Colorblind Idealism

There seems to have been an evolution among some citizens in the United States to realize that racially colorblindness isn’t really the answer to racism. In the evolution of adoption and in an attempt to get some children in foster care placed in stable homes, transracial adoption was seen as the answer. As some of these adoptees have reached adulthood, they are increasingly speaking out about why growing up black in a predominantly white community and school has proven challenging, even difficult for them.

Recently The Washington Post had an article by Rachel Hatzipanagos that focuses on transracial adoptees – I know my parents love me, but they don’t love my people. A few years ago, there was a Medium piece – The Myth of Colorblindness by Rosa Perez-Isiah.

For adoptees, their adoptive parents couldn’t see and rarely talked about the racism they experienced. Classmates’ racist comments about their hair and eyes were dismissed as harmless curiosity. America’s racial dynamics were explained in the language of “colorblind” idealism. 

In her Medium piece, Perez-Isiah says – Colorblindness is the belief that we don’t see color or race, that we see people and that we are all the same. These beliefs are widely held by well intentioned people, including educators and school leaders. These are idealistic beliefs and there are a number of issues with this ideology. Colorblindness negates our diversity, race and culture because we all see color and we all have biases. When we identify as colorblind, we are suppressing our authentic views and in the process, perpetuating systemic racism. Race matters and it has impacts on opportunities, education and actual income (as well as its future potential). Colorblindness oppresses people of color. When you fail to see color, you fail to acknowledge the current narrative, a system of injustice for many non-white people.

Cross-cultural adoptions have been debated for decades. In 1972, the National Association of Black Social Workers took a strong stand against the adoption of Black children by White parents. Several years later, the federal Indian Child Welfare Act was passed to address the wave of Native American children being separated from their tribes and placed with White families.

The growth in transracial adoptions from foster care in recent years has far outpaced the growth in same-race adoptions and transracial adoption is now 28% of all domestic adoptions in the United States. More recently, the national conversation about systemic racism (driven by George Floyd’s death in 2020) has cast a new light on interracial adoption and prompted transracial families to confront the unspoken cultural divides in their own homes.

For adoptees, there is a transracial adoption paradox. Growing up, they experience many of the privileges that come with Whiteness because of their adoptive parents. When they then enter the school system or move out of the family home to live independently as adults later in life, they’re confronted with the reality of being perceived and treated as a racial minority. Not so subtle is the experience of white students putting their pencils in the hair of a Black student and marveling at the way the texture makes them stay in place.

When adoption agencies take on a color-evasive approach with hopeful prospective adoptive parents, they signal to these white parents that race does not need to be a significant factor in their decision-making. Then, by extension, it is no surprise that these adoptive parents might not think that the race of their adoptees is a significant factor in raising their child. Often these parents naively hope their support will make up for racial difference, even when they acknowledge there are challenges in raising a child of a different race.

From a transracial adoptee – “I believe that a lot of people think that adoption is this beautiful, magical, straightforward process. And also when they think of adoption, that they are centering around this “White savior” image and focusing on adoptive parents more than adoptees. And/or birth, biological parents — those two seem to get left out of the narrative a lot. I also believe that adoption from a birth mother, birth parent perspective can be very intense, very complex, very emotional. And I believe that we need to lean in and listen to adoptees and birth parents more.”

Today, many adoptees have their DNA tested, either at Ancestry or 23 and Me. For an adoptee that was raised white, it can be an amazing experience to discover their father is Black and see somebody that looks like them, finally a true racial mirror. One mixed race adoptee notes – “I think a lot of White people think that they have a good handle on race … and have what they would call a ‘colorblind’ kind of mentality. But I don’t think they understand that when you say the word ‘colorblind,’ what I hear is ‘I see you as White’.”

Another transracial adoptee suggests – “I think first acknowledging that your child is not White is, like, a huge step for a lot of White adoptive parents is to, like, see outside. Because a lot of parents see their child as, this is just your kid. They don’t see them in racialized terms. But in seeing them in that colorblind way, you are not protecting them. You are not preparing them to grow up and be an adult.”

Adoption is a trauma. Every adoptee has a different response to their trauma. Often it takes therapy to understand what was experienced as a pre-verbal infant and more importantly, how it continues affecting the adult adoptee. Therapy can help an adoptee get over feeling defective simply because they were given up for adoption. It can require learning that babies are placed for adoption for a number of reasons and that none of those reasons have to do with the baby or the value of that baby regardless of their skin color. The adoptee, not the adoptive parents, needs to be the center of their own life and story. Much of the narrative around adoption centers on the adoptive parents and frames their actions as selflessness and saving a child.

One Black adoptee admits –  I longed, and continue to long, to understand why I needed to be adopted, why I needed to be shipped across the country, why I couldn’t stay in the South, why I couldn’t stay with Black families, why I couldn’t have stayed with at least my biological extended family.” And though I am white and my mother was white too, this is a universal need in adoptees. My mom’s genetic, biological family was in the rural South and she was taken by train from Memphis to Nogales Arizona by her adoptive mother. For a long time, my mother believed she had been born in Memphis, a belief her adoptive mother was also led to believe by Georgia Tann, until birth certificate alterations made clear my mom had been born in Virginia which just made my mom believe she must have been stolen from her mother because things like that happened with Georgia Tann’s adoption practices.

Sadly, the saviorism of white adoptive parents is just so prevalent. Unfortunately, there is a deep-seated belief that white people can take care of Black people better. I have been learning a lot about this in overall society by reading White Tears/Brown Scars by Ruby Hamad.

I end today’s blog back where I started with the issue of colorblindness – Why is the colorblind narrative popular? The Medium piece notes – it is easier to identify as colorblind than acknowledge differences that make us uncomfortable. This is easier for people to handle, especially in schools where we may lack the information and guidance to have difficult conversations about race. Another reason is simply not knowing…you don’t know what you don’t know. Many people also repeat what they’ve been taught and fail to reflect or question those beliefs. In the end, we don’t realize how harmful the myth of colorblindness can be.

Adoption is a challenging situation regardless – add in racial differences and it becomes doubly so. It takes courage and practice to shift from a colorblind to a color BRAVE ideology.

Assimilation Is The Intention

For many indigenous women, political action regarding children was not about campaigns for
subsidized day cares or cultural arguments about gender, work, and parenting. Child welfare was a literal fight to keep Native children in their homes and in their nations.

During the 1970s, Native American women activists understood the crisis of child adoption
(which had grown rampant in the postwar era) as more than a personal issue affecting individual
families. The removal of Native children from their homes and communities compromised not only parental rights but also tribal sovereignty. Technically, indigenous nations had a legal advantage in the battle for control over Indian child welfare because the right to oversee issues related to children living on reservations existed as an implicit aspect of sovereignty. In practice, however, state courts and welfare agencies largely misunderstood or ignored tribal authority and the interests of indigenous communities and removed Native children from their homes at arresting rates—an average of one quarter of Native American children lived away from their parents during the early 1970s

In response, Native women activists created a child welfare political agenda that not only kept
children in their communities but also addressed the problems that sometimes led to foster and adoptive placements. Although they acknowledged that there were legitimate issues, such as alcoholism, that required some parents to surrender their children, activists did not interpret the current crisis as the result of inadequate parenting. Nor did they place blame exclusively on culturally insensitive child welfare systems. Rather, activists condemned poverty and the vestiges of colonialism for the problems that precipitated child removals. One activist asserted that ‘‘the process of colonization has brought more destruction to these family ties than any internal changes … could have ever created.’’ According to this woman and others, while colonization created the problems indigenous families faced—solutions to them rested with Native nations. Both the programs’ indigenous women activists established and their petitions to the federal government to uphold the right of the tribes to control child welfare focused on increasing tribal agency in addressing the fundamental difficulties that Native families confronted. These activists gained strength from their citizenship in Native nations and framed their work against child removals in the context of tribal sovereignty.

The history of non-Native people intervening in the lives of indigenous families is a long one; arguably as old as the history of colonization itself. The Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) of 1978 is Federal law that governs the removal and out-of-home placement of American Indian children. … ICWA established standards for the placement of Indian children in foster and adoptive homes and enabled Tribes and families to be involved in child welfare cases.

“They closed the boarding schools and opened up CPS (Child Protective Services), but it’s the same thing – they’re still coming in and taking our children,” Cetan Sa Winyan said. The Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, the Morongo Band of Mission Indians of California and the Quinault Indian Nation of Washington are petitioning the Supreme Court to request that the Indian Child Welfare Act remain intact.

The state of Texas is challenging the constitutionality of ICWA, claiming it’s a race-based system that makes it more difficult for Native kids to be adopted or fostered into non-Native homes. Another argument is that the law commandeers states too much, giving federal law imbalanced influence in state affairs.

A Supreme Court response to the tribes’ petition and the petition filed by the plaintiffs is due on October 8th.

Tribes and advocates argue that ICWA is culturally- and politically-based, not race-based, because tribal nations have political status as sovereign governments under federal law. Cherokee Nation Deputy Attorney General Chrissi Nimmo said the tribe will put all the resources it has into making sure ICWA is protected. “ICWA attempts to keep children connected to their tribe … and an attack on that is absolutely an attack on tribal sovereignty,” Nimmo said.

In the case of Brackeen v. Haaland, the Brackeens — the white, adoptive parents of a Diné child in Texas — seek to overturn ICWA by claiming reverse racism. Joined by co-defendants including the states of Texas, Ohio, Louisiana, and Indiana, they’re being represented pro bono by Gibson Dunn, a high-powered law firm which also counts oil companies Energy Transfer and Enbridge, responsible for the Dakota Access and Line 3 pipelines, among its clients.

You can sign a petition here – https://action.lakotalaw.org/action/protect-icwa.

Related Issues

Two articles came to my attention yesterday that I believe are related. One was titled The Baby Bust: Why Are There No Infants to Adopt? The subtitle was – Declining birth rates and other factors make it difficult for hopeful adoptive parents to create their forever families. In my all things adoption group, it has become obvious to me that many prospective adoptive parents have become more than a bit desperate.

I actually do believe that the Pro-Life movement is driven by the sharp decline in women either not carrying a pregnancy or choosing to be single parents. Our society’s norms have changed since the 1930s when my parents were adopted.

The other article was Why is the US right suddenly interested in Native American adoption law? In this situation, laws meant to protect Native Americans who have been exploited and cheated out of so much, including their own children, is being challenged by white couples wanting to adopt as being a kind of reverse discrimination against them.

So back to the first article –

The number of adoptions in general has been steadily declining over the years. U.S. adoptions reached their peak in 1970 with 175,000 adoptions tallied. That number had fallen to 133,737 by 2007. Seven years later, the total sank further to 110,373, a 17% decrease.

Reports of a 50% or more decrease in available birth mothers are coming from adoption agencies all over. As a result, some agencies have folded. Those still in operation are compiling long waiting lists of hopeful adoptive parents.

Even so, the demand for infants to adopt remains high. The good news is also that fewer teenagers are becoming pregnant. Teen birth rates peaked at 96.3 per 1,000 in 1957 during the post-war baby boom. However, with the widespread acceptance and use of birth control, there has been a dramatic decline in the teenage pregnancy rate.  This rapid decline in teenage birth rates was seen across all major racial and ethnic groups. 

Estimates indicate that approximately half of the pregnancies in the United States were not planned. Of those unintended pregnancies, about 43% end in abortion; less than 1% of such pregnancies end in adoption. Adoption is a rare choice. The pandemic shut-down also reduced places where meetings could occur that tend to lead to casual encounters, which often result in unplanned pregnancies.

On to that second article –

A 1978 law known as the Indian Child Welfare Act or ICWA tried to remedy adoption practices that were created to forcibly assimilate Native children. Last April, an appeals court upheld parts of a federal district court decision, in a case called Brackeen v Haaland, that found parts of ICWA “unconstitutional”. The non-Indian plaintiffs (mostly white families wanting to foster and adopt Native children) contend that federal protections to keep Native children with Native families constitute illegal racial discrimination, and that ICWA’s federal standards “commandeer” state courts and agencies to act on behalf of a federal agenda.

The thinking that non-Indians adopting Native children is as old as the “civilizing” mission of colonialism – saving brown children from brown parents. In fact, among prospective adoptive parents there is a dominant belief that they are actually saving children. Native families, particularly poor ones, are always the real victims. A high number, 25-35%, of all Native children have been separated from their families. They are placed in foster homes or adoptive homes or institutions. Ninety percent are placed in non-Indian homes. Native children are four times more likely to be removed from their families than white children are from theirs. Native family separation has surpassed rates prior to ICWA according to a 2020 study.

The fact is that there is a dark side to foster care. Some state statutes may provide up to several thousands of dollars a child per month to foster parents, depending on the number of children in their care and a child’s special needs. Why doesn’t that money go towards keeping families together by providing homes instead of tearing them apart?