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.

Evolving Approaches

There may come a day when adoption is a rare occurrence but that day isn’t here yet.  What is happening is that adoption is experiencing a more honest, truthful and open approach to the reality where adoption has already occurred.  And there is at least one group (I know because I belong to it) where the members seek to convince mothers-to-be who may be considering a surrender of their baby for adoption to at least try parenting first.  That is one of the ways that adoption may become rare someday.

One question may be – how young is too young to tell a child they are adopted ?  Some advice is – not to ever wait.  Putting off talking with your adopted child about how they came to live with you often becomes a never good time to tell.  I know of one case where that situation has become very very complicated and the truth is still not shared with young adult adoptees.  It has become difficult in an unusual way, so understanding this, I am not judging it, but it is an example of what can happen when telling is put off until the child is “older”.

One adoptee shares – I had an adoption story that was bare bones to start with, as I got older, more information and whys were added, discussions evolved from that retelling. So, create a short TRUE story of how you came to adopt your child – 4 or 5 sentences long at a very young age. Practice telling the story to a friend, in the mirror so YOU are comfortable telling it. Then ask your child if they want to hear about when you adopted them….and tell your child that story.

Waiting until the child is older means they’ve lived that many years without you being truthful with them about who the child is. Just don’t wait.  You want your child to trust you and they will if you are always telling them the truth. Set a date on the calendar to do it soon, a very short story of how you came to adopt them…

Another issue that often comes up with transracial adoptions is about teaching these children about their culture of origin.  It’s never too early to start introducing things from the child’s heritage. 

For example, a Puerto Rican child adopted by a white family. Some suggestions – Introduce Spanish as a normal part of your household, even if that means everyone learning it. Watch as much cultural content about Puerto Rico and its history as possible, and try to find opportunities to connect the child with their culture. Connect with the child’s biological family’s religious traditions – if that is a possibility – so it isn’t foreign to them. Always speak positively about their family, heritage, and culture. Plan a family trip to Puerto Rico when the child is of elementary school age, and then return as frequently as your finances allow. Bonus – learn about your child’s roots and connect to them in tangible ways. Try making some local friends who are Puerto Rican and see them regularly. If this all feels like too much, just recognize that your child is currently surrounded by American culture 24/7.

It goes without saying that this advice applies to all other ethnic groups and countries from which Americans adopted children on an international scale.

Even in those situations where the biological parents are addicted and may even be violent, or maybe the mother never wanted to keep her child, leaving the hospital as soon as she gave birth . . .

There is likely to be some extended family somewhere who would be open to some form of contact. Every child should have those biological ties as much as it is safe and of course, desired by the child themselves.  And don’t forget – people DO often change over time.  How they were at one point in their lives evolves and they become more conventional in their lifestyle and behavior.

Finally, it’s okay if a young child doesn’t understand what being adopted actually means.  An adoptive parent should openly talk about it anyway.  The child will always remember being told their story, about their birth or whatever is known and can be shared in a positive manner.  Adopted children will talk about being adopted, if they have always heard that, even before the child fully understands what it means. Truly, it IS simply a part of who the child is.

What’s In A Name ?

What is it that a hopeful adoptive parent is seeking ?  For many, they can’t conceive naturally and really want to parent.  It is much more about what they want, than what the child needs.  Many children who are adopted didn’t actually need to be.  Their mom’s were NOT well enough supported to make the choice to raise their child that almost every mother would.

So what’s with changing the child’s name and cutting all ties to their original family ?

It is an attempt to create a fiction.  A fiction that the child was born to you and is related to you as much as they would be if you had birthed them yourself.

In cutting ties, it is an attempt to erase the origins of the child.

Who do these actions really serve ?  The adoptive parents or the child that they adopt ?

If it truly served the child’s needs they wouldn’t go searching for information and even contact with their original family if it didn’t matter to that child.  Just saying . . .

 

An Un-fill-able Yearning

Now my adoptive grandparents did love us.  It is true and I’d never say they did not.  My adoptive grandmothers were both deeply religious too.

One of those Facebook quizzes that goes around quite a lot asked –

14. If you could talk to ANYONE right now who would be?

My answer was –

My real grandparents – never got to know them alive

Hearing about them from newly discovered “real” relations does help these nebulous persons become more real for me but nothing can fill the deep desire in my heart to be in their presence, to feel their personal energies and to be held and in deep conversation one-on-one with them.  That will have to wait for the great reunion that can’t occur while I yet live and breathe on the Earth plane.

The closest indications I have of their natures, is what my own two parents were like in life, and I do believe they embodied the deepest core characteristics of the parents that my own parents never had the opportunity to know because they were each given up for adoption and raised by strangers – even if the strangers were entirely well-meaning (which I acknowledge they were).

Questions Without Answers

Try as I might, my heart longs for answers to questions that I will never be able to truly answer.  I may have theories but they may be wrong.  For too many years, when we knew nothing about my adoptee parents’ origins, we made up plausible stories –

My mom had been stolen from her illiterate parents from the hospital in Virginia where she was born by a nurse in cahoots with Georgia Tann who transported her to Memphis.  There was no other way she could reconcile being adopted as an infant in Memphis when she had actually been born in Virginia and who could blame her for that confusion ?

Because my dad was dark complected and seemed so comfortable with the natives in Mexico, I thought that he must have been mixed race with a Mexican mother and an Anglo father and that she had crossed the border with her infant and left him upon the doorstep of the Salvation Army with a note that said – “Take care of my baby, Maria.”

So my maternal grandmother was exploited by three women in Memphis – Georgia Tann certainly but also Georgia Robinson the superintendent at Porter Leath orphanage who had agreed to give my mom “temporary care” and then betrayed her to the baby seller, Miss Tann, as well as the Juvenile Court Judge Camille Kelley who was Miss Tann’s close friend and could be counted upon to remove any child from their parents for nothing more abusive than poverty and a lack of immediate family support.

And my dad wasn’t Mexican at all.  His dark complexion came from his Danish immigrant father who was a married man, so his unwed young mother went to a Salvation Army home for unwed mothers at Ocean  Beach California just west of San Diego.  His father probably never even knew of his existence.  More’s the pity, as fishermen who loved the ocean they would have been great friends.

I’ll never know why my maternal grandfather never came to my maternal grandmother’s rescue or why they separated after only 4 months of marriage with her pregnant already.  I’ll never know why she went to Virginia to give birth, though I suspect she was sent away to avoid embarrassment to her immediate family in a very conservative religious rural community.

I can only live with the questions that will never have answers while basking in the glow of knowing so much that over 6 decades of living never prepared me to uncover.

The Lies That Bind

I finished reading this book yesterday evening.  On Saturday, it absorbed my entire 4 hour writing session because I simply could not stop reading.  That was the first time a book truly did that to me.  It is a page turner, at least it was for me, because having been on my own journey to discover my family roots – I understood empathically the disappointments and the excitement of being on the hunt.

There are differences in our experiences.  Laureen is an adoptee and she definitely offers a clear-eyed and honest expression of the issues that most adoptees face.  It was easy for me to recognize the truth in these descriptions.

I am not an adoptee but what I have discovered is that as the child of two adoptees (and neither of my parents knew much at all about their origins or heritage when they died after 8 decades of life) I am almost as impacted by the issues adoptees face as the one who is adopted is.  My situation has only been slightly better because I do know who my parents were  but nothing beyond them until very recently.

There is a bittersweet aspect that I won’t give away but I do highly recommend the book – even if adoption has not impacted you.  Why ?  Because it is written so very clearly about why reform is needed in adoptionland – from the practice of placing children to the unsealing of adoption records in all 50 states.  This is a situation with societal impacts which all people should care about.

It’s About Identity

My first awareness of the impacts of adoption on my parents was the Georgia Tann, Tennessee Children’s Home Society scandal.  There are a huge number of adoptees that have been impacted by what happened in Memphis.

So, the only “anger” I was aware of was related to criminal behavior in adoption practices.  I thought that was what the anger was about.

As I have revealed my origins, my original four grandparents (both of my parents were adopted), I have also become involved in more generalized adoptee groups.  I have begun to learn what the issues are and also about how those issues affect not only the adopted child, but the original parents as well as the people who adopt and raise these children.

It has finally coalesced for my own self to be about identity.  It was a lack of identity beyond my two parents that troubled me in my middle school years.  It is interesting that the issue of not knowing where one originated troubles adoptees almost universally, while many people who have no adoption impact in their own families seem to not even care about who their ancestors were.

I think it is because the adoptee KNOWS that they don’t know.  While any other person not affected by adoption “knows” that if they ever became interested, someone in their family line could clue them in.

There are some descendants who I am grateful have embraced me and my need to know.  Others seem dismissive or reluctant to welcome in “the stranger”.  I simply have to accept that I have been given some gifts of identity that some adoptees are still struggling to obtain.

Sealed adoption records which began as early as the late 1920s have done a lot of harm to an adoptee’s ability to know where they come from.  Unbelievably about half of these United States still refuse to open the records to adult adoptees.  This is simply wrong.  No other citizen of this country is denied knowledge of their origins.

Why One’s Name Is Important

This is an actual homework assignment.  Now, imagine you were adopted.  How do you answer these questions in a classroom where most of the other children were not adopted ?

One of the reforms most mentioned in the adoptee community is the importance of a child keeping the name they were given at birth.  My mother, really cared about her birth name, once she learned what it was.  My father discovered his birth name when his adoptive parents died and was surprised by it.

Changing a child’s name after adopting them is taking away their legitimate identity in an effort to pass them off as having come directly from you – as though you gave birth to them.  In fact, adoptee’s birth certificates are changed to further the false story of their origins.

Certainly, in a more morally judgmental time, the idea was that adoptees were bastards who needed to be protected from the cruelty of being outed.  Now single mothers give birth to children intentionally.  Times have changed and so should how we protect and nurture a child who’s parents are just not ready to be fully supportive of them.

Every child has a right to their authentic identity and to their actual conception and origins stories.  The time is now for a good reform.

You Should Be Grateful

Of all the unreasonable expectations people tend to put upon an adoptee, the demand that they be grateful for having been adopted is perhaps one of the most painful.

Do you realize ?

The adoptee lost their complete family in one foul swoop.  They lost their mother, perhaps as soon as the day they were born.  They also lost their identity, background information, heritage, genealogy, birth certificate, familiarities, equal rights, similarities, health information and a knowledge of where their inherited traits came from.

Adoption is the only trauma for which the traumatized are told by society that they should be grateful for it’s occurrence.  Compassion that it happened to a person is a better expectation.

Never True

Social workers believed that to save children they had to deny them information about their past. To help them, they unintentionally hurt them.

Some social workers believed that keeping adoptees’ identities secret allowed the adoptee to make a clean break with their past.  Secrecy protected adoptive parents from intrusion by birth relatives.  It protected the privacy of single mothers.

In the early 1950s, social workers believed that closed adoption worked. A social worker’s effectiveness was measured by how many unmarried mothers she could persuade to surrender their children – with a goal to persuade all of them.

Social workers believed that after surrender, the mother would simply go on with her childless life as though nothing had happened.

It was believed that “normal, healthy” adoptees would have NO curiosity about their roots.

All these things that social workers once believed turned out to be not true.