jewish family home, where for the first time in his life he was treated with kindness and tenderness. When he went to bed, Mrs. Karnovski sang him Russian lullabies, which he sang with her. Later he learned to sing and play several Russian and Jewish songs. Over time, this boy became the adopted son of this family. Mr. Karnofsky gave him money to buy his first musical instrument, as was the custom in Jewish families. Later, when he became a professional musician and composer, he used these Jewish melodies in compositions such as St. James’s Hospital and Go Down Moses. The little boy grew up and wrote a book about this Jewish family, who adopted him in 1907. And proudly spoke Yiddish fluently. In memory of this family and until the end of his life, he wore the Star of David and said that in this family he learned “to live a real life and determination. “This little boy’s name was Louis Armstrong.

It’s a very sweet story and has some factual basis but I have NOT been able to prove the adoption story. In fact, Louis Armstrong’s life – while filled with poverty and hardship – was more complicated than this simple story. The “adopted” allegation isn’t of the legal sort, though definitely the family was special to him and helpful at a critical point in Armstrong’s young life. Louis Armstrong’s actual family was always in his life to some degree, though at one time he was sent as a punishment to the Colored Waif’s Home for borrowing – without permission and recklessly firing – his stepfather’s gun.

Armstrong worked for Mr Karnofsky and the money “given” was actually an advance against what he earned. In fact, it was Louis playing a little tin horn that was intended to attract attention to Mr Karnofsky’s trade. Louis Armstrong did indeed write a memoir titled Louis Armstrong + the Jewish Family in New Orleans, La., the Year of 1907. It has long been true that the Black and Jewish communities have recognized the discrimination that both races have suffered and have experienced some common ground due to their treatment by other members of society.

Louis Armstrong did adopt – he adopted the 3 yr old son of his cousin Flora. She had died shortly after giving birth. Clarence Armstrong was mentally disabled, the result of a head injury at an early age (forgive me, but this does give me pause without knowing how it happened). Louis Armstrong spent the rest of his life taking care of his son. He also accepted the paternity claim of Lucille “Sweets” Preston, a dancer at the Cotton Club. He had his manager pay a monthly allowance of $400 (US$4,830 in 2020 dollars) to the mother and child.

When asked about his religion, Armstrong answered that he was raised a Baptist, always wore a Star of David, and was friends with the pope. He wore the Star of David in honor of the Karnoffsky family, who took him in as a child and lent him money to buy his first cornet. He was baptized a Catholic in the Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in New Orleans, and met both Pope Pius XII and Pope Paul VI.

I love this song but watching Armstrong sing it brings up conflicted feelings. Some parts appear as deep reflection and other parts almost feel strained. No doubt, he had much to be grateful for but considering the times during which he was performing, I would not be surprised at honest and genuine feelings that were indeed conflicted.

Break The Cycle

Early on in my education regarding all things adoption (which includes foster care), I became aware of a lot of valid evidence that trauma is passed down through families. I could see how this happened in my own family.

Take my parents (both adopted) original mothers. My dad’s mother lost her own mother only 3 months after her birth and went on to endure a truly wicked step-mother. My mom’s mother lost her own mother at the age of 11. Being the oldest, she inherited younger siblings to care for, the youngest not yet one year old. Her father never remarried, which might be just as well, but I have heard now what I suspected – he was a hard man, who without his wife, didn’t know how to love. There is trauma, particularly for a daughter who loses her mother.

There are my parents who were both torn from their mothers and surrendered to adoption. My mom’s mother was exploited in her financial duress by Georgia Tann in the 1930s when social safety nets didn’t exist. After months of resisting their pressure, my dad’s mother gave in to The Salvation Army and surrendered her son to them, which eventually led to his own adoption. I’m entirely convinced that had my grandmothers had sufficient support and encouragement, they would have raised their children. It is entirely possible that had their mothers been alive, they would not have relinquished.

My parents found each other in high school. Though they both shared the backhole void of origin information as adoptees, they were not of the same perspective regarding their adoptions. My mom confided this to me because she couldn’t talk about her yearning to locate her original mother to my dad who warned her against opening a can of worms. They were good enough parents. We knew we were loved but they were strangely detached as parents. I only know this as an adult observing how other parents generally feel a long-term involvement in their children’s lives.

With me, I knew they expected me to leave as soon as I graduated from high school and so, I married and a year later had a daughter (for which I am eternally grateful). The marriage was flawed by the time I was pregnant with her and by the time she was 3 years old, I was no longer married but also unable to support us as my ex-husband refused to pay any child support (since it was my decision to leave him). Eventually, he ended up raising her. She ended up with a stay at home stepmother and for the most part, it seems to have worked out for the best – for her – but never for me. I still struggle with coming to terms with having been an absentee mother over 60 years later.

Both of my sisters gave up a child to adoption. One, considering it quite normal (and now the truth be known there was an extremely complicating factor – the father was a good friend of our dad’s), always intended to relinquish. Shocking to me was that our own mom, who struggled with having been adopted herself, pressured and guided my other sister to give up her baby for adoption – and she tried to get the support of the social safety net that existed in the late 70s, early 80s but was refused because she was sheltering with our parents while pregnant and their financial strength was used against my sister’s request for assistance. That sister also lost her first born in an ugly custody case brought by her in-laws when she divorced that child’s father.

Mostly, these children of ours are breaking the cycle and are wonderful parents. One has struggled with failed marriages but has remained solid with his own son. I hope these recent successes continue on down our family line.

Adoptionland

There is a game similar to Candyland that I became abundantly aware of as I expanded my own understandings about the impacts of adoption.

There is an overly romanticized and idealistic love affair going on with adoption that brings to mind unicorns, rainbows and puffy hearts. In Adoptionland, clouds are made of spun sugar and the roads are lined with red licorice – nothing bad every happens in Adoptionland. All of the adopted children feel nothing but gratitude and their only goal in life is to make adoptive parents dreams come true.

The truth is that is marketing bunk.  Follow the money applies here as it does in many other situations.  The goal of the game is to take a newborn baby from its mother and give it to complete strangers who have enough money to pay for the baby.  The game has been so entrenched that this selling and buying of babies has been legalized and hidden as fees, etc.

For many adoptees, adoption is an extremely complicated experience rife with confusion and mystery – mostly because the adoption industry doesn’t respect adoptees nor seek to serve their needs.

It may seem unbelievable but there really are people out there fighting against the restoration of an adoptee’s right to obtain her own, factual, birth certificate.

There are adoptive parents who relegate the original parents of the child they are so privileged to be raising into the role of “birth parent” only – like their only role in the life of their child was to give birth to that child – so they could adopt it. Much like a surrogate mother in some reproductive situations.

Some adoption agencies charge higher fees for white newborn babies but much less for black infants.  There are states who work to make open adoptions unenforceable.

All of these unbelievable but true aspects of adoption are totally acceptable with most of the people in our adoption-focused culture.  One has to intentionally seek to inform themselves to begin to understand the truth.

In Memoriam

I am now reading a book titled – Lost Daughters: Writing Adoption From a Place of Empowerment and Peace.  I read an essay yesterday by Susan Perry and felt such a connection with her that I was seeking to reach out to her and discovered sadly that she had died some years ago.

She is quoted as saying –

“Sealed record laws afford more rights to the dead than they do to the
living and they bind the adopted person to a lifetime restraining order.”
~ Susan Perry

Just like my paternal grandmother and paternal grandfather, she was the product of a married man and a woman not his wife.  They were both of Danish ancestry, just as my paternal grandfather was.  An immigrant, not yet a citizen, married to a woman 20+ years his senior.

Susan’s adoptive mother had no idea how often her interior thoughts had turned to her ancestors. Who were they, and what was her story ?  My own mom had similar questions.

Mrs Perry did know that her adoptive parents truly loved her, and that love
and support helped to make her the person she was in life.  I believe I can say the same about all of the adoptive parents in my own family’s lives.

Yet, our genes are some part of what makes us the person we each are as well.

It is only natural that any adoptee that reaches adulthood (if not sooner) will want to know who passed those genes down to them.

I have bumped up against sealed records in three states – Virginia, Arizona and California.  I realize how incredibly fortunate I am to have uncovered ALL of my original grandparents.  I have the DNA tests that no one saw the inexpensive cost and prevalence of even 20 years ago as well as the matching sites Ancestry.com and 23 and Me to thank for most of my own success.

So many adoptees are never that fortunate.  Sealed records are unjust and damaging to so many people.  They encourage unhealthy thinking, repression, and denial as the means for coping with life.

I wonder if, because of adoption, my own mom did not feel empowered to take charge of her own story, just as Susan wrote in her essay.

Even so, every adopted person’s journey is unique.

It is difficult for me, as the child of two adoptees, to understand why as a culture we continue to shackle adopted people to an institution that is governed by such archaic and repressive laws, when the data clearly shows that most original mothers are open to contact. Those who are not, can simply say “no”.

Once an adoptee becomes an adult – they do not need outside agents supervising their own, very personal business.

Repressive laws set the tone – either/or thinking.  There is a belief that adoptees who search are expressing disloyalty to their adoptive parents, or that the adoptee should just “be grateful” and move on.  Attitudes of this kind are hurtful and dismissive.

Here’s the TRUTH, adoptees have two sets of parents – and a unique mix of DNA and upbringing.  It is belittling and unfair to tell adoptees that they are not entitled by law to access their own original birth certificates. Every other American citizen has no such restriction.

This is institutional discrimination and there is no really good reason it exists.  Adoptee rights bills have accumulated plenty of evidence that they are beneficial for the majority of persons for whom adoption is some part of their personal story.